Friday, July 23, 2010

More Xiao Long Bao

After having our first xiao long bao with the teeming masses, we retreated to a lovely air-conditioned restaurant about a block away to have a more enjoyable lunch.  We found Din Tai Fung to be an oasis of calm in comparison.

We had a great order of xiao long bao.

Followed by an order of something that turned out to be very similar to shiu mai.
And a fabulous dessert of shaved ice, covered with fresh mango pieces and condensed milk.  Yum!

Xiao Long Bao!

The most famous item in Shanghai cuisine (at least in my family's book) is xiao long bao, often called Shanghai soup dumplings.  The bite-sized, steamed dumplings are filled with a small amount of broth, served piping hot.  The girls like to wait til they're slightly cooled, put them into their mouths, bite down and get a hot soup explosion - they call it the "Pop"!  We get it often in the Bay Area, but wanted to make sure we had it every day during our Shanghai stay.

So we headed out to Yu Gardens, a beautiful 400 year old classical Chinese garden.  Not surprisingly, it's surrounded by a large Bazaar and is a big souvenir shopping destination.  It was teeming with people.  TEEMING!  Did I mention how hot it was yet?!

And of course, the ubiquitous Starbucks.

We lined up with all the crowds at Nanking Dumpling House - a line of 60+ people that snaked halfway through the bazaar.
We watched one of their workers make the little baos at lightning fast speed, and about 30 mins later, got our little tray of xiao long bao - I think it was 20 little bao for under $2.

 We ate them standing up, like everyone else around us - and tried not to burn our mouths.
Then we found a stand with extra large xiao long bao served with a straw so you could suck the soup out.  Fun but definitely just a novelty!
Finally, we did our share of little souvenir shopping and found this man who very adeptly shaped wire into Chinese letters.  We had him make them for the girls with both English and Chinese writing.

Shanghai at Night

We decided to head to the Bund for our first dinner, at one of the most famous restaurants in Shanghai, called M on the Bund.

The view from the terrace of the Shanghai skyline was just magnificent.

The Bund is an old Indian term for the embankment on the river and is lined with old colonial buildings.  A perfect place for an evening stroll after dinner.

Best Hotel of the Trip

We had perfectly lovely rooms at the Shangri-la in Chengdu and the Sofitel in Xian, but they paled in comparison to the rooms at the Park Hyatt Shanghai, located on the 79-88th floors of the Shanghai World Financial Center, currently the tallest building in China (although another planned structure across the street will beat it by a few floors in a few years).

Our building is the one that looks like a bottle opener.

The lobby is on the 87th floor and we were escorted to our connecting rooms on the 79th floor.  The rooms were very high-tech with automatic blinds and very complicated control panels.  And what a view!  There were two long boxes on the desk, filled with little madeleines, cookies and macaroons.  And a large fruit tart was also waiting for us.  Plus a Nespresso machine and a great selection of teas.

My favorite part was the toilet though - it was the same, very high tech, Japanese toilet that we had in Macau two years ago!

Our bathtub had a bird's eye view of the city.

And the pool is on the 85th floor, so it was our highest swim ever!

The lobby area had some nice telescopes to view the world down below.

It was a great start to our stay in Shanghai.

Of Terracotta and Teapots

Our last stop in Xian was to the Shaanxi Provincial History Museum, which was a pretty, modern building with lots of local artifacts in terracotta and bronze, and the first celadon glazes.

We found an old teapot in a pale green celadon - they called it the magic teapot because there was no obvious way to fill it by looking at the top, you had to turn it over.

So we bought a reproduction at the gift shop!  Not sure if we'll ever use it but it's awfully pretty.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

9 miles in 95° heat!

So it seemed like a really good idea to plan a family bike ride along the Xian city walls.  After all, we loved our family bike tour in Barcelona last year.

Alas, it was a lot hotter in Xian.  And sunnier.  And more humid.  And it was a 9 mile ride, on really crappy bikes dating from the Mao era...

But we persevered and still had a good, albeit slightly sunburned, time.

The wall is an immense structure surrounding the inner city of Xian, originally built in the Ming Dynasty (13th century) and stands about 40 feet tall and about 35 feet wide.  It's been repaved a few times (and a marathon is run on it later in the year) so it was only moderately bumpy!

Some of the gate towers on the wall have been beautifully restored.

And we saw some leftover lanterns from last year's Mid-Autumn Festival that made for a fun section of the wall to ride on.

Anders, our trusty Swede, told us that Westerners can typically get all the way around the wall in about 45-50 mins while the Chinese take a more leisurely pace and take closer to 90 mins.  Which do you think we were?!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tablets and Mosques

 After a lovely lunch, we headed to the Forest of Stone Tablets Museum where thousands of etched stone tablets were displayed.  A large room of 20+ tablets represented a book - the tablets were created so students could study for their main tests by making paper rubbings of the tablets, which would ensure consistency before the advent of printing.  Rubbings were still being made and you could purchase them as souvenirs.

After the tour, we stopped for an hour long calligraphy lesson with a master who has been practicing his calligraphy skills for over 40 years.  We had a lot of fun and I remember far more of my elementary mandarin than I thought I would!

I thought this gate was simply beautiful.

Later, we visited one of the largest mosques in China - it was unique because it was built in the architectural style of a Chinese temple.  Instead of a minaret, there was a pagoda!

A shot of the arabic writing over the Chinese gate to continue the incongruity.

Terracotta Highlights

We headed off bright and early the next morning for the Terracotta Warriors, with our new local guide, Jessica and our new driver leading the way.  Our little van had a special pass so we could drive almost all the way up to the main entrance - in contrast to the tour buses and other transportation that had to park about half a mile away and brave a gauntlet of souvenir vendors on their way to the main gate.  Have I mentioned how much I enjoy the perks of a private tour?!
Walking into the main room of Pit 1 was breathtaking.  There were multiple burial pits with scores of warriors lined up in rows.  We learned that there were an estimated 8,000 warriors in the 3 pits they've excavated so far, with about 2,000 of them having been reassembled.  Yes, they found a jumbled mass of body parts and every single warrior had to be painstakingly put back together and lined up for display.  That's why many warriors are incomplete - missing heads, arms etc.  But each face and body was very distinctive - there are serious looking warriors, more mischievous warriors, tall & skinny warriors, short and fatter ones.  But all had a small tummy sticking out - they were made to reflect the fact that they would be healthy and well-fed in the after life!  They also all had mustaches or beards!

You can see the reassembly work in progress at the rear of the building, in what is known as the hospital wing.  

There was also an active excavation going on in some of the pits, and we could see parts of warriors being excavated.

We visited two other pits - while Pit #1 had a lot of infantry, Pits #2 and #3 were a little ways behind, and had calvary as well as officers in a command center.

And finally, the best specimens were in cases in the museum so you could see them up close.  This archer was the most intact warrior found - his torso was all in one piece.
We learned that about a year after the death of Emperor Qin, his dynasty ended and his tomb was broken into and burned - so although all these warriors were brightly painted, all the paint had been burned off thousands of years ago.  Pits #2 and 3 had not been burned, so when discovered, there was still color on some figures.  Alas, they peeled right off about a week after they had been excavated, so all we have left are some photos.  That's one of the reasons that the Chinese government has slowed down excavation - they want to make sure that we have the right preservation technology so that doesn't happen again.  It was weird to think that there were countless treasures under the ground that we were walking on, but would probably never see in our lifetimes.

Overall, this was a wonderful experience.  It was a marvel to think that all this was created 2,200 years ago over the course of 30 years, with 700,000 workers (many of whom probably died in the process).

Making Noodles and Dumplings

 We checked into the Sofitel Xian and the most exciting thing I found in our suite was a washer/dryer unit.  I know all you moms out there will understand - I literally clapped with joy.  I had been faced with the possibility of sending little t-shirts, undies and socks out to the hotel laundry - now, I could do a couple of loads during our stay!  Ah, the simple pleasures...  Oh, the rest of the suite was very nice as well!

Dinner that night was at Le Chinois, the hotel's Chinese restaurant.  We had been really looking forward to this because we were slated to learn how to make dumplings and noodles.  We had been thinking we'd actually eat the product of our work, but we were served a beautiful meal to start. In retrospect, it was a good thing we didn't eat what we made... ;)

Here are the various kinds of dumplings we ate - aren't they beautiful?!

We then watched Ms Yan hand pull lo mein noodles for our noodle soup, which was wonderful.
After we were sated, we started off with Ms Yan trying to pull lo mein noodles ourselves.  I don't have a photo of this because my hands were covered with flour and I was too busy being frustrated.  Suffice to say, I would not have eaten anything we made - my big learning:  it's really, really hard to hand pull noodles.
We then moved on to dumplings.  A couple of them were quite easy to make.  One was very, very hard.  We made and remade multiple versions.  Our dough got a little messy.  Here's our final set of dumplings - the really nice ones were made by our teacher, although I thought some of mine were quite credible!

And finally, we made another kind of noodle that was a lot easier so the kids loved doing this..

We had a great time - this was a fabulous experience that we had access to by booking with a great tour company.  It was not something usually offered by the hotel and we wouldn't have been able to set it up on our own.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Han Tomb in Xian

On the way into Xian from the airport, we stopped for a quick visit to Hanyanglin Museum, the site of the tomb of the 4th Emperor of the Han Dynasty.
The Chinese found a number of burial pits around the main tomb, but these were of a more modest scale than Emperor Qin's tomb with all the terracotta warriors (that we were scheduled to visit the next day).  The Hans typically created their retainers and soldiers for the afterlife at one-third scale and with molds, so they weren't all individually featured like the more famous terracotta warriors (who were created at a scale larger than the average male 2,000 years ago)

This was a fairly new museum, so everything was displayed very well.  We walked on a glass corridor that was above the burial pits, so we could look down and see all the figures.  Each pit had a specific function - the kitchen and pantry pits were the largest ones, reflecting the importance of food in Chinese culture.  That's where I get it from!

Taoist Temples and Tea

Our second day in Chengdu started with a visit to a old taoist temple where we had a brief overview of Taoism and met with a monk to chat about his life and to see his dormitory on the temple grounds.
He was pretty nice although I am not sure everything he said was being well-translated for us.  He had a nice room with a computer, mobile phone and lots of other modern appliances.  He did a short tea ceremony for us with both oolong and green tea, and another monk came by and gave us a short tai-chi demonstration.  He and Anders then decided to try and see who could unbalance the other first.  The kids thought that was hilarious.
We also did a fortune telling ritual with shaking the sticks out of the container, one of my favorite pursuits from a child when I visited any temple.  Then our monk interpreted the fortunes which were printed on a piece of paper that matched the number of the first stick that fell out when you were shaking.
I still remember our trip to Taiwan when I was a child where we learned that although I would have "middling fortune", my sister would have "supreme fortune"!  Our fortunes on this trip were nowhere near as specific or amusing!

And so, we said goodbye to Chengdu and took an hour long China Southern Airline flight (in a nice new Airbus A330) up to Xian for the next stage of our trip.