When Toni and I decided that we were going to take one last trip outside of Japan before we moved, we had a few choices. The top of the list consisted of New Zealand, Vietnam and China. In the end, we decided on China because we wanted to see what is one of the most intriguing and long lived cultures on the planet. Now, as I said in my previous post (http://www.travelingross.com/2011/12/18/return-from-china/), China has definitely moved from the intrigue of the imperial times to the relative blah of communism. It’s a fascinating place on a human level, but I can’t help thinking that many things have been lost and altered to suit the political ideology of the one Party. When Toni asked one of our tour guides about the last emperor, she said that he had been arrested, re-educated and then released back into the population as a citizen. That seems awfully simplified and churched up to me.

In any case, we started our journey with a flight into Beijing and a quick transfer to a flight bound for Xi’an. This was made all the more exciting by the over one hour delay in Japan departing and our luggage taking forever to deplane. We were helped along by some capitalistic souls who for a small fee helped us into the express line at security and took us by golf cart to our gate. We got there a little early, but we tipped generously and I gotta say, it was worth every penny to not have to run.

Our first destination in Xi’an was the old city wall that was reconstructed and encircled the old town in the heart of the city. It was a beautiful clear (for China) day with a light haze that softened the light over nearly everything just a touch. The softness was counteracted by the cold, crisp air and the result was a lovely day photographically. We spent a fair bit of time on the wall just walking around and leaching for interesting light and textures. As we were leaving, two men in old wall guard uniforms happened by and we got a couple of photos with them and of them before moving on to the terra-cotta warriors and horses.

As much as I want to say that they were absolutely amazing, I can say they were really cool and interesting, but not out of this world. I’m not really sure why. I know what they did with the forming of the soldiers was absolutely amazing and totally unprecedented in scale and scope. I know this and in spite of it, my mind refuses to be blown. In any case, I have included a shot of how the soldiers appear in situ as found by archeologists. I really did enjoy them, I promise!

From there we headed back into Xi’an to the lesser Goose Pagoda. This was one of the more interesting structures we saw and not the least because it is said to be self healing. In two separate events (and now I can’t remember the mythic circumstances surrounding the incidents) earthquakes damaged the pagoda, first splitting it down the middle and later re-closing the crack. Structurally, the base is cupped (according to our guide) so the events rely more on physics than magic, but it still makes for a pretty cool story!

In traveling between locations in Xi’an, we were confronted with some of the craziest traffic I’ve ever seen. People drive with little regard for rules or consistency, but I’ll be damned if we only saw two wrecks and very few damaged vehicles through the whole trip. Crazy. There were also many empty tower blocks and areas that looked like they had been bombed out just off the roads and partially obscured from view. We never really got a good opportunity to see those areas up close, but it was clear that much construction was going on with no real customer in mind and people living in ruined buildings that could really use the shelter. Really sad to see.

From Xi’an, we flew to Beijing to see the Great Wall and some sights in central Beijing including the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square and Gate. The Wall is indeed great and the Forbidden City is quite impressive and sprawling. Our first stop was Tiananmen Square where the wind was a blowing and the air was freezing making it even more inhospitable than it already was with the flood lights and cameras. I’ve never seen so many surveillance cameras in any single place in my life. It’s interesting too that the square is closed at night but brightly lit. Something else I’m not really a fan of, but that’s what happens when the State controls everything in the public sphere. We then moved from the frigid wasteland of the square to the relative comfort of the Forbidden City (it broke the wind which was a godsend).

The Forbidden City was awesome in scale and very interesting in details that we encountered. Each gate was unique in its own way and when we got into the living quarters, the artifacts that were in each room were quite neat. Everything from antique thrones to silk embroidery to beautiful jade carvings, all housed behind exceptionally dirty glass! Despite that, one could see the wonderful details in many items and the exquisite beds that were like small rooms in and of themselves. Cool stuff!

Later that day, we hit the Temple of Heaven and spent a huge amount of time touring the complex. The light was pretty good and the sky was brilliant blue which I chose to accentuate in post bringing out all the amazing colors in the detail work of the temple. Some of the best cultural scenery we saw on the trip. The shapes and colors were much superior in my mind to the Forbidden City (at least when and how we were able to see it) and the day conspired to give me the opportunity to make some images I find quite compelling! The day ended with a tour for the old city where we rode a rickshaw through a traditional and mostly run down grey bricked maze of houses. We even were invited into a family home that consisted of four rooms around a small courtyard. It’s amazing to see that some people still choose to live that way in such a modern city as Beijing. I found the entryways quite compelling as seen from the street. Then it was off to see our friends and rest up for the Wall the next morning.

We visited a very well reconstructed section of the Wall and were able to hike along it for a couple of hours. It was absolutely beautiful and amazing to think of people building it by hand. It’s no wonder so many perished to bring that fortification to fruition. The light was awful for color photography with the sky being totally blown out and desaturated because of haze. I decided to shoot the vast majority of photos for the wall in black and white and used film emulation plug-ins in Aperture to approximate the look of some of my favorites from back in my film days. From the Wall, we visited some Ming tombs and I have some fun HDR shots of a gate, but not much else that I really found compelling.

On our last day, we saw the Summer Palace and a Buddhist temple and as loath as I am to admit something like this, when you’re on a pre-arranged tour and are seeing as much as possible every hour of every day, things start to look the same. The palace was very pretty (would have been better in the spring or summer), but felt like just one more palace. The Buddhist temple was different than we have in Japan, but not so much so that it felt like it mattered to be there. Still, we saw some neat things and it was worthwhile, but we were definitely happy to meet our friends again to do a little shopping and wandering through the back roads unguided. We also experienced getting denied a few cabs for being foreigners. One even tried to convince us that he couldn’t read to get us out of his cab. Good times.

All in all, an awesome way to cap off our tours of Asia outside of Japan! Enjoy the photos and stay tuned for shots from Hakuba, a winter wonderland!