Category Archives: China

Wrapping up her birthday

A12 turned twelve during our trip to China, but the party happened just a week ago.  Our children have birthday parties every second year if they wish.  Even while we were in China we were thinking about the party.  While shopping in Shanghai A12 picked up a few things to give to her guests.  Originally the party was to have a China theme but it became an Olympic party instead.

The guests were asked to pick a country and come with some representation like a mascot or flag or maybe dress in the country’s sporting colours.  Australia, Canada, Italy, USA, Great Britain, Botswana, Mexico, Israel and Argentina were represented.  The games were not all athletic, which was just as well, as it turned out to be a grey rainy day.  We had an obstacle course, balloon volleyball, an “eatathlon”, 1-100 sprint, ball toss, card relay, and a triathlon including horseriding, weight lifting and hurdles!

In most events gold, silver and bronze stickers where given out to be stuck on the medal tally chart.  I was very happy to see that every country placed in several events!  All competitors received a chocolate medal during the closing ceremony.  The athletes ate chicken, chips and salad together before consuming birthday cake made by L14 and decorated with the Olympic rings.


Shanghai was our last port of call in China. As we drove in, we gazed at highrise as far as the eye could see. I still don’t know how far the city stretched as haze hung in the air restricting visibility.  Even though we came in on a weekend, the traffic on the freeway crept along.  We arrived at our hotel, a renovated 1930’s hotel close to the Bund.  After dinner we were taken to the Huangpu river where we waited to board a boat for a river cruise which would give us a view of Shanghai by night.  On one side of the river we saw the old buildings of the British concession and on the opposite bank we could see the new buildings of Shanghai, all less than 15 years old and many stretching up higher than 60 storeys.  All were lit in some way, with flashing neon lights or  images flashing on and off and climbing the building.  On the side of one building I saw the Mona Lisa and other paintings by great masters.

As we shopped in each city several people asked Ping, our guide, where the best place to buy silk was.  He kept telling us to wait until Shanghai, where we would visit a silk factory.   I bought what I believe is silk in Beijing at the Pearl Market, but I have no guarantee.  At the factory we were shown the steps in the silk making process.  I was intrigued to see threads from nine small cocoons being spun into a single, almost invisible thread.

Silk cocoons are also made into light, warm comforters.  Double cocoons are selected and instead of finding an end to the thread and spinning it, each cocoon is stretched out over and over again.  Once the cocoon has been stretched out to resemble cobwebs it is laid down and more stretched cocoons laid one at a time over the top.  The result is a very light, but hopefully very warm doona (comforter, duvet).  I bought one but yet to use it.

Of course there was a showroom full of beautiful silk items.  I tried on a silk dress, the fitted style with the little collar, but unfortunately it didn’t fit over my hips.  I could have had one made and delivered to my hotel the next day but I decided against it.  A12 was given a beautiful gold and green scarf as a birthday present from the group.  After being called away from the silk factory we celebrated A12’s birthday with a delicious lunch and a mango mousse birthday cake organised by our guide PIng.  Everyone sang happy birthday and A12 was delighted with her scarf and a card signed by everyone.

While in Shanghai we participated in two exchanges with young Chinese musicians.  The first was at the Shanghai Children’s Palace, a facility which comes alive every weekend when hundreds of children arrive to attend music, art and other extra curricular activities.  We joined a young orchestra at their rehearsal.  We were able to play a few pieces for them and listen to some of theirs.  We discovered that Hungarian Dance was part of their repetoire so the Intermediate Performance Group joined in and everyone played together.  There was time at the end for a bit of conversation between the musicians.

Naturally our group was relying on the Chinese students having more English than our two or three words of Chinese!  After the exchange we spent the remainder of the afternoon preparing for the evening concert at the same venue. The second exchange was at the Shanghai Conservatory where we were treated to some solo and group performances.  Both groups had versions of the Butterfly Concerto, which was a highlight of the afternoon.

We spent one morning in the beautifully preserved old quarter of Shanghai. In the centre surrounded by walls is a garden, once privately owned but now enjoyed by everyone.  It was full of delightful plants, ponds, bridges and pavillions where the original owners did calligraphy, listened to concerts or sipped tea with guests.

I had several items I was determined to find while shopping in the old quarter, and for the first time during my time in China I found myself without musicians to keep track of.  We were told to meet outside Starbucks at a 11:30 so I made sure I knew where it was and set out to find the teapot, a kite and a couple more items.  The only problem was all the shops looked the same to me so I spent the first half of my time continually checking I still knew where Starbucks was!

After our experience haggling at the Pearl Market in Beijing I was a little better prepared for the bargaining process.  Each time I was ready to buy I decided on the price I wanted to pay and offered an amount way below it.  I always felt awful stating such a low price which was always met with howls of, “You joking, lady!”  Reaching a compromise was an exhausting but satisfying process.  While bargaing for Ben’s kite I was told over and over, “You hard bargainer, lady,” but I paid what I felt was reasonable.  It was, of course, impossible to tell the quality of the merchandise we were buying.

To my relief I found several shops devoted to tea, pots and cups.  I was able to browse in a few places before choosing a dark brown pot with a bamboo motif.  When I asked for matching tea cups, the vendor sent someone to another shop in the market to obtain six matching cups.  It arrived home safely and we were able to have a tea ceremony of our own!

Our last night in China was spent being amazed by the Chinese Acrobatic Show.  Jugglers, tumblers, acrobats and a magician held us spellbound for over an hour.  The finale was a display of five motorcyclists riding inside a metal sphere.  My favourite was a trapeze style display where two acrobats swung and performed suspended by lengths of silk twisted around their arms, legs or torso.


Even before we arrived in Hangzhou we were told to expect a beautiful city.  Several people mentioned that it was described by Marco Polo in the following terms,  “Above is Heaven, below are Suzhou and Hangzhou.” It is an attractive city, particularly around West Lake where we were taken for a walk and boat ride.  As our bus traveled past the lakeside residences we saw impressives houses surrounded by willows and gardens.  We saw the place where Chairman Mao had stayed forty times when he came to visit the city.  Our guide encouraged us to come again and again as Mao did.

It was hot and hazy as it was most days in China, but we did have the option of staying inside the airconditioned area.  To see the scenery though, you needed to be outside.  We saw many other barges like ours and on the shore and the islands we could see small and large pagodas.  After the ride was over we wandered through the park and admired the gardens, fish and peacocks.  What we really wanted to see though was the popsicle stand, which we found before boarding the bus and heading off to Longjing Tea plantation, where Dragon Well tea is made.

As we drove into the Dragon Well village our guide explained the transformation the village had undergone from being very poor and run down to being the successful and attractive village it is today.  We did not see very much of the tea plantation itself, we walked past a hillside of bushes, a man drying the tea in a huge wok over a burner and then into a room where we were given several types of tea and quite an elaborate sales pitch.

The tea is picked in spring, summer and fall, but only the small new leaves each time.  The spring tea is called daughter tea, the summer daughter-in-law tea, and the fall grandmother tea.  We tasted and smelled the different teas and watched as our hosts packed the tins of freshly made tea.  We were also told many tea customs and various used for tea and leaves.  Once again I saw the Yixing teapots but our guide suggested waiting once more until Shanghai where there would be more choices.

The afternoon was spent rehearsing for the evening’s concert after which we returned to our very comfortable hotel, perhaps the favourite for many people as it had a pool, lovely rooms and great meals.  Before our bus took us to Shanghai the next day we climbed the Pagoda of Six Harmonies.  It was steep but nothing like climbing the wall.  The view of Hangzhou was well worth the climb.  As we drove out of Hangzhou we watched as the city gave way to farmland and the style of dwelling changed once again.  I wish I had photos of the different styles we saw on the outskirts of each city; each one was unique in colour, shape and decoration.


From Beijing we flew to Huangshan, a small city of 1.5 million.  The contrast with Beijing was striking.  We were no longer driving along plant lined highways.  Roads clogged with buses, cars and bicycles were replaced by streets filled with motor bikes, scooters and motorised bicycles, many that did not stop, they just tooted their horns and kept on going.  From my seat on the bus I saw rice fields, water buffalo and  vegetables laid out on the ground for sale.   Our main reason we visited Huangshan was to climb up Yellow Mountain, which we did the morning after we arrived.  As we travelled we saw, on either side of the road, crops planted up the sides of steep hills.  Tea, corn and all kinds of vegetables were growing on the hillsides and occasionally we would see a farmer tending them,  balanced on the  seemingly impossible slope.

The closer we got to the mountain the wetter and foggier it became until, when climbing up via the gondola, we could see only about ten metres ahead of us.  The path up the mountain was busy despite the weather.  Along with the tourists, there were porters carrying loads on poles over their shoulders.  This is the only method used to carry goods to and from the hotels up the mountain.  We enjoyed a delicious lunch in one of these hotels before half  the group headed back out into the weather to see more of the mountain.

They had a wild and exhilarating experience as the wind and rain continued.  Although the view was very limited it was possible to see the shape of the trees and mountains which are featured in many Chinese paintings.  (The next day as we walked through an art gallery we saw many paintings of the scenery we had barely glimpsed through the fog.)   As we neared the city again, our guide, Ping, instructed us to go straight to the dining room where we would all drink a magic drink ordered to make sure none of us came down with a cold.  The magic drink was hot coke with ginger!  No one came down with a cold; I’ll have to remember that remedy.

In the evening we participated in a lengthy and detailed tea ceremony involving green tea, black tea, chrysanthemum tea, jasmine tea, and oolong tea.  I wish I could remember all the steps, including the different ways ladies and gentlemen drink their tea, but I can recall only parts of the process.  It was there that I first saw Yixing teapots Andrew had suggested I look for.  Our guide had informed me that the best place to find a wide range would be Hangzhou, so I held off, hoping I wouldn’t regret it.   From there we wandered up and down the ancient street of Tunxi.  On each side of the street there were shops selling silk goods, pottery, inks, brushes and paper, artwork, food and many other souvenirs.  Once again we were expected to bargain over the prices and I watched and encouraged A11 as she made her purchases.

Before leaving Huangshan the next day we visited the Abacus museum, the ink factory and a city museum.  At each place we saw techniques, artifacts, art and architecture which were hundreds, or sometimes thousands of years old.  Our guides gave us loads of information, often explaining which dynasty the buildings, customs or items came from.  With so many details to take in it was impossible to retain it all but, the intricate detail and painstaking nature of much of the decoration impressed me again and again.

Thinking back to Beijing

As I expected I didn’t end up having time to write about our much while I was in China.  It was my job to keep the posts coming for the Stellae Boreales blog and post new photos whenever possible.  Hopefully many of you dropped in to read the many perspectives posted there as musicians, parents and coaches wrote about our travels.

After our trip to the Great Wall we stopped off at a Cloisonne Factory and were able to see each step involved in creating the beautiful pieces made using this technique.  Each item is made from copper onto which is marked an elaborate design.  The craftsman then attaches wire to the item along the lines of the design making compartments into which coloured enamel will be dropped. The item is heated and the enamel process repeated until there is enough to fill each compartment.  Each item is fired, polished and then gilded along the original wire lines.  As you can see the process is time consuming and the prices reflect that.  We had a chance to try dropping colour into the compartments on copper saucers and quickly saw that a steady hand and an accurate eye was needed.

That evening those of us who could keep awake enjoyed the Peking Opera,  it was like nothing we had ever seen or heard!  The elaborate costumes and makeup combined with the carefully choreographed fight scenes made it interesting to watch.  The story lines, taken from ancient Chinese legends were a little hard to follow at times but when I think about it, the “separated lovers” tale and the “renegade warrior fighting off all attempts to quell him” are familiar story lines in any culture.

On the morning of our last full day in Beijing we were taken to a hutong, an old Chinese settlement, where we travelled by rickshaw and visited a Chinese family’s home.  L13 wrote about this here.  It was great to see the style of living once enjoyed by many Chinese extended families, which I had read about just before leaving Canada in Moying Li’s book Snow Falling in Spring.

One thing that struck me about Beijing was the neat and manicured look of the city.  There were people sweeping streets and picking up garbage everywhere we went.  All the freeways and main roads were lined with plants and each plant was covered in healthy green leaves.  From the bus we saw gardens everywhere usually featuring hedges clipped into the shape of Olympic or Chinese symbols.  Considering the amount of pollution in the air we were amazed at how healthy everything seemed.  Although the roads we drove down were always busy they were wide and the city appeared spacious despite its population of 17 million.  As we drove down the main streets we could see glimpses down alleys where the view was quite different, but we had no chance to wander there.

Climbing the wall

I am sitting in the bus on our last day in Beijing.  Our plan today is to walk up Coal Hill, see the pandas at the zoo and visit a Lama temple before we head to the airport to check in. As we are in a traffic jam is not looking likely that we will be able to do all of that.

Since I last wrote we have seen some amazing sights.  The Great Wall was spectacular and it was a thrill to see the group perform there.  We had a hot sunny day which meant that we could see for miles and our photos are beautiful.  Before we started climbing the group gave a concert at the entry.  They were able to set up and play in the shade of a pavillion.  Understandably our presence there drew in the tourists and we had an audience of young and old, Chinese and foreigners.  The response was positive throughout but the particular reacton to the Butterfly Concerto was lovely to see.  As soon as the musicians started it, there was applause and then more several times throughout the piece.

View from the wall

Then we climbed!  The steps are very steep and the sun was very warm so it wasn’t long before the group divided into smaller groups:  the serious, the deadly serious and not quite so serious.  Which ever group you were in it was still a thrill to be on the wall and see what a massive task it must have been to construct it.  I was a mildly serious climber going only as far as I could on the limited sleep I had had at that point.  All the surrounding hills were covered in different tress, some of them planted in formation creating a green tapestry on all sides.  The wall itself snaked off in two directions over hills and out of sight.

Palaces and Gardens

We have had two touring days now and have seen beautiful palaces, courtyards and gardens.  On the first morning we headed to Tian’anmen Square and gazed around at the thousands of people there.  Our guide is a wealth of knowledge and although I am retaining some I really need to be constantly with a notepad to get it all.  From the square we entered the Fobidden City (Palace Museum) which was the residence of the ancient emporers.  We crossed threshold after threshold to enter courtyard after courtyard to see yet another beautiful building.  It was extremely hot and humid.  Just as we felt we could not last much longer we crossed over yet another threshold into the garden for the Imperial family.  This was where they could relax and play.  The trees and water made it just that little but cooler and very pretty.

Yesterday’s tour was to the Temple of Heaven which is surrounded by a park where many people were involved in weekend leisure activities.  We passed a group doing ballroom dancing, a group doing tai chi with paddles and balls, many playing a version of hacksac where the sack was actually a few disks attached to feathers.  As we moved through towards the Temple we encountered musicians, dancers and singers and realised we should be playing there ourselves.  The temple itself was very elaborate as were the surrounding buildings.  (photos are from the Temple of Heaven)

After that we spent an hour and a half at a market, but I will write about that another time.

In the afternoon we traveled to the Summer Palace where the Imperial family went to escape the heat.  It is built around a lake and is not one palace but many buildings and courtyards.  The difference in temperature was very pleasant.  We were able to enjoy the breeze acorss the lake.

Sleep continues to elude me and settle solidly on A11!

Safe Arrival

I am sitting on my bed in the hotel room at 6:59 on Friday morning. Unfortunately I have been awake for hours. Even though I was extremely tired last night I did not sleep well. A11, on the other hand was asleep within minutes of lying down and slept all night. Our flights were both uneventful, we were fed(three times), entertained and some of our travellers slept. After collecting luggage however we discovered one of the chaperone’s suitcases had not arrived, hopefully it will turn up today.

We went straight from the airport to the Eastman violin factory, where the workers were working extra hours just so that we could see them in action. Each violin, cello or double bass is made in an assembly line fashion, with all the workers repeating their own well mastered task over and over. As we moved from room to room we were greeted first with the smell of wood and later with the strong smell of stains and varnish. It was eye opening to see the many steps and the patient care each person was taking on their given task.

The hotel is very comfortable and the food is great.

Last minute details

As we continue preparing to leave on Wednesday I have been amazed at all the little tasks I have added to my list.  Packing my clothes has proven to be the easiest part.  Today I picked up something from the orthodontist, locks for the suitcases, then borrowed  a bag, an adapter and a jacket.  I also photocopied documents for both my family and the group and went to the chiropractor.  Both girls needed minor alterations to some clothes today so out came the sewing machine.  My to do list is shrinking, however, so I am hoping to relax and enjoy Canada Day tomorrow.

The children managed to squeeze in a treat this afternoon.  They joined their Narnia crazy friends and went to see Prince Caspian again.  WIth coupons for free tickets (which we couldn’t use the first time) it didn’t cost a thing.

I continued practising on the laptop I have borrowed and am beginning to feel familiar with the programs which I will need to use in China.  The Stellae Boreales blog now has links to a photo gallery where I hope to post photos every day or so.

When we stop to think about it, it is really quite amazing that L13, A11 and I are off to China due to their years of commitment to learning violin.  L13 has been playing for almost nine years and A11 for eight.  They  have become self motivated and are a big encouragement and help to  each other.  We are way past the practise charts and games I made when they were in Suzuki books 1 and 2.  It is very encouraging to see how they have developed as musicians and hear what their aspirations are for the future.

RIght now, though, I am just looking forward to seeing them play at the entrance to the Great Wall next Saturday.