A Travellerspoint blog

Hai, Japan!

Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Narita

semi-overcast 73 °F
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I arrived at Tokyo airport, NRT, a day before Steve so had a chance to check out the town of Narita. Friends, Dorit and John had recommended the Narita Gateway (Port) Hotel, and they were spot on. Close to the airport with free shuttles to NRT and the Japan Rail train station in town, it was both very convenient and a good value. (It was not available for the night before we departed Tokyo so we stayed at Hotel Sky Court. It was not nearly as good a choice). There is a very famous 1000 year old temple in the town, Naritasan Shinshoji, and I had enough time to visit it. As the legend goes, a famous monk made a sculpture of the Buddist god of fire, fudomoyo. During one of the many rebellions against the empire, it was taken to the battleground to squelch the uprising. Which it did and was subsequently placed in Narita. Apparently it liked being there because when they tried to move it, it spoke and to paraphrase said, "no friggin' way." large_90_7454751C2219AC68177F85FB82025027.jpg. This is where the sculpture remains today. And if that wasn't enough, I found a little place along the main street to get get dinner. Here it is...large_180_748881672219AC6817F906148AD00D5F.jpg I pointed at my surrounding neighbors when I saw a dish that looked interesting and wound up with scallops wrapped in bacon, skewers of quail eggs, and other yummy but unidentifiable things. Some hot sake to drink and all was well. When I left I saw a trip advisor notice on the door. And here I thought I had discovered this hole in the wall!

The next morning I went to NRT to meet Steve. As a testament to Japanese efficiency, 25 minutes after the plane landed (exactly on time), Steve walked into the international arrivals area. That's after deboarding, immigration, baggage pick up, and customs. I hadn't seen him for seven weeks but am happy to report he was still recognizable! I didn't react fast enough to take his picture so you will have to take my word for it.

To get into Tokyo there is a bullet train from the airport to downtown. We had purchased a Japan Rail Pass, much like a Eurorail pass, for the week which we highly recommend. It covers all JR trains and buses including the airport express. Of all the countries we have visited, Japan is the best for tourist help and information. There are people who give assistance and easily identifiable in train, bus, and metro stations. Information centers in cities and towns are well marked and signs are displayed in English. Should you not find any of these, anyone you stop on the street, from pedestrian to policeman, will graciously respond to your request for help. They are friendly and polite and oh, so meticulous.

In preparing for our visit I was surprised to learn (I must have slept through this history class) that It has never been colonized. Its Imperial family is the oldest continuous monarchy in the world and said to have begun in 660 BC. Like China it is a nation of a single race and much of its culture like language, religion, and customs come by way of China.

Again thanks to Dorit and John, we stayed at the Asakusa Shigetsu, a traditional ryokan or Japanese guesthouse. Our room was very charming albeit small. We slept on futons on top of tatami (straw mats) in a room with shoji (paper sliding doors). Our bed...large_90_807599A62219AC68178B273A0F1CE5AC.jpg
The room had a wonderful woody smell. There was a very small ensuite bathroom (a modern adaptation). When we entered our room, we removed our shoes at the door and put on slippers which are provided. In the closet were two yukata, Japanese bathrobe, to really get you in the mood. Steve complained he couldn't get me out of the bathroom because of the toilet. For those of you who have used one, you will understand why! On another floor was the traditional common bath. The latter was made of wood and filled with hot water like a hot tub. Before entering you wash down. When I used it I was solo so I didn't get the communal experience.

The area of Asakusa was a great choice for us. At one time it had been the "entertainment"district. Right out our front door was this neighborhood filled with hundreds of small shops and food outlets. And a two block walk took us to Tokyo's oldest temple and one of its most significant, Senso-Ji. It is to the Mercy Goddess. According to legend, her statue was found in a Sumida river by some fisherman. (Here is Steve by the same river in Tokyo Bay 1400 years later).
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The chief of their village recognized the sanctity of the statue and enshrined it by remodeling his own house into a small temple in Asakusa in 645 C.E. so it could be worshiped by the villagers. Later it was co-opted by a shogun clan. I think this is one of them...
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During World War II, the temple was bombed and destroyed. It was rebuilt later and is a symbol of rebirth and peace to the Japanese people.

Just as you wouldn't visit Italy without seeing its most beautiful churches, the same is true with Japan with its beautiful temples and shrines each with its fabulous gardens. So the next day we went to the Shinto shrine, Meiji Jingu, with 175 acres of dense forest where the city can be neither seen nor heard. Shinto is an ancient, original Japenese religion. It has no founder, no holy book, nor even the concept of religious conversion. Instead it is about values, e.g. harmony with nature and virtues, e.g. A "sincere heart." Divinity is found in mythology, nature, even human beings. (Of citizens who claimed a faith, 51 percent were Shinto, 44 percent were Buddhist and 1 percent was Christian. Shintoism and Buddhism are not mutually exclusive and most Shinto and Buddhist believers follow both faiths). So this shrine is the burial place of the deified Emperor Meiji and his Empress Shoken. He ruled from1868 to 1912 and is credited for developing modern Japan. Here is where I left an IOU...
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For a change in pace we went to the funky area of Harajuku which was said to be the area of youthful trendsetters. We couldn't find any so went onto the famous shopping street of Omotesando. It is actually a beautiful, wide, green lawned, boulevard littered with luxury stores. Then onto Ropponi Hills which turned out to be a mammoth shopping center. It was getting late and many restaurants close between 2 to 3 pm. Steve found a nice little family run place that where we just made last call. Then back to hotel to grab our dirty laundry and find a laundromat and call it a day.

The next morning we rose at 6 am to visit the largest fish market in the world, Tsukiji. Unfortunately, we were too late to see the early morning tuna auction but thought we could visit the wholesale market. It was not to be. Visitors were not allowed to enter until 9 am and we had purchased train tickets the day before to travel to a town outside Tokyo, Nikko, and had to get to the station.

Nikko is in the mountains is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is known for several important shrines and temples and the beautiful surrounding countryside. The Sacred Bridge...
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A temple...
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This was a day we tested the Japanese transportation systems. Steve notes: "Thursday was a big travel day. large_82CD4D342219AC6817DAECBE01FC762E.jpg
This picture is of the Shinkasen / Hikari Superexpress that we took from Tokyo to Utsunomia on the way to Nikko a Temple town North in the country. It goes up to 320 Km / 200 MPH.
1st two subways to the Tokyo Fish Market
Next two subways to Tokyo Central station
Then two trains to Nikko
Return with two trains to Tokyo
Last one subway to our hotel
The trains and subways are clean and efficient. You only wait a couple of minutes and can get anywhere in Tokyo easily, a city of nine million."

The only transport we didn't take that day was a taxi. They are very expensive but you have to love them. Again, Steve's account..."All taxis are spotless inside and out, drivers wear coat and tie, hats and white gloves. The doors open and close remotely. The seats are covered in white linens that look to be changed daily. We never took one, didn't want to get it dirty!" Judge for yourself...
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On our return we had our first conveyer belt sushi experience. What was especially cool is that each dish you choose has a chip. At the conclusion of your meal, the waiter comes over with a device to scan the plates and print your bill!

The next day we got up and checked out early since we had booked a bullet train to Kyoto. The city is called the "social soul" of Japan and was the capital for 1000 years. It has 2.5 mil people compared to Tokyo's 13 mil. It's also the cultural center with many beautiful temples. We visited several like this one to the Shinto god of rice, Inari.
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The most splendid is Kinkaju-Ji because of its golden pavilion. It was originally the villa of a famous Shogunate who later had it converted to a Zen Temple. It is built on three levels each with a different style. The first is Shinden, the 11th century aristocracy style. The second is the warrior style, and the top is the Chinese style. Gold foil on lacquer covers the upper two levels and it is a sight to behold...
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Our favorite , however, was another Zen temple, Ginkaju-Ji because we were met by a charming trio of Japanese college kids. They were all taking English courses and offered a free tour to English speakers. Their objective was to improve pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. You have to wonder why they chose us!!
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We concluded our stay in Kyoto with a visit to the Gion section of the city. It's an area of old wooden buildings, tea houses, good restaurants, and most importantly, geishas. While it is not the only geisha area in Japan, it is probably the most famous. As it turns out, the last is an endangered species with an estimate of less than 1000 geishas remaining in the country. I stalked one down a side street but she really moved fast!
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On our return to Tokyo via another bullet train, Steve enjoyed the passengers across the aisle.
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And as only Steve can say it..."and the BEER lady came by every half hour. Carol Bates slept while I PARTIED with the BABES. that's right guys, BEERS with HOT SAKE SHOTS! Doesn't get any better than this:-)

With considerable reluctance we departed from Japan but already planning a return. This sign seemed fitting...
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Posted by Dayts 01:23 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Final Stop in Shanghai then...ciao, Mao

sunny 74 °F
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For this leg of the trip, I was joined by my friend, Denise. It was the first time for both of us in the largest city by population in the world (over 23 million). However, we were there during the most important holiday of the year...national Day Week (sic) when droves of Chinese visitors come to the city. Here is Denise before the crowds got thick!
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Thanks to Zoe, our friends' daughter who lived in Shanghai, we took her advice and picked a hotel very close to the Bund, the famous waterfront area, on the puxi side of the river and near Metro line 2. A view out of the bedroom window...
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A view of the Bund in the evening...
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Even though we were only ten minutes away from the harbor, the Nanjing pedestrian walk, and the big metro center at People's Square, it took us three times that to reach these heavily touristed areas. I'd like to say it was because of the crowds (and it was in part) but it was mostly due to my terrible sense of direction. It took longer but we got the chance to see some cool streets like this one.
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Denise had good connections with flight crew members and knew the places to shop. So we hit the Pearl market on several occasions. So many pearls...so little time. Then we went on a quest to find bamboo knitting needles. Say that three times fast in mandarin! Well, we couldn't and the search was fruitless. In the process we became quite adapt at using the Metro. Denise can use the ticket machines faster than almost any of the locals. A good portion of traveling is getting from place to place and our experience was no exception. It took us several hours to get to and buy train tickets for a day excursion out of the city. You'll have to ask Denise if it was worth it.

We did try to see the National Museum, our attempt at a little culture, and gave up when we learned it was a three hour wait to get in. I had more success several days later but the special exhibit, one on Impressionists, was a wait almost as long. The "minorities dress" costume exhibit which represented all the regions of China was one of the more interesting.
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We visited the area called French Concession which has lots of interesting boutiques and cafés. I think it was my favorite of all the areas that we visited in the city. Another day we visited Yu Yuan which is a pleasant enough, well-contained classical Chinese garden in the old town built in the mid 1500s. Had I read Frommers before we went, we might have skipped it. The guidebook says it is "not quite the loveliest of its kind, as local boosters would have you believe. Bearing the burden of being the most complete classical garden in urban Shanghai and therefore a must-see for every tourist, this overexposed garden overflows daily with hordes of visitors, and is no longer the pastoral haven it once was. ". I can tell you that during this holiday week all crevices were filled with visitors. This was a halcyon corner...
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After that, enroute to the Superbrands Shopping Mall we found this highway garden.
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For a fun night, we went to a theater to see the Chinese acrobats. It was an interesting show albeit a little kitschy. Sorry but I have no pictures to prove it. Then there was our day trip to Suzhou, a city on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. with an urban population of over 4 million. It is considered one of the richest major cities in China. We took the fast train which got us there in about an hour. We had read " Originally founded in 514 BC, Suzhou has over 2,500 years of rich history, and relics of the past are abundant to this day. The city's canals, stone bridges, pagodas, and meticulously designed gardens have contributed to its status as one of the top tourist attractions in China. The classical gardens in Suzhou were added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997 and 2000. Suzhou is often dubbed the "Venice of the East" or "Venice of China". We walked all over the damn city and couldn't find any of this. We did find a silk museum which was really cool, though. At one time, Suzhou was the silk capital of China. During the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, it was the silk producing center; in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties most of the high-grade silk produced for the royal families was made by silk weavers here.
Here is one of the exhibits...
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We thought we were looking at a fixed exhibit when all of a sudden we noticed the silk worms were moving!
We searched for a place to have an enjoyable lunch but it didn't happen. Instead duck skin, chicken legs, and someone's belly so that night we went to the Westin. Thanks to Denise's largesse, we ate well and had some nice wine. According to the sommelier, the best white in China is from the Grace vineyards but I stayed with French. While beer is inexpensive, wine is not.

On the day Denise left, it was raining cats and dogs. I think she was ready to leave the crowds. I mean Shanghai makes the Italian passaggiata look like a Poorly attended funeral. And don't even mention Suzhou to her!

A day latter I left for Tokyo to rejoin Steve. That's in the next entry I won't miss China although I enjoyed what I saw. I think Shanghai is the pretty sister to Beijing but I thought the latter had a better personality. I'm sure the national holiday didn't help because with all the crowds, Shanghai was less welcoming. I will not miss the PRC control of the internet and TV. You can't download the NYT or access Facebook or YouTube. If you try to do a google search on anything Chinese you will often get an error message that says something about a lost thread. And even with my blog, there was intervention. I mean, really! This is hardly leading-edge journalism. Even on TV, CNN, when available was often frozen. A little less Mao and more ciao is in order.

Posted by Dayts 02:58 Archived in China Comments (2)

Hong Kong in a word...FABULOUS!

overcast 85 °F
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This city is an amalgam of a Manhattan skyline, Las Vegas lights, Maui climate, Swiss fastidiousness with a dollop of the celebration at a Key West sunset. There is excellent public transportation from the airport, within the city and beyond. The way to go is to buy the Octopus card, and if you are 65, you get the "elder" which is discounted. For us lucky elder holders, you get to take the Star Ferry for free and metro/buses for 2HKD. And if that isn't enough, there is free wi-fi on the buses. And most notable of all is that the city is a shopping mecca with virtually every show that exists in the world on one of the streets here. (I kept thinking of you, Annie).

I found a hostel type hotel, InnSight, in Kowloon and close to the nicest hotels in HK like the Penisula and the Heritage. They look like this...
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Mine looks like this...(it has 9~11 over the door)...
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I only had to walk four blocks to see this in the daytime...
large_180_75F8F8212219AC68170439409A2051E8.jpg and this at night.
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Across Victoria Harbor is the area called Central where there are government buildings and plenty more to see. Since the Ferry was free (for lucky me), I went every day! And on that side are some cool areas including Soho. It is an area of boutiques and restaurants offering every type of international cuisine that you can think of. And to get there, you can ride on the world's longest escalator (travelator to the Hong Kongese). A couple views...
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The people in Hong Kong were as nice as I met anywhere. As if to prove the point, look at this....
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Thanks to my friend, Mary, I got to meet a young, Pennsylvania couple living in the city. Laura is teaching English and on a two year contract. She and her husband, Scott, took me to NanLian gardens, an amazing oasis in this densely populated city. It is filled with historical buildings like these...
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Laura taught me some chopstick skills...
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Enroute to meet them, I stopped at a famous Taoist temple for another conversion attempt. It is said all wishes made there will be granted immediately but may I point out that it didn't work. You know I can't say out loud what I wished. You will just have to trust me on this. Here's the temple. Someone must have been having a birthday celebration....
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I think these guys came to party!!!
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All good things come to an end and so it was with my too few days in Hong Kong. I couldn't leave without giving it a salute and getting one back...
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Posted by Dayts 04:08 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (2)

To Hong Kong via Xi'an, ChengDu, Guilin, and Shenzhen

76 °F
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It was time to leave Beijing so I planned a trip by rail that had me stop at several cities I wanted to visit. I had ten days to do it. I waited a bit late to book and when I did only upper berths were available. All the distances were at least 12 hours from each other so I choose night trains. The first to Xi'an worked out rather well. I got comfortable with hopping down from on high to use a sit down toilet (thank god) which had no toilet paper nor paper towels. Didn't matter...I brought my own. Here was my perch....
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For some reason I booked a really nice hotel, the Soluxe Grand. I don't know what I was thinking. But thank heavens because Xi'an is a rather dirty, kind of crummy city. The only reason to be there is to see the Terracotta Warriors and after the fact, I'm not sure that is much of a reason. The same emperor responsible for the Great Wall around 200 BCE (he was also the first emperor) wanted his burial place to be very protected. So the story is that he had thousands of laborers work decades to create this allusion of a military and at the conclusion they were all put to death. It is also alleged that his tomb (separate from the warriors) has never been opened because it is believed to be filled with gas and will kill whoever tries. I think that was a plot in a Charlie Chan movie I saw with my mom. Here are several shots...
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And here in the line waiting for the bus to the museum are more Terracotta warriors....
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What I found extremely interesting was the Terracotta museum's special exhibit..
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Next stop was ChengDu known for its Panda Reserve, birthing center, and research center. The Flip Flop Lounge Hostel turned out to be a very good choice. You get a coupon for a free beer on arrival! The desk was well-informed and extremely helpful. Hostels are a great place to meet other travelers most of whom are doing much more extensive trips than I. One young couple from Switzerland made my travels look paltry. I liked them so much, I invited them to stay with us in SoCal when they are on that leg of their trip. (Oops, I didn't tell Steve yet). Some baby pandas...

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There was much more to see and do in this city which is the capital city of the Sichuan province. The food is great, the city is interesting and it's in a pretty area of the country...and there are even red pandas! Here is one...
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But onto the next stop via overnight train. This time to Guilin which, I was told, was in a lovely area with lakes and beautiful scenery. The trip from ChengDu was scheduled for about 23 hours. (That's a long overnight but it stopped at every little depot on the way)! And then it came into the station five hours late. All this time I was in the top berth, leaping up and down. I think the male who occupied the lower birth got a little pissed because I stepped on his foot, his finger, and another part that I do not want to consider. I finally arrived at my destination but I must complain about lack of truthfulness in advertising. This was on the table of WADA, my hostel....

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I traveled around the city and didn't see anything that suggested it deserved this sub-title. Later, I learned the beautiful area was several hours away. What the heck. I was only there one night. Then it was another overnight train. This time to Shenzhen which is on the border with Hong Kong. This was to be my last train ride in China and it was my most painful. Did I mention something that I have noticed way too frequently among Chinese men? Here is a hint...large_180_574257F62219AC681787CCD1A65ED9D9.jpg

I found this sign in the Delhi metro but I think it should be on every street in China. It is the buildup that is even more disconcerting. It has prompted my gag reflex on more than one occasion. Now can you imagine early morning on a train when 13 men in the washroom are all hacking and spitting? I'm so glad I had on socks and the plastic slippers they give you to wear during the trip.

In any event I arrived in Shenzhen and, once again, had booked myself into an excellent hotel: the Felicity Best Western. It is right by the train station and border crossing with Hong Kong..I mean within several blocks. And for whatever reason, they upgraded me to a suite. I can only guess they saw the goo on my shoes and guessed the reason. Here's the view of the HK skyline from my windows...

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Many people choose to stay here instead of Hong Kong because it is substantially cheaper. I, however, was moving onto the Mecca of James Bond. That story is for another day.

Posted by Dayts 06:44 Archived in China Comments (3)

Beijing and a Little Culture

semi-overcast 86 °F
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Before arriving in Mainland China, I thought I might find a sober, grey environment with many Chinese wearing face masks because of the pollution. As you've seen from my other blogs, that's not what I have found so far. While I have only scratched the surface, I do have four favorite cultural experiences listed in no particular order...

Eating Beijing roast duck (remember when it was called Peking duck?). Here's how it looks...
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Thanks to Caitlin's and Zoe's recommendations, I visited the 798 Art District. Here is a description lifter from Lonely Planet: "A disused and converted electronics factory built by the East Germans, 798 Art District is Běijīng’s leading concentration of contemporary art galleries. The industrial complex celebrates its proletarian roots in the communist heyday of the 1950s via retouched red Maoist slogans decorating gallery interiors and statues of burly, lantern-jawed workers. The voluminous factory workshops are ideally suited to art galleries that require space for multimedia installations and other ambitious projects. You could easily spend a day visiting the complex and its cafes and restaurants, making 798’s noncentral inaccessibility less of an inconvenience and more of an opportunity for an outing." Some pictures...

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The third cultural highlight was attending a classic Beijing Opera, unlike any opera I have seen. It's stylized action with beautiful costumes, singing, dancing, and acrobatic fighting to tell a story. This one had three parts including the White Snake, which I guessed to be a staple, had a women throwing and kicking batons to a number of men that encircled her. The choreography was terrific. No photos to show but an experience not to be missed.

The last was the Capital Museum. It's quite new and in fact, is still a work in process. Several of the exhibitions provided good information on Beijing history and culture. There are 5000 years to cover but I didn't have that much time so I skimmed the displays. I found this interesting for a couple of reasons. 180_D87F38CE2219AC681729320180EEDE1D.jpg. There was a time line with important art, artifacts, and people representing the periods. Like this.....
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You see the dancing girl at the top? Damn if I didn't see the original...in Delhi! And here,I have the picture to prove it....
90_D8E516AE2219AC6817F19BEA6C52467F.jpg. There's is better though. The other thing I found interesting about the time line was that people that were represented would have their nationality noted except for some of the Americans. Hmmmmm.
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I like this 11th BCE tripod but it wasn't for sale. And for my friends approaching this decade, an early birthday greeting.....
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Posted by Dayts 20:03 Archived in China Comments (0)

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