Wednesday, February 29, 2012

New Mexico Road Trip Day 1 Part 1

Hello and welcome to a brand new series of midweek escape!! Last week there was the final post on our China travels, preparing the weekly episodes was a great joy but after 2 years of blogging about China it certainly is nice to change the subject!

What is this new destination?... It all started when David asked me to come up with a new territory to explore and I proudly said New Mexico. "You couldn't pick somewhere closer?!" was his response, he thought I was crazy to pick a location that far South. Well, why would you visit the places nearby, we saw North of Vancouver and drove as far as Quesnel, camping down the coast of Oregon sure was beautiful. It was nice to be surrounded by such wonderful regions but I grew curious as to what we would see some distance away, somewhere reachable by car so New Mexico it was after much deliberation.

There was little time for research and only a small amount of information was gathered. We also decided to stop at local visitor centres as we got closer to each destination, their friendly staff gave us good suggestions in the past. With last minute preparations and only 3 hours of sleep the night before, we loaded the little car up and headed for the U.S. border at 6 AM. Waiting time was only half an hour, it was a surprisingly short wait even though it was September long weekend. Yes we decided to go to New Mexico in the Fall of 2011, we were beaming with excitement and looking forward to the unknown.

Below the view outside the window after a couple hours of driving, barren mountains loomed in the distant.
More umber hills continued along the highway, this went on for quite some time. Our first destination was several hours away, we planned to stay at a campground in Oregon but could not decide between 2 choices. That day the plan was to keep driving until we could drive no more.
The highway kept on, hills after mountains the scenery began to look the same. We knew the outlook would not be too interesting for much of the distance so lots of music was brought along to entertain. It was not long before the songs began to repeat, a reminder to self that plenty more tunes were required next time. Upbeat tracks like the ones by Chemical Brothers from the movie Hanna kept us from falling asleep but we were on the lookout for anything that was interesting.
I could not remember if there were lots of cars but there were sure many trucks. Most of them had covered cargo but we found one whose load was visible, a closer look revealed the contents was corn, no doubt freshly harvested that morning.
The landscape changed from hills to grass covered fields, a tint of yellow was noticed on the horizon, could there be wildflowers growing in the open land? On the right a white colored peak, it was hard to believe there would be snow on such a warm day.
Next to the road a neat pile of boxes, there were numerous of all different tints of wood. They were either empty and lined up to be filled, or they were ready to be shipped, a few attempts were made to name the mystery goods. 
Shades of brown turned to hues of green, such brilliant emeralds, a far cry from all that hazel, this appeared to be irrigated land. 
A familiar sight on all our road trips, a patch of robust looking crops, the closer one was definitely corn but what about those in the distance? 
Just as quickly as the farmlands appeared they soon faded away, the path returned to ochre stained slopes. I quite like this sort of desert like landscapes, it was very different from what I was used to at home. The camera began to snap away...
... this one pictured below had a nice angle, the result was decent but many others fell into the category of out takes. It was not easy taking photos from a moving car, tasteful compositions were a challenge, there were many visual distractions but I learned to remain focused on the subject matter at hand. It gave me something to do which kept me alert, this meant David who was the designated driver was kept attentive too.
We were not the only travelers on the road, everyone was going somewhere like this couple on the motorbike, I've always thought it would be cool to take a trip on a motorbike. Looking at the small compartments they packed much lighter than us, I don't know how I would do with so little, hence the idea that came briefly went away swiftly.
Wind turbines atop the faraway plain, we noticed others along the way, there must be quite a few sections of land that must be very windy. This is a new discovery to us, I wonder how much wind energy would be required to power a home? 
Our little car motored on, a tall grey structure was the only artificial form we came across...
... after that there were miles and miles of straw colored grass. I think the structure must be a granary but...
... as to what kind of grain specifically I couldn't tell. The neutral tone and simple formation of the cultivated land made pleasant visual arrangements. It was very inspiring, I think the picture below could be an abstract painting.
There were even small dark spots on the outlook that added some interest.
I began to notice the windswept grass, a soft patch of surface between ruffled textures, lots more were observed but the one below was my favorite. Mother Nature had created some enjoyable patterns that sunny day, there was not a single cloud in the clear blue sky, it was a good start to our journey.
We went around the corner of a grass covered bend, there would be more curves to come as the road carried on, what will we find next? Stay tuned next week as the midweek escapade continues!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Memories from China

Hello and welcome to the last post of our China trip! As some of you know I've been posting weekly about China, this has been going on since February of 2010. It all began in 2007 when we spent 24 days visiting various Chinese cities, during which over 18,000 pictures were taken to record our journey. I started this weekly series to share some of our memories, I thought the posts would last only a few months, but as materials were gathered for each post, it became clear there was lots more to talk about. The vast amount of information shared over the last 2 years was evidence our travel had been a wonderful and enchanting one.

Thank you for your continued support and visits, many thanks for your lovely comments on our China posts. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to relive the moments every week, blogging about the trip has been quite a journey in itself for the past 2 years, it was an escape I looked forward to every week.

It's hard to believe this will be the final post, apart from all those fantastic places we visited, (click here for a map and summary) there were also souvenirs we picked up along the way. It was not the items themselves I'd like to share but the stories behind them I still recall today.

The first was a little object I saw while we were at the Beijing Theatre Museum, also called Huguang Guild Hall or Huguang HuiGuan in Mandarin, we were there to catch a performance from the Chinese Opera. We had arrived early and were told to wait in the courtyard, where a few vendors had set up stalls with various merchandise. There were CD's, postcards and books of famous Chinese opera singers, an artist demonstrated inner painting of snuff bottles. Then there was a small table filled with all kinds of creatures made of straw and wire, elaborate ones like snakes, tigers and dragons drew me near but my heart went to the bug with the big eyes below. I still do not know what type of insect this is but fond memories of the show that night flooded back as I glanced at this intricate craft.
That same night another merchant was selling all kinds of trinkets, nothing too interesting but the postcard set of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic mascots caught my eye. Adorably designed and brightly colored, we happily agreed to the first price of 30 RMB with no bargain. Later on our trip we discovered they were officially priced at 12 RMB and available at just about any post office, lesson learned to always negotiate prices. But look at those cute characters, they represented a very exciting atmosphere for an upcoming international event.
China was filled with Olympic thrill at the time, everywhere we went there were shops selling Olympic products. The hunt for an extra large Olympic t-shirt for David continued in Xian as only smaller sizes remained in Beijing. While we were happy to purchase mass produced quality items, I was on the lookout for handmade goods. It was not until we were on the Yangtze River cruise on Shen Nong Stream that I managed to find a row of retailers.

A package of shoe insoles captured my attention, they looked hand embroidered, the colors were certainly delightful. I was so proud to haggle both pairs for 20 RMB until our guide Jessica pointed out they could be bought for much less at the local market. Oh and they were machine made too! There was no regrets but I wished I had paid more attention when she told me the meaning behind each of the flowers. The insoles were actually patterns for crafters, girls would follow the design and give the handcrafted items to possible suitors they wished to attract. I did not know of this type of practice until then, the insoles symbolized a custom that was fast disappearing as smaller towns caught up to modern society.
In Shanghai the world class museum was a worthwhile visit, I spent most of my afternoon wandering through the various floors of magnificent collections. But the bookstore that was split into different levels was impressive in itself. There was a wide selection of postcards like the ones below, they were all very reasonably priced at 1 or 2 RMB, I like the expressive brushstrokes and the soft colors.
Then I found the postcard books that featured folk paintings by Jinshan peasants, a few years prior to our China trip I discovered these paintings while browsing for Chinese recipes on the internet. I was and still am captivated by the use of happy tones and simple composition as noted in the stylized blooms on the yellow background. But most of all I am impressed with the portrayal of daily village life, such as the chore of grinding corn. 
The kitchen scene was a common theme, the heart of the home equipped with a number of hot stoves cooking away numerous family meals at gatherings. Another familiar sight of chasing fowl depicted in the work titled 'Ducks on Sale,'  I could imagine the noise and the excitement.
A typical subject: a basket full of vegetables to indicate a bountiful harvest perhaps. The bottom painting titled 'Watermelon Harvest' showed the change of seasons, the trees were not green but outlined in soft white.
The bookstore at the Shanghai Museum also contained books that supplemented their current exhibits. I was so busy with the camera I neglected to learn the Chinese coin history...
... and the Chinese seal history. Both collections were some of my favorites, I saw many beautiful things that day, each one just as inspiring as the other but I was glad to have these books handy should the curiosity on facts arise.
One of our objectives in our China travel was to tour the country much like the locals would. Right from the beginning we made sure to utilize the local transportation be it bus or subway, walking exploring the different neighbourhoods in each city, this was exactly what we did in Guilin. En route to the bus depot we passed by a China Post office, we decided to pop in and have a look. There was only a couple of people in the line-up and the gift shop was empty except for a lady reading the newspaper. She was happy to see us and was proud to show the most recent collection of Chinese stamps, I could not resist the first day covers that commemorated the old lifestyle of Beijing.
Part of the set showcased vendors that traveled the streets selling household goods made of wood or bamboo. There were also merchants that traded second hand clothing on street corners, calling out to passersby in order to make a sale. Such old lifestyles were non-existent in Beijing during our visit, our impression of the city was a modern Western one.
The next set of stamps were specially issued to promote Tengchong Geothermal Volcanoes and Jinhu Lake. Although I was unfamiliar with these spots, I bought the first day covers because I liked the paintings on the envelope, they reminded me of the ones I saw at the Shanghai Museum and they also brought to mind the sceneries from our Li River cruise.
Apart from stamped envelopes there were also stamp books like this one below, water sceneries of China was the subject matter, this particular spread was about Lake Taihu. I liked the books as soon as I saw them, they were rigid enough to serve as stamp albums, not to mention stood a good chance to travel home in one piece, I bought a few on different topics.
One of the last things we bought on our trip was this set of postcards. On the hike in Longsheng we ended up at the top of the hill where the temperature felt a bit cooler. Like other visitors we took a few minutes to catch our breath, quench our thirst, and like other tourist destinations there were merchants that set up shops. A lady had many photos for sale but all I wanted were the prints of paintings created by famous Chinese artists. She just wouldn't budge on the price so after several tries I pretended to leave. "Okay! Okay! 10 RMB for the set," she said in Mandarin and grudgingly took the money. As we left David saw she smiled as she took out another set from under the table and repeated the same scenario with another tourist.

I love these paintings of Guilin. I remembered seeing some of these when I was little, quiet landscapes captured in soft Chinese watercolor and rice paper.
The few brushstrokes and blurred edges evoked romantic emotions about the place. I like the monotone palette but the green one on the lower right is my favorite.
I saw this last item on our way back to the bus in Longsheng. A group of Yao Ethnic Minority ladies were working on some crafts, one of them was sewing something intricate so I stopped to converse with her. I couldn't remember exactly what we talked about but she offered me a price on the piece. I responded saying I was just curious and not interested in buying so I walked away. To my surprise she got up and ran after me! I must have been about 20 feet away when she caught up to me and insisted her sewing was immaculate, it took her 2 weeks to complete and that I had to buy it from her. I noticed the fine details and saw the callus on her finger as I inspected the work. She told me she was 38 years old, her mother had taught her the pattern when she was 11. When asked what the motif meant she said the yellow crisscross represented the little white bird.

I thought about this incident from time to time as I glanced at this exceptional piece of handicraft, it was one of the most elaborate I had ever seen. It measures 2.5" x 4.5" or 6.35 cm x 11.43 cm.

Let it be known we spent most of Day 25 traveling back to Canada, for a month afterwards I slept like a baby at night. It was as if some kind of great journey had been accomplished, we saw and did everything we had aspired to do.

So ends this series on our China trip. It has been my pleasure to share the memories with you, I hope you enjoyed them too. Next week a new series will start, yes the midweek escape continues, somewhere a little closer to home. Any guesses?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hong Kong Postcard Day 24 Night Market at North Point

Welcome and thank you for joining us on this last day of our China trip! We have been traveling through China for 24 days now, there were many highlights of our trip: the bike trip through the town of Yangshuo and Xian City Wall topped the lists, so did our visit to the little fishing village of Tai O, but the tram ride at night in Hong Kong was certainly a delightful journey in itself. We took the first tram we saw, not knowing where it would end up, a stop called North Point looked so intriguing we decided to get off and explore. Captured below the view from the tram that peaked our interest, the fruit store with the striped roof was the beginning of a long strip of shops that was open for business that night.
At ground level we got a closer look at the fruits, a wide variety of every juicy morsel imaginable. To their right a meat shop...
... fresh portions had already been cut up and hung, ready to be purchased, it was after all night time and probably the end of the butcher's shift. I remembered shopping at such a stall in Singapore, my mother would send me to get the family's daily meat with cash at hand. Pork cost $3.00 a kilo in the late 1980's, this equaled to $1.50 in American dollars. The cut would be determined by the butcher, all you need to state was the fat content and the cooking method and a chunk would skillfully sliced then be wrapped in newspaper and bagged in plastic.
There were lots of meat stores but one of the common sights was its pairing with a seafood business.
Here's another combination spotted across the street, this must be a successful relationship, for practical reason customers could buy their meat and fish in one go.
Another thing we noticed as the use of red shades for the lighting, they were present at just about every shop, below the smallest fish stall we saw.
Other seafood business were much bigger, this one was equipped with a cleaning stand, the lady with the yellow apron was about to gut and scale the pomfret.
A close up of the assortment of fresh seafood, there were fish of different sizes, cuttlefish, prawns. I was curious whether the price indicated 24 RMB per kilo or pound, this worked out to be about $3.50 Canadian, either weight the price was quite reasonable. 
Another shot of the fish (I couldn't help it) I liked looking at the different types, most had shiny scales, their heads and tails still intact. Back in Canada far too often the grocery stores offered ready packaged fillets or steaks, seeing food sold this way was refreshing. In Singapore my mom and I used to pick through baskets of mackerel, after agreeing on $3.00 per kilo the ones with the brightest and clearest eyes were chosen. This came to about 10 mackerels and they would be marinated with all kinds of spices like turmeric, deep fried and eaten with nasi lemak... oh the memories!
Other stores on site sold produce too, this was the smallest veggie stall, the only lighting it had was from the neighboring shop, the man was fixing up his piles of fresh bean sprouts. 
Below a much bigger vegetable store, I recognized lo bok, bok choy, eggplants and various leafy greens, I was amazed at the choices.
This shop sold root vegetables, boxes of onions, tapioca, sweet potato, yams and taro roots lined the entrance. On closer look tofu puffs and tofu skins could be seen hanging from the ceiling.
It seemed the ones that dealt in root vegetables also sold tofu products, below this business had more soy bean products than anyone else.
A different kind of merchandise, seafood balls made from fish, cuttlefish, octopus or shrimp. Some were shaped into oblongs, those were usually sliced and added to noodle soup or chow mein. There was some dried or salted vegetables for sale too.
Then we came to the egg man, chicken eggs in brown or white shells, would he carry salted duck eggs? On the shelf a few packages of joss money, there were also bundles of joss sticks placed next to the eggs.
A must in any Chinese food market, a dried goods and herbal store. On the wall several jars containing herbs lined the shelves, each one clearly marked with names and prices. Quality varied as much as the prices, apparently the higher the price the stronger the medicinal potency.
Pictured below on the left, a miscellaneous goods shop, it looked like such a mess but I saw some bowls on the back wall.
This stall was much more organized, kitchenware of every perceivable use covered its space. I liked the fact that a lot of its things were very shiny, I also think we could find anything we need for the kitchen here.
Some clothes for sale! Anyone need pajamas or nightgowns?
Another clothing store, the Christmas lights added a homely touch to this corner.
For those who love to sew, a fabric store. Check out the rolls of cloth, people could hardly walk in there!
The streets of shops continued on, but this one below was my favorite: a neat little fruit store with tidy looking boxes. I really like the cheery colored banners at the top of the doorway, they made me feel so welcome.
It was wonderful exploring North Point, we didn't expect to find such a fascinating area in Hong Kong. Throughout our journey in China, I looked high and low for a marketplace of some sort to visit. I did not want to partake in the ones targeted at tourists, rather the kind that was interconnected with local daily routine, the night market at North Point certainly fit into this category.

The evening was coming to an end, we were just about to leave when we noticed movement in the shops, some boxes of vegetables went missing.
Another store with vacant spots, something was going on...
... then baskets of goods began to reappear on the streets, people started to walk up to take a closer look at the produce.
More and more containers of greens lined the roads, some customers started to inquire about the merchandise, haggling of prices began as the vegetables were picked up...
... and handled. I guess there were deals to be made despite this late hour, there were still plenty to choose from.
The negotiating went on into the night, pictured below a last shot of North Point, as the night market bustled in some parts of the streets, other shops were already closed. We left to meet Peter in Kowloon, best wishes were exchanged, the visit was kept short as there were lots of packing to do. This was our last night in Hong Kong, the end of our one week stay in this beautifully exciting city. We had been traveling for 24 days in China, it was also the last day of our trip. What an adventure it was traveling to all those cities. Next week I will share one final post of our journey, please stay tuned!