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?


  1. Thanks for the sharing Novi. That was an epic trip you had written about! :-) Your writing had been really invaluable in my trips to China last year. Looking forward to see where you go to next!


    1. Hi Ben: You're most welcome! I had no idea it would last this long, I'm glad you found the posts useful, I was hoping they would be! Your posts on Beijing sure are interesting, written from the point of view of a foodie, all those food we didn't get to try as we're too busy traveling, thank you for sharing. I sure am glad you guys went to China!

  2. Thank you Novi so much for sharing all this. I am convinced that this is the most detailed travel story ever made! I remain impressed - and curious what you come up next! :)

    1. Hi Minami: Thank you for your continued support of the travel series! I'm surprised there was so much to share, but I'm also glad it has come to an end. I'm looking forward to the upcoming new series. Stay tuned!

  3. Thank you for the epic China travel series. I truly enjoyed it. I looked forward to your posts. The photos were spectacular.

    1. Hi P.K.: Thank you for your loyal support of the China series. I can't believe it took 2 years to share all those photos. Thank you for all your comments, I looked forward to reading them. Have a great week!