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may 1
Our taxi driver got out of the car several times, bending over the headlights, squinting at the Chinese characters I had given him bearing the hotel name and directions. Our Beijing hostel was hidden in a labyrinth of dark brown alleys, like burrows, but inside, the courtyard came alive with color. On this holiday Mayday weekend, everyplace was crowded. In nearby Jingshan park, people sang and clapped, practiced tai chi, strolled among the gardens. In local neighborhood playgrounds, people exercised on outdoor equipment - not electronic but rather like children's play structures, and men played board games.

Crossing Tiananmen Square, a vast expanse surrounded by huge buildings, my son and I declined to visit Mao's remains, but entered the gate to the Forbidden City under his watchful gaze. The city, forbidden to ordinary folk in its day, was its own lovely world where the Emperor and his entourage lived, many without ever leaving the city walls. The serene Souzhou River graced the Summer Palace grounds; we sipped a pot of jasmine tea in a little teahouse, listening to the sweet sounds of a flute, gondolas floating by. Such wonderful names in these places: Pavilion of Floating Greenery, Hill of Accumulated Elegance, Palace of Prolonging Happiness, Hall for Listening to Orioles.

At the iconic Temple of Heaven, a round structure, beautifully painted, surrounded in park, we tested the echo walls, discovering their mysterious secret. Walking the amazing Great Wall to the end of a restored section, we could see it snaking off into the distance, appearing again over faraway hills. I expected it to be more like hiking, but there were steep ups and downs, mostly stairs, to hilltop towers.

At night, we wandered hutong alleys, explored Hou Hai, a trendy area between two lakes, and sampled street market fare, but not the live scorpions wiggling on a stick, or cicada and cicada pupa. We cooked in a hotpot on the table, and were surprised to see Peking duck served sliced (but of course, to eat with chopsticks!). At one restaurant, after ordering roasted catfish, a young man carried a blue tub to our table. There swam a plump catfish, swaying for our approval, superbly fresh. One evening, we caught a dazzling acrobatic show, a talented troupe of tumblers, leapers, contortionists, bicyclists, and were surprised at the boisterous enthusiasm of the audience.

On the overnight train to Xi'an, a low white morning mist hung on the land, dreamlike, as we sped through farmland stretching to the horizon, clusters of buildings less like towns than small agricultural centers. The Xi'an city walls, wide and well restored, reminded me of the Charles bridge in Prague, with towers and lampposts solidifying into view as I approached, fading with distance in the haze beyond, part humidity and part, I suspect, pollution. Little performances around town entertained us at the drum and bell towers and city walls. Exploring the Muslim Quarter souk, we followed Middle Eastern style narrow streets lined with shops, disappointed to find only typical Chinese souvenir goods So many temples and historic sites in Chinese cities have been gutted and filled with shopping stalls.

Outside Xi'an, less than 40 years ago, a farmer dug a well and discovered pottery shards. Subsequent excavation revealed three massive pits where life size clay soldiers, horses and chariots, armed with weapons, stood ready, intended to protect a former emperor's tomb - the Terracotta Warriors. Six thousand figures and horses in the first dig alone have been pieced together, assembled slowly, so much work still in progress, so much more to uncover. Each face is unique: expressions, proud and noble, eyes, hair, armor, body size, shape and even posture. A wondrous sight I have dreamed of visiting since it was first reported, and I was already an avid clay lover.

A gaggle of middle aged Chinese women pushed and shoved their way to the front at the baggage carousel in the Chengdu airport, wildly swinging bags off the line, and a few times throwing them back on, having picked one in error. I found myself missing the polite unassuming Japanese. But later that day, a friendly group of locals dancing in People's Park pulled us in to join them. Most amazing at the Sichuan opera were the face changing dancers, both graceful artist and magician at the same time. That week, we truly dropped off the grid. After some American comments about China's crackdown on artists and free thinkers, Hotmail and Gmail were shut down for a week.

You have to get to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, a large natural reserve, early to see the pandas awake and moving. They feed, then nap into the afternoon. Their signature black and white markings cover their chubby bodies, fur rippling as they munch bamboo, sometimes rolling backwards to lie on their back, still eating. A pair of youngsters tumbled with their mother, and later could be spotted perched in a tree. The red panda is small and raccoon-like; their black and white faces give them a kind of bewildered look.

Steep pale rock shapes Emei Shan, one of four sacred mountains in China, the classic tall dramatic mountains seen in brushed ink and watercolors of the Chinese countryside, dotted with monasteries. We took a bus and cable car to the top and spent two days walking down, staying the night at a former monastery. At the top, covered in mist, the golden elephant statue and four small temples in each direction were barely visible, but the sun found us on the second day. Aggressive macaque monkeys haunted the trail, stealing water bottles, sometimes jumping on people. Descending the steep path of stone and cement stairs, I imagined myself in an Escher drawing of impossible connections between mountains and monasteries.


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