27 September 2016

Xi'an, China 2014

Xi'an was the terminus hub in China for the old Silk Road. Its overriding fame is for the legions of Terracotta Warriors excavated at the burial site of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. It is believed about 8,000 soldiers exist, most still unexcavated. Previously I had seen a travelling exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto.

Our hotel, Xi'an Grand Soluxe International for two nights, is within the large old walled part of the city; the location pleases us very much. First we visit the city wall, seventy-seven steps up (who's counting?). Beautiful view of the well-kept ancient wall, tree leaves are starting to bud. A small temple is situated near us. We stroll around as evening approaches, noting the careful restoration in some areas.

Our dinner venue is "Xi'an Ancient Capital Theatre" with vast seating for meal serving. Because we are having a Special Dumpling Dinner! What a highlight very ornately created, each kind has a poetic description such as "sailing boat-shaped steamed Jiaozi." The names and pictures are being flashed on a video screen as we eat but we were more absorbed in the scrumptious dumplings and their accompaniments. The plates kept arriving at our table, at least thirteen varieties.

The restaurant is packed. We are entertained with a "Tang Dynasty" performance of traditional music and dancing. Much easier to relax here than at the Peking Opera. Lovely dancers and notably a woman playing the zither, also an amazing guy making weird noises on the strangest horn.

Next morning we linger in a special park commemorating historical figures poets, philosophers – and a Buddhist temple, while waiting for the Shaanxi Museum to open. I love to see the groups of middle-aged/elderly people daily exercising; some do tai chi or martial arts practice or dance. Mao started this compulsory routine during the Cultural Revolution. A few practice writing Chinese characters with a long-handled mop and a bucket of water. On the edge of the park, army cadets are drilling. 2014 is the Year of the Horse.

The Museum is very rewarding, not crowded, plenty of time to see most exhibits. Always high security at museum entrances. Exquisite inlaid furniture. We see how they make clay replicas of the warriors to sell.

Onward to the obligatory jade "factory." Beautiful jewellery and intricate carvings of all sizes, almost like a priceless museum in itself. Our budgets are more suited to the pearl "factory" on a different day. Getting stuck for a while in a cargo elevator between floors makes for some uncomfortable moments! Outside, a warrior replica begs for attention.

At last, in the afternoon! To the Terracotta Warriors! It's a long walk back and forth to the site. Three pits are open to the public with appropriate exhibits, including a three-floor museum. One of the farmers who discovered the site, while digging a well back in 1974, is still living; he sits in the foyer autographing coffee-table books. The government built new housing for the displaced villagers and farmers (however, that didn't happen for some time).


Emperor Qin Shi Huang died in 201 BC. The burial site was built as an enormous sprawling monument with buildings and special landscaping, full of rare treasures so he could rule even after death. Many, many years to create. The uncovering of some 2,000 terracotta warriors is apparently the tip of the iceberg it's estimated there could be as many as 8,000 altogether. Each is an individually designed figure, originally painted in bright colours that rapidly flaked away upon exposure to the atmosphere. The emperor's actual inner tomb and many geographical features have not been excavated for health, safety, and technological reasons. Not only were mysterious booby traps planted against potential looters, but a great deal of deadly liquid mercury is present. Long-range planning for excavation and conservation is essential until more of the complex and its stunning artifacts can be revealed.
Lots of sightseers here, again few non-Asians. We have to keep moving around the pits. Each warrior is individually designed.
 A woman grabs me on our return trek and gobsmacks me by demanding in imperfect English, "How old are you?!" "Not a polite question," I smile, but she's persistent. I show her by extending my fingers. She happily trails us with her friends, excitedly speaking in their own language. Later I learn that age is greatly respected in general and it's a common question, asked admiringly. I still don't know if I was looking really ancient that day or if it was simple curiosity about a foreigner.

An awesome, exhausting day. The return trip into Xi'an is bad; traffic is almost at a standstill, long stops and stalls. Trucks line the shoulders of city expressways because regulations don't allow them on highways until a certain evening hour. We watch one woman get out of a car (as a passenger) and start walking. She had disappeared long before we reach an off-ramp a kilometre away. Unbelievably, we see a driver make a U-TURN in three-four lanes of one-way traffic and start inching back the wrong way. Road warrior!

A large tile wall at Xi'an Ancient Capital Thestre
  © 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

15 September 2016

Bergen-Belsen, Germany 2013

It goes without saying that travel is not always for sheer pleasure or relaxation. Historical sites connect us to glorious feats, to forgotten cultures, or to the worst depravity of humankind. Lessons, all. Are we mindful?

Visiting a Holocaust memorial site is a sobering, painful experience.

It's very quiet, few people are observable as we walk the fifty hectares. None of us feel like speaking much. We read information on the stark obelisks placed on fields that are grassy now, fields where thousands of humans once suffered indescribably. Foundations of a few wretched camp huts still remain.

Bergen-Belsen was initially a Wehrmacht-run POW camp for Russian soldiers; 20,000 of them are buried in an adjacent cemetery. Only later in 1943 was it turned into a concentration camp by the SS. Both German administrations treated the inmates criminally. The bare obelisks and flat concrete markers, at specific sites, reveal the hair-raising story of overcrowding and malicious neglect through lack of adequate shelter, food, water, and sanitation.

At least 52,000 men, women, and children died here, Jews being the vast majority. Mass graves are everywhere. Thousands more died after liberation, weakened from starvation and disease. The numbers are staggering.

Along the entrance way, sound recordings and interviews with survivors can be heard. I did not go to view the photographs and historical footage. Many years ago I had seen film made by the camp liberators. Once is enough to never, ever forget. The arriving British and Canadians were stunned by the walking skeletons and heaps of unburied corpses. The crematorium, working overtime in the last days, had broken down.

Many nationalities are represented on the main memorial wall: French, Belgian, Dutch, Russians, Hungarians, Italians, Poles, and so on. The French dedication to their nationals says they "committed no crime other than love for France and not complying with the invaders' ideas." An individual stone can be seen here and there to memorialize a lone person.

The small Jewish cemetery has stone markers for some who died here, erected by family survivors or their descendants. The brief commemorations are poignantly touching and sad. They include Anne Frank and her sister Margot.
But to my horror, the first stone I saw was defaced. The Hebrew inscription can be seen at the edge of the gouges.
What evil spirit lingers here??

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

02 September 2016

23 August 2016

Road Trip - Burgundy 1987

The third of the road trips in France ... At the end of September one year, we took the rental car from Paris to Dijon to start a leisurely tour along the Route des Grands Crus in Burgundy. Each specific wine-growing area blends (inappropriately dreadful pun) from one to another going south: Cote d'Or, Cote Chalonnaise, and Beaujolais. Having enjoyed our share of such labels as Pouilly-Fuissé, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, and others, we wanted to pay due homage in person. There was an indefinable excitement in the air because the harvest was beginning; men and machines were filling the fields and back roads.

This was some time ago, you understand, and many details have fallen by the wayside along with crates of corks and labels. Plus: the relevant scenes in the old family collection of slides (remember slides?) were largely unidentified to very specific places. I don't want to lose the remaining bits of magic so it's taken some sleuthing to rescue the highlights.

It's not a huge distance from Dijon to Macon where our ten-day-or-so journey stopped. We stayed in two or three relais as central points for countryside and winery exploration. We did manage a visit to the twelfth century Abbaye de Fontenoy along the route from Paris. I have no memory whatsoever of Dijon other than we had a dinner booked at a Michelin-starred restaurant ~ gourmandise was definitely part of the planning ~ where a supremely cool woman dined alone with her little dog resting under her chair. Soon we were meandering south.

Beaune was a perfect place to stay for a few days, especially Hôtel Le Cep in the middle of town. We could explore on foot; the glazed tile roof of the mediaeval Hospices de Beaune is an iconic Burgundy landmark. Centuries of history lie here from its 1443 founding as a charity hospital. Sixty hectares of vineyards producing fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay support the continuing tradition.

... And we had tastings on a tour of wine caves.

Macon was as far south as we went before returning to Paris. We stayed some miles from Macon in the impressive thirteenth century Château d'Igé. Igé has a waterside terrace among other peaceful spots.

Here a strange bacteria or bug caught up with me and horrors! my stomach forced me to decline dinner one night in the company of some copacetic fellow guests. In fact, we followed directions next day to consult un médecin who turned out to be the most charming elderly gentleman who never criticized my French. There's nothing like a restful historic ambiance in which to feel restored from flu-like symptoms fortunately they passed quickly away.


Macon itself was humming on a market day. Besides the usual foods, lace products were very much in evidence, particularly the filmy curtains with imaginative designs. And of course the entire area is chock full of restaurant dining pleasures. Grape harvesters were busy everywhere in the district's biggest business.

Time ran out. We did not reach Lyon, having to turn back. A world away from home.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman