Thursday, September 14, 2006

Setting up the trip to Xi'an

I want to post this now because it's mostly negative, and I want to let my positive feelings about actually being in Xi'an come out when I get back.

Trying to get to Xi'an was hard.

I should mention that there is more than the Terracotta Warriors to see in Xi'an. Xi'an was the capital of China for a lot longer than Beijing ever was. It was the capital under the first emperor Qin Huangdi, it was the capital under the golden age of the Tang dynasty, and so on. Only after the Mongols invaded did the Mongols move the capital to Beijing.

Quiz question: When was the first Christian mission into China? If you're thinking of the Age of Exploration, the Jesuits, and the Portuguese, you're off by almost a millenium. You see, though we think of Christianity as beginning in Israel and moving west, Christianity also moved east at the same time. This was a Christianity that was not as colored by Greco-Roman thought (but it was probably influenced by Persian thought), and in the 600s, a Persian missionary named Alopen went to bring the gospel to China.

Evidence of this is the Da Qin monastery that was built during the Tang Dynasty and numerous artifacts including a large stone tablet with a summary of the gospel in Chinese, erected at the behest of the Emperor as a show of Imperial encouragement of the gospel. It was reported to the Jesuits in the 1600s, forgotten, then rediscovered several more times after that. The Japanese invasion of WWII led a Japanese archaeologist to find it, but he gave exactly the opposite directions to it, perhaps to throw others off the mark. In the Cultural Revolution it was forgotten again. Then Martin Palmer, a British archeologist, found it again in the 1980s.

The Da Qin monastery is in Xi'an.

Most books on Xi'an don't mention it. David Aikman's book on Christianity in China has it but he says when he got there, he was disappointed when he was told he couldn't go in, that if he had called ahead, they could have arranged a tour.

So I called ahead to arrange a tour.

It's hard to find anyone who even knows of it, much less gives tours of it. I eventually found via google the text of a lecture by its most recent discoverer, Martin Palmer, and found that he was associated with the Association for Religion and Conservation. I found their website, started sending emails, and eventually these emails reached Martin Palmer. He put me in contact with Peter Zhou who runs a lot of the operation for him in Xi'an.

Peter couldn't book me a ticket, but he told me to ask around Hong Kong to get good rates. Jay, who came with us to the airport to meet the Pepperdine students, is actually from Xi'an. He showed me a website to book tickets. It assumes you are not coming from Hong Kong Airport but Shenzhen Airport, which is right across the border in Mainland China. You generally can't get an E-ticket. It asks you where you want your ticket to be dropped off. If you say Kowloon (where we are), it gives you an error message in Chinese. You have to say "Shenzhen", even if you don't have an address there. The website is hard to use. At some point you have to say you want to pay "cash" (if you say "credit card" it lists a large number of Chinese credit cards, none of which is VISA or MasterCard) then specify you want to use a foreign credit card. You say you want to pick up the ticket at the airport, but it won't let you pick it up before 10 am or after 9pm. If your flight is at 8:30 am, you have to write an email to the airline and ask them, and they'll say you should just write in the comment that you're going to pick it up at 7am.

On top of all this, Peter tells me we have to pay cash (he doesn't take credit cards) and I should collect the cash first. He's quoted me the price in USD, but I don't have that much US currency on me. When I withdraw money from an ATM here, it's in Hong Kong dollars. I don't have that much Hong Kong dollars on me either, and there's a limit to how much I can withdraw. I still haven't heard from him as to how he wants to deal with this.

To get to the 8:30 am flight, it would require some travel on a train and a bus, but given how early we would have to start out, the train doesn't run that early. So we rented a private coach to take us there. Since most of us (10) are going on the early flight, that works.

Well, we're meeting at 5:30 am tomorrow, so I'd better get some sleep. Good night, and I'll report on Xi'an when I get back. I hope.

rain, rain...

It's the end of Monsoon season. Whew. Also known as the beginning of Typhoon season. Yikes!

We got a typhoon warning yesterday. We were pretty far away from the typhoon which passed to the southwest of us. It started two days ago at a typhoon warning level 1, and jumped yesterday morning to a typhoon level 3. I'm told there is no typhoon level 2. Classes would get cancelled if it went to a typhoon level 8 (and no, there is no typhoon level between 3 and 8==this feels like tennis).

We also got warnings for rain. It went from Amber to Red (in Southern California, an Amber alert means they're trying to find a child abductor; here, it means it's raining). Classes would get cancelled if it went to black.

I find that many Hong Kongers don't make much of a distinction between heavy and light rain, though. Sometimes it was pouring down pretty hard, sometimes it was lightly misting in a way that Seattle residents would characterize as "a nice day for a leisurely stroll". But Hong Kongers, in either scenario, crouch under awnings, then dash out with umbrellas, hoping to minimize the damage to their bodies due to water, and complain that it is, well, quite wet out. Several weeks ago, when it was lightly misting (no typhoon warning), the office staff at the HKBU international office were concerned for me that I didn't bring an umbrella in to work. They wondered if I was going to be okay. This, considering that it sometimes rains quite a bit more than that here, and sometimes people just have to handle it.

I wonder what it's like when the rain warning level goes to black.

We leave for Xi'an tomorrow morning. It's been a headache trying to arrange all of this, and that's when we already have a tour guide set up. We're leaving from Shenzhen airport because it's a LOT cheaper to fly to mainland China from there. I didn't consider, however, the practicalities of 10 people trying to get there to make an 8:30 am flight. Considering that there is at least one stop for switching transport, and one stop to go through customs/immigration, so that we'd need to leave before any public transportation is running.

Winifred from the International Office here solved our problem by booking us a private bus to take us to the airport. It's still a cost I hadn't counted on, though.

And we still have to work out details as to how our tour guide will be paid. He doesn't take credit cards. And much of it is in US prices. Well, I'll report on how it went when we get back.

But for color coded alerts, I thought I'd share these links. They're old but they're fun.

New terror alert codes

Ze Frank's satirical movie on terror alert codes

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Return to Macau

I went back to Macau on Saturday. One of our students needed to activate his visa, just like I did last time I went to Macau.

This time just about the whole Pepperdine group went, together with several other international students, and including Jay from Xi'an (I found out that's how he spells his English name--I'd been spelling it Jie assuming it was a Chinese name). We also had help from a local Hong Konger, Ellison, who I met at Hong Kong Baptist University.

This time we went via the hovercraft leaving from Hong Kong Island, instead of the ferry leaving from Kowloon.

It was very comfortable. As you might be able to tell, a dreary day outside that brought rain occasionally throughout the day. I hoped to get a good shot of the cabin but someone boarding walked in just as I took the shot. But in front on the right you can see Andrew Fay, one of our own Pepperdine students. Next to him was a random person who mistook Jay for a server and wanted to buy water from him. Four rows behind them you can see Mike Simon, another Pepperdine student.

We went to Fernando's, a famous place for its excellent food. It's not in Macau proper, but on the adjoining island of Taipa/Colonae. After shooing away bus drivers who offered to give us tours, Ellison came and hired one of them to take us to Fernando's. Very far. Excellent food. But I don't know if it was worth the hassle to get there and back.

The buses then took us to a temple dedicated to the goddess A Ma, who protected the fishermen of the area. One theory has it that Macau was named after her. Very impressive were the large coils of incense with prayers written on the inside.

We then went to the ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral (described in this post) and I got to actually take a picture.

Just in case you don't want to click on the link, to read it again, the dove at the top is the Holy Spirit, and under Him you get a young Jesus flanked by symbols of the crucifixion, wearing a sword, and below Him is Mary. To the left of her are the Portuguese ships repelling the Devil (on the far left) and following a star to the east, that is, to China. On the right is the Woman from Revelation, who is defeating the Beast, which is interpreted here as a Chinese dragon.
Below that level are four main figures of the Jesuit order. On the left you can see St. Ignatius of Loyola. There's an impressive archway beneath all this, not shown.

What is shown, at the bottom right corner, is Nate, who's an exchange student from Baylor University to HKBU, who joined us on the trip. In the center at the bottom is someone with a blue umbrella, indicating that yes, there are stairs that take you up to that level from behind hte facade.

I should have mentioned that many people were psyched about jumping off Macau Tower (down a zip line, hooked onto cables), and I was among them. I didn't do it last time and I'd been thinking about it for two weeks in anticipation. We were a bit impatient here because the A Ma temple is almost at the Macau tower, but the bus driver took us to the St. Paul Cathedral through rush hour traffic, at the other end of Macau, and then brought us back through rush hour traffic.

Now travelling with 20 people is time-consuming. Every little thing is likely to catch someone's attention, and everyone else then gets interested. We were supposed to spend 15 minutes at the A Ma temple (according to the bus driver) but we spent something like 45 minutes instead. Not to mention the delays involved in ordering food at Ferndando's, etc. So it was getting kind of late in the day, and I was wondering if the zip line on the tower would even be open after dark, especially given the come-and-go drizzle.

So when we reached Macau Tower, I wasn't surprised to find that it was closed.

But actually, that was a false alarm. The lower, indoor observation deck was closed for a private function. The upper, outdoor observation deck, with the sky jump, was open.

Here are some tips on doing the skyjump:
1. You don't pay for a ticket to go to the top. This is included in the HK$588 fee (=$75 USD) for the jump.
2. Get several people to do it but make sure there are others who aren't going to do it. You can't have anything on you--wallet, wristwatch, etc., and you need someone to hold it.
3. Don't do this at night. It's safe, but you can't get good pictures. They are supposed to take your picture as you hang suspended in the air, before they let you drop. They did that for the first jump (Delia and Nicole did a tandem jump) but after that the lights were turned off, perhaps in anticipation for the fireworks competition later that night. Then they didn't take anyone else's picture. Well, we got some before pictures, but it's not the same. They also take a video. I bought the video because there were no photos to buy, but it was a DVD and I couldn't crop out pictures. For some reason Apple's screenshot capture is disabled whenever the DVD player is running (and it tells you so in so many words).
4. It's scary only for the first tenth of a second when you can still feel your feet leave the platform and your mind says, "What in the world am I doing?!". Then after that it feels like you're flying. It's also over way too quickly for having jumped off the tenth tallest building in the world.

After the jump we got our stuff back from the people who were holding it (they were already done looking out at the city from the observation deck) and we went back up to return our jumpsuits. As mentioned above, we didn't all get pictures or even decent videos, and going with business majors meant they were trying to get a good deal.

Communication barriers were high. Especially in an environment where there was a lack of trust. At some point the manager came in and negotiated a deal where if we all bought DVDs he would give the last one for free, and they could pay $50 for a CD with the only photos that came out. But the clerk wasn't listening and when we tried to explain it to her, she refused. She went to talk to the manager. The manager came out. "Why you lie to her?", he accused. He explained the deal again. We said, "Yes, that's what we told her." I think she thought we wanted to get the CD for free. Eventually this process was done, we paid, and we were told we had to wait for them to now make the copies. This would take about 10 minutes each.

As I mentioned, for all this trouble I couldn't actually get any photos of me to upload at all. All I have is a picture of me before I jumped and that was taken with my camera:

So no, you don't get proof. And you can scoff in disbelief all you like. Whatever.

I went down to tell the others what was going on, but they had apparently given up on us, and gone to a casino. From what I heard, all except one lost all they had budgeted for gambling, and the blackjack dealers were getting only 20s and 21s seven times in a row before they decided that this was just not fun. This, I suspect, is how one gets lucky at gambling for the first time. Turns you off to the whole concept straight away.

Anyway, once I was convinced they had left, and that you couldn't reach them by phone (Macau is in a different area code, but even with dialing the area code for HK it wasn't working), we ate a small meal at a pricey deli in the tower and went back home, arriving at midnight.