November 26, 2007

WS #12: Martin's birthday cake


Martin's cake by Marta

Last Saturday, my friend celebrated her son's 1st birthday party with a barn theme. Pictured above are the adorable and delicious cake and mini cakes made by Marta, the super-talented and sweet woman behind Marta's Cakes. I have pictures of her other creations, but then I'd have to give my blog a R-rating if I post them here. ;)

See this week's photos here and click on the WS logo above for information on how to join in the fun. Hope to see your entry in next week's WS!

November 24, 2007

The Great Wall of China: been there, got stung!


"You are not a hero at all if you have not climbed the Great Wall."
- Mao Zedong

If you haven't already heard the story directly from me, then you must be wondering about the title of this post. But I will get to that later. First, let me give you a brief intro about The Great Wall of China. It is almost 4,000 miles long and like a giant dragon, it zigzags across North China from the eastern coast to the Gobi desert in Gansu. The width of the wall is only about 18 feet (much narrower than I imagined it to be) and it's height is about 25 feet. I remember being told that the entire structure could be seen with the naked eye from the moon. I believed this, just like I believed a lot of the other urban legends when I was just a naive little kid. The truth is, because the wall is very slender it could only possibly be seen from way out there using super telescopes.


True or not, I not only got to see it with my naked eyes, but I walked it!! It was one of those precious moments where you feel the need to pinch yourself and make sure you aren't dreaming. It felt incredible being there, walking on this remarkable masterpiece that stood as witness to the rise and fall of Chinese history for over 2,000 years.

We went to the Mutianyu section of the wall which is about 90 kms. from Beijing and boy was I glad we revised our itinerary. Many tour operators take their groups to the more touristy Badaling section because of it's proximity to Beijing (70 kms.) and for the Ming Tombs which can be visited en route. Taking into account the advice of friends and online travelogues, we opted to forego the Tombs and the wall at Badaling for the more scenic and less crowded Mutianyu.

Now let me tell you what made this experience even more unforgettable for me. A freakin bee! Yes folks, I got stung by a bee. Having just arrived, we were making our way up the steep road to the cable car. This road is lined with souvenir shops and markets so as you can imagine I was happily shooting away with my camera, mesmerized by the colors of the dried fruits on display; when I felt a very sharp pain in the palm of my right hand. I see the little sucker (or should I say the little stinger) hanging there in the process of injecting me with its venom. Now mind you, it was cold up there so I've got on a thick coat, jeans, socks, a cap and sunglasses but the bee still managed to find some exposed flesh.


I screamed so loud and unleashed a torrent of profanity and frantically tried to shake the bee off but it wouldn't budge. The pain was intense! I finally flicked the bee off with my other hand and before I know it, someone is squeezing the wound to remove the stinger. I naturally assumed it was one of my friends so I was surprised when I looked up to see a complete stranger. Before I could even thank her she was gone, she disappeared as fast as she had appeared.

Our guide, Kevin, does not seem worried at all. After consulting a couple of locals, he tells me "it's normal" and assures me that I'll be alright. Yeah, I shrug thinking to myself, it's JUST a bee sting don't be a wuss. There was no way I was gonna let a tiny little thing like this ruin my visit to the Great Wall. So we hop on the cable car which takes us to the middle part of this section. We spend the next hour or so climbing the wall and passing through watchtowers, and just having a grand time. All the while I'm trying hard to ignore the fact that my hand is throbbing with pain. Psychokinesis, it's just mind over matter. I'm noticing however that it's getting bigger by the minute making it increasingly difficult to press the shutter of my camera. I keep thinking "it's normal" and the swelling would eventually go down.


All of a sudden every inch of my body from the top of my head to my feet begins to itch simultaneously! I'm not talking regular mosquito-bite itch here, I'm talking severe great-wall-magnitude itching! I must have looked like a wierdo practicing my coordination scratching my head slapping at my thighs at the same time. People were starting to stare but I didn't care. I pulled up a sleeve and was horrified to find my forearm covered in clusters of round blister-like bumps. It was so gross. I felt welts on my neck when I scratched there. I peek down my sweater and find more welts, they're huge and they're irregularly-shaped, white on red. I am completely covered in hives! Kevin and my friends arrive and they're ready to go. They stopped and stared at me in shock. Apparently my face had large patches too, and my ears were bright red and swollen.

On a side note: Have you ever seen the movie, Pure Luck? Where Martin Short gets stung by a bee and like me has a violent allergic reaction to it? That's how it was. The wierd thing is, my cousin D used to tell me how that movie was about me, because I'm such a klutz. He even christened me "murphy" for Murphy's Law because he says if anything can go wrong, it'll go wrong with me. Psssshaw! Whatevah!

I looked at Kevin and said, "this isn't normal anymore". He went into panic mode and ordered us to follow him. We rode the cable car back down to the tourist center where they had a small clinic. As soon as we get there, Kevin engages in a very loud 10 minute discussion in Chinese with the nurse. When I asked him for some English, he turns to me with one word "poisonous". "Umm, okayyyy? I kinda knew that. Give me anti-histamine. You know anti-histamine?", (I'm popping an invsible pill into my mouth). Neither of them understand me. I silently curse myself for leaving my Virlix in the hotel.

"We have to go somewhere else" he tells us, "they have no prescription here".

"But it's just anti-histamine I need!", I plead to deaf ears. What the heck is anti-histamine in Mandarin?!

More discussion in Chinese before we leave to find a hospital. As the rest of us are hurrying down to our van, my friend T decides to run back up to the market to buy some dried fruit and nuts to take with us. B decides to accompany her. What the?! Shopping? They're going shopping NOW?! At this point, I am too busy dealing with my violent allergic reaction to react but inside I am laughing at the absurdity of it and I make a mental note to pick that bone with them later. So C and I sit inside the van, waiting. She's trying to keep me from scratching off my skin.

Schoolkids on the great wall

I had managed to remain very calm until this point. My ears had swelled so much that I realized I was now slightly deaf. I remember friends telling me of allergy attacks where they can't breathe because their bronchial tubes start to constrict and I wondered if that was next. As if on cue I begin to wheeze. I turn to C and very calmly say, "I think I'm panicking now. I can barely hear". With that, she jumps out and screams at Kevin "Where the $%&# are they?!". A minute later they arrive with a huge bag filled with assorted dried fruits and nuts.

I tell you, in retrospect it's hilarious! We have not stopped laughing about this incident. Even at that moment I wanted to laugh, I just didn't have the energy. T will later justify this all by saying very matter-0f-factly , "I was only thinking about all of you. I mean, it's lunch time and what if we didn't find any hospital and you got hungry?". Oh such thoughtful friends I am blessed with! What would I do without them? ;)

market at the Great Wall of China

Five minutes later, we find ourselves at what was supposed to be another clinic. I think the driver and Kevin misunderstood the directions because this was nothing more than a tiny pharmacy with a thin cot in the back. Again, another 10 minute discussion ensues between Kevin and the proprietor, a tiny old woman who appears from behind one of the shelves laden with what look like Chinese potions. This prompts my imagination to go on overdrive. Holy moly, what vile concoctions are these people gonna make me drink?!

"Anti-histamine!" I shout at her in vain for the third time, popping that invisible pill into my mouth again. She stares blankly. Grrr.

Just as I thought, we were in the wrong place so back into the van we go. It's a wild goose chase around the mountains of north china, in search of that elusive hospital. We're nearly two hours away from Beijing, there was no way I could have lasted a trip back to the city. It was getting serious and I needed relief soon.

At long last we find the hospital. It appears to be desserted. No one at the lobby. No one in the halls. All five of us run up the stairs in search of a doctor, a nurse, anyone. Still desserted. Tee noo nee noo nee noo nee noo. The twilight zone theme invades my head. Finally, a doctor comes out from one of the rooms looking like he had just woken up. He sees my predicament, puts on his coat and leads us back downstairs to one of the treatment rooms. Can you guess what happens next? Yup! Another one of those 10 minute discussions, a word of which we do not understand. And can you guess what I do next? Wow you're good at this!

"Anti-histamine!!". Hoping that since he is a doctor he'll actually understand me. No chance. The doctor, still yapping away, whips out a syringe and a vial. Uh oh. If there's one thing you should know about me it's that I hate needles. I'm so terrified of them that while normal brothers would scare their younger sisters by telling them there's a ghost in the closet or the boogeyman is under my bed; my brother would freak me out by telling me the Red Cross was coming to take blood from me.

I wave the syringe away, acting out the invisible-pill-popping action in earnest now. "Anti-histamine!" , I try one more time, only to be ignored. Kevin translates, "He says you will feel better in 10 to 15 minutes after he gives this to you. But you will feel sleepy. And if you stop breathing, to come back here." Oh. Great.

Fine. I remove my coat and roll up my sleeve. It's his turn to wave his hand at me. Well, what do you know, like I haven't suffered enough, I have to bare my butt to this strange man and take the needle there. I grit my teeth and bend over then he jabs my behind. Ok, that wasn't too bad. I'm too itchy to feel anything else.

I ask C to take my wallet and pay. My hand is now the size of a boxing glove, a kid's glove. I'm thinking it's gonna cost quite a bit because I don't have travel insurance. When C returned from the cashier and announced it was RMB 5.60 ( $0.65), I thought, What on earth did they squirt in me?! Water?!

Well whatever it was, it worked like magic! Only ten minutes later, the hives were gone. My hand stayed swollen for 2 more days and prevented me from using chopsticks and the stigmata-like scar is still there today, 3 weeks later. The physical reminder is slowly peeling away, but this is one experience I won't soon forget! :)

November 21, 2007

Pastimes at the Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven

Barely three hours after touchdown and happily sated with our first taste of Chinese food in China (more on the food in future posts), my friends and I headed for the Temple of Heaven. This temple complex, which is the largest in China, reflects the ancient Chinese belief that Heaven was an ominpresent god of nature that governed everything under the sky, hence it was the venue for many sacred rituals and ceremonies to ensure good harvests.

The most striking building in the complex is the circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (pictured above and below). It is built on the precise location where heaven and earth meet, as determined by feng shui masters. it is beautiful! Even more so up close. The glazed tiles under each eave glistened in the sun against a backdrop of azure sky, stunning in it's beauty and splendor. I must have stood there for a good five minutes just staring before I took my first photograph.

Temple of Heaven fisheye

At the top of the steps you are treated to a 360 degree view of Beijing. Until recently, this was the tallest point in all of the country. No one was allowed to build higher. Visitors are only allowed a peek into the hall, but it is enough for one to be amazed at the level of craftsmanship. The detail is just exquisite! The vaulted ceiling is about 36 meters high and was slotted together without a single nail. The relationship of the Chinese lunar calendar and agriculture is shown in the pillars surrounding the hall. The central four pillars represent the four seasons, for example, the next 12 pillars around them represent the 12 months, while the outer 12 pillars denote the division of the 24-hour day into two-hour units or shichen.

Temple of Heaven 2

Thousands of 100 year old cypress trees lend a serene atmosphere to the park that surrounds the temples. It is no wonder then that the park has become a favorite among the locals for recreational activities or simply to just daydream or ponder the sayings of Confucius. Now I am accustomed to seeing mostly fellow travellers when visiting popular tourist attractions, with tour guides and hawkers being the only locals around. So you can imagine my delight at finding a significantly large gathering of locals within these walls. I think they even outnumbered the tourists!


By the east gate there was a couple who was joyfully twirling their batons of rainbow ribbon and just beyond them was an old man in serious tai chi mode. Kites danced above the tree tops in the distance and children bundled-up tight in padded winter clothing waddled after each other in a game of tag.

But the best surprise of all was the long corridor. This 350 meter long covered walkway was once used to carry slaughtered sacrificial animals to the altar. Today, there are no slaughtered animals to be found. Instead, the entire length of the corridor is flanked by locals in groups or pairs and even solitary individuals engaged in typical Chinese past times. Many are gathered in rowdy card games which seem to require the slapping of cards on the bench. Young and old alike are bent over checker boards, their brows furrowed in intense concentration, contemplating their next move. Nearby, a lady shows off her knitting to admiring passersby.

Playing cards

Chinese characters

In another section, a man practices the ancient art of calligraphy on the floor. Just a few feet away from him people are making music together; they are dancing and beckoning for us to join them. Further along I notice an old man, his face deeply lined with wisdom and inscribed by time, with silver medicine balls which he rolls around in his hand.

Chinese therapy balls



Yet another old man in a brown fedora plays the erhu, a two-stringed musical instrument. He gives me a warm smile after I sneak a picture of him and returns his gaze to the group playing with a jianzi or Chinese hackysack, a popular game using a shuttlecock. Before I knew it, my friend (that's her with the sunglasses) has jumped in, much to everyone's amusement. She's actually good at this!

That was how it was along that corridor. Everyone seemed happy, at peace. Basking in the simple joys of life and welcoming you to do the same. :)


Selling knitted items

November 19, 2007

Weekend Snapshot #11: Carabao milk products


Carabao milk products

Ugh, it's been a week and I still haven't had a chance to continue posting about my Beijing trip. Anyways, it's weekend snapshot time once again and my entry this week is a picture of dairy products such as white cheese, pastillas de leche, plain and flavored yoghurt (blueberry, patchberry and mango), chocolate milk, and some cups of milk-o-jel (which I have yet to try), all made from fresh carabao's (Philippine water buffalo) milk, known locally as gatas ng kalabaw or caramilk - one of my favorite things in the world. Caramilk is much richer and creamier than goat's milk or cow's milk because it has a higher fat content.

So bright and early Saturday morning, my dad and I went on a road trip to the Dairy Training Research Institute (DTRI) of the University of the Philippines in Los BaƱos, Laguna. To our dismay, the UPLB Dairy Bar had run out of cheese (we had plans of buying white cheese, bleu cheese mozzarella and gouda) by the time we got there so I bought some yoghurt cups before making our way to the Philippine Carabao Center also on campus where I bought the stuff you see in the cooler above.

Please click here if you'd like to join WS or see the other entries. :)

November 12, 2007

Weekend Snapshot #10: Forbidden Panda


Forbidden Panda

I missed WS #9 because I was in Beijing so I thought it would be a good idea to enter a picture taken that weekend for WS #10 to keep to the theme of my current posts.

This photo is of a stuffed Panda which a tour guide was using to lead his group inside The Forbidden City. I thought it was really cute and a nice change from the usual ordinary flag or umbrella other guides were using.

The adorable and sadly endangered Giant Panda is a popular symbol in China, to which it is native. There are less than 1,000 in the wild today and about 60 in zoos around the world.

Check out the other entries this week here.

November 9, 2007

Foreign babes in Beijing

Beijing doorways

Ni hao! :) I've just come back from a 6-day visit to Beijing where my girl friends and I had a great time. (To the ladies: if you have never travelled with your girl friends, do yourself this favor if you get the chance. It is an absolute ball! My recent trips to Hanoi and Bangkok are testaments to this.) It was a very educational and interesting trip for sure, but more importantly it was a week filled with lots of laughter and the type of moments that will be recounted many times over for years to come and perhaps even passed down the generations.

Now, I am usually opposed to hiring a tour guide because I like going about on my own pace and I actually look forward to the 'challenges' that cultural differences can present, such as the language barrier. It's all part of the adventure, part of what makes travel so exciting and seductive. But because we were only staying for a short while and none of us spoke a word of Mandarin, we agreed to hire a private tour guide and van to take us to the main sights so we didn't waste too much time lost in translation. (And after a freak incident with a bee -more on this later-, I am so grateful we did!)

Beijing in the Fall

It was autumn in the Middle Kingdom and the weather was lovely, chilly but sunny, and the leaves were turning. The citrus colors from the trees made lovely accents for the stark red found everywhere. In the mornings and evenings, it was cold, dropping to almost 2 deg C. So bundled up in jackets and scarves we explored the vast capital of this country whose history goes deep into the past well beyond 2000 B.C. (Some historians even claim the dawn of Chinese civilization to have been in 6000 B.C.). We trudged along the beaten path, but also made time for our own exploration and of course eating and shopping.

Beijing, which was once shrouded in mystery, protected from intrusion within impressively tall walls, is undergoing rapid transformation in a dizzying race to the 21st century. With the ball-and-chain of Marxism chucked over The Great Wall and the 2008 Olympics around the corner, vast changes are sweeping through the landscape. Today, the city is flanked by scaffolding while cranes seem to remove a piece of history with every pile of dirt they lift off the ground. But tucked into all this modernization are little pockets of the Old World. They can be found in the historic parks that surround grey skyscrapers, in the hutongs that slither alongside 12-lane freeways, beyond moats and walls across massive squares, in unmarked holes-in-the-wall serving traditional jiaozi dwarfed by western fast-food chains, and in the colorful and loud hawker alleys in the shadows of imposing department stores.

The architecture was a delight, feeding my fascination for doorways and locks (see first collage above). I found the locals to be generally nice and polite, and although they didn't speak my language, they graciously made an effort to understand us when we communicated with them.

Beijing collage

Beijing was cleaner and more organized than I expected. But while the streets are quite immaculate, the smog is alarming. By the 4th day when it got worse, I woke up with a bad cough and with a better understanding of and tolerance for the Chinese pastime of spitting. Visibility outside was poor; so poor in fact that not-too-distant buildings looked like giant ghosts. I pity the marathoner who will have to compete in such air quality during the 2008 Olympics but no more than the little children with those young lungs. I do hope the government cracks down on this problem which is largely caused by the increasing number of cars on the road and factories within the city using cheap, low-grade fuel. I read that factories have been moved to the outskirts of the city where it is less-populated, and that they've imposed a temporary ban on car manufacturing.

Beijing babes

I wil go into more detail on the places I visited and the food I ate in my succeeding posts. There will be lots more photos too. Each experience pretty special and deserving of their own post. :)