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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Belgium trip - Leuven (Part 1)

Belgium is a small, somewhat densely-populated nation in western Europe, home to roughly 10 million people, divided between the 5.5 million Flemish (Dutch) speakers in Flanders and the 3.5 million inhabitants of Wallonia (where French or Walloon is the primary language). Brussels, the capital of both the country and the European Union, has a population of about a million residing in the officially bilingual city (there's also a German-speaking region in the eastern part of the country). My wife, daughter and I are back in Shànghăi 上海 after having spent the past ten days on a Rest & Recovery visit to the land of beer, chocolate, mussels, waffles and fries, lots and lots of fries (served with almost every meal). The reasons for choosing Belgium as our R&R visit were simple: one of my best friends lives there, and the opportunity to get out of China for a few days, introduce Amber and Pamela to the charms of Europe (the first time for both to set foot on that continent) and catch up with Jeff and his charming wife Barbara was something that couldn't be passed up. So sit back with a Belgian brew (preferably a Trappist like Chimay but, if you must, a Hoegaarden will also suffice) and enjoy this and the next few blog posts on our trip to the linguistically-divided but always engaging Kingdom of Belgium.

Jeff and Barbara live in Leuven, a small city only a half-hour by train from Brussels (and which is even closer to Brussels Airport, a fact we three appreciated after the long flight from Shanghai) that also serves as home to the oldest university in Flanders. Our friends have an apartment close to both the train station and the city center, where they very graciously put us up for the duration of our visit. They also took the time to show us around, starting with Leuven the day after we arrived. Much of the city's center was destroyed in both World Wars, but several historic sites have survived, and many of the buildings that were rebuilt after the Second World War were done in the traditional style. Jeff and Barbara began by taking us to see the Stadhuis. Most historic Belgian towns have such halls, but Leuven's is particularly flamboyant, dating from the 15th century:

The statues on the exterior were added during the 19th century and represent noted personages such as the cartographer (and Flanders native) Gerardus Mercator (holding the globe):

Across the square from the old town hall sits St-Pieterskerk, a late Gothic-style cathedral. Work began on the church in 1425 and continued up until the 17th century. It was intended to have a 170 meter-high tower, but unstable subsoil meant the foundations were too weak, and it was never completed:

The interior of the church is exactly what you would expect from a medieval European cathedral, with its stone rood screen topped by a wooden Jesus...:

... as well as a wooden pulpit showing St. Norbert being thrown off his horse after a bolt of lightning struck at the animal's feet, after which he decided to devote the rest of his life to the Catholic church, founding a religious order called the Premonstratensian Canons:

The church's Treasury houses several marvelous works of art, including a copy of Rogier van der Weyden's triptych Descent from the Cross...:

...and two noted works by Dieric Bouts, the Last Supper, which shows Christ and his disciples in a Flemish dining room (if you look through the left-hand window in the center panel you can see Leuven's Stadhuis):

...and the unsettling Martyrdom of St Erasmus, showing in graphic detail how his entrails were removed from his body. This painting, along with several others in the Treasury depicting saints being tortured in creative ways, so traumatized my daughter that she doesn't want to visit any more churches and has probably been turned off by Christianity. Which wasn't my intention, but isn't necessarily a bad thing, either:

The sight of all that medieval gore worked up an appetite, so it was off to a nearby restaurant for lunch, and the national dish, steamed mussels. Jeff instructed us in the proper eating manner, which is to find an empty shell and use it like you would a pair of chopsticks to pry the meat from inside other shells:

The first of many beers on this trip. There are more than 760 different beers brewed in the country, and I regret that I didn't have the time to try them all:

Following lunch we took a stroll through the Oude Market, the center of Louven's nightlife area, filled with bars and cafes:

Approaching St-Pieterskerk from the Oude Market:

Delivering beer the traditional way:

Barbara having gone back home to have a rest, Jeff and I relaxed with glasses of Leffe Bruin at an outdoor cafe while Pamela and Amber went to check out a carnival taking place on the squares around the university library:

My daughter was certainly having a good time in Leuven:

Being a university town, Leuven has no shortage of places to eat and drink. For our first dinner in Belgium, Barbara and Jeff took us to a place called De Wiering, specializing in the kinds of dishes your Flemish grandmother used to make, such as the rabbit stew cooked in Lindemans Framboise raspberry beer that I had to eat (and drink):

One could get used to this Euro way of life:

An after-dinner stroll led back toward the Stadhuis...:

...and dessert outside on a comfortable Saturday evening in late September:

Did I already mention that I could get used to this way of life?

Jacques Brel - "Born in French-speaking Brussels but raised by Flemish-speaking parents, Brel never fully felt at home in either language group – a sentiment increasingly echoed by many modern Belgians."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

比利时 here we come!

We're off to Belgium for the next ten days for a little R&R and to visit an old friend and his charming wife. I'm planning to drink a lot of these...:

...and to eat a lot of these:

After all that beer, I'll probably be doing a lot of this:

In any event, it's likely I'll have to be rolled off the plane when we get back to China, and no doubt will be waddling back to work after the National Day holidays. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Laboring in Xi'an - Part 3

Our last day in Xī'ān 西安 was an abbreviated one as we had a 2:30 return flight to Shànghăi 上海 to catch. Making the best use of the limited time we had and using the services of the same taxi driver that we had hired the previous day to take us out to see the Army of Terracotta Warriors, on the way to the airport we stopped off to visit what is arguably Xi'an's most underrated sight - the Tomb of Emperor Jĭngdì 汉阳陵. A relatively benevolent emperor who reigned from 157 to 141 BCE, Jingdi's mausoleum attracts far fewer visitors than the Terracotta Army, which alone would make it a worthwhile stop. But the real attractions are the closer-up views of the excavated pits and the relics within them, and the much less martial overtone of the figurines buried with the emperor. 

My daughter poses by the old guard walls

From the outside it's just a hill. But the paved path leads down into the bowels of the tomb and its 21 excavated pits (there are believed to be 81 in total). 

The interior of the mausoleum is dimly lit, making for some ghostly images, but the glass floor covering allows visitors a close-up look at the terracotta figurines and pottery that line the bottom of the pits. 

The figurines originally had movable arms and wore silk robes, as illustrated in this display.

A small museum is also located within the tomb (as is also a gift shop)

Back outside, Amber and I waited while Pamela went to discuss arrangements with the driver.

We were then driven to a larger museum onsite, which contained more examples of the clay statues as well as implements used in daily life that were unearthed from the pits.

Unlike the Army of Terracotta Warriors, Emperor Jingdi's tomb contained a number of female figurines, in the form of these riders. 

The more astute of you readers may have noticed that the terracotta figurines were made to be anatomically correct, right down to the eunuchs, like this one. My daughter thought this statue was "damaged". Little did she know just how right she was!

Touching down in Shanghai


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Laboring in Xi'an - Part 2: Terracotta Warriors

My daughter poses by one of her favorite artworks in the hallway of the Sofitel Hotel

The Army of Terracotta Warriors 兵马佣: of course you know what I'm talking about. Who hasn't heard of the Terracotta Army, those 8000 statues that stood guard of the tomb of the first emperor of China, the tyrant Qín Shĭ Huáng 始皇帝, remaining unknown to the outside world for more than 2000 years until they were discovered by farmers drilling for a well in 1974. It's been said many times that no two clay soldiers are alike. The Terracotta Army is definitely one of the world's premier archaeological sites, and you would be foolish to travel to Xī'ān 西安 and not make the effort to see it. We were not fools.

The scenery has changed somewhat since Qin Shi Huang's time

Hiring a driver for the morning and afternoon, we set off for the site outside the city. Like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, the Army of Terracotta Warriors does not disappoint. Without further ado, I present you with the Emperor's tomb and his warriors:

We started off by checking out Pit 3, the smallest of the three vaults open for public viewing. It contains 72 warriors and horses, and apparently served as the field headquarters for the clay army.

Many of the statues had broken apart or had been decapitated, but were no less impressive.

Pit 2 was larger, with 1300 warriors and horses, but much of the vault is still encased in dirt, waiting to be excavated. Many of the figures were broken or smashed.

Five of the warriors are displayed in individual cases, giving visitors the chance to admire up close the astonishing craftsmanship and attention to detail. It should be noted that the soldiers were originally painted in bright colors, but the paint has almost all flaked off, with only traces remaining on some of the statues. 
Weapons excavated from the tomb are also on display in Pit 2

Yang Shihua, one of the farmers who discovered the army, was supposedly on hand to autograph souvenir coffeetable books. In China, you can never be too sure what (or who) is genuine. That didn't stop us from buying a book and having him sign it, however. 

Finally, Pit 1 - the huge aircraft hanger housing upwards of 2000 soldiers. It was an amazing scene.

As you walk around the vault, you can see the army arrayed in formation as if it were preparing to go into battle, or to be reviewed by its sovereign. 

By her own count, Amber took almost sixty pictures at the three vaults

Like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army shows the Chinese fascination with large-scale projects requiring enormous amounts of human labor. Probably the most amazing fact about the warriors is that their existence was able to remain hidden from view for so long. 

A pair of bronze chariots and their horses and drivers are on display in an adjacent museum.

After all that clay, it was time for lunch, washed down with a couple of bottles of Hans Beer, brewed locally in Xi'an under the auspices of the Tsingtao Brewery.

While the Army of Terracotta Warriors didn't fail to impress, the same couldn't be said of the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang 亲始皇陵. Located about 2 kilometers west of where the Terracotta soldiers were found, the mausoleum hasn't yet been excavated, meaning all there is to see is a small hill. Still, admission is free with the Terracotta Warrior ticket, so...
Pamela buys some pomegranates, a local specialty

Had we more had more time and better weather conditions, we could've rented some bicycles and ridden along the top of some of Xi'an's 14th-century Ming-dynasty city walls.

Back at the hotel and time for a quick dip in the (cold) swimming pool...

...then it was off in a three-wheeled motorized pedicab to Xi'an's Muslim Quarter for dinner.

Dinner was more an exercise in snacking as we feasted on kebabs, dumplings, quail eggs and ròujiāmó 肉夹镆, fried beef in pita bread. 

 Xiyang Shi Jie and Beiyuanmen were thronged with visitors checking out the action

The Drum Tower 鼓楼 (top) and Bell Tower 钟楼 (middle and bottom) were beautifully illuminated. Xi'an is a city that definitely looks better in the night light.

Walking back to the Sofitel, my wife had to stop for some stinky tofu 臭豆腐, which she inexplicably pronounced as being delicious.