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Miracle on Xiang He Yuao Road

28 Dec

Christmas Tree Lot - Beijing Style

The title of this blog might be a bit of a stretch.  I don’t mean to insinuate that either of us defended the existence of Santa Claus within the Chinese court system (although best I can tell – the court system here has one simple step: a payoff).  I do believe; however, that we did have a little miracle of our own here on Xiang He Yuao Road (our street). It all began with our first Chinese Christmas Tree…

We were thrilled to learn that our favorite flower market was selling live Christmas Trees of a respectable size.  It was Griswold time – Charlie Brown style wasn’t going to cut it for our first Christmas away from all of our family.  I wouldn’t say that a glow of heavenly light surrounded the glorious pine – but we were both instantly drawn to the same 3 meter douglas fir with an endearing floppiness to it.  While the tree keepers cleaned and trimmed our chosen tree, we headed inside to buy lights and other trimmings.

Our Griswold Tree - It Hits the Ceiling!

The selection of ornaments and garlands was staggering.  I was actually expecting to have to decorate the tree with my collection of bangles – but no need.  We bought tons of twinkle lights, balls of every color and size, oversized bells, crystal ice cycles, and meters upon meters of garlands.  But the highlight of the day was finding our over the top tree topper – a flashing red light reading Merry Christmas – so tacky it was cute.  Of course it wasn’t intended to be a tree topper – so we convinced the electrician on call (as if such a thing existed  – it was a sales clerk) to rewire it with a cord long enough to read the top of the tree.  In retrospect this was our dumbest idea ever.

The tree was delivered about an hour later (still with its roots in a giant barrel mind you…making it quite a bit taller and quite a bit more Griswold than we anticipated). With It’s A Wonderful Life on in the background, we strung our lovely tree with hundreds of twinkle lights and decked it with glittering ornaments.  Then, we snuggled up on the couch with a glass of champagne each to admire our work.  It was lovely.  A little scrappy – but lovely nonetheless.

Sheng Dan Liwu - Christmas Gifts

We dozed off at some point – lulled to sleep by Christmas music and the sweet glow of our tree.  Somewhere between falling asleep and total dream zone I awoke to a loud pop.  I could tell something was different about the room…and then, it hit me like a Mack truck. The lights on the tree blew out.  I woke Brett to give him the bad news that we would have to start all over tomorrow.  Oh well…we both agreed.  Worse things have happened.  Actually, worse things were about to happen.  FIRE!!  The entire surge protector (some protector, right?) was engulfed in flames rising quickly up the cords just centimeters away from torching the curtains, the wall, and obviously the entire tree.  I ran to get a big blanket to snuff it out while Brett carefully pulled the cords away from the wall as best he could.  Luckily, he put it out before it caused any major damage.  But we definitely learned our lesson…don’t Clark Griswold your tree.  (FYI – I went to IKEA the next day and purchased extra cool, energy-saving lights…I wasn’t going to take any chances. And, although the topper remained in place, it was never turned on again.)

Christmas Eve at Jaan - 1920's Style. BTW- I am going to incorporate wrist corsages into my daily life. Love them! FASHION: White Iisly Bunny Fur Shrug with Silver Sequined Trim, Black Strapless Ted Baker Silk Jersey Gown and Feather Headpiece

Other than the tree fiasco, we had a lovely Christmas, just the two of us, here in Beijing.  We started the festivities with a Pre-Christmas Eve dinner at the Kunlun Hotel’s Summit Club.  It is on the top floor, and we were able to see all the lights of the city which actually included a lot more Christmas lights than one might think.  On actual Christmas Eve, we went to Jaan, a French restaurant with beautiful art deco decor in the Raffles Hotel downtown.  They did such a lovely job. We enjoyed a five-course meal in a 1920’s themed setting with 2 different live musical performances.  First a string quartet and then a jazz band with a saxophone player that oddly bore a resemblance to Stevie Wonder and Jon Hamm as “Sergio” in the SNL Digital Short: “Cursed”.

Yes...we realize we look dorky. FASHION?? Matching Red Waffle Print Long Johns from Red Envelope

On Christmas morning, we feasted on chocolate muffins, sausage, and champagne while we played Santa in matching red long johns.  Unfortunately, the majority of those pictures (any showing us from the waist down) are not suitable for my blog.  I will just say that long johns look hilarious – and very Cousin Eddy.

Of course we wish we could have been with our families and loved ones for the holidays – but I think we found the best thing Beijing had to offer this Christmas…time with each other.

Merry Christmas!  Sheng Dan Kuai Le!

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Xi’an, China

18 Dec

Dont' be fooled - these are not the "real" terra-cotta warriors. Although they may have worn oversized sunglasses.

I think it is fair to say that all of us hope to leave our mark on this earth.  Many do this by raising a family and carrying on their family name.  Artists and authors become immortal through their works.  Some offer endowments to their alma mater in order for a building that bears their name to be built.  Recently, I discovered one person in particular who left 2 incredible legacies behind: one above ground – The Great Wall – and one underground (and therefore less well-known) –  The Terra-cotta Soldiers of Xi’an. Known as the First Emperor in Chinese History  (or to me as one of the most arrogant men to ever walk the earth) Emperor QinShihuang decided to have his “people” craft an estimated 8,000 life-size warriors and horses to be buried along the perimeter wall of his tomb in order to protect his corpse in the afterlife.  A reasonable request, don’t you think?

Because Emperor Qin believed that life under the ground after death was a continuation of life on earth, he constructed (or rather had his people construct – over a 40 year period) a huge mausoleum for himself including 3 palaces and a resting hall with all the necessities of daily life, as if the emperor were still alive.  And although a grass-covered mound stands 76 meters high today (originally 115 meters high during its completion in 221 BC) and about 35 kilometers from the city of Xi’an, it wasn’t until 1974 that local farmers discovered large pottery fragments while digging for wells in search of water.  This discovery led to the revelation of 3 pits housing the emperor’s underground army spanning over 22,000 square meters.  It should be said that the farmer who discovered this amazing national treasure (often referred to as The 8th Wonder of the World) became the first Chinese millionaire!

The Warrior "Hospital" - Where restorations continue daily

After 5 years of government approved excavation, Emperor Qin’s Terra-cotta Museum opened to the public on October 1, 1979.  In the last 20 years, the terra-cotta museum has become the largest on-site museum in China, and it receives over 2 million tourists each year.  Upon entering the first pit of the museum, all of us (my mom included who was visiting us for the first time) became speechless.  Something very difficult for both Brett and Mom to do I might add!  The sheer magnitude of the soldiers is bewildering – but upon closer look, we realized that each soldier carries a different facial expression, its own unique hairstyle and stance.  These outstanding figures were not replicated in bulk, but created with time, care, and unprecedented precision.  Even more remarkable – each figure would have been 3 times its current size before cooking it in the kiln to achieve the finished product.

Restored Warriors in Pit 1

Honestly, I can’t even wrap my mind around it – but I suppose there was a bit more free time before television and Facebook.  It is estimated that over 2 million craftsmen worked to build the emperor’s tomb and the terra-cotta warriors. Sadly,  thousands of them were buried alive at the death of the emperor to keep the tomb a secret.

It is truly something one must see to believe.  I had seen a documentary on them before moving to China – but nothing but your own eyes can truly do them justice.

Small Terra-cotta Figures from Emperor Jingdi's Tomb

Xi’an was actually the original capital of China, and because of this it has a plethora of other historical treasures.  In fact, just a one hour drive from Emperor Qin’s tomb is the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi which houses over 50,000 doll-sized terra-cotta figures in a new “under-ground” museum which opened in 2006.  Known as the Hanyangling museum, this modern space creates a unique perspective with glass floors that allow you to literally walk over the remains.  While the life-size warriors of Emperor Qin’s tomb are mind-boggling because they represent his complete domination over the people, the figures of Jingdi’s tomb embody his way of thinking as an emperor of the people.  The 2 emperors had quite different regimes to say the least.

Laughing at the Large Wild Goose Pagoda

We also visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 652 AD during the Teng Dynasty to hold Buddhist materials collected from India. Although, my mom opted out, Brett and I climbed to the top to check out the views of Xi’an.  Unfortunately for us, the visibility that day pretty much sucked.  If only we had thought it through before climbing the 7 stories of rickety and extremely uneven stairs…

Xi’an is a true treasure of China, and the residents take great pride in their city. I thoroughly enjoyed our time there, and I highly recommend it as a stop during any visit to China.   I am also incredibly thankful that we got to share the experience with my mom.  I mean look how cute she is dressed as a terra-cotta soldier!

Warrior? Or Helena Bonham Carter as The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland?

Tan Like An Egyptian (oh whey oh)

14 Dec

Apparently I must have the same understanding of time as a dog – which is none.  This is the only explanation I can come up with as to why I have waited so long to post a new link!  That said – it is time to wrap up our Egyptian adventure…

BEACH FASHION: Alexander Wang Crocodile Print Silk and Mesh Halter Dress

We decided to end our vacation to Egypt on a totally relaxing note.  And, what is more relaxing than the beach?  Also, how many times do you get the chance to beach it up by the Red Sea?  I mean…I just wanted to see for myself how impressive Moses’ work was. Honestly, it is a big sea.  I am pretty sure he broke a sweat while parting it.

Pathway to Snorkeling

The beaches were beautiful and the snorkeling was incredible to say the least.  In fact, on the walkway out to the resort’s snorkeling platform, we saw the most colorful and exotic fish either of us had ever seen…in just 2 feet deep of water!  We are not certified divers, but I can only imagine what an experience that would have been.  For all the divers out there – Sharm el Sheikh should definitely be on your travel destination wish list.

We spent 3 nights in Sharm el Sheikh.  I feel this allowed us enough time for sunbathing, dining on delicious seafood, and most importantly to me – climbing Mount Sinai – i.e. Mount Moses.  This was truly the pinnacle of our visit.  How could we come to this part of the world and not hike the path of Moses on his mission to read the Ten Commandments? How could we not go to the site of what is believed to be The Burning Bush?

I did plenty of research on Mt. Sinai before our trip which helped me realize that the most enjoyable way to hike the mountain is to hire a private English-speaking tour guide – so with a recommendation from our hotel – I did just that.  Mount Sinai is about a 2 hour drive from Sharm el Sheikh – so the excursion we booked included a private van to take us to the base of the mountain.  In order to reach the summit by sunrise, our car and tour guide picked us up at our hotel close to midnight.  Around 2AM (after a great car snooze) we made a pit stop to use the loo and hear the story of Moses over a cup of joe before beginning the climb.  (Note: Of course it was a pay toilet.  The Egyptians never miss an opportunity to capitalize on tourism!)

The Summit

By 3AM we were at the base of the mountain with flashlights in hand ready for the climb.  I had greatly underestimated the amount of people who would be making the journey along side of us.  It was outstanding and incredibly moving.  And although it wasn’t a loud crowd, as everyone seemed focused on the task at hand, I could still hear bits of the story of Moses being told in over a dozen different languages.

Some visitors opt to ride a camel for part of the way or for the entire trip to the top.  We opted to trek it by foot for a more accurate “Moses” experience (and honestly…our bodies needed some serious calorie burning after 2 weeks of vacation eating).  It was a bit claustrophobic at the beginning of the climb as the herd of people all start at the same time.  We really hoofed it (even wearing out our guide a bit) to move ahead of the crowds all the while being careful to avoid the steamy piles of fresh camel poop.  In fact – we actually beat our guide’s best time to the top by over an hour!  Though, I am not sure it calls for bragging rights…most of the other hikers had 20 to 30 years on us.  In truth, we were extremely impressed with the devotion and ability of some of the climbers who were easily into their 70’s.

Starbucks...Minus the "C"

We made it to the top with some time to spare before sunrise so we stopped to enjoy some coffee at what might possibly be the highest elevation Starbuck’s in existence.  Clearly they don’t have the marketing budget of other locations…hence the misspelled hand painted sign.

It was surprisingly cool at the top.  I am quite sure the guide mentioned this to us multiple times – but when standing in 100+ degree heat at the foot of the mountain – the decision to not bring an extra jacket made total sense to me. Luckily, I have a sweet boyfriend who gave me one of the long sleeve shirts he was wearing to help me stay warm.

Kiss at The Summit of Mount Sinai

As the sun came up over the mountain top, I couldn’t help but say a prayer of thanks.  Not just for this specific experience, which was spectacular – and not just for this 2 week vacation, which was more than I could have ever hoped.  I thanked God for every gift He had ever given me – with an extra special thank you for the one kissing me in this picture!

Luxor or Bust

13 Oct

View from Winter Palace Hotel

After 4 adventurous days in Cairo we hopped on a quick flight (1 hour) and landed in Luxor before lunch time.  Many tourists opt for the cruise down the Nile from Cairo to Luxor – but after seeing the size (very big and crowded) of many of the “cruise boats”, I definitely think that we made the right decision.

Original Color at Karnak Temple

The hospitality in Cairo was outstanding, and Luxor proved to be no different.  In fact, as we were checking in for our flight in Cairo, the gentleman behind us asked if we were the Hutchinson party. Coincidentally (and lucky for us) he turned out to be the general manager of our hotel, The Sofitel Winter Palace, returning to Luxor after visiting his family in New York.  We chatted with him for just a bit, and then before we knew it, he was on the phone with the hotel upgrading our room, confirming our airport pick-up, and discussing our agenda with the concierge.  That is what I call seamless service!

Karnak Temple

After a the short flight and a stop at baggage claim, we were in route to the hotel.  It took about 2 seconds to see the drastic difference between Cairo and Luxor.  Of the 80 or so million Egyptians, 18 million of them live in Cairo. Because of this, many of the other cities (including Luxor) are relatively small and offer much more in natural beauty.

We chose the Winter Palace (now operated by Sofitel) not only because of its fantastic location on the Nile, but also because of its history.  Built in 1886 as King Farouk’s winter palace, the interiors are regal and over the top.  Not to mention…it is the hotel in which Princess Di stayed during her time in Luxor.  A blonde can pretend, right?

Brett Gazing at a Karnak Column

Following a quick lunch by the pool, we met our tour guide in the lobby to set out for the Karnak and Luxor Temples.  As a “wanna be” Egyptologist, I had previously downloaded everything Apple TV had to offer on Ancient Egypt – including shows dedicated to these specific temples.  The History Channel series provided the most comprehensive information; however, nothing prepares you for the grandeur of the temples’ remains.

The Temple of Karnak is the largest temple complex built by man. It is comprised of many different structures commissioned by a number of Pharaohs spanning over almost 2000 years.  But if  I am totally honest, the more stories our tour guide shared with us, the more I felt like I was walking through the inspiration for the very first Soap Opera.  The hieroglyphic covered walls, granite obelisks, and massive columns tell tales more dramatic and complicated than any scandal of All My Children’s Erica Kane.  Seriously though – it is an architectural work of art and the colors that have remained after thousands of years blew this blonde’s mind.

Avenue of Sphinxes

From Karnak we took a short ride to the Luxor Temple.  As we drove our guide discussed the excavations currently underway to expose and restore the Avenue of the Sphinxes,  a path that once connected these two very famous structures.

TIP: If your plan to visit Luxor is not set in stone – it might be worth waiting until this extraordinary restoration is complete.

The Luxor Temple, just steps aways from the Nile, is majestic – but even more remarkable is the religious history  inside.  An Islamic mosque stands on top of the pharaonic temple and Roman paintings

Roman Christian Paintings in the Luxor Temple

with Christian themes are painted in an inner chamber.  Another fun fact about the temple – the missing obelisk (once part of pair added by Ramsis II) now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. So to be fair…I am taking Brett to Paris for his birthday next month to see it!

Dancing on the Felucca

With brains about to explode with new knowledge, we walked back to the hotel (just a  couple blocks from the

More Dancing.... FASHION: Zara Orange Cotton Cardigan with Chartreuse Silk and Silver Sequined Shift Dress by MM Couture

Luxor Temple) picked up a basket of wine, and headed to the river for a felucca ride.  This ride confirmed the seemingly obvious differences between the banks of the Nile in Cairo vs. Luxor. Cairo offers massive hotels and big business while Luxor offers water buffalo, sugar cane fields, and gorgeous sunsets.  We dined, we drank, and we danced.

How Cute Are These Water Buffalo?

Next Up:  Valley of the Kings & Queens

“Obama’s Mosque”

8 Oct

Entrance to The Hanging Church

On our 3rd day in Cairo, our wonderful tour guide, Jasmine, took us to a variety of historical religious sites.  Although every place we visited was educational and intriguing -for me, as a Christian, the Hanging Church, St. Sergius Church, and the Coptic Museum were the most moving.

The Hanging Church, given its name due to its suspended nave above the ruins of a Babylon fortress first built by the Persians in the 6th century B.C., houses some of the oldest Christian icons.  The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and its most cherished icon is a painting of Mary and Baby Jesus dated 18 A.D.  In a 5 minute span, we were able to witness an abundance of different races of Christians light candles and pray for forgiveness or for loved ones under this very sacred image.  As a small town girl who grew up in an all caucasian Methodist Church, I was touched and grateful.

After lighting a few candles, we listened to Jasmine tell us about a 24 million Egyptian Pound restoration project spearheaded by their Muslim President Mubarak.  I thought to myself…with all of the anger and fear that many Americans hold in their hearts toward the Islamic religion – why has this very positive news not been mentioned?

Egyptian Ankh

From the Hanging Church we walked to the Coptic Museum.  I highly recommend visiting this spot.  It only takes about an hour to tour and the building itself is quite striking.  I was fascinated by the mix of religions as they gradually transformed – the Egyptian Ankh into the Christian Cross, as well as, Christian scenes incorporating Egyptian Gods.  The museum holds the history of the way religion evolved.  The treasure I was most excited to see was the Nag Hammadi Manuscripts – early copies of Christian writings including the Gospel of Thomas (a gospel not included in the Bible).

Stairs Leading to Where The Holy Family Rested

The final Christian site we visited was the Church of Saint Sergius.  Honestly, this 4th century church itself is not all that spectacular.  Of course it has many precious icons and a beautiful pulpit, but the main attraction is a tiny staircase that leads down to a dark cave where the Holy Family – Mary and Joseph once rested with Baby Jesus after their journey into Egypt.  Realizing that I could be standing on the exact same ground where Jesus was once kept was a truly remarkable experience.  To think of all of the history in between then and now – all of the wars fought in His name…I was moved and so was Brett.  It was a very sweet moment to share with him.

Standing Inside The Sultan Hassan/Obama Mosque. FASHION: Black H&M tank, White Zara Cardigan, and Lavender and Taupe Linen Hoop Skirt. Tailor Made in China.

From St. Sergius Church we took a car to see our first mosque.  This leads me to the title of today’s blog.  As we drove, Jasmine began to tell us about our next stop…”Obama’s Mosque”.  With my manners flying out the window – I abruptly interrupted her to ask, “What…Obama..not our Obama (meaning the USA’s) right?”  “Of course your Obabma”, she responded with a big smile.  It was apparent to me at that moment that Obama’s visit to Egypt in June of 2009 had a very profound influence on many Egyptian Muslims.  So profound that they are willing to refer to one of the major monuments of the Islamic world by a different name.  The true name is The Mosque of Sultan Hassan, commissioned by its namesake in 1356 A.D.  It seemed unbelievable to me that a country so proud of its heritage would so quickly refer to 664 year old sacred structure by a different name.  I began to think that perhaps this story was for our benefit – perhaps it is their way of showing respect and appreciation for President Obama’s visit and for his words of peace and concern for the non-extremist Muslims (which make up the majority of the religion).  But in truth, referring to a mosque by the President of the United States name is probably the last thing that many Americans want to hear.  I recently read a survey taken in late July of this year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that 1 in 5 Americans already believe that President Obama is a Muslim.  It made me wonder what the percentage might be if every American was able to see how President Obama is perceived in a Muslim country?

The Hanging Church

The recent uproar over the mosque at Ground Zero, the burning of Qur’ans in Florida, the protests, and even the Saturday Night Live spoofs suggest that this battle between Muslims and Christians is a tragic and never ending cycle.  But for me, a life long Christian, sitting in the Sultan Hassan/Obama Mosque was a very peaceful experience.  Jasmine and I reflected on the many stories that we had both been taught as children – the story of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses, and even of Jesus.  I couldn’t help but feel a little sad that even with so many similarities: morality, prayer, and love of others – we continue to fight and harbor anger toward one another because of the extremists of both religions.  It is exactly was God would not want us to do.

After leaving the mosque, I reflected on the entire day.  It was wonderful – yet completely mentally exhausting.  I learned so much – about tolerance and compassion – and at the same time my faith was completely rejuvenated.

TRAVEL TIP: While it is not necessary for Western women to cover their heads inside mosques and churches, all women should cover their shoulders and arms.  I would advise against shorts or short skirts.  I took light cotton cardigans and wraps with me everywhere we went and used them when necessary.

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