Wednesday, June 20 – Xi’an – Dave

Richard is using the trip as an opportunity to raise funds for a couple of his favorite charities, one of which is ‘Half the Sky’ and today we visited an orphanage assisted by this wonderful organization.

In brief, H.T.S.’s mission is to ensure that abandoned/orphaned children in China receive the love of a surrogate family to supplement the essentials that are provided by the state and other charities.  For more details, visit their website…

Having seen their work firsthand, I encourage you to donate if you can.

Here’s the orphanage we visited…

It houses kids of any age from birth through 18 and provides not just a home, but also medical and remedial treatments where necessary and possible and pre-schooling for the younger children.

Most of the kids are either physically or mentally handicapped; some are both.  Tragically, many people n China still consider such handicaps as shameful, and this, combined with the one-child-per-family law, accounts for why many of these children were abandoned.

We were greeted by a representative of Half The Sky and the orphanage’s director and some of her staff, then we toured the rooms where the kids spend most of their weekdays – kindergarten rooms where most kids are prepared for school and therapy rooms for the kids that need special attention for ailments such as cerebral palsy.

Three things stuck us immediately – (1) the good ratio of skilled adults to kids, (2) the positive and constructive atmosphere in all rooms and (3) how well-behaved the kids were despite their challenges.

Half the Sky provides many of the trained helpers who supplement and assist the teachers and therapists, thereby ensuring that the kids get plenty of individual attention.

This kid wanted to go sailing with Simon…

…and for this young guy the walk across the room was a MAJOR challenge that he proudly accomplished thanks to the therapy he has received.

But, for me, the most positive aspect of the orphanage – and the one introduced and financially supported by Half the Sky – is  the innovative approach to the kid’s living quarters.

They live in a large, well-maintained apartment building, each floor of which is divided into several apartments and in each apartment is a ‘family’ comprising a husband and wife (recruited for their caring natures) and four or five of the kids.  The husband typically goes out to work, while the wife stays home to look after the kids, prepare their evening meals etc.  On the wall of each apartment is a ‘family photograph’ of them all grinning happily at the camera.

We visited at lunchtime and, as you can see below, the kids were loving it and interacting just like any other family.

I am sure the system has its own challenges and imperfections, but I am also sure that it is a hell of an improvement over more traditional, dormitory-style, institutions.

We left – impressed and hugely moved by what we’d seen.  And I commend Richard for identifying and supporting this charity.

And speaking of Richard, today was his birthday and his Chinese friends (whom you’ve met in the last couple of blog entries) joined us all for a banquet thrown for him by Mr. Sei  in a private room at Edelweiss, the restaurant he established.  The food included pheasant soup and roasted hare using pheasants and hares shot by Mr. Sei himself (doubtless while dancing through the hills to the sound of music).

Mr. Sei is on the left.  (And for those of you who haven’t seen Simon in a while, he’s on the right).

Best wishes to you all and love to my family,



Monday, June 18 – Xi’an – Dave

A couple of days to unwind in the luxurious lap of the Sofitel before Karen, Susan and Tim arrive and the sightseeing tempo picks up again.  Strangely, although this is all one mega vacation, we never seem to have time to ourselves when we can just loaf around, read etc. and I , for one, hadn’t realized how much I needed it.

Our Hotel

So today – after we’d all breakfasted together – I had settled down in my room with a book on China, when a squeaky noise made me turn (don’t worry, Janet, no rat this time) …

Window Cleaner - Sofitel, Xi'an

…and I was reminded that I was in a world demanding to be seen.  So I went out and wandered the streets, people watching.

Xi’an has grown, and is still growing, like crazy, with massive apartment buildings sprouting like weeds to accommodate the flood of young people pouring in from rural China to find jobs that pay as much in a month as they could earn in a year of farm work.

To stand on a street corner in Xi’an and watch the insane Brownian motion as everyone scuttles to meet market needs, is to be forced to recognize that there is no way any centrally planned economy – no matter how brilliant and assiduous the planners – could ever meet material needs as efficiently as the Invisible Hand of capitalism – particularly not on this scale.  I know that one might experience a similar feeling in most major cities, but what is different here is that so much has been accomplished in just a few decades – hundreds of millions of people tugged out of poverty by that Invisible Hand.

But witnessing the exhaustion on the faces of older people struggling to earn money to compensate for the diminishing purchasing power of state pensions, or seeing sick people, who you know will never receive adequate medical attention from a weakening state sector, is a reminder of the cruelty of unfettered capitalism.

I know it is neither profound nor original to suggest that the best we can hope for is to bounce forever between the extremes of capitalism and statism, but my point is just that the streets of modern China make that truth so blindingly obvious.

Brownian Motion on the Streets of Xi'an

I loved this street vendor – offering a view of Saturn – a need you never knew you had until the Invisible Hand offered it up.

See Saturn for $1

In the evening we dined in a private dining room with Richard’s Chinese friends – the ones who pulled strings to get us the police escort (indeed to get us permission to bring our bikes into the center of Xi’an from which such terrifying monsters are banned).  Suffice it to say that whoever believe that the Chinese are inscrutable has obviously never met many of them.  These dudes can party.


Saturday, June 16 – Yang Xian, Shaanxi Province – Dave

We were all subdued as we breakfasted together for the last time  before John headed off to the airport for his flight back to England.   And our glum mood was amplified by the surroundings – a grubby dining room, in a grubby hotel, in a grubby city…

I echo Simon’s comment in yesterday’s blog regarding the remarkable harmony of the group – it’s been one of the most delightful aspects of the trip.  But the flip side is, of course, that when someone leaves there’s grieving to be done.  We will miss John.  But as to Simon’s comment that the big guy will be “riding with us in spirit”, I m worried that Simon’s over-exposure to Buddhism combined with vulnerability to altitude  is turning his mind.   We’ll have to keep an eye on him.

We moped around town for the rest of the day – getting haircuts, searching for a clean restaurant etc. – and decided that we needed to be back on the road asap, so we are leaving for Xian in the morning.

Nothing more to add, other than that I spent some agreeable time after dinner watching families roll by on their motor scooters.  They were enjoying the balmy Saturday evening.  And for them this city isn’t grubby, it’s home.


Thursday, June 14 – Sichuan Province – Dave

We left our small hotel and rode through a rural China that looked the same as it must have looked hundreds of years ago…men and women laboring in the fields with simple tools…

…water buffalo (favored, in areas like this despite their legendary stubbornness, because they can work in swampy land)…

…and workers still shifting heavy loads in yoked buckets.

It was a journey back in time and, after the hard riding of recent days, a gentle one.

Paul seldom tells us what he has in store for the day ahead, so we were surprised when this temple suddenly came into view and we stopped to look around.  (I am embarrassed to confess that I have mislaid the name of it, but will edit this entry in due course so I don’t look too stupid).

It comprised a spectacularly beautiful series of buildings, courtyards and gardens and is dedicated to a local physician of such kindness and skill that he was venerated in his lifetime and has been worshipped since his death.  And who wouldn’t want a doctor who looked like this?

I have to confess to huge and mounting confusion regarding Chinese religions – ancestor worship such as this, Confucianism , Buddhism etc. etc.   I gamely persist in asking questions intended to help me untangle the threads, but the answers just confuse me more.  In this regard I could use the help of this scary-looking god dude whose role, we were told, is to help scholars with their studies.

For 20 Yuan I purchased 10  inches of red ribbon with a Chinese inscription on it expressing hope for the health of a loved one and with small brass bells at each end.  I wrote the name of my loved on on it (in this case my daughter-in-law, Kristen) and, as instructed, hurled it into a tree festooned with similar ribbons where it now hangs, doing its bit to aid Kristen’s recovery.

We left the temple and rode on along the ridge of beautiful mountains where the locals have found it hard to reconcile their love of trees with traffic safety…

…and paused by the side of the road…

…before finally arriving in Guangyuang, where traffic was stopped every few hundred yards to give priority to police-escorted, fast-moving buses transporting proud workers to FACTORY 821 – China’s largest plutonium-processessing facility.  Unfortunately curtains in the expensive new buses prevented me from seeing how badly mutated the passengers were.  It was a hell of a contrast with the pastoral and spiritual lands we had passed through this morning – but then that’s today’s China.