This week’s post is about one of the more remarkable roads I’ve ever strolled. The street is in Xi’an, home of one of the world’s best preserved, still-intact, walled cities. We’re big fans of places listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Xi’an is on Chinese and international lists as a cultural treasure.
It’s an old capital city located at the end of the Silk Road. The rampart walls were built in the 14th century by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang as part of his military defenses and enclose 8.7 square miles, or roughly 14 square kilometers. 
The walls were made first with tamped earth (and, according to Travel China Guide, ‘with the base layer including also lime and glutinous rice extract’).  A century later they were reinforced with blue bricks. The original walls used to include a moat and drawbridges. These walls are so thick that in WWII, Xi’an’s residents built a thousand bunkers inside the base to protect them from the bombs of Japanese air raids!
They are a breathtaking 12 meters or 39 feet high. It takes four hours to walk them. Actually, it takes longer than that if you’re Uwe and Jadi, because you never know what’s down the road. On our visit (foolishly booked during China’s Golden Week when all 1.3 billion Chinese citizens were also on vacation) we discovered a festival performance taking place inside one of the courtyards.
We heard it before we saw it. Drums, lots of drums…
And men in costume. Enter, Stage Left.
Or was that Enter, Stage Right?
What tickles me most about the walls is that once you’re on them, you could be on a wide boulevard anywhere in the world. Except that this is China, and this isn’t a boulevard…. It’s a wide street located on top of Xi’an’s city walls. Travel doesn’t get any better than this.
November 11th, or 11/11, is an odd German holiday known as St. Martin’s Day (Martinstag). St. Martin of Tours (316 – 297 CE) is a saint associated with modesty and altruism (aren’t they all?). Legend has it that St. Martin slashed his cloak in half to save a homeless person from freezing. His holiday used to be followed by a fast that lasted a long, hungry period of weeks, stretching out to Christmas. 
But St. Martin’s Day is celebrated here in southern Germany by eating a special dish of duck or goose (Martinsgans), accompanied by red cabbage cooked with apple, and homemade dumplings known as knödel.
When it gets dark, nighttime glows with candles from lantern processions (Martinsumzüge or Laternenumzüge). The streets fill with adults, accompanying children who carry hand-made lanterns. In our village the procession is led by an actor dressed up as the saint. In some areas the parade follows behind an actor dressed up as a Roman soldier on horseback. 
The tradition to eat a goose (today usually replaced by a duck) on St. Martin’s Day is believed to go back the medieval tax system. November 11th was one of the days when medieval vassals had to pay taxes, and peasants often paid with a goose.  Another popular story is that a gaggle of honking geese betrayed Martin’s hiding place: he hid in a goose pen from the people of Tours when they wanted to make him a bishop. 
All the local restaurants and beer gardens have duck and goose dishes on their menus. Reserve your table now! they cajole.
In all the years I lived in San Francisco, I never ordered or willingly ate duck. Bizarrely shiny, glistening, reddish shellacked duck carcasses hang on meat hooks in the front windows of Chinese restaurants throughout the city. And hang. And hang. And hang. Just the idea of the oldness and congealed fat covered with flies of this ‘special dish’ turned my stomach. Strongly flavored meat that’s been aging for probably as long as the restaurant’s been in business? Yuck! I’ll take a pass…
But I recall with glee the Peking duck Uwe and I ate in Beijing. The restaurant specialized in only Peking duck, along with all the pomp and circumstance such a dish demands.
Our Chinese friend Weiyu orders for us, but every single table wants the same meal. Waiters are formally dressed, complete with chefs’ toques, mouth masks and protective gloves. By the end of the evening they carve hundreds of plates of duck.
May November 11th bring you flights of fancy and a visit from the Bluebird of Happiness. By now the ducks and geese, indeed, all migrating birds have already left for warmer climates. Despite the record-breaking warm days here in Germany, winter is coming (yes, we hear you John Snow).
While I’m posting about China and Xi’an, I want to mention the yummy traditional foods. I’ll keep this post brief, and allow Uwe’s photos from our visit to do the talking. Besides, my mouth keeps watering just looking at them.
In Xi’an’s historic Muslim quarter, vendors were baking, frying, steaming and cooking all sorts of delicious treats. These ranged from food that was deep fried in woks to marinated meats on skewers.
I couldn’t resist the piles of beautifully plaited and stamped breads,
as well as the stacks of sesame and bean paste desserts…
I injured my back through overwork, recklessness, and sheer, stupid, stubbornness. I was incapacitated for over two months. If only I hadn’t climbed the Great Wall of China after I first hurt myself. If only I’d slowed down, even just for a day or two, while we were traveling. If only….
But no. What are you suggesting, that I should have slowed down and maybe let myself miss something???
So now we were home, and I was down for the count. Have you ever experienced a herniated disk? Those of you who have know what kind of pain I’m talking about. Either give me the good drugs, or just shoot me now. At the doctor’s office I actually begged for pain killers.
The Frau Doktor’s brow furrowed. “You mean you want me to give you a prescription for something you can take as soon as you get home?” she asked slowly.
“No. I mean I want you to give me a shot of something, before I leave your office. Like, right now,” I whined. “And yes, I want you to give me a prescription for something I can take as soon as I get home, too!”
She obliged me. I was able to hobble the few blocks back to our apartment.
When I got there, I bargained with every god in every place in the world we’d ever visited. “Just let me not be crippled,” I prayed. “If I heal and can walk again, I promise I’ll do yoga – and tai chi – and stretching exercises – and aerobic workouts – and never ever ever overschedule myself, from now until the day I die.” Because if the pain didn’t stop, that day was going to be a whole lot sooner than I’d anticipated. This HURT.
It took two months before I got back to healthy. Thanks to the German mix of physical therapy, acupuncture, anti-inflammatory meds, x-rays, and yes, those really good drugs, I didn’t need to be killed and put out of my misery.
P.S.: I kept that bargain with the gods. Almost a decade later, I religously start every morning with a routine of yoga – tai chi – stretching – and aerobic exercise. Superwoman is retired, and she’s not returning. I cut back on the amount I’m willing (and able) to work doing massage therapy.
As the memory of the pain receded, I got my health back. And, dude, — I climbed the Great Wall of China!
I blame everything to do with my health on the Great Wall of China.
It’s a long story. In other words, it’s perfect for a blog post. It begins with a trip that started in Beijing and ended in Tokyo…
Uwe and I were going to be gone for more than a month, and that means all the people who come for massage therapy wanted to get in for a last appointment before I left. No problem, I worked longer hours with more sessions, I was Superwoman in those days, I never got sick and was pretty vain about how healthy and strong I was.
Was. The weekend before our trip I got a wild hair up my a** and voluntarily defrosted the freezer. Why, I have no idea.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. So I chipped away, contorted over the ice with a sharp tool and a bucket of steaming water all afternoon. I woke the next morning with a low back that was screaming, and no time to take off to rest it. Not with Asia waiting for us! We climbed on a series of planes and 20 hours later arrived in Beijing, my back sending out those periodic, pinging, you-are-going-to-be-sorry signals. Uwe and I like to see, um, absolutely everything when we visit a new place, so I figured I would rest my back in between sight-seeing at some point.
And then the next day we went to climb the Great Wall of China. Gentle readers, I tell you, I stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked UP.
I calculated the Wall’s height and the angle of the steps and knew I was going to regret this. In typical Campbell fashion my next thought was roughly, “You may never get another chance to climb the Great Wall. Suck up, shriner. Start climbing.” And I did.
We didn’t allow for much down time. Our entire trip was terrific, but somewhere in Japan I began to hear an alarming clicking sound when I moved: bony eminences rubbing against one another. Or something. I’d figure that problem out once we got home again.
Of course, once we got home, every single one of those massage patients who’d been counting down the days before I returned all wanted new appointments, and instead of resting I dived back into work with a vengeance. I was Superwoman, right?
I’ll travel pretty much anywhere at the drop of a hat. Go around the world for 7 weeks? Cool! When do we leave? Overnight trip to Munich? Sounds grand, which beer hall do we want to have dinner at?
But. There are times when travel is not – quite – optimal. The rainy season offers big bargains and great deals for a reason. Like, you’re going to be wet most of the time. Another time period to carefully debate traveling in is when other countries have their special holidays. Sure, Christmas Market season anywhere in Germany or areas that have a tradition of a Weihnachtsmarkt is a good time to go. However, any National Day will probably mean shops and sights are closed up tight.
And, trust me on this one, you really don’t want to go to China when it’s National Day Golden Week, and 1.3 BILLION people are on holiday. 
They will all be taking their vacations. Spots that are usually crowded anyway are going to be jam-packed. This is not an experience for visitors with weak hearts or fear of crowds.
We learned this the hard way: first-hand. We did this at one of China’s most popular tourist sites: The Terracotta Army in Xi’an.
We got tickets and seats on a tour bus to get to the site. Our charming tour guide pointed to the buildings that house the terracotta army, pointed to the number of our bus, and finally pointed to her watch. No way she was going to push through the crowds in the massive hangars – she’d meet us at the designated time, back on our bus.
And in we went…. To this day I’m not sure what astounded me more. Was it the sheer size and scale of the clay army from 210-209 BC that was discovered in 1974?
Or was it the mass of tourists both foreign and native who completely filled the viewing areas?
One thing I do know for sure. That trip to China during October’s Golden Week cured whatever claustrophobia I may have once had. If you could survive the crowds we experienced in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, you can survive them anywhere.
We were heading to China, and the World Expo was taking place in Shanghai that year. Oh man, did I ever want to go. When I was a kid, my family made the trip to the World’s Fair in New York City. I still remember the excitement of the Space Park, the talking, moving Lincoln robot statue in the Illinois Pavilion, and the Bel-Gem Brussels waffles we all ate for the very first time, smothered in strawberries and whipped cream. 
Expo in Shanghai! Surely, we had to see it. But there was just one teeny problem: all the on-line sources for tickets had been sold out for months. I wrote my friend Weiyu in Beijing and asked her, could she get us tickets? She checked in the capitol… all the ticket options there were sold out, too! But, ever resourceful, she called in a favor from a friend who lived in Shanghai, and he managed to secure two tickets for the time period we’d be visiting.
With our passports in hand (because your passport allowed you to skip the unbelievably long lines in front of most of the pavilions and enter your country’s VIP door), we headed out early in the morning.
That Expo was terrific. Some countries had put incredible thought and creativity into their presentations (more on some of them in future posts). And visiting Expo was a way to glimpse certain countries in places that I feel pretty sure I’ll never visit in real life.
Like North Korea. For a country that’s usually in the news these days, North Korea sure is shrouded in permanent mystery. I don’t know if their pavilion at the Shanghai Expo cleared up many of the mists, but it was an eye-opener in other ways.
I had no idea that Jeff Koons had designed their central fountain, for instance.  Frolicking naked cherubs (minus the wings) showed off their muscular buttocks. They held hands in a circle as they released a bird. Cherubs and bird all gazed up into the heavens…. I have a funny bone that gets amused by kitsch, and from the second I saw that fountain my funny bone began to tickle. I started laughing, and couldn’t stop.
The selection of literature for sale was slim on choice but heavy on message. Who can forget that classic of North Korean literature, “The Immortal Woman Revolutionary”?
The sales woman was dour and didn’t crack a smile. Maybe humor doesn’t translate as easily as I’d hoped.
When we visit the temples in Laos, we often see monks tying special white cotton strings to the wrist of a person’s right hand. Sometimes the monk ties connecting strings to whole groups of people. What are they, and what was the significance? The answer, it turns out, varies in the different regions of Laos (as well as the Sipsong Panna autonomous prefecture of the Tai Lü in the extreme south of Yunnan, China, and Northern and Isan Thai cultures) and depends on time and place….
The strings are tied in the Baci ceremony, and the meaning depends on the occasion. Take weddings, for instance. According to an old Laotian legend, the cotton threads are tied to ensure a happy marriage. We each have a tree in the heavenly garden, and that tree has branches intertwined with your predestined partner. When our trees come to this earthly existence, the cotton threads binding them are cut and we’re born separated and alone. If you can find your soul mate again after searching for him or her, at your marriage you are rejoined by retying the thread.
But in Laos, threads are also tied on newborn babies and their mothers , or on people going home or departing from home, which explained the many men, women, and children with these bracelets we saw at airports. The ceremony is performed for specific events in a life: success, health (both for the cured and the sick), and annual festivals like the sacred Wax Castle Procession in Vientiane (we witnessed a high number of Baci ceremonies during that time).  The ceremony is done after a death, too, to bring back any wandering, missing spirits and reinforce the harmony of the surviving family members.
The entire ceremony is rich is symbolism. The white color means purity, and the strings are believed to bind the 32 kwan, organs or parts to the soul, to prevent them from wandering away. (The Baci ceremony is also known by the term su kwan, “calling of the soul”.)  When kwan wander away from your body, this creates an imbalance in the soul that may lead to illness and bad luck.
The ceremonies take place in Buddhist temples, but kwan and the Baci ceremony predate Buddhism.  I’ve had strings tied to my right wrist in Buddhist and Hindu temples from Thailand to India, but have never taken part in a Baci ceremony. Regardless, the white bracelet should be worn for at least three days. Then the threads can be unknotted or allowed to fall off on their own, but should never be cut.
NOTES:  A Baci ceremony for new mothers and their babies is performed to welcome the baby, and to recall any kwan that may have wandered off from the mother during the birth.  The Wax Castle Procession falls on an especially auspicious lunar calendar date: the full moon of the seventh lunar month.  Concept of Kwan: Kwan are components of the soul but have a more abstract meaning than this. The kwan have been variously described by Westerners as: “vital forces, giving harmony and balance to the body, or part of it”, “the private reality of the body, inherent in the life of men and animals from the moment of their birth,” and simply as “vital breath”. – Pom Outama Khampradith, Bounheng Inversin, and Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, writing for Lao Heritage Foundation.  Check out my posts about the Rocket Festival we saw on our first trip to Laos!
P.S: Baci in Italian means kisses, and it’s an awesome chocolate candy that contains a whole hazelnut at the center.
I present to you installment #7 from my blog thread describing what to call groups of animals … See how many you can guess. Answers listed at the bottom of the page. (I’m especially proud of No. 5 on this week’s list!)
Their knot knotted in the mud.
He heard the murmuration’s murmurs.
Unblinking, the stare stared back.
The dole didn’t look doleful.
The earth’s earth was in the earth. ***
Stuffy noses don’t suit a sute.
Knot of toads 
Murmuration of starlings
Stare of owls 
Dole of turtles 
Earth of foxes; place the vixen (female fox) searches out to raise her kits; ground she finds the earth in. ***3 uses of the word!