Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Blood Oath - Here's Nathaniel Cade; the President's Vampire

First of all, anyone and everyone who knows me know that when it comes to Vampires, I just gravitate towards them like a moth to a flame. It started with Anne Rice and went on further than that.

Now seeing a book like this with the by-line and touted as the Vampire thriller that Dan Brown would have written, if in case he ever did, was enough to make me take notice. Although at first, I dismissed it quickly thinking of whatever angles would they think of next when it comes to our fanged brethren, as it it seemed like a desperate idea to forcefully graft an iconic creature such as this in our present world. Others have done so and have done wonders with it. While others, although lambasted for their efforts, were still met with the same form of success and scorn. While other throwaway Vampire novels, feel like they have not been well thought out.

But a well thought out novel is what this book really is a product of.

Enter Nathaniel Cade. He is a Vampire that has no time to deal with your crap and gets the job done when needed. Of course he should, for he is bound by duty to do whatever the US President asks of him. Unlike the brooding Vampires of late, he is decisive, quick, and very much the epitome of an efficient secret agent, except daylight can still incapacitate him to a degree.

Enter Zack Barrows, a young whiny man that gets the promotion of a lifetime. But in this case, working for the White House under covert and unconventional terms.

Put these two together and enmesh it with a new villain whom I won't be surprised if he surfaces again in future Cade titles, as well as a thought out streamlined plot, then you have for yourself a wonderful good read that is both light, fast-paced and hard to let go.

The only reason that it is one star short of 5, is because I felt the author could have given us more of Cade as well as the surprise allegiances and twists that Dan Brown himself has seemingly made a trademark of his own writing with. But nonetheless, it is still a good read and a breakthrough effort of a debut novel.

With that said, I sooo need to find my 2nd book, underneath the tons of books in my very own Book Box. :)

ps. The Author responds to my tweets on Twitter...consider me star strucked. Wouldn't you be? :)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Beijing - Day 2

Excitedly getting out of bed, I started the day with a warm shower to beat out the cold. But when I got out, I got colder all the more. It turns out that I could’ve opened the room’s heater system which I didn’t touch and only appreciated it when I knocked on Charm and Jun’s room. I figured that being accustomed to waking up early, I could be the group’s unspoken alarm system.  Much to my surprise, their room was properly heated and they were almost ready to begin the day.  Another blow to us; and we thought we were already early. Nakadalawa na sila ah. Hmmmph. Haha. But then again, cold weather also has its usage. Gives everyone the perfect excuse to cuddle and be each other’s teddybear. LOL! J

Rousing Chet, we both rushed to take a shower as we were expected downstairs for our morning breakfast before the tour bus comes in and bring us to our destination for the day which consisted of Emperor Szu Ti’s Tomb, a Jade Factory in the afternoon plus the Great Wall. Now having been “burned” by the biting cold yesterday, we all felt better to be armed and warmed than let’s say sorry. So it was 5 layers of clothing on cue for us consisting of thermal wear, and other articles of clothing to complete the count including our respective thick jackets. For me it was my “Westlife” jacket from Gap but to which Chet always references “Jolina”. It seems we know now who is a fan of whom. LOL!

Meeting downstairs in the café, we were joined with Evelyn, Charm’s cousin who has been living in Beijing for the past 8 years. Given her work, she has not given herself time to seeing the sights in spite of her stay and so it was a welcomed opportunity for her to see them finally with family and friends to boot. Our breakfast meal was continental and Chinese and consisted of fried rice, beans in tomato sauce, eggs, sausage and my favorite noodle which was a cross between a fine Chinese noodle and Italian fettucine, cooked in oil and garnished with veggies, pork and shrimp. There was also the standard congee and other condiments to go with it. There were other colorful selections on the dessert table but I didn’t feel adventurous enough to try them unlike Jun and Chet who helped themselves to a slice of salted fish tasting cake and a little heap of sweetened seaweed. Sorry not my type. We were in a rush, so no pictures of our food, alas. Soon enough the tour guide arrived and was apologizing for being late. She had to pick up another group from another hotel. The other group we later learned consisted of a family that was staying at the Crowne Plaza and came all the way from Brazil! Talk about a lengthy travel time.

Getting into the bus we let the sights of different buildings, government and private ones lull some of us to sleep while our English speaking tour guide named Helen gave us a little historical info about our first destination. I swear it was like going back to Chinese class. All the information regarding the different Chinese Dynasties and which Emperor did what for their region and how under them different regions of China were cultivated and developed. Others felt the need to chat amongst themselves while others felt the need to catch up on sleep of which I don’t blame them. It was also a blessing in disguise because it gave me the chance to take a snapshot of them snoozing. 

The different buildings and streets and occasional landmarks became a blur to me that morning as the bus sped through the metropolis and moved further north to get to the tomb. Zhu Ti, or Emperor Yongle, as narrated by our guide was the  3rd Emperor in the Ming Dynasty and was responsible for moving the capital of China to BEIJING. The primary reason is that China was busy trying to fend off the Mongols from the North. The capital then was NANJING and the troops would have to travel from the capital to the North to beef up the garrison and to repel whatever attacks being made. Moving it to Beijing would not only prove to be a practical decision but also one that was tactical and would ensure the region's social, economical and cultural growth.  Thus construction began and by 1421 the capital was formally moved to more spacious houses and living areas not to mention, one that would encompass 7,800,000 square feet of land and would later come to be known by all in this day and age as, The Forbidden City.

By the time we got to the Dingling tomb, the biting cold was back and we had to take a quick trip to the rest room while Helen went and got us tickets. Further research revealed that the section of the tomb that we went to was only one of the sections of the Tombs of the Ming Dynasty emperors. So far as per historical records, 13 Emperors are buried in this vast complex and due to cultural and governmental constraints and bureaucratic setbacks, the Dingling tomb was the first to be carried out as a trial excavation in 1956 up until a museum was erected in 1959. The site itself is only the third largest of the Ming Dynasty tombs. One can only marvel in wonder should all these tombs be excavated and open to the public, its expanse may yet rival the size of Disneyland. I know a little too off a reference, but you kinda get the feeling and scope of how it is, should you get a chance to visit it yourself.

From the pic, you can see that we wasted no time in getting our first pic of the day. Soon passing by the main gate, we got into a large open space, a cemented courtyard with an empty low level house to our right, replete with the characteristic Chinese gable and roof as well a souvenir shop on the left.  

As we entered, there was a smaller arch in the center and a furnace closer to my right that served as a burning stove in medieval China. Chet and Charm automatically went towards it and had their photos taken. I was caught doing some multi-tasking by equally taking their shots, taking shots of my own of the surroundings, as I kinda prefer that than more shots of me in it, and listening to bits and pieces of information being imparted on us by our tour guide. At one point, I noticed that when we got too busy with the shots, she just moved on right ahead with the Brazilian family. Later we would learn that the parents have already come to China 4 times! And that they have merely come back this time to show their kids around along with their respective girlfriend and fiancee. Sweet!

Apart from the instant photo op moments, Chet and Charm also, as you can see, could not help themselves with goofing around at the sight of snow. Alas there was no actual snow fall and whatever snow left became hardened on the ground and got mixed with the dirt. Sorry no crushed ice for ya guys.

Now, the smaller arch of which we were asked not to go thru was reserved for our exit. Apparently there is some symbolism involved that we were to find out as we got out later. Chet took no time in making a beeline for the souvenir shop and got himself a pair of gloves that helped alleviate in dealing with the cold and the gust of icy wind that would assail us as we walked. I offered half of my pair just to tide him in but he thought better to have his own. A larger structure loomed in front of us as we walked across the cleanly maintained courtyard. This was the main house that stored different artifacts from the Ming Dynasty and a bronze statue of the Emperor Zhu Ti in the center.

The house itself was a sight for the eyes, a staple of Chinese palatial architecture with shingles of tiles and wooden planks that crisscross to form the ceiling and hold the roof. We were surprised to find out that they were still the very original pieces that figured in its construction. In short, no piece since its construction in 1400’s has been replaced. Everything was still intact and in its original form. Truly worthy of its induction into the UNESCO World Heritage Site List.

 Entering the house and around the statue, glass casings containing jade accessories, belts, gold crowns, replica of different articles of parchment not to mention a generous sampling of Chinese currency in those medieval times that consisted of both silver and gold Ingots, were all for our perusal and appreciation.

Moving past these artifacts we left the main museum house went to the back and pass the tomb’s gate tower to get to the tower itself. The trek was no warmer than when we first entered but at least it further afforded us more photo op opportunities; from the entrance to the tower itself, to the ramp leading to the tower itself. Needless to say the view was truly magnificent and worth the trek. Naturally all of this will pale in comparison to our trip to the Great Wall later in the day as well as the magnificence of the Forbidden City on our second day. But consider this newbie of traveler, and a returning one at that to China, impressed and awed.

Going out of the gate, Helen made us go through the little archway that I mentioned and told us to say in Mandarin as we take a step to go out of it, “I have come back”. This is synonymous to the Emperor’s own trip to this site, and prefigures one of his own return trips during the course of his reign from 1402 to 1424.

Leaving the Tomb, we were brought to a Jade factory where we were shown the different kinds of Jade and introduced to a rare one called Jadeite. We also learned about the carving called the "cabbage" which is like a cornucopia-shaped carving. The mouth of the carving when placed by the window should face inward in order to have more prosperity. Make the mistake of placing it the other way and consider yourself drained as your fortune will just go out the window. Not funny this concept is.

 I also learned the significance of the “Happiness Ball” which is a series of carved balls concentrically occupying one space after another. Think Russian doll casing that gets reduced in size as you open one container after another to reveal one more in it. The difference here is they are carved as one and cannot be taken apart. The number of balls within a single Happiness Ball denotes a family’s extension. The more balls within, the bigger the family and vice-versa. 

As it wasn’t our culture really to invest in Jade, we didn’t really see its worth and only marvelled at the craftsmanship that the carvers have in coming up with difference carved pieces. And along with that nothing is left to waste, as the jade powder, which itself is a residue of the carvings are also used to craft exquisite paintings and also sold as art pieces. Soon lunch was served and we got recharged and pretty soon it was another hour drive to the Great Wall.

Now everyone knows how long and expansive the Wall itself is. Stretching from Shanhaiguan in the East, to Lop Lake in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia, the wall is really a series of walls constructed to ward off invaders and only fortified, unified and strengthened to become one snake of a wall during the prosperous Ming Dynasty. The section of the wall that we went to is the Badaling portion which is the “North Pass" of the Juyongguan pass. This portion of the Great Wall is 7.8 meters (26 ft.) high and 5 meters (16 ft.) wide.

The fun and only way to get atop the wall to where we can see the other sections of it, was by way of cable car. I don’t really have a fear of heights but whatever misgivings I had about being suspended in the air that way, I had to curb it and take in the scenery as we got up. As this would also be the same way we would get down later, there was no use complaining. If you do hate heights, ask your friends to bring a blindfold. (kidding!)

Like before with Dad the rest of my family back in 1997, I remembered scaling the great wall and it wasn’t easy as the steps were not as properly crafted, as per modern day masonry standards. In Tagalog, they are not “Squalado”. For one thing, it is steep as hell and the stairs, on top of that are intermittently spaced with steeply inclined paths and one would do well to hold on to the steel railings on opposite ends of the wall when going up and coming down. Naturally the railings were added later on as they definitely make a difference in scaling this wonder of a behemoth.

Upon reaching the topmost part of the tower, it felt easier and in effect was the culmination of a good cardiovascular exercise at that. Photo op upon photo op took the better of our 2 hours on top and before we know it, it was time to go and continue another set of scenery picture taking as the cable car brought us back down onto the base of the mountain and we soon were headed to a local tea house.

The Tea House was called Dr. Tea and there we sampled different versions of Jasmine, Poo-er Tea and a fruity concoction which was tempting to get. But since I wasn’t mainly a tea drinker, a coffee addict at that, tea was the least of my priorities to drink. Like the jade store in the morning, there were salesladies following us about when we examined the merchandises after a pleasing tea “presentation” and after much refusals and a scolding of their superiors for giving these new guests too low a price, we concluded our day trip by getting dropped off the Wangfujing district.

By the time we got there, it was close to sunset and the cold has started to assail us once more and in a more debilitating effect. We managed to get in the Apple store right across us, to keep warm but not after seeing on an electronic billboard on the top of a building to our right the actual temperature that had us shivering all over, inspite of our attempts to keep warm and busy by taking various shots on their beautifully tiled streets, with some of the brass fixtures. Now, that section of the street didn’t allow vehicles to go through and so one must enjoy the sights of modern shopping centers amidst the cold and locals who in spite of the biting weather were still eating ice cream!

Our reprieve from the cold afforded us to shop in the building where I got a travel bag from my favorite HK brand, FX Creations. They used to have a brand at Robinson’s Galleria. I chatted with the saleslady and she was pleasantly surprised that I knew of the brand and that I had a pleasing and passable tone of speaking in Mandarin. I told her that majority of Chinese speaking folk in the Philippines spoke Fookien and not really Mandarin. She smiled and beamed as she gave me back my change and the purchased item and said that I spoke well enough and that I should come see them again. I thanked her and beamed as well for at least I am happy that I have at least been able to put good education to use. Truly, it does pay.

Soon we had dinner in one of the nearby food courts and was once more welcomed with the aroma of food and the feeling of warmth. Charm’s cousin, Evelyn was our host for dinner and gladly treated us to warm meal of beef and other meat dishes as well as seafood all served on thick sizzling plates. We all felt so recharged after that as not only it was food for our cold-assailed bodies but also for the tummy as all this walking in a day had us hungry even before the sun set.

As you can see in the photos it really was a feast and by the time we all wolfed down the meal, it was time to get our butts moving and check out the flea market right across the street and see for ourselves whatever goodies can be discovered and had. Like any flea market, it was full of trinkets and souvenir shops. Chet was so personable with one of the stall owners that she readily brought our newer stuff for us to see. Now that's what I call a bargain. Or perhaps all that eating, gave us renewed energy to barter and check out more of the district while our minds continually to shut out the weather, which was now teeth-chattering cold.

              After an hour, the stalls have started to close down and we soon had to find a cab that would bring us back to the hotel. Now according to one cop that I asked, we actually could walk to the hotel if we wanted, he adds, that it really is more convenient to take a cab that having to walk all the way and brave the cold. Ok, point taken. Lucky for us it was easy to hail a cab and no sooner had we gotten in, we were already back at our hotel. And it was just in a matter of 5-7 mins!!! We vowed to return to the district the next evening and having seen how we could have saved cabfare, we were confident enough to walk back to the hotel tomorrow.

Soon it was time for bed and for another early day ahead of us. And with our tummy full and satisfied, not to mention, camera's loaded with great pictures on our 2nd day, we felt happy and productive and content enough to recharge ourselves and be excited anew for another day tomorrow and for, unfortunately, the trip home. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Beijing Trip- Day 1

The excitement was quite evident. Finally our planned trip was happening as Chet and I got to the airport and surprisingly Charm and Jun were there already at Terminal 3, way earlier than us. And here we thought we were early. For a change, the Dagatdagatan peeps came in earlier than us. Perhaps this could be a trend in the making? LOL! :)

We came in at around 4pm, did the usual rote of checking in and had time to spare on our hands and so we lounged about at Bo's Coffee, had some java and the empanada we brought along to tide us in before our flight. As you can see in the pic, we were rather busy, not to mention forlorn that the other members of our Kurimaw tribe were unable to join us this time and thus we were not complete as hope; and therefore not as rowdy. 

Just like our Bangkok trip last year and our Malaysian trip two years back, our flight was again in the evening but unlike the two, this one took a little longer for us to get to our destination as we left Manila at around 9:30pm and reached Beijing a little over midnight the next day. Good thing there was no time difference in China, but the cold was something that was not only altogether different, but a shock to our system. A body system to be exact that has already been conditioned since birth to deal with warm, tropical weather. If you must know, the temperature when we arrived was a “pleasurable” 2 degrees Celsius! 

Chet's loud and hysterical reaction to the cold was most fun to listen to as we disembarked from the plane and made our way to the customs area. I was actually half expecting that they would have us come down the plane, the old fashioned way via stairs and not through the tube. Lucky for us, the tube was in place and the only preview to the huge drop in temperature was a side door left wide open to our left that blasted the cold wind right at our faces as we stepped out.

So the only way to deal with such biting cold was to goof around and start taking pictures, as in true Kurimaw fashion, we were all stoked and happy to have our troubles culminate with our arrival. Like other airports, not sure about ours though, cameras are prohibited near the customs area and so I wasn't able to take a shot of the row of desks that had an oval screen at the edge and equipped with a mini cam showing both the customs officer who the arriving passenger is and for the passengers themselves to reconfirm the data indicated in their respective passports. There was even a survey button to press indicating if one was satisfied with their service. Why can’t we have something like that here? Naturally, I couldn’t resist the temptation to utter a few words in Mandarin before keying in my  selection and going through and meeting up with the rest of the gang before heading out to the lobby to meet our “guide”, who happens to be named Daniel and bore the sign of the group, “Kurimaw”! YES!

Braving the cold and the slapping freezer-like wind of a breeze, we made it to the van before being brought to our meager hotel called, Redwall Hotel. It wasn’t the Ritz, that's for sure, but anything to have us sheltered from the cold was more than welcome. After settling in, we were both shivering and hungry and  wondered if there was a 24-hour convenience store nearby that we could go to. Being the only one who spoke Mandarin, rusty at that, I inquired about such a store only to mistakenly go to a noodle place beside the hotel. Assuming much, I asked for a menu while Chet, Charm and Jun sat patiently. It took only moments to find out that they were still closed and was neck deep in their start-of-the-day operations. This was just one of those instances wherein I wished I could have been conversive and fluent as the lady was muttering a litany of responses that I can only understand a bit and guess as, “we don’t sell retail” or “we’re not open yet”. Either way, it was evident that we were not going to get some grub then.

So we stepped out again only to find our true destination just a door away, and like any hungry pilgrim, it was our Mecca; our Promised land. Stepping into the store, we perused what we could eat that didn’t require much preparation. Sure, a cup of hot noodle would be good to beat out the cold, but it was too much trouble to heat up and eat right there and there. 

We settled with what struck our fancy then which consisted of some packed pastries and bread that had to be microwaved right there and then. Of course, I was up to bat once more and talked to the store owner. I swear, practice makes perfect in times like these. Soon we had our fill and went back to the hotel, dealt with the winds again briefly before finding ourselves nestled in our rooms and away from the cold weather.

Back in the hotel, we retired to our respective rooms only to find it equally cold. I didn’t think of turning on the aircon as we definitely didn’t need it. But Jun and Charm thought of turning on the heater and that proved to be a whole lot of difference for the two rooms as I found later in the morning when I knocked to get us all started officially on our second day in Beijing.

And amidst the cold and burrowing under the covers, we took our rest in preparation for the long day ahead in just a little while. But if this next photo is any indication, you know that its going to a fun-filled second day in a just a few hours....