Monday, April 24, 2006

China 2002: Beijing

Hello everyone,

Well, after traveling for a very long time... 5 hour flight to LA, 3 hour layover, 15 hour flight to Guangzhou, 2 hour layover after easy time through customs, then a 3 hour flight to Beijing...We are safely settled in the Novotel Peace Hotel, minutes fromTiananmen Square. All of our bags made it here safely and we had smooth flying on every leg of the trip. China Southern Airlines has wonderful service and delicious food.

The hotel room is very nice. We have a hot pot for boiling water for tea or just to make it safe to drink. We have many western channels on tv, including CNN, so we were able to catch up on the news after being in limbo for a while. We had a wonderful dinner. Our guide made arrangements for us to eat at Sichuan Restaurant a few blocks from our hotel. We had an assortment of dishes and everything was DELICIOUS!! The only hard part was we have been warned not to eat fruit, but they brought out this beautiful plate of apple and orange...since fruit is one of the joys of my life it was torture not to eat it!!! I admit I cut a tiny bit of the inside of an apple and took one bite. Sadly I told our guide maybe she should tell them not to bring any more fruit when she orders our meals. [hindsight comment: as long as you wash the fruit, it’s probably not going to hurt you! Watch for this attitude to relax a great deal in upcoming entries]

Beijing feels like New York City and with all the lights it's a bit like Chinatown-meets-Times Square. Not crowded at all, though it's true what we've heard about the crazy driving so you have to keep your eyes peeled at all times. Tiananmen Square tomorrow, I think. Our guide, Nancy (Chinese first name DouDou) and our driver Mr. Yan are both very nice. They may make alterations to the exact timing of the places on our itinerary, but we will still be seeing all the things we planned to see. Nancy is about 23, so nice and very cute, a hardworking student and very hip! She met us at the airport dressed in a smart, neo-Mod style with a beige corduroy cap, rust-colored leather jacket and pointy boots poking out from under her pant legs. She has a great sense of humor and we are going to enjoy touring around with her and Mr. Yan. Well, we're about ready to pack it in for the night - it's 8:30pm Monday so you're probably just getting your morning coffee as I write this. It's inexpensive and easy to use the business center in our hotel so you can expect regular posts from us while we are in Beijing.

11/20/02 It's Wednesday morning the 20th, 7:20am and John and I just finished another delicious breakfast in our hotel. Today I tried some rice congee {like oatmeal} with honey and lichee fruit. Yum! John discovered they have chocolate croissants, so that does it for him. Yesterday was mind-blowingly full of sights, sounds, smells etc. and when we finally arrived back at our hotel at 9pm, we turned out the lights and fell right to sleep. Our tour guide Nancy met us in the lobby at 9am and Mr. Yan arrived in his Red Flag car {Chinese-made, very nice} to take us first to The Forbidden City. We knew it would be amazing and we were not disappointed. There is a definite sense of "inner sanctum" there, with the moat, the outside walls, and the concentric rings of plazas and palaces. Finally at the back there is a beautiful garden - must be wonderful in springtime. I bought a book of photographs to take home and look at later. Words cannot describe the scale of the place, it must be seen and felt...just immense. Next we went to TianAnMen Square. TianAnMen means "Gate of HeavenlyPeace" and this is the famous area presided over by a large painting of Mao Zedong. Nancy pointed out that his eyes follow you as you walk around the square, "just like the Mona Lisa". We walked through the square, past the Great Hall of the People where they recently had a large party congress. Workers were removing special floral decorations installed especially for the event. Also the flag of theUkraine was flown at the corner of the square because the Ukrainian President is here right now.

We went to lunch at an official tourist restaurant at the National History Museum. Our favorite dish was Kung Pao Chicken, buteverything we've had here is flavorful and worth a try, though of course we prefer some dishes more than others. We must have been quite a sight trying to pick up slippery mushrooms with our plastic (hence slippery) chopsticks. The waitresses brought forks after watching us, but we're stubborn and insisted on getting it right the local way. Our tour guide doesn't eat with us, though we've invited her to. We realized that she probably needs a break too, and is able to have some down time while we eat. She is so knowledgeable and her English is great. We briefly toured the National History Museum but it is really just one large room with artifacts and no signage or interpretation at all.

Oh - I forgot to mention John's head gear caused quite a stir yesterday! He brought this black hood called a balaklava that is for staying warm while bicycling, but since it looks like a black ski mask, everyone was staring and making comments to our tour guide like "he looks like he is about to do something bad." The lady in a souvenir shop at the Forbidden City thought he might be a robber! Some Japanese tourists insisted on having their picture taken with this tall American outlaw and he obliged. It was pretty funny. Next Mr. Yan (who we've decided is quite cool) drove us to the SummerPalace, built for the Empress Dowager CiXi. That was my favorite place after the Forbidden City. There is a man-made lake there, and beautiful pagodas, relaxing pavilions and even a private theater where the Empress enjoyed opera performances. At the end of the tour we saw her huge marble boat, that was permanently moored and "always floating" as a symbol of the stability of the empire. Oh--and I should mention that while we were there, a guard started eyeing John's curious headgear and getting closer and closer...I was a bit nervous, wondering how serious this could get. All of a sudden the guard caught John's eye, smiled and made a tommy-gun gesture with both hands. John responded by adding his dark sunglasses to the mix. Hoo-boy.

We exited the Summer Palace through an onslaught of hawkers yelling in our faces "Hellooooo! Look Here! Rolex Watch, Real From Germany! Helloooo! Look this way!" etc. but we just made a beeline for the car and all was well. When hawkers want to sell you something, they always seem to yell "hello!" and after a while it starts to sound as though it has a much different meaning. A lady at The Forbidden City was saying "American Guy! American Guy! You buy film!" Still I don't mean to make people here sound so grabby. Many of the people we've encountered are curious and friendly, and smile easily. We know once we have JieJie with us we will attract even more attention, but now we are just two of the many westerners visiting this amazing city. Yes, I keep saying "amazing" but it is, and I'm out of synonyms, so sue me. We next visited the Ethnic Park, a display of the homes and lifestyles of different non-Han nationalities within Asia. It was a nice walk outside...not much was going on. This was followed by an authentic tea ceremony, where we learned about different kinds of tea and how to enjoy them more thoroughly. Lots of fun - ask us about the lucky pee-pee boy figurine when we get home! Dinner was at the same hotel where we were to see the Beijing Opera -good dinner but we were starting to fade. We were determined not to allow ourselves a nap yesterday in order to get a better night's sleep last night. The Beijing Opera scheduled for Friday was moved to last night and we saw two different stories, shortened for foreigners' tastes (usuallyI would want the real thing but in this case it was fine). The first one was "Farewell to the Concubine" (the film of a similar name has to do with this story). The second involved acrobatics and kung fu and was about the famous mythological character The Monkey King who fights off different warriors. It was an impressive spectacle and we're very glad we saw Beijing Opera. And that was yesterday -- today in about an hour Nancy arrives with Mr. Yan to take us to the Ming Tombs, then a jade factory, then lunch, and then The Great Wall. We are hoping to find a cybercafe where the per-minute rate is lower than at the hotel - many internet cafes are $1/hour rather than this 25 cents a minute! That's all for now. We are in good health, basically over any minor jet lag and ready for another day of amazement. Sorry I haven't been able to upload any photos - I'm working on it!!

Four days to baby!!

11/21/02 Good morning everyone (good evening for you, it's 7pm where you are)! We slept all the way til 6:30am today! We were so excited we high-fived. Yesterday was less busy than Tuesday (thank goodness) but still great. We met Nancy at 10am in the lobby and Mr. Yan was there with his trusty Red Flag to drive us to the Ming Tombs, where 13 emperors from the Ming Dynasty are buried. Down in the crypt, people were throwing money onto the casket dais. Nancy said it was for good luck, so John threw a 2RMB note on there for JieJie.

Then we were taken to a jade factory. We saw one artisan making a Happy Buddha from some beautiful amber-colored jade. It was aboutthe size of a softball. The factory spokesperson then taught us how to tell real from fake jade (a useful skill as a tourist!). Hard green jade bangles actually ring like a bell when you tap them with another piece - also they will scratch glass and not be marred. You can't do that with soft jade though - the way to tell with soft jade is that it should be translucent. Fake jade (usually glass or some kind of color-impregnated lesser stone) is opaque. The showroom was full of beautiful jade pieces and we really enjoyed seeing everything. Next we walked down a long wide path called the Sacred Way to the Ming Tombs. This was thought to be the road to heaven, since the emperors were from heaven and when they died they went back to heaven. There are huge stone animals and people watching along the way, including four horses, two standing, two kneeling. It is said that the horses do a "changing of the guard" at midnight! Also at the opposite end there is a "slander pillar" where people who had a beef with the emperor could go to say what they had to say to a stone pillar rather than to the emperor. The weather was cool but bright while we were here and the many willow trees along the way were shedding their leaves a few at a time. Picturesque.

Next, the Cloissone factory (my friend J is probably rolling her eyes going "yeesh, they're taking you to all the tourist places!" but hey...that's what we are, so we don't mind). We saw how they make cloissone from copper, enamel powder that is fired, filled again and fired again, then polished smooth and gilded with gold through an electroplating process. Impressive.

We had lunch upstairs at a tourist restaurant. I should tell you about these wonderful meals we've been having. At every meal we are brought maybe 7 or 8 different dishes, some meat and some vegetables or fruit. Also we each get a little bowl of steamed rice, and usually some soup. Chopsticks fly and we each try a little bit of everything til we just can't fit anymore in. Always tea, of course, and our choice of some other drink (we've learned that we can't say we'll only have tea--we have to choose a second drink). Waiters are constantly stopping by to bring new dishes or pick up empties (or bring a fork if we're struggling w/the chopsticks, but yesterday John was picking up individual peanuts with his, so we're doing quite well!) After lunch we shopped for a few gift items and John found himself a great tie with a dragon on it (symbol for the emperor). Next was the best thing of all - our driver took us to Badaling to see the Great Wall of China (snow prevented us from going to the wall at Mutianyu, which J had recommended). We took lots of pictures there. The wall is even more impressive than we thought - we took a cable car up high and climbed to a high guard turret. More souvenir hawkers of course, saying "hello hat! hello! hat! 40 US dollars!"and when we kept walking, they treated it as negotiation: "hello hat! 30! warm hat! 20 dollars!" or my favorite one from yesterday, as we passed through an archery platform: "Hello! CopperCertificate! Copper Certificate!" You can have your name engraved on a copper card saying you've been to a high point on the Great Wall. But we know we were there, copper or no, so the yuan stayed in the pocket.

It was very windy up there so we came down again after maybe a half hour and watched a great film about the wall. It was in one of those panoramic theaters like they have at Epcot Center and showed some of the history of the wall as well as what it looks like where the wall ends (in the east at the Pacific Ocean and in the west at the Gobi Desert).

On the way back...stuck in a Beijing traffic jam. They have a great new highway system here but more cars on the road with every passing day, so traffic jams are a problem. The cars use leaded gas too, so when we got stuck in a 1km-long tunnel, that was not pleasant, though really no worse than the air I've breathed at the Port Authority in New York. Mostly the cars are either Chinese-made Volkswagens or Citroens (plants in Shanghai) or Red Flag. Occasionally you see a Japanese or Korean car but they are far outnumbered by the European models. Our driver Mr. Yan navigates through traffic with surgical precision and we marvel at the tight spaces he fits through! Trafficis complicated by the fact that bicyclists often get onto the freeways and dart through traffic, and the same goes for pedestrians. Still, we've only seen evidence of two accidents, one fender bender and one more serious, and other than that people honk alot but it's not as life-threatening as you might think.

Dinner was in a park at a building that used to be the Temple of Earth. It felt kind of funny eating in such a grand building -paintings on the ceiling and a majestic ambience all around - but we settled in and enjoyed some delicious fish in caramel sauce and some other goodies. Oh - and about the fruit situation...I have eased into eating a little more fruit, just not anywhere close to the peel. It was just too much torture to sit there staring at that tantalizing problems yet so I'm getting braver. Yesterday they brought some peeled and sliced persimmon in orange sauce and I ate it all. What the heck - we have Cipro with us if worse comes to worse.

Today our schedule relaxes even more - Nancy's not coming til 10am. As we ate breakfast, we watched commuters go by in cars and on bicycles - lots of parents had a child on the back of the bike -guess they were heading to school and then work. I will probably write again Friday afternoon (middle of the night for you Thursday) if we can find a cheap cybercafe near here. Today's plan is to tour an old Beijing neighborhood called a hutong, then see the Temple of Heaven and Beihai Park, and I think the Lamaa Temple as well. Oh - we asked Nancy yesterday what here Chinese name (DouDou) means and she said it means "little bean". She is the youngest of three sisters and so the name fits her perfectly - she is a little bean! We really like her and Mr. Yan is like the driving equivalent of James Bond. More later - 3 days to baby!!!

11/22/02 Hello (a word I don't like as much these days) let's make it Howdy! Today has been and will continue to be VERY low-key, so those of you who were concerned that we were too go-go-go over the past several days can relax, because that's what we're doing. As for yesterday, yesterday was just wonderful, in a different way from the other days we've spent here so far. We left at 10am for the Lamaa Temple, which is one of my favorite things we've seen. It is a very spiritual place, and being there definitely set a different tone for the whole day. When we arrived, Buddhists (in everyday modern dress) were lighting incense and kowtowing in front of several statues of Buddha. The place is arranged like many of the ancient structures of Beijing, with increasing levels of grandeur the further in you go. We went through (I believe) three different chambers, all with incense, buddhas, and the most beautiful silk banners everywhere, and courtyards between with more incense, a heavenly smell. Finally we reached the biggest building of all, which houses the world's largest Buddha statue, a huge golden Buddha...I only came up to his ankle! You'll have to look in your Guinness Book for exact specs, cause it's in there. We bought a book since you're not allowed to take pictures inside the religious rooms. Nancy helped us find a good price. It was our first purchase of many yesterday! Next we went to a hutong for a rickshaw tour of one of Beijing's 700+year old neighborhoods. These are fascinating places. The alleyways that wind through (which are called hutongs, hence the name of this style neighborhood) are fairly narrow, just wide enough for a car although the only cars we saw were parked. Touring a hutong is a popular activity so these tours are fairly well organized. It was cold - the rickshaw driver threw a blanket over our laps before we went on our ride.

We stopped at one door and Nancy turned us over to another guide who told us a bit of the history of the area and the type of houses they have there. Then we were invited into the residence and the next thing we knew we were sitting down in the Huo family's dining room and Mr. Huo was whipping up a fantastic lunch in the kitchen! Now you might be wondering how this works. Well, the government is getting geared up for the 2008 Olympics in a big way, and anticipating lots of tourism. It seems everyone is learning English and it is now a compulsory subject in schools. So anyway, the government promotes hutong tours as a way for people to learn about middle class Chinese life, and asks residents if they would be willing to open their doors to visitors, maybe a few times a week.The Huo family gets a stipend for doing this, and since Mr. and Mrs. Huo are retired and at home during the day anyway, they seem to enjoy the exchange. So our hutong guide interpreted while Mrs. Huo told us about her family and the fact that the Red Guard had taken their house during the Cultural Revolution (before that her family had lived there many generations). They only returned in 1991. She asked if we had any questions and we asked a few things. I tried my meager Chinese and she immediately wanted to know why I would want to try to learn Chinese. I explained that we knew we were taking this trip and I thought it would be a nice way to show respect to the people we met. She seemed satisfied with the answer. She reminded me so much of my Grandma - John thought so too. She had this mix of a very stern but kind demeanor and something in her eyes reminded me of Grandma. I almost began to cry, but I didn't think that would be very appropriate so I just asked the hutong guide to tell her that she was reminding me of my mother's mother.

Lunch arrived and we had the most delicious lunch we've had since coming to China! Dumplings, beef stew, lotus root, chicken and green peppers, little bok choi, and a sliced Asian pear that was out of this world. She asked if we liked it and we assured her it was the best we've had. I said the pear was great and that I love fruit--she left and came back with six mandarin oranges for me! I gave her two hands' full of the Hershey chocolate we brought for these kinds of occasions and she is saving it for her grandchildren. We finished our lunch and had our picture taken with Mrs. Huo. She insisted we take a picture of her in her dining room and send it to her - gave us a little piece of paper with her address and everything. We certainly will send her the pictures - and one of JieJie as well!

After this we proceeded to an amazing place (there's that word again), the Temple of Heaven. This was a place where the emperors would pay tribute to the God of Heaven. Buildings here are round to symbolize heavenly things - it was very noticeable as most of the other ancient buildings we've seen have been rectangular. We tried the famous "echo wall" - we were 60 meters away from each other and I could hear John perfectly. Nancy said it's a good thing we're here in the off-season because when it's more crowded, you can't hear well enough to do the trick. Again with this place, just when you think you've reached the sanctum sanctorum, there's a bigger one waiting just beyond the next courtyard! I keep wondering what the first Westerners to encounter China thought, because very often the first layer of buildings is enough to make you say "oh, this must be where the emperor would go" but no--it's just the guard gate or the first ceremonial temple and there are more spectacular surprises awaiting.

Out the back of the Temple of Heaven was another surprise: a really nice park where many people were gathered playing traditional music, playing cards, and singing. A choir of maybe 50 people was gathered in a long hallway singing the most beautiful traditional Chinese song, very moving.

Mr. Yan, aka Al Unser, arrived with the Red Flag and we were off to spend some time at Beihai Park, a former imperial garden that has been very well preserved. We walked up to another temple, this one with a female Buddha inside, and were treated to a beautiful view from the highest vantage point we've visited so far. We could see the Forbidden City's rooftops and the national library, also some of the lakes of the city. I can't imagine how lovely this place must be in spring. Since we've been here it's been fairly overcast, though not rainy. This morning the pollution was kind of bad - we judge it by how well or how poorly we can read the Hyatt sign a few blocks away. This morning I couldn't read it at all. John has a bit of a sore throat and so do I but we just keep drinking lots of tea.

We did LOTS of shopping yesterday afternoon as we had to waste some time before dinner. We went first to a freshwater pearl market, where the saleslady asked me to pick out an oyster from a tank. She opened it and there were the telltale bumps inside (there are pearls in all the oysters because they have been impregnated with the pearl "seed" already - it doesn't depend on nature's magic). She popped some out, four in all, one in each color: white, yellow, pink and black. We got to keep them for free, each about the size of a lentil. John looked for a few things while I chatted with the saleslady about the pronunciation of the words "romantic"and "copper". Like many of the salesladies we've encountered, her English was quite good but she wants it perfect.

Next the Huan Long (I think) Silk Market - WOW really good prices and three floors of everything silk! Carpets, linens, bolts of silk in all different prints and types, robes, pajamas, jackets, shirts, bags, you name it and if it's silk, they have it. Nancy helped me pick out a traditional padded silk jacket for JieJie and one for me that matches. Inside the beautiful embroidered red fabric is a CASHMERE lining - it's really nice and warm! Mine is reversible -red on one side, gold on the other, with traditional dragon and phoenix (symbols of the Emperor and Empress) designs on it. I hope JieJie's fits ok, but guess we'll just have to find out the day after tomorrow! I can't tell you what else we found but suffice it to say we pretty much finished our Christmas shopping yesterday afternoon. John at one point looked at me and exclaimed "I can't believe I'm so excited about shopping but this stuff is just too good!"

So on to dinner at a traditional Dai restaurant. The Dai people live in Yunnan Province. This food was (of course) delicious - a bit more spicy than we've had. While we ate there was traditional music and dancing, and the inside of the restaurant was decorated like a Dai banquet hall, lots of flowers and bamboo. Some Japanese businessmenwere getting drunk on yellow wine in bamboo cups, chanting "HO! HO!HO!" before downing the next shot. I was glad not to be their waitress.

This morning, breakfast again - a huge Swedish tour group is here now and they have taken over the buffet! The Russians who were here earlier in the week have left, and tomorrow we will do the same. Today we just walked around Tienanmen Square people watching and refusing to buy little red books and other souvenirs. I got so tired of saying "Bu, xie xie" (no, thanks) that I just started trying some French or Spanish just to amuse myself. Ah! Que lastima pero no hablo ingles... This afternoon we will have an hour-long Chinese massage...aahhhh...and tonight is our duck dinner. I'm writing this from our Western hotel by they way - no luck finding a cyber cafe used by the locals. We went to the one on TienanmenSquare but it was dark and locked shut with a huge chain and padlock. The official line is that there was a terrible fire in another cybercafe and many students were killed, so for people's safety they have closed many internet cafes. Draw your own conclusions. [hindsight comment: actually, this story checked out—there really was a fire in that particular cafĂ©] Lunch today was a huge bowl of noodles and a soft drink - 12 yuan(about $1.50) total for both of us! Well, the masseuse calls...I'll write from Chongqing if possible.

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