Thursday, March 27, 2008

China Part II: Beijing

If you don't want to read all my really interesting commentary, and just want to look at the pretty pictures, you can go here.

The first part of our China trip had already been a success. We had seen the more modern city, and now it was time for some history. For real. Really old stuff, history I've seen in movies or learned about in school. Places I never dreamed I would see in real life. For instance, on our first day in Beijing, we went to:

The Forbidden City

It's not actually called that anymore, by the way. It's called the Imperial Palace Museum, and the first thing you see before you even enter is a giant picture of Mao. The second thing you see, before going into the the City proper, is lots of people trying to sell you things. This was a constant theme of our trip. I expected a certain amount of this in the touristy areas, like trinket booths and whatnot, but we were constantly being approached by peddlers with items like clip-on roller skates, cheap toys, and other random bits of junk. And they don't take no, thank you for an answer: this is merely an invitation to try and tempt you with a lower price. They really want to sell you something. Jeff ended up buying a set of clip-on skates in Shanghai from two different guys because when he agreed to buy from one guy, another guy started yelling and pushing the first guy and it was nearly a full-blown fist-fight. This guy showed M a cool magic trick that ended up in D buying it.

It doesn't even stop there. Groups of "students" or "Olympic volunteers" who want to "practice their English" really just want you to visit some "art exhibition" where you they can get you to buy cheap crappy art. I've read worse, like "students" who take you to a cafe and stick you with a huge bill. And, what really got me was the women working in the drug store trying to get me to buy this or that product if I browsed too long in any aisle.

But I totally digress.

The Forbidden City is huge. So many red buildings and carved bridges and stairs that it led my kids to wonder how the emperor ever found his way around without getting lost (The kids were excited to be there because I had them watch The Last Emperor before we came to China, to give them some history and get them excited to see this stuff).

bird's eye view

We saw the throne, too, and a museum full of imperial treasures, of which the kids and I took exhaustive photos you can see on the flickr page. So much history happened here since it was built 400 years ago, and no outsider was allowed in until fairly recently, and there we were. Cool. See more pictures of the Forbidden City here. Go on.

After we did that, we went to some other park with cool temples and stuff, but I don't remember what it was. You can see the pictures, though, if you click above.

In the late afternoon/early evening, we decided to do a rickshaw tour of the:


These are mazes of old-world Beijing alleyways where people still live and shop. Tiny, some of them, and all ancient. We were told one wall was 700 years old. Whole neighborhoods in these crazy places, and lots of stories I'm sure. The royal Eunuch's palace was back there, along with a place Mao lived for a year (our rickshaw-driver guy assured us). They were also doing a lot of work back there. (In fact, they seem to be doing construction work 24 hours a day in Beijing and Shanghai, getting ready for the Olympics. Dozens of half-finished skyscrapers were everywhere and they don't have that long to finish).

Mao's house

D and I were in one rickshaw, and Jeff and M in the other. We had agreed to a price and length of trip beforehand, like we were supposed to, according to all the guidebooks, but it was getting to the point of all the alleys starting to look the same, and they just kept pedaling and pedaling and D and I were freezing, so we finally called a stop near some restaurants. The trip went on twice as long as we had thought!

Go here for more hutong pics. They're cool.

So we decided on duck, since we were in the city famous for it and all, but we figured the kids wouldn't be any help finishing a whole duck. So we ordered some duck dishes, including this one, which we thought was some kind of duck-on-a-stick. That's what it looked like in the picture on the menu.

M figured it out first. Those weren't sticks, they were beaks. We had ordered a plate of duck heads. They weren't too bad, really, but the rest of our meal wasn't that great, either. But anyway, it was really cheap. Like $16 for a big exotic meal.

This didn't do much for my opinion of Chinese food. It's never been my favorite, anyway. I was thinking, though, that Chinese food is bound to be better in China. Right? I don't really like Mexican food, either, but I loved the food in Mexico. Oh, well, maybe this stuff is an acquired taste.

The next day, we had our one official guided tour, to the:

Great Wall

We got picked up at our hotel by "Joe," a pleasant Chinese guy with really good English, in a van. He introduced as "the Davises from Australia" to the folks already in the van. It was a group of one young girl (Stephanie), one woman (Shauna), and one guy (Jake) who really resembled, I'm not kidding, Brad Pitt. So now we were on a celebrity tour with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt (surely I've mentioned that everyone in Japan thinks Jeff looks like Tom Cruise?). They were Americans from, get ready, Washington state. Wait, it gets better. The girl, Stephanie, goes to school at SPU, which is just down the street from our house in Seattle. Talk about small world. We soon picked up one more gal, Sarah, from Canada. She was a photographer-in-residence in China for a month. Swell bunch of people to share a two-and-a-half hour road trip with. Sarah played word games with the kids that we used the whole rest of the trip (you say a word and the next person has to come up with a word that starts with the last letter from the word the first person aid, and so on, with no repeats. Stuff like that). She was M's new best friend, and stuck with us for the whole rest of the Great Wall adventure.

I had picked the Simatai part of the Wall, not the usual Badaling part that most tourists pick from Beijing, because it was less restored and less crowded.

It was breathtaking. I mean that literally as well as metaphorically; it was hard work. It's really high up, and you have to climb about a million steps.

I bought a fur hat at the bottom, because it was chilly and looked to be chillier at the top. Joe left us at the bottom, but we were instantly picked up by Ni Fen Youn, a 63-year-old farmer, and another woman, who climbed with us every step of the way (I am ashamed to admit that he felt he had to grasp me by the elbow and propel me up the steps after a while because I was gasping like a fish. And before you blame it on the smoking, he smoked those nasty Chinese cigarettes that make mine seem like Capris. Must be a farmer thing, that stamina). I guess it's what the locals do around the Wall. They attach themselves to visitors, as spontaneous guides. Naturally, they have stuff to sell you (lovely books and pictures of the Wall), but they really work for it. Jeff absolutely adored his new buddy Ni Fen Youn, who had OK English and stories to tell, and the most fascinating teeth.

Once I got high up, I was no longer cold, for sure. Sweating, even. But the views from up there were amazing.

M and his best friend for the day

M&D and their "I Climbed the Great Wall" medals

the group at lunch


Joe set us up for lunch at the bottom, and it was the best food we had the whole trip. Simple, recognizable dishes, and lots of 'em. Mm.

On the way back was the requisite stop at the silk/jade/pearl factory (all the tours have one of these). Ours was supposed to be jade, I thought, but it turned out to be pearl, which I liked much better. We got a little tour and explanation about where freshwater vs saltwater, natural vs cultured pearls come from (if you get one of these and the girl asks how many pearls you think are inside the huge freshwater oyster, don't say 3 or 5 or anything conservative. She said we could have the pearls if we guessed right. It was more like 20. She let us all pick a pearl, anyway).

Then was the "tour" of the rest of the "factory," which was of course, a store selling pearls and pearl products (part of me wanted to buy the Pearl Cream, because I totally remembered the commercials about it from when I was a kid: "what is the secret of the beautiful skin of the Orient? It's pearls!") I'm also kind of a sucker for pearls. I know I may never have a real string of them, but I did get a pretty pretty black pearl ring, because Jeff said he always meant to buy me pearls when he was overseas in the Navy.

Go here for more pics of the Great Wall.

Needless to say, we were pretty exhausted when we got back, so we just ordered a pizza and called it a night. We did also try some Chinese liquor. Two different kinds, actually. One cheap one tasted like (I'm imagining from their smell, OK?) urinal puck. Jeff went out and got a prettier, more expensive bottle:

It was 104 proof. That's 52% alcohol, folks. Sadly, it was also totally undrinkable. It tasted like grass. As in lawn. That wanted to mow me. But he did also find this gem:

This PBR was better than the PBR in America. This one at least admits it's water. And it tasted better, too.

Next day, which was supposed to be our last day in China, we made a quick stop at the local grocery. They wouldn't let me take pictures, really, but I did manage to sneak a couple of the abundant roasted duck and whole chickens in a bag (I don't think this is what Jake Blues meant by whole fried chicken):

M also found this sign, which made me and the kids giggle for days.

We are still giggling about it. Ah, the amusement from misplaced punctuation. We may be calling each other "knockhead" for years.

Our real destination for the day was the

Beijing Zoo

They had really cute Red Pandas. They looked really friendly and frisky as they followed the keeper around their enclosure, begging for food. I totally want one. They had regular pandas, too, of course. Sleeping, mostly. I liked the White Tigers the best

Jeff decided his new favorite animal is the Slow Loris. Cuz they're really chill.

His favorite part of the trip to the zoo was the purchase of four cheap masks, just so we could get this picture:

Lots more animals here.

We rushed back to get to hotel to be picked up in time for the Legend of Kung Fu show we had signed up for.

It was pretty great. Yeah, lots of flashy lights and fire and unnecessary floor-opening, but fun king-fu demonstrations, including the whole iron-body thing (spears in the throat! laying between knives and nails and lots of weight! Breaking metal bars on heads!), demos of different styles, like Monkey and Scorpion, and a lot of fun weapons I can appreciate the difficulty of using, having played with them myself. I couldn't take pictures, of course, but this website has some nice slides.

Afterwards, we went to our Last Supper. We were walking toward a shopping district when we
were approached by a trio of young Chinese "Olympic volunteers." Jeff, I love his trusting soul, was excited that these nice young people wanted to practice their English skills with us and show us a good place to eat. My Spidey-senses were tingling, however, and I was polite but wary. Jeff went and mentioned that I was a painter, and lo and behold, the subject turned. "Do you like Chinese art? Have you seen any exhibitions? No?! Well, we can take you to a student art exhibition..." Ugh. Luckily, I must have exuded enough disinterest that they left us at the restaurant. I wondered what their discussion was with the hostess at the door was, tho...

We ordered some innocuous-sounding dishes, which stood out among these fun choices:

What we got was this

It was spicy and delicious, and I thought maybe I don't hate Chinese food after all. But.

Even looking at the picture now makes me slightly queasy, because at about four in the morning I awoke and was violently ill. By the time proper morning rolled around, M was also sick and it was obvious that we weren't going to make our flight out after all. Jeff, bless him, worked diligently all morning to change our flight out and get us accommodation for another night in another hotel (our present hotel was going to be full). We couldn't get a flight until two days later, and we spend those two "bonus" nights mostly in hotel beds, watching dissatisfying television and trying to sleep it off. On the first bonus day, D and Jeff got out for a a bit of kite-flying by the remaining section of the old Beijing city wall

and then they got sick, so we couldn't blame the dinner, or the mystery-meat stick M had bought off the street near the zoo (we thought at the time that it might've been chicken or pork, but upon further reflection, it could easily have been cat or dog),

because D had neither of those things. We finally, the other day, deduced that it was likely the milk at our hotel breakfast buffet. It was lukewarm and of unknowable age or pasteurization, and we'd all had it. Ah, well.

Not many pictures of the last two days, but our hotel room's bathroom did provide us with this jewel of insulting toiletry:

We finally made it home, obviously, and I was never so glad to be in Japan, where it is clean and the food is of trustworthy simplicity and freshness. In the Narita airport I had the first food in days that didn't make me nervous and or queasy: an onigiri that tasted like ambrosia from the gods.

So am I glad we went to China? Absolutely. Reading back at what I've written, it strikes me that it may have a negative undertone. Don't ever let that dissuade you from traveling to China. We saw some amazing stuff, a real once-in-a-lifetime adventure. We stood in the Forbidden City, and atop the Great Wall of China! We met some nice people, had experiences that a lot of people never will, got a broader perspective of the world we share. That was worth the dirt, the chaos, the smells, the general distrust I felt of the citizenry for always trying to sell me something, the constant staring and lack of a sense of personal space, even the illness. If I had the chance, I'd do it again. Just not in this lifetime.

One unexpected side-effect of the trip was to make me appreciate Japan more, which will make our last few months here much happier. The sakura are blooming in the sunshine and warmer air, and I am feeling renewed (may be all that purging I did) and hopeful for the future. I have some more fun adventures coming up, like Rob coming, and Jeff's folks, and a trip to San Fran. Life is good. Welcome Spring!

China: Shanghai

What a week we had. Longer than expected, but I'll get to that. I'm going to divide it up in two posts, Shanghai and Beijing, so you can spread it out over two coffee breaks, if you want.

When people ask me how our China trip went, I have been answering "wonderful and terrible." What an amazing amount of history that civilization has. Great palaces and walls were being built hundreds of years before any white people even conceived of "discovering" my young country (of course, the natives were there long before, but that is not my civilization and they left no permanent record of theirs before we killed them off/concentrated them in pockets as shells of what they were --I'll shut up now) .

My first overall impression of modern China? Dirt and chaos. Sorry, but it's true. That isn't to say that there isn't a lot to off-set that, because there is some amazing stuff. But right off, I noticed the spitting I read about.

It's rampant. It's not even considered rude in the middle of a conversation. People loudly hawking up---ugh. I'm not a squeamish person normally. I'm a mom, I've dealt with every bodily fluid. But something about mucus really gets to me in a very visceral way.

Moving on.

If I had to pick between which city I preferred on our visit, I'd have to say Shanghai, where we went first.

Shanghai has always interested me because it hit its fame during the 1920s and 30s, an era which, as anyone who knows me knows, has a dear place in my heart. This is when the Western world came into Shanghai and the expat community had a huge influence on the architecture, the government, and the culture (there is a lot of negative connotation here, as it was rather forced on the Chinese, but I'm going to stay away from politics in here as much as I can, aforementioned Native Americans notwithstanding, because it is complicated and confuses me. No, I'm lying, it's going to come up and I know it).

Anyway, on our first full day, we took a subway

and did a wander through Old Shanghai. If you squint and imagine away how people are dressed and anything plastic, looks as if it hasn't altered a bit since the 1930s.

We also walked through a park that had this crazy exercise equipment instead of the normal playground stuff

and thought "how unusual to have a park full of exercise equipment," but we ended up seeing these things all over China. Maybe it's a Communist thing: the people must be fit.

We also spotted this fun scene: a guy getting a shave on the street, right by the shoe-shine guys.

There was a huge shopping street, whose name escapes me because Chinese names are really hard to remember, but we did it backwards from the tour-book way and so went to this lady's place first. She was great, with her kinky hair and nose ring, and I saw no one else like her in the rest of our trip. I think she's my Chinese sister.

Her shop had a sorts of cool stuff and pseudo-antiques in it.

After her shop, the mind-boggling number of stalls selling the exact same watches, figurines, toys, and pseudo-antiques as each other wasn't as exciting. That isn't to say we didn't buy anything. The stuff was unique to us and quite cheap. We did the whole haggling thing, which is both kinda fun and rather aggravating, and did better at some times than others, but hey, it was still cheap.

We walked by this place, but didn't go in. This picture brings me to relate my first public toilet experience in China. Public bathrooms around the world are always fascinating. (They are, just trust me) In Italy, you can go into any cafe and use theirs (in the US, you have to be a customer). In Japan, you can use the nice Western-style ones in any combini (like in gas stations in the US), or in the more public ones like train stations or touristy sites, they have the slipper-shaped squat hole that I'm totally used to and sometimes prefer for hygienic reasons.

I was prepared for a hole in the ground, but this one was a whole new experience. 3 stalls, with no doors. A tiled gutter to squat over, communal to all 3, that was flushed out periodically. Otherwise, all the waste matter is sitting there waiting for the next flushing. The no-door thing wouldn't have been so terrible, except the next waiting customer stands there and watches you do your business. The women after me didn't even wait until I had done up my pants before she pushed her way into my space to take her turn. I had to laugh. A nervous, kind of horror-filled sort of laugh, but humor was required for the situation.

So. We visited the Bird and Flower Market, which is a giant warren of a pet shop with every kind of small animal you can buy and take home. This ain't no Pet Smart. Utter chaos, people shoving around tiny alleyways and a cacophony of Chinese voices and animals sounds.

These guys were obviously popular. Crickets.

I guess a lot of guys buy them and carry them around in their little houses. When they are cold, they don't chirp. When they warm up, they do. They chirp when in a pocket, giving comfort and companionship to the owner, and when they want them to shut up, they expose them to the colder air outside. Kinda cool.

We had some famous Shanghai dumplings for lunch. I was underwhelmed by them.

We walked some more, down a lane that was tree-lined, with birds in cages to sing and cheer strollers. A very ancient practice, I bet. And weird.

We were really over-stimulated by the time we got the Yu Gardens, so all we saw was the big, foreigner-thronged shopping area and the odd store-front-looking temple compound where you could worship your gods-under-glass. Missed the "garden" part completely due to being so overwhelmed by the amount of foreigners crammed in the Starbucks. I left before I could use the bathroom there. Too many damn people.

As the sun started to go down, we were heading toward the famous Shanghai skyline. I have never seen buildings like they have in Shanghai. So modern. I guess most of it was built in the last 12 years. Isn't that nuts?

We had to go up into the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. How could we not?

We had dinner up there in the second ball, a decent buffet including all kinds of weird Chinese stuff and the universal tater-tot, and got a view from above (it's 468 m or 1,536 feet high and the third tallest TV/radio tower in the world). I always thought parts of Tokyo were the inspiration for Blade Runner, but this skyline, with it's neon and crazy architecture and haze of smog, surely was inspired by the movie. Unbelievable.

(Incidentally, while we were up here, as our kids were borrowed for many group shots, we were acquainted with the fact that the Chinese thought that M was a girl. The long hair and the long eyelashes, I guess. This impression was universal, too, including the hotel worker in Beijing who refused to let him into the boys' bathroom.)

They also had a Space Center in one of the balls, and a much-more-extensive-than-expected history museum. Creepy-wonderful wax figurines about Shanghai's opium dens and Western influenced culture, and lots of propaganda about the noble farmer and the Anti-Japanese War, which is what they call WWII.

That was all in one day, can you believe it?

The next day was a lot more low-key, at least for us grownups. We stayed around the hotel. We had discovered this park the day before by the subway station, but didn't go in. It was a total low-rent kiddie amusement place, the highlights of which were the jumbo slide

and the Most Awesome Bumper Cars Ever. Fast, sparky, hard to control, whiplash-inducing collisions and just like they used to be before America got so sue-happy. Also notice on the right the cool pre-videogame shooting game (reminded me of Magic Shot). It had great recorded noises of dying animals.

If you ask the kids, tho, this might have been the best part.

They were in there for twenty minutes. The guys running it were so amused that they were taking a bunch of pictures with their cell phones and everyone walking by had to stop, until they had drawn quite a crowd.

The park was a lot more extensive than it looked from the entrance. Beyond Doraemon Kid Paradise, there was a sand beach where we stumbled across some kind of photo-shoot for a wedding magazine or something.

There was also a big lake with paddle boats and lots of paths through different kinds of landscapes. It was huge.

That night we went to Shanghai Circus World for an acrobat show called ERA: Intersection of Time. Multi-million dollar production with some of the craziest acrobatics I've ever seen. Apart form the usual flying and contorting, they had this huge ferris/hamster wheel that made me cover my eyes in terror of witnessing a horrible fall.

And you know those motor-cycle Ball of Death things like they had in The Simpson's Movie? They had one of those. But not just with one guy on a motorcycle. Not 2, or even 3. EIGHT riders, male and female, were zooming around at high speed inside this round cage. It shouldn't be possible. Amazing show.

Our last day in Shanghai was spent at the aquarium, the highlights of which were: The Scariest-Looking Alligator Ever, the ultra-creepy (to me) Giant Salamander, various weird-looking fish, and the World's Longest Underwater Viewing Tunnel. D was in heaven taking pictures, and decided he is going to be an animal photographer for National Geographic when he grows up.

It was then time to catch the overnight train to Beijing! I've done it once, Brussels to Prague with Karla, but a first for the rest of the family, so it was exciting. Before we got on, tho (after nearly missing it due to ignorance and station chaos), I manage to finally snap a picture of this kid. I was trying for like 20 minutes, because he had on the pants I had been seeing on toddlers all over Shanghai.

I guess they don't bother with diapers or training pants, and the bodily functions of toddlers fits in the same category as spitting and old men urinating on the walls: Eh, whatever. What city smell? Oh, watch where you're stepping...

Off to Beijing!

Lots more pictures of Shanghai here and the aquarium, where wonders abounded, here.