Thursday, February 12, 2009

"All My Bags are Packed, I'm Ready to Go..."

Well, here it is, the final entry from the other side of the world. Kind of never thought we'd get here, to this point. Not that any disaster was going to befall us, just that it seemed like such a strange undertaking that the thought of actually completing it never really occurred to Ed or I. But here it is: the last few hours. For any John Denver fans amongst you, I hope you can complete the next part of this entry's title.

At any rate, it is time for a brief review of the day's events and then, as must be the case with these kinds of things: reflection.

Today Dad and I headed out to the Summer Palace on the outskirts of town. It was an overcast and drizzly day, which I guess suited us Seattlites just fine. This rain was, in fact, the first time I'd seen rain in over a month. Amazing how much someone can miss rain...and amazing how much I didn't. But it was good conditioning for my return to the 206. The palace itself is a series of buildings, bridges and temples which wrap around a large lake. At the head of the lake a man-made hill was assembled for the emperor and a top it were placed more buildings, bridges and temples. Upon reaching the summit Dad pointed out how, if this was an artificial hill, he'd really rather not be on it during an earthquake. Now, it's stood up to a few of those before, but I share his sentiments completely. All of that aside it was a very beautiful place, and I'd imagine even more so during the summer. Yet, there was something nice about the mist (real mist, not smog) creeping across the lake and seeing the hills and trees with water upon them. Though these weren't the views a Chinese emperor took in (summer does not equal mist here, per se) it was cool to see what it might have looked like when no one was there (not mentioning the hundreds of staff who lived there permanently).

After that we headed to the Beijing Zoo to see the giant pandas. Ok, truth is: not that big. Really cool to see, and I took some videos of it, but still, they aren't that big. Dad and I then had a bit of an adventure as we trekked out through the streets of Beijing to find the nearest metro stop which, like everything in this city, is deceptively far away. We finally found our way into the subway system and then learned how things are done here. I can still safely say that Moscow dominates the competition when it comes to mass underground transportation, but the Chinese do have one very cool feature. In the tunnels between stops there are a series of TV's lined up and synced to be just off of each other so that as the train enters the tunnel and pics up speed they combine to be one continual advertisement, just like watching a commercial at home. How cool is that?

Dinner was glorious. We went back to Made in China, and I realize this shows a lack of variety on our part, the meal is just so damned good. We ordered the exact same things as last time: Peking duck, honey glazed prawns and eggplant. The duck is painfully good and the prawns, which are eaten whole, have some of the most amazing flavors I've ever found combined in a seafood dish. Now many claim that the Peking duck is the restaurant's premier dish, and while I won't disagree, I will offer up the eggplant. It is baked (I presume) with a few different kinds of peppers and seasoning, and during this process it essentially melts. The eggplant dissolves in your mouth and the entire dish resembles a stew. Pour over steamed rice...delicious.

Now for a brief introspection segment, I promise a full analysis from the comfort of home, but this will have to do as we are waking up in 5 and a half hours. Bummer.

I've learned a lot on this trip, not only about other cultures but also about myself. I'm not going to claim that it was one of those life changing experiences like climbing Mt. Everest or anything so extreme, but over the course of the past 32 days I have noticed a subtle series of changes within me, affecting both my opinions and viewpoint. A lot of what Ed and I have done has been within the safety of Mir's travel guide work. We always had someone waiting for us when we got off the train. We had people to give us important documents and walk us through the processes. We always had a hotel room. We lived out of suitcases, not backpacks, and we ate at good restaurants, not buffets. This trip could have been done in a much more hardcore fashion, as the Lonely Planet originally intended for it, but it was still an adventure nonetheless. Edward and I became proficient travelers and learned to just enter a city, with no real idea of which way was north or what the really meant, and just headed out. We would walk down streets, regardless of their names or directions. We marched through Mongolian slums, Siberian housing districts and Moscovite shopping promenades; all with the same determination to see where it would lead us - without concern for our surroundings, merely a genuine curiosity.

The other day Ed and I were having a discussion about America and its place in the world and he brought up an idea that has been voiced by people who study cultures and nations. The idea is this: that Americans are, by now, genetically predisposed to willingly take risks with little regard for personal safety, that they are literally made, from conception, to head forward into the unknown and not look back. The theory behind this being that all the people who have come to America over the centuries have been risk-takers. The first pilgrims uprooted everything, climbed in tiny boats and sailed across a huge ocean, not knowing how long it would take or what would happen when they got there. The colonists tore themselves away from the awe-inspiring might of the British Empire and forged a new name for themselves. Over the decades people from all walks of life and every corner of this earth of left everything they've known and loved and feared, to head to America, for a chance at freedom. All of this means that, as we've grown in size, our second and third and fourth generations have been bred from people who blindly set forth towards an idea, and achieve there what cannot be achieved anywhere else, wherever there may be.

Does this mean Ed and I marched across frozen tundra with nothing but a small light at the end of an impossibly long tunnel? No. Did we brave the elements or live in hostels or sleep on people's couches? No. Did we discover new lands or alien cultures that civilization has yet to meet? No. We were two Ivy-League educated guys with suitcases and a pre-planned itinerary, knowing exactly where we'd begun and exactly where we'd end. But within that we had room to wander, to explore, to discover things which were new and alien to us. We learned of the backwards nature of the Russian culture, of the oppression of both Tsarists and Soviets alike. We saw what can happen to a people who are ever looking over their shoulders, trying to climb back into the womb of comfort and consistency they once knew. We drank with these people. We ate with this people. We danced and talked and shared jokes with these people. We quietly observed their ways and mannerisms. We began to understand, or at least tried to understand, how an entire country could claim they were having fun, while not smiling; or glare at strangers from behind suspicious eyes. This is a nation that has been so beaten down that they really have no future as we Americans see it. They don't follow their hopes or dreams because to do so would be pointless. They don't move away from religion (as many countries do) but have run back into its arms. They don't want capitalism to breathe new life into their economy, they want to all have 40 sq. meter apartments and job security and no need for personal responsibility. Everything about us is the antithesis of everything about them.

Our journey took us to a dirt-poor 3rd world country which is one of, if not the only, true democracy on the planet. The capital city is a polluted waste where people live in tents and shit in the street. Where cheap coal is burned in small metal stoves to heat people's homes. Where one US dollar can by 1500 units of their currency. And yet...these people are ever-smiling, always ready to say "hello" and simply wanting to talk or share something. Unlike here in China where if someone notices you speak English they are probably trying to sell you something upon approaching you, there in Mongolia, people just like people.

Beijing, Xi'an. Both great capitals of the ancient and modern world. The people here, while raised in a totally different world than my own, are emotive and smiling, wearing Nike and forging a culture of their own amidst Communism and Capitalism, between the East and the West. Unlike in Russia where everything current in media, culture and art is taken directly from the West, here people are making their ethnicity and their style match in a way. Even though the Chinese are wearing Western styles and listening to Western music, they do it their way.

And though more will follow in this reflective narrative of mine, for now, it is time to go. "Little Wing" by Jimmy Hendrix just came on, and I have to appreciate it fully.

From Beijing: Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening, and Good night.

Last Pictures from Beijing


Dad standing infront of the Seventeen Archway Bridge in the Summer Palace. Oh Chinese people...always with the inventive names.


The view above from halfway up the massive man-made hill which rests at the head of the lake in the Summer Palace. Remember what I said about an Emperor's ability to move heaven and earth with a word? Yeah...that.

Dad halfway up the man-made hill with a good sized courtyard in the back which lay to the left side of the main way up. The black thing in the center is an all-bronze temple.
Me standing in front of a courtyard which was a mirror image to the one behind Dad in the previous picture. The difference being his were square buildings and mine were octagonal.

Me making a face in the main level of the Summer Palace, one of the hundreds of Guardians scowling down at me.

This is For Fun

video

Here Dad displays a certain lack of understanding in the realm of technology when he tries to take a picture of me in front of something.

video

Then I go and do the exact same thing about an hour later...

Technology: 2

Dad: 0

Armen: 0

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Confucius Says: Today Held a Gong, a Brit, a Lama and a Departure.

Ok, so the last few entries I've stated somewhere in the first couple sentences that it is going to be a brief article, and inevitably it isn't. This one will be.

Today we got to sleep in (til the gloriously late hour of 9 am) and the three of us grabbed a small breakfast. The Raffles does a really good job of just about everything and as a result, their breakfasts are amazing. The Chinese do a mean croissant. At any rate we did that, showered and helped Edward pack all his stuff into his bags. They are literally in danger of just exploding at any moment. There is so much pressure in the duffel bag that when it goes off, he might create a miniature universe with the force of the blast. Either that or all his boots and cashmere gifts will be scattered across the tarmac at Shanghai International. Really hoping it's the former because at least then he can feel proud of his work as opposed to feeling shitty about the vehicles driving over his stuff.

Dad headed off to Prince Gong's Palace while Ed and I caught the world's third longest cab ride (as measured by time spent not moving rather than physical distance) to the British Consulate. There we met Grahame (a guy from the train) who is England's 1st Secretary of Education and English in China. This means he's a diplomat even though he was a mere University professor a year ago. He is very funny and entertaining and the three of us had a good time eating at a local place. He was disappointed he didn't get to meet Dad but settled on talking to the two of us for awhile.

Dad, Edward and I reconvened at the Hotel in the early afternoon and set off to the Lama Temple to take in the sight of (among other things) an 80' tall, 10' wide statue of Buddha carved from a single Sandlewood tree. Very impressive. The video attempts to capture it, and fails. Points for effort though, right?

It was after finishing the Lama Temple that a very sad thing happened, Edward got in a cab and headed for the airport. This marks the end of his and my 31 day adventure together. But...life must go on and so too must touring.

Dad and I hit up the Confucius Temple (not nearly as cool as the Lama) and then walked to a park. Park...not so interesting on account of everything worth seeing being closed. So we cabbed it to this very pretty area around a lake near the Forbidden City, grabbed coffee at the world's most perfectly positioned Starbucks and toured about another pagoda. We watched the sunset form on top of this tall island in the middle of the lake. Beautiful beautiful scenery. And, as we all know, a natural sunset isn't nearly as pretty as a sunset working it's way through pollution, therefore the sunsets here are amazing. See, there's a silver lining to the dark, oppressive cloud that is the Beijing air.

Dinner consisted of a great meal at the Crystal Jade Palace (where they do this playful little dish consisting of fried chicken - a la Peking duck - goose liver and mango, all held together in a small cup of lettuce and eaten like a taco). I'm beginning to really dig how they do things in this country, minus the fact that no one except hotel staff seem to speak English, which is fine until you actually need something...

And this is how we ended up here, on the brink of sleep, with only a few words to say on the day.

From Beijing: Good night.

Some Pictures from Today

Prince Gong's Palace.



Starbucks: Because they're everywhere.

Another part of Gong's humble abode.



Dad in the Lama Temple compound.

The last picture of Ed and I on this month-long odyssey. He caught a cab about ten minutes later, headed to Shanghai.

Another Panorama

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This is us at the Lama Temple. Sorry about the shift of quality from 21st century digital to the sudden appearance of a 1970's documentary, the change in light sort of freaked the camera out.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Well Today I Learned What it Feels like to Smoke 3.5 Packs of Cigarettes...

Hello from the other side of tomorrow.

It's now just past midnight here in the Middle Kingdom (a name still used by Chinese today to refer to themselves) and I am going to fire out a quick entry telling everyone what happened in the last 48 hours.

Monday, February 9th, was an opportunity for the three of us (Ed rejoined the group) to experience first-hand the majesty of the Forbidden City. The Royal Palace of the last two Imperial Dynasties (circa 1400-1911) was home to the Emperor, the Empress, multiple concubines, a veritable army of maids and, of course, eunuchs. Bummer. Castration aside the palace is an enormous masterpiece. The compound has always been at the center of Beijing and is nearly 1 square kilometer. Every single building has a specific purpose and its rank within the palace is designated by the number of animals on the corners of the roofs. The places which belonged to the Emperor himself had 11 animals, other important officials/royal family members/the Empress had 9, concubines between 5 and 7, and everything else seemed to have 3. But, of course, there were many holy temples or sacred constructions which had 9 or 11 animals but were used only once or twice during an Emperor's reign.

Each building in the Forbidden City has a truly impressive name, such as the Palace of Condensed Beauty or the Temple of Accumulating Purity. This led Edward and I to naming every building we arrived at the most obscene string of nonsensical titles we could achieve at the given moment. Example: The Temple of Everlasting Glory to the Eastward-Facing Dragon of the Half-Impregnated Flowering Lotus Belonging to the Inner Sanctum of Expansive Knowledge, Inner Harmony and Dancing-Confucius Dreaming Ancestral Spirits of the Terrestrial Moon-Shaped Singing Orchid. This...never got old.

Our childish yet witty antics aside, the Forbidden City is an astonishing place, and it is sort of numbing to try and conceive of what it would be like for this Emperor, a living god, to go about his day-to-day life. There were countless stone carvings or jade sculptures which took hundreds of horses and thousands of workers a number of decades to drag from one end of the country to another. A seemingly endless series of vignettes were related to us by the audio guide about how no one could cough or twitch or look back or stand or scratch themselves while standing near the Emperor during long meetings...or how one concubine would become jealous and murder all the sons born of other concubines...or how the Empress Dowager Cixi did something cruel and controlling to yet another individual. But the simple fact remains that the man who lived at the center of this palace, rarely ever leaving, was revered by half a billion people as a god and his word was absolute law. If he wanted to have a thousand people beheaded for his own amusement (didn't happen), all he had to do was ask; if he wanted a new concubine or wife or temple erected in his honor, all he had to do was tilt his head slightly and hundreds of thousands of lives would be changed instantly (did happen).

As one might expect of a compound this size, it took us the better part of a day to go through it. We were left with little time but Dad still had an agenda. So what did we do? We raced to the Children's Palace and the Imperial Park located outside the Forbidden City, then caught a cab up to the Drum and Bell Towers. While we were in the first tower we were able to witness a performance of musicians working the massive drums. It was really cool and should be in video form in the post below. At any rate, as this day progressed we noticed the continual creep of a fog-like substance until, by nightfall, it was impossible to see more than 1/2 a mile. This fog-like substance is referred to by the Chinese as "mist" and by the rest of the civilized world as "smog" or "pollution" or "lung-scorching-asthma-inducing-headache-causing-slow-acting-death-clouds". That last one was another one of those naming tangents courtesy of Sixer and I. But the point remains the same. Ed - being asthmatic - has been complaining of the effects the pollution was having on him for the last two days but Dad and I had yet to experience this. Yesterday, however, gave us ample opportunity. The symptoms include a burning sensation down one's trachea, a tightening of the lungs and a dull-ever-present headache in the back of the skull, plus a sort of stupefying sensation behind the eyes. Experts say that Beijing is the most polluted city in the world and that an average day is equal to smoking 70 cigarettes in 24 hours, but it was definitely worse than an average day on Monday.

Evening brought to us dinner at a Taiwanese dumpling restaurant which was Delicious (yes with a capital "D") and a fireworks show of epic proportions. If anyone wants to know what a city experiencing heavy urban warfare sounds like, hangout in Beijing during the celebration of the New Year or of the end of the Spring Festival, which Monday was. We were also treated to the sight of the 40+ story Mandarin Oriental Hotel going up in flames as we drove past in a cab. So...not exactly an average day at all.

Today we woke up entirely too early after all three of us got shitty, brief sleeps and caught a cab to the airport. (Oh PS - Ed has moved in down the hall in the Raffles). We got China Air Flight 1231 to Xi'an and found ourselves 595 miles Southwest of Beijing before 10 am. A guide named "Sarah" picked us up at the airport and led us on a tour of the ancient capital of China, home to 8 million people and the 8,000 Terracotta Warriors. But, like all good guides in China, our excursion didn't really begin until after a "tour" of the Terracotta Replica Factory which, coincidentally, was also a fully functioning store selling everything from life size warriors to lacquer boxes to carpets. Industrious people.

The self-proclaimed 8th Wonder of the World is...really impressive. The first pit is home to over 6,000 warriors and is several times the size of a football field. These eternal soldiers stand in battle formation, 1.3 kilometers east of China's first emperor, facing away from him, ready to protect his earthbound soul for as long as they exist. This emperor was a really big douchebag though so it's no wonder he built an army of soldiers to guard him in the afterlife. During his reign it took 720,000 "labourers" 38 years to build his burial complex which remains, to this day, the largest tomb ever constructed. It's not that the tomb itself is the largest (the pyramids dwarf it), but rather that the entire amount of land given to this emperor's final resting place, and the number of buildings and walls that marked it, take up the most amount of space. It is true that the three of us agreed these warriors could be presented to the public a little better; that aside it was amazing to not only get the chance to see these ancient warriors but to act upon it.

Following the tour of all 3 pits and a library, we headed to the Pagoda of the Bigger Wild Goose. What is the Pagoda of the Bigger Wild Goose you might ask? Well...it's a pagoda (which I take to mean - in this case - a large tower) which has been turned into an upscale version of another such model found in India. The original was simply the Wild Goose Pagoda, so when a Buddhist master came to China, this one was erected in honour of that. The Buddhist lama who this particular tower was built for was one of the many who worked their way Eastward. He was the type of guy who had hundreds of disciples and untold thousands of books, all of which he brought on this journey to China. Of course, as any good Buddhist teacher would do, he tossed all these books in a river one day causing his students to nearly drown themselves in an attempt to save these holy texts. The point here was undoubtedly to prove the fragile nature of life.

When this Buddhist lama arrived in Xi'an he asked the Emperor to build him a tower akin to one from India in order to house his many volumes. This was done and, in the 7th century, the Pagoda of the Bigger Wild Goose was completed. The lama himself was one of those self-righteous types who insisted everyone fast constantly and beat themselves with sticks and pray to the gods by sliding his body up and down against hard rocks. He was also one of those lamas who, before dying, asked his students some mind-bending question such as: "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie-pop?" The top 13 lead disciples, who had been with him the longest were so worn down from swimming after books and starving and stick-beating, that this last meaning-of-life question caused them all to simultaneously suffer brain aneurysms. However, the looks of exasperation on their faces were mistaken for looks of understanding and it was said that they had all achieved Nirvana.

Is any of this true? Hard to say, I totally zoned out during the guide's speech and just got lost staring at a carving of some monks swimming after books and about a baker's dozen of bald dudes lying in peaceful poses. I do know for certain that the PBWG (as we shall call it) was built after the smaller WGP in India and that it was built to hold some Lama's massive book collection. The rest, while the brainchild of a tired and under-caffeinated 22-year-old American tourist, actually doesn't sound far off the truth, so we're going to go with it.

As for the rest of the day: we hopped a flight back at 7:30 pm, arrived at 9 and, after a failed attempt to see how impressive the mag-lift train was, ended up getting home at around 11...Edward, I'm looking at you here for this whole train-taking idea.

Also in other news Edward and I are now clean-shaven, no longer having need for extra-warmth on our faces. The result? We look like overgrown 12 year-olds.

Well everyone, it's late here and I think that spinning feeling in my head means it's time for bed. Either that or a tumor is forming from all of the pollutants I have been sucking in for the last few days. I'm going to go with the former for now but I think Beijing will be lung-cancer central in the next ten years. Also, according to the same fanciful-half-checked-out 22 year-old mind, it will be like some terrible futuristic dystopia with continual acid-rain and mile-high towers, where only the rich can see above the layer of smog and everyone else lives miserably short lives, never having seen sunlight. But as I've said before, there are 1.3 billion people here, they can stand to lose a view to Vitamin D deficiencies.

On that cheery note: I wish you all a good day.

From Peiking,

Armen

PS - Everyone should go back to using the British names for places, Beijing to Peiking, Mumbai to Bombay, France to Le Land de MIlitarie Failures etc. They sound so much more Romantic...except for that last one, that kind of sucks...sorry France.