Sunday, February 8, 2009

Big Walls, Tons of Walking, a Couple Restaurants and a Chinese Guy Named Henry

Hey Everyone,

It's Sunday here in Beijing and it has been a very busy day for us. Dad had some serious goals in mind and, for any of you who have travelled with Dad, you understand how determined he can be to meet these goals...But before I get into what happened today I have to review where we've been so far. Here goes:

We all arrived safely in Beijing on Friday, February 6th and moved into our respective hotels. Edward, Dad and I went for a lengthy walk through the backstreets of the city (also known as the hutongs) and took a self-guided, completely aimless tour around Hou Hai lake which is in the middle of the town, near the Forbidden City. This walk ended in a rather amusing rickshaw ride, one in which the driver of the rickshaw had clearly failed to accurately calculate the combined weight of three men, all of whom are well above 6 feet tall. We have a combined weight of roughly 600 pounds and our driver probably tipped the scales at about 63 take that, divide by three, carry the two and you get that he was totally outmatched...give or take a few pounds. First of all we barely fit, but that aside the poor guy's bike practically broke in the process (though I am not an expert on bicycles, I do know that chains should not make a retching, snapping noise every two minutes). We had yet to figure out the tipping system in China and therefore gave the guy a few dollars extra, which he demanded between big gulps of air. Call me crazy, but aren't you not supposed to actually ask for tips? Like, aren't they supposed to be one of those things that the patron does on their own, without your guidance? Oh well, totally worth hearing him demand, "Tippy tippy...deep breath, deep breath...tippy tippy...deep breath deep breath...TIPPY!"

For dinner we met up with Ed's friend and current host Alessandra at the "best" restaurant in Beijing, conveniently called: "Made in China". Unbelievably good. Their Peking Duck dominates the field of competitors. It was good. Even though it has the name it does and even though it is located in a Western hotel, it is almost unanimously considered the best place to go for dinner and duck in particular, anywhere in Beijing. Alessandra herself was a God-send for the three of us with her ability to speak Mandarin Chinese fluently. It was during dinner that Ed and I had a debate about exactly what "fluent" meant. One point of view is that fluent means being able to read a newspaper cover to cover, another is that fluent means being able to talk for an hour without a hitch. We decided, in the end, that fluent means when you have the vocabulary to ask a waitress, "Do we need to shell these prawns ourselves, or do they come whole and if the latter is the case, can you please crack them for us...oh, by the way, how sweet are these honeyed shrimp?"...Which coincidentally is exactly what Alessandra asked our waitress.

Dad faded out post-meal (this being Seattle + 16), leaving Edward, Alessandra and I to head out for the night. We toured a couple of expat bars and had a few beers in the process. Alessandra bemoaned the cost of 3 quai (RMB/yuan) per bottle of Tsingtao at a corner market, insisting that was 2 yuan more than what should be charged. For the record, it takes 6.81 quai to make up $1. If any of you know anywhere in the Western world where I can buy a large bottle of beer for about 48 cents...please let me know. This was one of many examples we discovered that night of cost differences between Asia and the United States. Another striking example being the $2 cab fare for a 15 minute ride. Little fact for you all: there are 96,000 taxis in Beijing, which, after some quick math, Edward decided was 3 times the number of cabs, per capita as in New York.

Beijing itself (educational time here) has a population of around 12 million in the metro area and 17.5 million in the entire municipal district. The Beijing Municipal District is roughly the same size (square miles) as the sovereign nation of Belgium. Big, big city. The name itself means "North Capital" (Bei - North, Jing - Capital), which I have to say is a pretty good example of how unimaginative the Chinese are when it comes to naming things. Any form of alcohol ends in the word "Zho" meaning alcohol, as in "white alcohol" (national equivalent to Vodka), "yellow alcohol" (white wine), "red alcohol" (red wine), "brown alcohol" (beer), etc etc. Other examples of this distinct lack of imagination came from our guide, Henry (yes, his name is Henry) who told us about a "cypress tree in the Temple of Heaven which looks like 9 dragons wrapping their way around each other, we call this 'the 9 dragons wrapping around each other' tree." He looked so proud when he told us that too...Another example is a piece of jade, which is white and nearly translucent, they call it...can you guess? That's right, "white and nearly translucent jade". So whenever you see a Chinese name written out for you, don't worry, it literally means whatever it says.

But back to our night out.

Edward and I experienced what might have been the strangest sight we have seen on this entire journey on Friday evening. Alessandra eventually took us to an expat club that was having Bob Marley night. What this means is that there we were, in Beijing, the capital of China, surrounded by Westerners and all 11 black people in the Beijing Metropolitan Area, jamming out to an all-Chinese band (complete with dreadlocks, Rastafarian colours and grungy clothes) which was singing "Buffalo Soldier" very very strange.

The next day Ed and I worked our way to Dad's hotel (The Raffles Beijing) and experienced a breakfast unlike any we had yet to experience. Not that either of us has had a bad experience on this trip, but if you'll remember the Irkutsk entry, it's not as if every room we've stayed in has been particularly...gracious. Totally different story here at The Raffles. So after this glorious breakfast we headed off to the Ming Tombs. These were cool. Dad ran into a couple people who worked in Radiation Oncology at Virginia Mason. Go figure.

After Ming Tombs, Henry took us to the unscheduled Jade Factory, where we were given a tour of their facilities which conveniently ended in their massive in-factory store. We shared a lunch after Dad bought a couple of small things (impossible to leave there without buying something...they really follow you around like flies) and then left after Henry collected his commission (he receives something for every tourist he brings).

This brought us to the Great Wall. For those of you who have never climbed the Great Wall it is a very, very cool experience. For those of you who climbed it pre-2008, it's a bit different now. Example: the massive "Beijing 2008: One World, One Dream" sign that is perfectly positioned to end up in EVERY photograph taken when one faces East. Another example is the absurdly tacky Chinese music blasted from speakers the entire way along. But, take heart, at some point the music stopped and was replaced with an announcement about times to see movies at the base of the wall, which alternated between an English and Chinese version.

This little rant aside, the Wall was very impressive and we took it in greedily. We walked a long ways out and climbed up some very steep slopes and stairs. (Thank you Cyrus for the leg workouts). Several pictures were taken and several street-hawkers were dodged. Finally Dad gave in and bought this pretty cool graphite engraving of the Great Wall from a guy who hadn't learned the value of haggling. Originally someone had offered us one for 50 yuan and this second guy stated it was 150. Ed didn't even have to mention the other guy he just "Fifty" and the guy goes, "OK!". Maybe it had to do with the police who were coming to clear these illegal vendors off the Great Wall...

After this we drove back to the city and got a look at the Bird's Nest and Water Cube from the Olympics. Both very cool.

Edward headed off with Alessandra after this and I am now no longer able to report on his whereabouts or activities. I can tell you, however, that Dad and I went to a very good restaurant for dinner last night and had a cool walk about one of Beijing's main shopping districts.

Today was a trip to this huge out door market that has something like 4,000 stalls and sells everything from high quality prints/baskets to total shit. But it was packed with people (being a Sunday) and was a ton of fun to walk about, looking at stuff, bartering with a few sellers, buying an abacus, walking around some more...all in all a good time and very cool experience. We hopped a cab to the Temple of Heaven park afterwards and spent the next 4 hours walking all over this massively-sized area devoted almost entirely to the 4 days of activity that occurred every year before the harvest. We wandered through several buildings and ceremonial sites, but in large part just took the place in. Eventually we left and headed along a major street up to Tian'namen Square, toured about that for a bit then worked our way to the hotel.

I think we walked about 6 or 7 miles today which was a fair amount of hiking about to do.

Tonight holds dinner (provided Dad wakes up from his nap soon) and then after that Edward and I might rendez-vous with several of the people we met on the train...hopefully...or I might just be going to sleep early. Tomorrow will be another big day which will include the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple and possibly a trip to the zoo (yay pandas).

Until next time.

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