Monday, April 26, 2010

Far Eastern Promises... Beijing...

Far Eastern Promises... Beijing...

I have always been fascinated by China. I have probably watched every television special on the Great Wall, Chinese inventions, and cuisine show ever made. My earliest memories about China were when Sesame Street went to China to find a phoenix. I can remember Big Bird and Farley (the orange dog) traipsing down the Great Wall singing with little kids swirling around them while practicing their Mandarin. For some reason, the complete strangeness and mystery of China always stayed with me. So you can imagine how absolutely pumped I was when [NAME REMOVED] found a really inexpensive trip to three of China's major cities over our Eid Al-Fitr break.

[NAME REMOVED] was equally excited, but also apprehensive about traveling to China. She originally visited back in 1982 with her family at the tender age of [AGE REMOVED]. The China she fondly remembers was one of millions of people huddled together on the roads of Beijing, everyone riding bicycles without a car in sight. People would come up to her in their matching blue and grey clothing and pull her blonde hair to see if it was real... not ever having seen blonde hair before. Her China was that of a China struggling to find its identity after the death of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. She was anxious to see how China had changed, but was also afraid that it would forever change her memories of a once very special and very different place.

We booked a trip through Gate 1 Travel ( a really good discount tour company. This would be the first time I ever traveled with a tour group, so I was a little hesitant that we would be stuck with a bunch of stodgy, boring people. No such luck. We also picked up a good friend of [NAME REMOVED] that works in a sister university in Education City that would be joining us. Our third wheel, let's call her Dork, is a bundle of frenetic, spastic energy wrapped up in a ninety-pound package of sugar. Dork is a ton of fun so I was hoping that she would bring some good energy to our group.

Also... I'm calling her Dork because she is just that... a dork. You should see some of the pictures of I took of her... she's the Mayor of Dorktown...

We flew out on a direct flight to Beijing from Doha. Upon arrival at the airport, you know you are in someplace not like anywhere you have ever been. The throng of people bustling about in their new, magnificent airport, built special for the 2008 Olympics was energetic. It was cool until we had to stand for an hour to get through customs. In the Far East, they take the H1N1 swine flu pretty seriously. We had to go through four separate checks to make sure we weren't carriers... including three separate thermal imaging cameras before we could get into the country. Once through customs we were herded down an escalator that opened up into what looked like a dead end... until the subway cars pulled up beside us. Having nowhere else to go, we nervously got in ([NAME REMOVED] "this wasn't here last time") and were quickly off. The international terminal is several kilometers away from the airport terminal, and everyone has to take the train to get out.

As we exited the train, we spotted a plump Chinese man holding up a Gate1Travel placard with BEN written on it. Thinking it was for me, I went up and introduced myself. Thankfully, he was our guide for the next three days... and it turned out that his name was also Ben.

Ben had been working as a tour guide for seven years, and spoke near perfect English from his studies at University of Chicago. He put us into a tiny ten-person bus and we headed out to our hotel in the financial district of Beijing... and right off the bat... [NAME REMOVED] realized that the China from her youth was gone.

It its place was the new Beijing. A mammoth city full of towering skyscrapers and apartment buildings. Neon signs lit up the streets and red lanterns and banners filled every open surface. We lucked out in that the 60th anniversary of the Communist takeover of China (their July 4th) was arriving the following week, and every city was decorated with hanging lanterns and beautiful sculptures. Our hotel was situated in a downtown area directly across from the state television center and its amazing multicolored antennae. Ben checked us into the hotel where we settled in and tried to get comfy. Joking about the tiny twin beds in my room, I pulled a full-on Nestea plunge onto the bed... only for it to break my spine.

Beds in China are made from river rocks and Portland cement. These were the most uncomfortable beds I have ever felt. I actually considered piling up my sheets onto the carpet in hopes that the floor was softer.

We joined up with Dork to enjoy a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant. The menu was entirely in Chinese (duh... ) but we somehow managed to order a large spread of grilled pork, won ton soup, assorted vegetables and dumplings. The food was delicious, if not a little greasy, but I was impressed for my first actual Chinese food in two years. Doha has one "Chinese" restaurant that serves the same Arabic food we always eat but served with soy sauce.

Funny thing trying to order our food, though. We had a difficult time trying to communicate with the waitress. Simple things like water took an enormous amount of effort to get across. This was a nice business hotel... we just assumed that the staff would have some knowledge of English... silly us. Good thing about eating in China... the beer is free... but you have to pay for water.

The next morning everyone awoke feeling like we had been tied to a tree and pistol whipped... goddamn rock-hard beds! Downstairs we enjoyed the regular businessman's breakfast of eggs, bacon, salad, raw fish, oysters, pickled eggs, fruit, and sautéed cabbage. And did I mention the gruel? They actually served a cool grey mush with I believe raw chicken in it for breakfast... yum. Best part was that they had jars of hibiscus juice that was the nectar of the gods.

It was after breakfast when we met up with Ben again and got to meet our travelling companions for the next nine days. It was an eclectic bunch, if anything. Now for the life of me, I cannot remember anyone's name, so I'll just make them up as we go along.

The Chicago Twins... two older ladies from the south side of Chicago on their biennial overseas shopping trip. These two were a ton of fun! One was tiny and cursed like a sailor. The other was an Amazon as big as me with a whoop of a laugh. Both of them reminded me so much of a cross between my mom and my dear Aunt Virg!! Swear to god, they could crash our family reunion and nobody would notice! Best part... they went to the corner store before breakfast so they could pick up some cigarettes and beer for the bus... loved them!

The Not Gonnas... a very retired couple who, judging by the day-glow orange skin color, had retired to Florida. These two were very friendly, but didn't hang out with the group very much. Also, they made it very clear from the start that they had no intention of buying anything, wasting any money, trying any new food, or having any extra adventure that was not listed on the tour brochure. She was much friendlier, but he had a huge stick up his butt.

And finally... there was Bill. Bill was by himself, and worked for Bridgestone tires in Akron, Ohio. And that was about all we got out of Bill for the entire nine days. Bill sat by himself, ate by himself, and probably would have preferred traveling by himself. We had to be extra careful not to leave Bill behind because no one could remember him.

We boarded our tiny bus and headed off to sightsee. Ben told stories about the history of China and facts about Beijing. Just after we got to the outskirts of the city, we pulled off to visit a cloisonné factory. These tours are extra cheap because they are partially subsidized by companies that pay tours to come and visit their cultural centers... and then tourists buy their stuff. I found it fun… the Not Gonnas thought it was a waste of time.

Turns out cloisonné are brass and copper pottery and figures decorated with inlaid copper bands and colored glass. It was actually very interesting watching the little women adhere brass ringlets to tiny vases before being kilned and colored. After the tour, we were ferried into an enormous room filled with cloisonné objects... some tiny, some so huge I could have lived comfortably inside a single pot. The prices were a little high... but who cares! I have the money, I like what I see, and I enjoyed the tour... so I'm going to buy some trinkets for myself with large markups...

After the factory tour, we drove for another hour or so until we reached the Tomb of Emperor Yongle at the Changling Tomb area. This area was forbidden to all Chinese for thousands of years because this area was the burial ground of many of their emperors. The main building was our first taste of classic Chinese design... dragons and painted symbols were everywhere under the tiled, curved roof. Ancient gold pieces and jade crafts were laid out in front of us. The smell of the gnarled, twisted pine trees swirled through the open air. At the rear of the compound was a three story stone tower that opened up next to the enormous hill just behind the compound. I thought this building was a grave... but it was the mountain behind that held the bodies. The huge mound that dwarfed the tower was manmade to hide the burial chambers underneath. When I asked Ben if they ever excavated, he said no... and that they probably never would disturb their ancient emperors' rest.

Next up... the jade factory. It was here that we were given an explanation of how to tell fake jade from the real stuff. They had pieces of carved jade that weighed over a ton! After watching them cut and polish some pieces, we led placed into the inevitable showroom, filled to the brim with gorgeous multi-colored sculptures and jewelry! I've never really enjoyed jade... but some things in this room were so beautiful! If I ever have $35,000 U.S. to spare... I'm going back for the life sized leaping tiger! I did have one piece made for me... I had my name carved into a piece of jade to use as a stamp with my Chinese zodiac figure (the Dragon!) on top. I remember Lavar Burton from Reading Rainbow getting one of these when he visited China.

Our first group lunch was served in a room adjoining the showroom. We were served family style on a tabletop lazy Susan. The meal was simple and was the same type of meal that was served to us wherever we went... fried fish in sweet and sour sauce, plates of stir-fried mixed vegetables including lots of cabbage, fried pork and chicken, a large bowl of soup, and a big tub of rice. And once again, the beer was free, but we had to pay for the water. The Chinese beer (including Tsingtao) was always really good... they really know their beer in China.

After lunch, our driver took us into the nearby mountains. A thick fog filled the valleys, making the mountains seem mysterious and ominous. As we twisted along the highway, we kept stealing glances at far away towers snaking through the hills. It then hit me... what I was seeing was my first glimpse of the Great Wall of China.

We pulled into a designated tour bus parking, and disembarked only a few feet from the wall. At first, [NAME REMOVED] was slightly disappointed. When she had first seen the wall as a kid, it was almost a mythical adventure just to get there... and now we had to option of getting a coffee or donuts on top of the wall itself. The section of the wall we went to is one of the most visited, and most touristy of them all. But who gives a damn!!... I was at the Great Wall of China.

It is massive. So massive you just can't understand. Fifty feet tall and thirty feet wide of solid earth, stone, and brick. The part we were on spanned a large green river and slowly climbed its way up to a peak on one side. On the other side of our path, the wall seemed to climb straight up into the air to a guard tower on the peak of the nearest mountain. We made our way to the first guard tower, taking photo after photo of just the right angle. The fog prevented us from seeing all the way up, but you could just make out the far tower beyond. As we approached the steps to start climbing, the task ahead made itself very clear. These steps were smoothed from millions of footsteps, and each was about two feet high and only about one foot deep. On many of the steps, my foot was much too big to get a good hold... and the steps just kept rising higher and higher into the sky.

I so wanted to climb to at least the second tower... I wanted that amazing view of the forested valley below. But unfortunately, two days prior to my flight to Beijing, I had another one of my "episodes" with my heart. My doctor told me to cancel the trip... and I told him that it wasn't going to happen. But a change in medication, including twice daily injections of blood thinner into my shoulders, was forcing my body into slowdown. I knew that if I pushed myself too much that I would be in some trouble... so I only climbed up a few flights of stairs and took a pass on the challenging sections.

Several vendors lined the flat sections of the wall, selling T-shirts, postcards, and even renting traditional costumes for photographs. I ate a frozen popsicle of unknown fruit origin while walking across the more tame section of the wall.

As far as you could see, the wall twisted and turned with the topography of the surrounding mountains. It was hard to imagine that it was built thousands of years ago... and even harder to believe that it was over two-thousand miles long in this mountainous terrain! Just amazing...

Even more amazing was that Dork made it all the way up to the top of the mountain. An avid runner, (and yoga, and Pilates, and spinning...) she said it was fun but tiring. One week later her legs were still aching from the climb.

After a few hours, we made our way back onto the bus, and left the wall behind. We were silent as we left the area and the mountains. Everyone knew that they had experienced a place that was so much grander in history and heft that is made our lives look small in comparison. But amazing things like the Great Wall do that to you... they put things into a whole different perspective.

Later, as we were driving through Beijing, we pulled over onto the side of the highway so we could take some photos of the arenas from the Olympics; the Bird's Nest and the Watercube, plus the Olympic torch. Traffic was preventing us from getting close, so we just got the photos and left. Before heading to dinner, we hit up a traditional Chinese tea house. Not so traditional anymore, since it was filled with English speaking tea ladies who explained the different types and styles of tea. It was really nice to see how they were prepared, and the tea was very delicious. [NAME REMOVED] fought like hell against me having any tea at all, since caffeine is on my do-not-ingest-if-you-want-your-heart-to-keep-beating list. But a little wouldn't kill me... would it? I do think the caffeine got to me as I went a little crazy in the tea shop, buying special tea glasses and a wide variety of Chinese teas.

On the side of a box of black litchi tea I bought was an English translation of the contents. Ben mentioned that they are normally translated by computer, so the translation is sometimes a little strange. Below this I am copying verbatim what it says on the box... please read this aloud for maximum effect:

"Litchi black tea cooperate with litchi quintessence modulate with high-quality black tea, fragrant to assail the nostrils fruit have, tea bad smell strong, enter the mouth thin to slip, its appearance piece Suo form detailed and straight closely, the color and luster is dark and moist, interior quality fragrance is fragrant, flavour is fresh and comfortable and fragrant and sweet, being color red and on, soup there is flavour of litchis, help digest, clear up stomach and wake up brain refreshing efficiency."

Our last stop of the day was our special dinner of Peking duck at a very well known duck chain. We were in a little restaurant with a giant fried duck on the roof... well why not? Our duck was crispy and we ate the skin on little wafers of rice with onions and plum sauce. Only problem was that we only got half a duck... we needed at least four more... but it was still very good.

Back at the hotel, Dork realized that her glasses were broken, and needed some repair. There was a mall across the highway, and we took a long walk around the block to get to the mall. This part of Beijing reminded the ladies of Brooklyn... tree lined streets with brownstones interspaced with little food stalls and shops. The Chinese people acted and dressed exactly like they do in any large city... very western and very stylish. [NAME REMOVED] was astonished at the change that had occurred during the last thirty years, and stated that it was barely recognizable from the China she remembered. The mall was like any mall, very large and filled with designer goods... and all were really expensive. We all thought that since everything was made in China, that everything would be cheap. But not so. Dork was able to get her glasses fixed while [NAME REMOVED] was finally able to get a soy-chai latté from Starbucks. We walked back to the hotel to get some rest. The girls went and had massages at the in-house spa while I made calls to my family... gloating that I had seen the Great Wall... and anxious about tomorrow's visit to the Forbidden City.

The next morning everyone was sore from the uneven stones of the wall and the beds from hell. It seemed that everyone's neck was slightly kinked while eating our breakfast sardines and hotdogs. Ben loaded us up onto the bus once again, this time to experience one of the wonders of Beijing… Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

As Americans, we all know of Tiananmen. We all remember the peaceful student protests that erupted into violence. We all know the image of the unknown man who stood in front of the tanks… one man against an army. And here I was, taking a minibus to the very sight.

We approached the square through a series of underground tunnels that were lined with security checks and metal detectors. The following week the square would be the headquarters of the country’s anniversary celebrations. After three security frisks and many stairs, we ascended up into the far corner of the square… and I mean one… big… square. It is one enormous open space with memorials and obelisks breaking up a clean line of sight. Thousands of tourists mulled around taking photo after photo of the vast open area. Directly next to us was the tomb of Mao himself, opened to the public on rare occasions like the anniversary. Getting passes to the tomb can be difficult, and the line only spanned about two-thousand people… so we skipped that part of the tour.

As we walked along the square, fifty-six huge columns were erected surrounding the main area of the square, draped in red with colorful figures painted on them. Ben told us that each column was painted with one of the fifty-six ethnic tribes of China. In the center of the square was a bulky square obelisk. As we got closer, we saw many children wearing the same outfit standing on all four sides of the surrounding steps. I thought they must be taking a school picture, since none of them were moving, smiling, or anything else. Ben corrected me, saying that everyday a different school gets the opportunity to “guard” the obelisk, which is the memorial to all fallen and missing Chinese soldiers. These students, some only in the second grade, are trained to stand motionless all day in honor of their countrymen. I can’t get my students to get to class on time…

Just beyond the monument there were scaffolding and small stages being erected for the anniversary celebrations… including the world’s largest high-definition television. Seriously, it was at least two hundred feet long! Showing a never ending stream of scenes from China and its history… really beautiful. I could have sat down and watched it nonstop… until the famous portrait of Mao hanging above the entrance of the bright red Gate of Heavenly Peace appeared. It struck me staring at that image on the monstrous television in front of me… because the actual portrait was directly behind me.

There he was… Mao. He was looking stoic and stern above the Gate of Heavenly Peace, overlooking an area that most Americans think of only when discussing the horrors of tyranny. We made our way across the street to the gate. Ben pointed out the spot where the tanks were stopped… just down the road. Large spraying fountains were dancing around us, set up especially for the gala to come. We were pushed into the lines to enter, and once again went through a round of security measures. Once through, it was almost magical…

Almost. You see, when you enter the Gate of Heavenly Peace, you come into a quite normal looking paved area that looks as if they were once stables… because they were. Down at the end of the walkway were Chinese soldiers playing basketball on a court painted on the tiles. This area is now where the soldiers who guard the Forbidden City live. As we walked through the trees, suddenly the gates to the Forbidden City stood before us. Those huge red walls and ornate building on top just took my breath away.

Have you seen the movie “The Last Emperor?” If not, go to wherever you get your movies, and get it right now. I mean it… right now. That movie, the first to ever be filmed in the City (as I’ll call it from now on) is the only one that gives a sense of scale to the massive walls. Inside the City itself is 9,999 rooms. It has perfect mirror symmetry. For generations, the Manchu emperor was never allowed to leave its confines… but neither would I if I had 6,000 concubines.

As you enter, you see the seven white bridges, of which only the emperor could use the central bridge. The buildings tower above the tourists on sharply raised pedestals of solid marble… each stair worn smooth by millions of eager sightseers. Each stairwell climbed and gate passed through led to yet another enormous courtyard. The golden roof tiles shone in the sunlight above the cobalt blue and jade green dragons gilded on the ceilings.

Ben let us wander for an hour with a promise to meet in the Hall of Mental Cultivation. I spent the time wandering around the temples and offices, climbing step upon step. When we first arrived, the City had just opened to the public, so there weren’t many people there. But as the day went on, thousands upon thousands of people crowded into the squares. Everyone was pushing and shoving to get the best pictures… and I stood out about a foot and half above the crowd. Looking around… there weren’t any other Westerners in sight. A few tour groups were mingled in the mix… Spanish, French, German… but no English speakers. When Mao ruled, he forcibly relocated people to the farms… like any good communist. People weren’t allowed to leave their “states” for any reason. It was only in the recent boom of Chinese wealth that allowed the once rural people to visit their own cultural treasures. Therefore… most tourists in China are Chinese.

Later, we took a walk through the museums of imperial treasures and saw how the noblemen and concubines lived. Twisting through a maze of walkways, we turned and entered into the emperor’s garden. Only the size of a few tennis courts, it contained a temple resting upon hidden stairs and walls of river rock and lava stone. Ancient gnarled trees bent their way around massive boulders and bamboo seats.

We soon found ourselves finally walking out of the City and across its massive moat to the north. As we quickly found our way to the bus, Ben nonchalantly told us that our path from where we got off the bus in the morning to where we currently were was almost a straight line… of three miles.

A quick lunch at the lazy Susan followed, and we were off to the Summer Palace. This palace wasn’t a palace at all, but a huge park built by an empress with money she stole from the royal Navy. The small palace was pretty, and the grounds were nice… until we walked to the other side of the courtyard. The principle of Feng Shui states that you should block the view from one room to another… I don’t know why, but you notice this a lot in China. For example, through a doorway into a garden will be a large boulder, forcing you to walk around to enjoy the view. In the Summer Palace, we had to walk around the palace to enjoy the view… of an immense lake entirely made my hand. Paddle boats and water plants lined the lake side while willow trees swayed in the wind. You could see the temples in the distance, and the manmade island. The earth dredged to create the lake was piled up to form a near mountain with the Temple of Buddhist Incense on its apex. Dragon boats ferried people from one side of the park to another.

We walked along to one of the main attractions of the park… the 728 meter long corridor. Before the time of the internet, cameras, or blogs (hint) the only way to preserve a record of one’s travels was to write them down or draw pictures. The empress brought along royal artisans to paint scenes of life during her many travels. She told her artists to build her a covered walkway and to paint these scenes on the rafters to remind her of these images. And there they stand… rebuilt several times due to war, the corridor stands with myriads of painting covering its beams in a perfectly straight line from one end of the park to another.

Other sights included a boat built entirely of marble, and perfectly white marble bridge where we felt the cool breeze coming off the water. A quick stop at a scroll shop, and we headed back to the hotel for dinner and some relaxation. We decided to walk around the hotel area, and try to pick up some treats and cash along the way. After passing a deliciously looking shop filled with fried sweets and cookies, we went up to the counter to try and purchase some. We frantically tried to show that we wanted one of everything, but the ladies behind the counter could not understand that we didn’t want a kilogram of everything. Same thing trying to buy a beer and some firewater… just couldn’t get our message across. [NAME REMOVED] and I were starting to get annoyed at everyone’s lack of English skills…

And then it hit us. We’re in China. We are about as far away from any English speaking country as you can get. This entire country was closed off to the rest of the world up until the 1970s. And hypocritically, we are upset that nobody speaks our language.

Now before you think I’m an ass for saying that, you must understand one thing… everyone speaks English. I live in Qatar, a Muslim, Arabic speaking country… and everyone speaks English. I’ve been to India, Cairo, France, Germany, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam… and everyone speaks English. It is almost impossible to go somewhere where they don’t speak my language. I’ve gotten accustomed to the fact that wherever in the world I travel, I can get by and function just like always with my total lack of language skills. Not so much in China. No one… and I mean no one… not the hotel concierge, the taxi drivers, or even the people behind the “Ask me a question” booths in the parks speak a word of intelligible English. I’ll just have to get used to it.

The next morning we left behind our horrible beds and headed out to our last stop in Beijing, the Temple of Heaven. The temple is inside a large green park in central Beijing. Ben told us that it is the favorite place for the older citizens of China to come and get in their daily stretching and exercises. I was thinking we would see a ton of people doing tai chi… not so much. As soon as we enter, we walked into about two hundred people ballroom dancing in the middle of a square. Right next to them were women using tennis rackets to hit a tailed ball around their bodies and between their legs… all in perfect unison. Women were twirling huge flags to music, men were kicking metal washers attached to feathers like a hacky-sack. The entire park was filled with music from different groups of people who had spontaneously gathered to create some music, either singing or playing an unknown instrument. As we walked through a corridor, little groups had gathered… on one side six people were playing the fife, while three feet away were five more people playing two strings violas. It was a strange, yet beautiful mixture of colors and sounds…

The actual temple is in the circular style, painted deep blue and gold. Against the rare blue sky of Beijing, it took my breath away. We walked through the courtyards and enjoyed our last few moments in this incredible city. Afterwards, we made a stop at the famous Pearl Market… a super warehouse of knockoff and real designer goods. I spent an hour buying a few t-shirts and gifts, while [NAME REMOVED] spent another few hours being our official haggler… ‘cause she is really good at it. Our bags stuffed with purses, shoes, and fake watches, we headed off to the airport. We said our goodbyes to Ben, and headed to the gate. The Chicago Twins were ecstatic when they discovered a vending machine right next to our gate the sold ice cold beer… nice. From there, we were off to our next city… Xian.


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