Sunday, September 11, 2011

China -- Day Three

Subtitled: Why Don’t We Do This, (More) Retail Therapy

Oddly enough as we prepare to leave Beijing, the day dawned sunny and warm. You might ask why I know this and it’s because I’d been up since 2:00 waiting for it. I guess one might say I have that affliction Bill Murray had in Lost In Translation, I just cannot sleep for the life of me, at least not when I’m supposed to. I brought this up earlier this morning with some of my fellow travelers, and given that there is both a family doctor and a pharmacist with a pharmacopia among us, apparently I will be hooked up with suitable sleep relief tonight. We’ll see.

Today I ate breakfast with Tracy and Margie. Since our luggage had to be outside our doors for pick-up by 6:30, we were all downstairs for breakfast when it opened. That got us marginally better pickings and at least a table together. I had the same breakfast as yesterday, only with more coffee and dumplings that were filled with cheese and something resembling blackberry.

We were off so gosh darn early to head to the Temple of Heaven. The Temple itself is situated in the midst of a big leafy green park, which is hard to come by in a city like Beijing. We were dropped at the gate and Stanley led us through the park. What we found there was actually fascinating and also heart-warming if you want me to be honest. Stanley had explained that men retire here at 55 and women at 50, so there are legions of folks with lots of free time to fill in their later years. Apparently they meet every day in the park to catch up with friends and do all forms of exercise, game-playing and catching up. I couldn’t believe how crowded it was and how active these “older folks” were. We first came upon a group doing tai chi to some soothing Asian-inspired music. There were groups playing badminton, smaller groups of friends playing cards, mah jong, dominoes. Women would sit and crochet things like small animals and bonnets and sell them along the pathway. A large group was dancing under the shade trees; it seemed each dance started off slow and relaxed and as the group danced to some pre-determined sequence of moves (it seemed they all knew the steps, we certainly did not). The pace of each song built over the 4-5 minutes in went on and it ended in a flurry of arm movements and swirls. There were musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments solo, and a trio of guitarists who were letting anyone who wanted to sing with them. All of this seemed so natural to them and it did give me pause to wonder why we don’t do anything like that. There was a sense of community and camaraderie that I don’t see at home. Plus too, not one of these folks was overweight. Is it because they do this every day or is it just that their daily life doesn’t lend itself to eating enough to be big. I don’t know, but this was extremely cool to be a part of.

We made our way to the Temple of Heaven, which was just gorgeous. The temple is round as heaven is round (so they think). It is designed in three levels (roofs) going up to a steeple like top. Stanley explained that it was constructed using no nails, because the Chinese believe that nails will eventually rust and give way, but if joints are constructed so that the pieces are interlocking, they will hold together forever. The colors and decorations (dragons and flowers mostly) were stunning, mostly blues and greens with some gold and red. Visitors are not allowed into the interior but we could peak in at the 28 columns holding up the roofs (28 for some combination of hours in a day and days in a month, or something like that). It was actually quite surprising how impressive this is, especially after all the buildings we saw at the Forbidden City yesterday that could arguably be considered bigger and better than this. Sometimes, I guess, a little less is more.

After the temple, we boarded the bus and were off to Pearl Palace, where we were shown how fresh water pearls are cultivated and then let loose into the showroom. The sales person asked us to guess how many and what color pearls were in one of the oysters we pulled from a pool inside the showroom. She then split the oyster shell opened and scooped out about 15 pearls. We each got to keep one as a souvenir, which was cool. I made my way through the showroom and quickly found a very affordable solitaire pearl on a chain (we got 30% off the ticket price, which I didn’t feel the need to talk down). I also picked up a ring, because hey, the price was right and I liked it as well as a gift for someone at home. Despite working my credit card down to a melted pool of plastic yesterday at the jade factory, it still worked here and the retail therapy took a bit of an edge off my ongoing jetlag.

I sat outside the shop in the gorgeous sunshine with Dan and Naomi, a couple from Oklahoma. We talked about places we’ve been and favorite places to revisit. Stanley then loaded us all back on the bus where we all agreed we could have spent all day watching the folks at the park just hanging out and being social. It was one of the best parts of the trip so far, for sure.

We had a 1:00 flight to Xi’an on China Eastern Airlines; the flight taking about 90 minutes. I had the noodle lunch on board, which was just noodles with green beans, shrimp and cabbage. I ignored the cucumber salad and the brown hard boiled egg and started munching on the copious chocolate I just bought in duty free.

Having left beautiful weather in Bejing, we arrive in Xi’an heavy rain and back in the low 60s. Stanley had hired us a luggage service on both ends of the trip, so the luggage that was picked up at my room at 6:30 was miraculously delivered to the flight in Beijing and appeared on the luggage carousel for me in Xi’an. It was sort of sweet to arrive at the airport just in time to get a boarding pass and get on the flight!

Once we arrived in Xi’an we had no choice but to persevere despite the rain. Half the group clustered under an overhang for shelter but I went with a few others to walk the Xi’an city wall. It is about 20 feet wide and 8 miles long. We did perhaps a city block’s length, but I figured I’ll only be here once, to hell with the rain.

From there we went to walk the Muslim Quarter, which has a significant food street market. I never thought I’d say this but I was actually tempted to eat street food, some of it looked and smelled so good. One in particular was a thin pancake topped with leek and scallion and some sort of cheese, then topped with another pancake and pressed, then fried. It smelled amazing. Walnuts and dates are really big here. Alan (Dong is his given name), our local guide, said they are grown right outside the city.

After traipsing through more rain and getting soggier still, we arrived at the restaurant for our 16 course dumpling dinner. After being a bit disgruntled with dinner last night, I was happily surprised with tonight’s. Dumplings are thin sacks almost like pancakes, filled with a stuffing of some sort (veg, rice, meat or a combination) and twisted into shapes. This restaurant is known for making the shape look something like what you are eating, so chickens, rabbit, walnuts, tomato, fish. Most of them continued with a somewhat bland theme that I’d discovered. But a few had a kick to them that made them really enjoyable to eat. The spicy chicken, extra spicy chicken and spicy pork were phenomenal. Bev and I were the only ones who like spicy foods so a lot of those were left to us to finish, which is clearly not a problem for me! There was also a pumpkin spice dumpling which I loved, but I would being a pumpkin fan. This was the first time we had Chinese rice wine, which is like a much weaker version of Japanese sake. It was too sweet for some, but just right for me! As I’ve given up on seeing any dessert but watermelon (and I hate watermelon!), I stocked up on Dove chocolate bars and am presently indulging as I get ready for bed.

We don’t leave until 8 a.m. tomorrow but luggage call is at 7:15, so another sort of early morning for us!

China -- Day Three -- Special Edition

As I’m on the plane on the way to Xi’An, I figured I’d write up some of the more anecdotal things I’ve neglected to share in the blog so far.

At the jade factory yesterday, I won’t say the saleswoman was hard sell, but when I expressed an interest in a bangle, she pulled out a display tray of them, grabbed my wrist and slid a plastic bag over my hand and started trying to force (my impression, not hers, I’m sure) bangles over my hand. Now don’t get me wrong, but I was thinking that if I need to employ any method of persuasion to get a bracelet over my hand, it is probably too small. Yet she squeezed the widest part of my hand together and said “RELAX” and I tugged my hand away and said “I don’t want to own it” and she finally backed down. I’m thinking hard sell here might have meant “stick it on them so they can’t get it off and have to buy it.” Ultimately I got a bracelet I can get on and off without butter, soap or Crisco.

Stanley is a really sweet guy and a good guide. But we noticed quite early on that he won’t eat with us. Every meal we’ve been to, they seat the 10 of us around a table and he will leave once we’re seated. He says he goes to eat with the bus driver and oddly enough he always re-appears just as the watermelon is delivered to the table. A few people had Stanley as a guide for a few days before the rest of us arrived and they said they played the game trying to figure out how old he is (born during the Cultural Revolution, that’s as much as we know) and if he’s married and has kids (married, no kids because “I’m a good Chinese”).

The gentleman I sat next to on the interminable flight to Beijing told me a story about a factory manager who works for him here. A couple years ago he called my seat mate who lives in Albany, NY and asked for a favor. It turns out his wife had just found out she was pregnant with a girl and it was their second child. They wanted to keep the baby but with China’s one-child policy, knew they probably shouldn’t. The factory manager wanted to send his wife to live in Albany to have the baby, who would then have dual citizenship in the US and China. Their plan was to return to China with the baby, with the fabricated story that it was a baby who’d been adopted by a US couple but then returned. It seemed they’d thought it all out, but ultimately they just had the child in China. The daughter, because she was the second child, would not be eligible for any social services (health insurance, etc) for her entire life because she was a second child.

Beneath Tiananmen Square is a network of tunnels that get you across the streets from the square over to the entrance to the Forbidden City and back again. These are pretty common in other cities I’ve been in, with the exception of the somewhat arbitrary metal detectors, which are manned by Special Police and overseen by an armed guard. We whizzed right past without stopping, whether that is because we had Stanley with us or not, I’m not sure.

I didn’t manage to dodge the squatty pottie for long. The really nice, seemingly upscale restaurant we ate at for our Peking Duck dinner had only squatters, which I think caught a lot of us offguard. At least they had toilet paper, I suppose. And in the domestic terminal of Beijing Airport, they had only one Western toilet available, which I gladly stood in line to use. Remind me to thank my PT for all those wall squats I’ve been doing for my knee, they are coming in handy for something!

I’m a sage with chopsticks at home having become a sushi freak. However, those are wooden bamboo so the roughness of the wood gives some texture to help you hold on to what you’re attempting to pick up. Here, they are nicely varnished, smooth wood. Here too, most of what we’re eating is in a sauce, which makes the food extra slippery. I will admit to having stabbed more than one bite of food with one chopstick to get some leverage. Call it cheating, I call it survival skills.

The Chinese superstition, if you call it that, is unbelievably limiting. The things that Stanley has said are almost hard to believe. Like when China bid for the Olympics, they either wanted 2000 or 2008, since 2000 was the millennium celebration and 8 (as in 2008) is a lucky number for them. As we know, they got 2008. But other little things like being aware of your birth zodiac (I am year of the dog) and when it comes around again, because every 12 years it will and that will be a transition year for you. You shouldn’t do anything risky or unusual in your transition year, and in fact you should wear something red all year. Men typically will wear a red belt. Generally they really believe in numbers and that 4 is really bad because it sounds like the Chinese word for “dead”.

Stanley taught us how to write some Chinese characters. He drew one horizontal line for “one”. Two for “two”. Three for “three”. All three together can also mean the three parts of life: earth, heaven and something else I can’t remember… To write “emperor” draw a vertical line through the three lines. To show “jade”, draw a dot to the right of this same symbol. To show “country”, draw a box around all of these characters together.

Which leads me to how these folks text on their cell phones. Being the computer geek I can be, I asked Stanley to show me how he texts. He does use a Western alphabet on the keyboard, but what they have to do is type in how the syllable sounds, like “bei” and “jing” for Beijing. Each sound he types will reveal possible characters to choose from and he has to scroll through to pick the one that matches the tone he wants, because don’t forget that each character can be spoken in any one of four tones, each tone changing the meaning of the character. Yikes. I said that it all seems tedious, but he said once you’re used to it, you can do it pretty quickly.

Walking to dinner tonight, I saw a woman carrying a toddler out of a shop with a sense of urgency. She had him facing forward, arms around his waist. She got to the top step of the store and squatted down, holding him over the next step down. He leaned back, spread his legs, letting his pants split open (on purpose) and his private parts popped out only to pee all over the top step. I guess this is just how it’s done here…think of the savings on diapers. Think of how quickly I’m burning these sneakers when I get home.

I've seen some pretty interesting uses of the English language.  One small take out restaurant was called Glutton Kitten, another Nice Rice.  The best billboard I've seen was today, for a "come to Xi'an" travel promotion:  "The Amorous Feelings Tourist Festival".  Now that ought to lure them in!

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