Saturday, September 10, 2011

China -- Day Two

Subtitled: Stanley’s Proverbs, Amy’s Proverbs, And TMI about the Duck

Despite a 12 hour time difference, I was still awake at 3:00 to feed the cat. I suppose I’m nothing if not reliable. Problem is, I did not get back to sleep until 5, only to wake at 6 in order to be ready for our 7:45 departure.

Breakfast here is like the wedding dress sale at Filene’s Basement. The breakfast room is massive, with maybe 100+ tables, but when I appeared for breakfast at 6:45, there was a line and every buffet station was crowded. This buffet had everything I’ve ever seen before in my travels, plus salad, dim sum (mostly dumplings) and the Chinese idea of pastry. I had yogurt, canned apricots and beaches (yes, it was spelled “beaches”), pancakes with sugar and jam and a bowl of cereal and OJ. The couple from Oklahoma convinced me to try a dumpling, which was good, but not breakfast material for me.

I withdrew from the ATM in the lobby (convenient!) and we were off. The day started out with light rain and cool, maybe low 60s. I very quickly added a layer under my windbreaker and by the end of the day would wish for more. Our first stop of the day was the “Egg” National Opera House, just for a photo stop. The Opera House is shaped like, well, an egg, not coincidentally enough. It lies atop a moat and you would enter it by walking through a tunnel under the moat, but we weren’t so we didn’t, but we walked onward toward Tiananmen Square.

Our guide Stanley is a man with a mission. As he started out the day, he noted the wet weather and told us “Confucius would say ‘Noble people travel with the rain and the sun’” so I guess today we were to be noble people. I’ll just add that as a Spinning instructor, I’m supposed to know what to say to motivate when the chips are down, and this one didn’t do much for me. But it was a nice thought.

We entered Tiananmen Square on the same road that we drove on last night. Through the rain, we admired the square, albeit quite briefly. Stanley had arranged a group photo that would be presented to us later that day in a souvenir book. The wind was turning umbrellas inside out and we were getting wetter than hoped. Yes, the square here is large, larger indeed than Red Square. It is surrounded by a massive building housing Mao (Lenin might be more than a bit disconcerted if he knew he was in a phone booth, comparatively speaking), the National Museum and the People’s Congress, which are massive, official-looking buildings. While I give points to Tiananmen for vastness, it didn’t feel like a place people would go to hang out, indeed as I said they’re chased out at the end of the day. I feel as though if I stayed here, I wouldn’t keep going back like I did in Red Square last year. I’ve seen it, I’ll move on. Like the guards at Red Square though, the soldiers we saw guarding the flagpole (huh?) here also pack it in for the day at 8 pm, so props to our guys at Arlington National Cemetery for being the only ones to put in round the clock hours!

Crossing under the street to get over to Tiananmen Gate into the Forbidden City, we had to pass under Chairman Mao’s photo, which was sort of cool, given how many times I’ve seen it in the media at home.

The Forbidden City is gorgeous; it is also massive, but not tall. It appears spread out more horizontally than anything. I was more than a little surprised to see the throne room which I think was actually used for the movie The Last Emperor, or at least a very good facsimile was. I did learn quite a bit in the end. The interesting part for me was about the concubines the emperor was allowed to have. Stanley told us the emperor would select a concubine he wanted to spend time with. The eunuchs would then clean her and prepare her for the emperor, then wrap her tightly in a quilt, so that she couldn’t stash a knife to try to assassinate him. Then the emperor would only spend a few hours with the concubine doing, well, what emperors do with concubines. The emperor would then retreat to his own quarters to sleep. Competition was fierce among the concubines because their social standing could rise if they could provide the emperor with a son.

The trivia I learned here may someday come in handy. Vases of water were kept around just to prevent the wooden structures that made up the city from burning. The lion statues are male and female: the male has his paw on an orb, the female on lion cub. The Chinese invented civil service. An Empress Dowager once ruled through her sons and nephews from “behind the curtain” off the emperor’s office.

So after a very brief (just over an hour) cursory run (literally) through Forbidden City, we were off again. But not before my first encounter with a squat toilet. Well, I managed to dodge this one. The Forbidden City public toilets had two Western style (like you’re used to) and the rest were holes in the floor with strategically placed footprints to help you hit your mark. I managed to get into a Western style toilet, but had to use my own toilet paper, which thankfully I packed.

We had lunch at a small neighborhood restaurant, and it was pretty similar to the lazy susan dinner we had last night, where plate after plate of food just keeps landing on the lazy susan for us to pounce on. Orange chicken was one of the plates at lunch, which surprised me. There was also a delicious red onion dish (as in: red onions were the star of the plate) and a cinnamon or Chinese 5 spice beef that was good. Every meal ends with watermelon. When the slices of watermelon show up, time to go home. I’m not a melon fan, so I usually sit and wistfully remember the stash of chocolate and candy corn back in my luggage.

As we left Beijing, we passed by the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest from the 2008 Olympics. That actually was pretty cool to see. Both of them are just huge, much larger than I remember on tv, and when we came back through tonight, the Water Cube was lit up to an electric blue that just throbbed into the night sky.

On the way to the Great Wall, Stanley explained that Mao wrote “You haven’t become a hero until you’ve climbed the Great Wall.” He proudly declared that today is the day we’d become heroes. But not before a strategically placed shopping stop for jade. Jade is China’s precious gem, and the Chinese believe it has healing qualities. In my second proverb of the trip, I say “Any shopping stop is a good shopping stop.” After a guided tour through a workshop to see how jade was cut, we were let loose into an immense showroom of everything you could imagine in jade. I flagged a sales girl and made her chase me around like my personal shopper. I’ve wanted a jade bangle bracelet for ages and that was my first stop. I ended up with an A-1 quality certified lavender bangle…good glory it’s unreal, but not cheap. We did get “Stanley’s discount” but still. I also picked up a few gifts for folks at home and immediately felt that my retail therapy was helping both my dessert neglect and my jetlag. I visited the “museum piece” room and fell in love with a white jade bowl with two orange jade koi fish swimming in it. It was cut from one piece of jade that was white with orange in the center and it was explained to me that master cutters know how to design with the colors as they appear in the jade.   It was about US$12,000, so I wisely passed on it.

Back in the bus and off to the Great Wall. Along the way we passed a few other places we could have stopped to see some Wall, and all of them were deserted. I wondered if Badaling, the section we were visiting would be as well. It had stopped raining but was overcast and damp. I also saw some shrine pavilions built into the mountainsides and random camels here and there. We pulled into the parking lots and found them deserted as well. Stanley said weather was on our side because it wasn’t crowded. It was, however, much cooler here and damper still. We gathered as a group and were given the option to go to the right, the “mild side” as Stanley put it, or the left which was more technically challenging. You know exactly which way I went. Tracy, a tour member from North Carolina, hung with me for about 10 minutes, then she agreed to sit and wait and take my photo as I continued the climb.

It took me about 20 minutes to reach the highest tower on this side. Some of the gradients were insanely steep and on the last set of stairs I was literally crawling using hands as well as feet to pull me up. I really didn’t think it would be this steep at all, and as someone who spends upwards of an hour on a step mill a couple times a week, I broke a good sweat. At the top, I had a stunning view back to the “mild side” but the part further on on my side was shrouded in clouds, so I turned and went back down, only to be reminded of my HELLO VERTIGO. Yowza. As steep as it was going up, it was almost more work going down, preventing myself from falling forward or running out of control. Oddly enough there are hand railings here, but they are about knee height on me, so not a lot of use. I found myself almost sitting back to prevent a lurch forward. Finally I got to the bottom and in a fit of stupidity, took on the “mild side” with the time I had left. It was milder, but not by much. I made it to the base of the stairs at the third tower here and my legs told me to stop. They were not taking on that set of about 80 stairs and coming down again happily. So I retreated and found a shop that paints Western names in calligraphy. Cool.

The Great Wall, in my opinion, is really best appreciated once you’ve climbed it. I think if I had just shown up and seen what I could see from the parking lot or visitor’s center, I wouldn’t have the appreciation for how it winds not just up and over and down and around, but also across the mountains. And to think the entire thing was built in 10 years? Hmmmm.

Dinner tonight was in one of Beijing’s famous Peking Duck restaurants, Pianyifang. Back to another round table with a lazy susan. Appetizers galore started to appear, and once again the lotus root dish disappeared in a flash, it is a real crowd pleaser! The chef appeared with our duck and carved it down before us, laying little slivers of the meat on a duck shaped dish, so that the meat almost looked like the dish’s feathers. The waitress took a pancake, put some thinly sliced Chinese celery or cucumber on it, dipped a couple of pieces of duck in the hoisin sauce and then artfully wrapped the pancake around her chopsticks and presented each of us with a tube of duck deliciousness. As you can imagine, my attempt at the same exercise ended up looking a hot mess, but still tasted really good.

I am, however, getting a bit uptight about the communal eating. The duck experience lent itself to a lot of double dipping and illegal use of chopsticks in the group’s shared bowl. I could tell others felt like I do, so we just backed off and stuck with dishes that had serving spoons with them. That said, I was more than a little dismayed when a small plate appeared on the lazy susan nearest me and I quickly realized that was the duck’s head split in half and artfully presented, which several at the table later pontificated was for decoration only, except they’d missed how the woman next to me tore into it for every last tasty morsel, then compared notes with the woman next to her about how the beak meat tasted, and did she work her way around the eye or what? Which lead me to Amy’s next proverb: “Yes, there is such a thing as too much information about a duck.” Good glory, dinner’s over….

1 comment:

The Spinningman said...

I'm tired after today,I need a vacation