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Monday, February 25

When you build a Great Wall around you

I did not wind up in a Chinese prison, but I did end up with my second horrendous cold. KH seems to think it started just after our farm visit where we petted all those chickens. I think I never got rid of my first bout of illness and just caught another cold on top of it. I wouldn’t have minded being sick so much if it wasn’t for the fact that I remained nauseous throughout our trip, augmented by the weird and disgusting array of bugs and creature meats considered edible in China.

We arrived in Beijing late in the evening on Thursday. First impressions… it is filled with profuse smog and malodorous fumes. The buildings were strangely and utterly dark for an evening on a work week. Either they must have been more of a façade created to show the world a growing and great China or perhaps the law states that electric isn’t to be wasted in off hours. Either way… this really was a bit odd. Random fireworks pierced the night air for seemingly no particular reason. As we made our way into the city and our hotel about an hour from the airport, our cab driver showed us that he had no idea where he was to drive us. The address written in Chinese apparently meant nothing to him. Without any English skills, and we without any Chinese skills, he kept motioning for us to call the hotel… like we had a cell phone that we could use there or even speak in Chinese once we got through. Why he ever took our patronage is still beyond me. As he circled the area of the city he guessed we might be staying, I thankfully did spot the hotel’s name on a long green awning.

Friday morning we trekked out to the Forbidden City, which turned out to be a bit further than we expected in the icy winter air. Beijing was not blanketed in snow as much of the news had led us to believe all of China was, but frigid temps were securely blanketing the city. Passing by the popular image of Mao hanging on the outer wall of the City, we were shuffled in with a huge Chinese crowd. As much as I stand out in Japan, it was worse in China. The Japanese are notorious for the formulation of a polite stare out of the corner of their eyes; the Chinese would openly gape. One crowd approached us and asked for our picture. Turns out that one by one, they stood in between KH and I, even waving a Chinese flag under their big grins. When those pictures hit the internet, I pray that my country understands that it does indeed have my loyalty. After a quick breakfast made up of some strange muffins and a warm and flat version of Coke, we worked our way deeper into the complex.

Moving through the complex, the immensity of the Forbidden City is fully realized. We had rented English earphone sets that directed you through it, but halfway through the tour, our bodies were weary from the chills and mine from illness. We called an end to it and began the long walk back to the front of the complex. To express what this place is like if hard for me. Historically, it holds so much interest and fascination for me. Visually, I honestly thought it was a bit… underwhelming. The buildings are obviously beautiful with their bold red walls enhanced by elaborate blue, green and gold painting. One of the largest and most widely recognized structures in the complex is getting a facelift so netting obscured everything but its peaks from our view. Yet, so many buildings seemed to need care, either by cleaning or repairing pealing sections of paint. The moat that ran through the center actually had trash frozen into the ice that covered it. For all of the glory of this place, there is much more than can be done to preserve this ancient and amazing locale.

In our touring, we actually ran into people we knew… an oddity if there ever was one in a country as immense and populated as China. On the plane from Tokyo, we had met a couple that was going to China to adopt a son named Micah. Shock registered on both of our faces to see the other couple again in our foreign travels. They were to fill out the paperwork and meet their son in two days time… I pray all went well for them.

Leaving the main gate of the Forbidden City puts you directly across the street from Tiananmen Square. Since this is a major road with perhaps eight lanes, the only way across is to take the exhausting multitude of steps down and up underneath the road. While there isn’t much to see in this square beyond the National Flag and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, its flat starkness would certainly have been remarkable when filled with protestors and tanks in the events of 1989. I must be honest and tell you that the cold and my lethargy had worn me down so much at this point that all I could think about was finding a point along the massive highway where a cab would pick me up and take me toward warmth and a late lunch.

As I have mentioned before, I have come to realize that real Chinese food is just not appealing to my palate. With my recent stomach woes, this was even less likely to change. Every meal of our trip was centered around what smells didn’t make my stomach do flips. Perhaps this was not a good time to travel in a foreign country, but with nonrefundable tickets, you do what you gotta’ do. Lunch… a generic (but good!... and also very orange) Thai restaurant at the mall across from our hotel. After lunch was consumed, the seat underneath me radiated the coldness of my lower cheeks, a clear indication that I had not yet warmed from our earlier explorations. This gave me a perfect excuse to score some nap time and fight off the ills that gripped me. Only later did I find out that what I should have been doing was checking our itinerary. Man, I screwed it up on more than one occasion.

That evening, we were supposed to go to see the Legend of Kung Fu show. The tickets had been purchased prior to the trip, which were now secured in my purse. Only after we got dressed up for the evening did KH come to unhappily discover that I wasn not in possession of tickets but vouchers, with which I was supposed to call 24 hours in advance to secure the real deal. At the desk downstairs, neither the hotel staff (which never once smiled or said thank you in the expected hospitable-hotel way… this wasn’t our only experience with unsmiling, though never rude, service… China does not exactly have hospitality down yet) nor the travel service responsible for getting the tickets could do anything to salvage the night’s plans. All was secured for the next night, but now we were left on our own to formulate a new plan. As it was too early for dinner, we decided to check out the Silk Market.

What I was expecting in this market is certainly not what I got. When I hear the words ‘market,’ I think of vendors lined up in some old warehouse structure. I guess I am way too ‘Pennsyltuckian’ sometimes, because this place shocked me with its seven plus basement floors enclosed in concrete, glass and steel. The minute you enter and begin the walk down one row after another, you are confronted with the few words the Chinese have learned… “pretty lady, you want Armani shirt? You want Coach purse? You want silk robe? You want? You WANT… holy hell… YOU WANT?” At every single booth, they tried to drag you in and then trap you inside in order to make you buy something. There was no ‘just looking’! If you looked, they latched. For those that know me, I do not like to be touched by people I don’t know. So I definitely didn’t care for the many people who clung to my arm, almost hurting me with digging their fingers in, as they tried to keep me trapped in their little store until I caved and bought something. And if this confrontational approach didn’t unnerve me enough, they are expert hagglers… unlike anything I have ever seen in the nations I have past traveled. The rate was about $1 American dollar to 7.20 yuan and I had a terrible time converting this in the quick fashion that was necessary to be a good haggler. While I may seem to make a lot of snap decisions, when it comes to spending money, I do actually fret over cost a lot. In this kind of environment, there was just no ‘mulling it over.’ In the end, there was a lot more I wanted to buy, but I really just couldn’t deal with the stress of it. I’d rather have nothing that put myself through that. What I did want, I begged Kimono Hubby for his help in making the purchase. He turned out to be a pro at this sort of shopping! But he was often frustrated with my inability to bargain or to give him a fair price with which to aim for. The one deal I thought I got… turned out to not be a deal at all. Broken and tired, I just quit shopping. I do believe my health had a lot to do with my downtrodden state. This was one of many instances where I wished I could do more, but the mere effort forced tears into the corners of my eyes.

Trying to get a cab outside, the intrusions of goods being thrust at us continued until we scored a ride to the restaurant we had chosen for trying Beijing’s specialty… the Peking Duck. At a restaurant of elegance and beauty, we waited 45 minutes while they roasted a duck for us and then brought it out to carve at the table. A spinning wheel of condiments was presented and with a little direction from the server, we tried three major parts of the duck… the skin which is dipped in salt or a jelly-like sauce and melts in your mouth like cotton candy, and then two deeper sections which are wrapped into a tortilla-like shell and vegetables and sauces put on top of that. I should also mention that drinks had to be consumed without ice as we were implicitly warned of the dangers of the water in China. We had forgotten at the restaurant earlier and decided the best way to get buy was to down the drink before the ice melted into it, but for all future restaurants, we were extremely cautious. No ice made for some extremely strong cocktails, which often would play unhappily on my fickle stomach. Back to the duck… we had chosen a restaurant where we thought the head would not be served. In the words of the teenager inside of KH, “that is just so damn gross.” What only made him further disturbed was when they cut the head in half and laid it on the plate next to the other duck bits, where I picked up have and proceeded to scoop out the brain with my chopsticks. Don’t ‘eww’ me… it’s supposed to be good luck! The face meet was harder to get at since it stuck to the inside of the skull, but I tried. While this may have you reeling in revolt at me, it was actually one of the more normal things offered for consumption in China.

The next day we awoke early to begin the trip to the Great Wall. Thanks to a few recommendations received before we left Japan, we had already chosen to head to Mutianyu, one of the highest and less populated places to visit the Wall. A driver took us there and back for 700 yuan ($97) and we followed the words of advice of not paying him until he delivered us safely back to our hotel. The drive there took us far out of the city and into a very mountainous section of the area. A cable car got us most of the way up to the Wall and a short walk up a steep incline got us the rest of the way. Going on the weekend like we did risked the fact that we might be sharing the wall with hundreds of other people. We were so lucky to only discover about twenty people touring the area with us, often at such distances that they didn’t show up in pictures. There really isn’t much to do at this point, but hike and marvel… and hike and marvel we did. Like when we stopped to stare out at the lofty mountains and high ridges incensed in every direction and think about how incensed marauders would have felt coming upon this structure while under fire and surely fighting exhaustion. Just hauling ourselves up and down the heights of the wall against icy blasts was enough to wear us down. After taking in as much of the vista as we were willing to walk, we headed back down. Only at the bottom did we discover the toboggan our aforementioned friends had informed us of. Certainly the Chinese have proven that a bit of money-scheming thoughts have crossed their minds with the inclusion of this little product at such a treasure as the Great Wall. For only 40 yuan, you catch another cable car that brings you back up to another peak of the Great Wall, passing over an immense luge below. From the top, you hop on a luge and skid yourself back down the mountain. While you are not supposed to stop because you may hit the person in front of you, I did stop more than once. But for a good reason and it wasn’t crowded behind me… apart from KH. The woman in front of me was seriously frightened and held on to the brake for life (causing me to come within inches of cracking into her backside at one point), totally taking the fun out of it for people like me that wildly ignored the obvious shouts in Chinese of slow down from the lone Chinese man of safety standing along the lengthy luge. When he wasn’t watching, I would stop and let her get far ahead, then push myself going again in a way that ensured I would hit each turn hard enough to slid up to the upper edges of the track. With no safety devices limiting my fun and chicken lady far enough ahead, the luge was all sorts of entertaining.

Wheedling our way through more confrontational vendors (including one old lady that got pretty mad at us when we wouldn’t spend more for a magnet… something about rich American jerks…), we ate at the lone place for doing so – a truly Chinese noodle and dumpling establishment. The interior of the restaurant did little to warm us, but the steaming noodles and mystery meat dumplings did. The ride back to the city was made more pleasant by the sun warming the inside of the car and thoughts of the evening ahead to keep up the excitement.

We had time for dinner before we were to head out again. Still begging away from Chinese, we opted for Sizzler. It was a second choice and not so good. No wonder it isn’t a strong seller in the states. We should have opted for one of the seven KFC’s that were in a one block radius of our hotel. The Chinese really love them some KFC! Those places are literally on every block. I digress… the most remarkable thing about the meal was being handed back a 100 yuan bill. I had tried to use it earlier to buy something at an Olympics store and it had been handed back to me with the same dour look on the cashier’s face as had been there when we first approached her to pay. No explanation why she wouldn’t take the bill, but without any slight movement towards softening in her demeanor, I just put it away without thinking about it. The server at Sizzler was a bit nicer. She at least got out the words ‘not real.’ Do you know what this means? I was trying to use a counterfeit bill in China! If ever a chance to arrest me… there had been two right within an hour of one another. My face flustered red, I hurriedly got another to pay her and then got the hell out of there. Back at the hotel room, we pulled out every bill to inspect them. Sure enough, the watermark was quite different from the others on the vile bill. Do you know where I got that bill? There was only one place this particular bill came from… the ATM at the Silk Market the night before. An ATM gave me counterfeit money, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. Sure I could try to pass it off to someone that may not check it, but I certainly wasn’t going for that third strike. The bank screwed me out of $14 bucks with that bill. And I’m still angry about that bill. Worthless souvenir.

Moving past our cash woes, this night we did get to see the Legend of Kung Fu. An English speaking guide named Mandy picked us up with a driver and took us to the Red Theater, even taking us into the theater and directly to our seats. She was the first and only person who displayed what we except from hospitality services. Should you ever get to Beijing, go see this show! It is a blend of kung fu, acrobatics, music, dance and history… and it is truly beautiful. Our third row seats put us in line with the stage, a great place to be apart from one scene where thick misty clouds rolled off the stage and obscured everything, but the very peak of our heads. Everyone one around us felt the same discomfort as we uncomfortably absorbed in the perfumed mist through both nose and eyes and tried to still see what was going on during the scene in front of us.

Our last day lacked any sort of plan from start to finish. This vacation was unlike any we have ever gone on before in this respect as I usually plan down to the minute detail. But for this, well… I just wasn’t up for doing that. So on our last day, we just went were our thoughts and our feet guided us. A cab took us to the Temple of Heaven, which ended up to be the perfect place for a Sunday in Beijing. The park complex turns into something like a community center where everyone in Beijing comes out for the fun. People lined walkways playing cards, dominoes and Chinese checkers, joining in impromptu songs, playing bizarre musical instruments and kicking hacky sacks (even a many granny-looking types!) Other groups performed various dances, twirled streamers, jumped rope, played badminton and played a synchronized paddle ball game… I think it was called tachi… to music streaming from an old juke box. Every where you went, music and song filled the air with anyone welcome to join in. The scene there was truly heartening with a wonderful feeling of kinship radiating from the crowd. We checked out all the major stops inside the Temple of Heaven grounds and even tried to talk to each other from opposite ends of the Echo Wall. Apparently, one person should be able to talk to another on the opposite side of the long circular wall. As there were so many people, we raised our voices a little higher like everyone else to try to talk to one another. So we would know it was us speaking, we chose words to call out that we would recognize. Before we left, remember how I mentioned that you are not supposed to talk about “Communist China”? To get around this, we called communism gummy bears. And to talk about instances of propaganda, we used the word pancakes. These were the very words we chose to call out. I belted ‘pancake’ out several times, but never heard a response. After some time, we both gave up and met in the middle, only for me to find out that my other half never yelled out his code words. Which makes me look like the lone fool for yelling about breakfast food… hopefully no one understood. Although I did get a few looks.

After leaving the temple grounds, we headed over to the major hutong area in Beijing. Hutongs are the old housing structures that are built with high walls enclosing many homes and a courtyard in the middle. These structures are being torn down at an alarming rate to make way for the many new skyscrapers Beijing has built thanks to the upcoming Olympics and an improved economy. Unfortunately, tearing them down loses some of the beautiful history. This area is one being preserved with many of the places being turned into restaurants and bars. We had a surprisingly wonderful Chinese lunch at one such place and then found another bar that made for a great place to sit on comfy couches and stair out the windows at the people who stared back at us. We filled up on watermelon seeds and drinks while we soaked in yet another foreign country. Fearing we were melting forever into our safe warm haven, it was time to move on. We walked and walked and then walked some more. We passed different sections of hutongs. We passed large streets where we tried one snack that looked like a twisty doughnut, but almost broke our canines out of our surprised mouths. A plan emerged that we were heading towards Wangfujing Street, known for shopping and an intriguing market. It became painfully obvious that it was not as close as once assumed by KH, so a cab was quickly employed before I collapsed on the street. Wangfujing is a very modern street aside from an old market hidden off to its side. There, we found all of the creatures on sticks that we had heard about – snake, locusts (or something like it), scorpions… you could chose your passion. I typically would have been more ballsy, but with my still fickle stomach, I just wasn’t chancing an oddball dinner of the likes. The mall offered many cuisines, including yet another Thai restaurant we were sure to love and also wouldn’t have to worry about what it really was.

China. There was a lot of horn blowing. There was a lot of spitting. There was a lot of smell. But there was also a lot of culture. A lot of beauty. A lot of exoticness. A lot I will hold in my mind of precious memories.

China. I wouldn’t say it was ready for the Olympics, but I would say I was ready for it.


ablykins said...

Wow! I really enjoyed reading your awesome experience in China! I'm sorry your stomach gave you so much trouble while you were there! The same thing happened to me in Hong Kong, and I can definitely sympathize with you about aggressive market vendors! I just about lost my mind in the Jade Market! lol I'm totally shocked about the fake bill you got from the ATM! What a rip! Gratz on your Peking Duck encounter- brain and all! Sounds that in spite of being under the weather you were able to have a really memorable time with your hubby!

Mike S said...

Even with the new stuff you describe, I can see that even in the many years since my being there, the country is still being dragged kicking & screaming into the LAST century.

Anonymous said...

Amazing. We were there 10 years ago, it was a lot less commercial and the people were really friendly, we talked to lots who genuinely wanted nothing more than to practice English. But there was almost no spitting - we were almost disappointed.

Sorry you had a tough time, never much fun being ill.