Monthly Archives: September 2010

houhai & wangfujing: rickshaws & weeping willows, scorpions & golden lilies

Friday, September 24: On this journey to China, I’ve brought along a book called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a novel by Lisa See set in 19th century China.  I’ve been reading it at nights here in Beijing and just last night, I read the chapter titled “Footbinding.”  I cringed while reading this chapter, which goes into excruciating detail about the horrors of footbinding.  “Golden lilies” were considered much more important than a pretty face; tiny feet could improve social standing for a girl.  The way it is described is thus: the feet are bound with bandages such that the four smallest toes were rolled underneath the foot.  The idea was to get the toes and heel to meet, creating a cleft, but leaving the big toe to walk on.  As the bones broke within the tightening bandages, the flesh putrified, with blood and pus oozing out.  During this long tormenting process, the girl was forced to walk back and forth across the floor, causing the bones to break faster and to hurry the process along.  Apparently, one out of ten girls died from footbinding across the whole of China.

Lisa See describes in her excellent book that the goal was to achieve “7 distinct attributes: The feet should be small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture.  Of these requirements length is most important.  Seven centimeters — about the length of a thumb — is the ideal.  Shape comes next.  A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus.  It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all weight borne by the big toe alone.  This means that the toes and arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel.  The cleft formed…should be deep enough to hide a large cash piece perpendicular within its folds.” (page 26).

I have read of footbinding before, but not in such horrifying detail.  I cannot stop thinking about it and as we meet in the morning for breakfast, it is fresh on my mind. I tell Suzanne about what I’ve read after breakfast and she can’t believe it.  I wonder whether women still do it today and if they are still walking around China with bound feet.

Grace, our guide through the hutong

Grace, our guide through the hutong

Today we have a free day in Beijing, so Suzanne, a couple of other girls and I have made plans to go on a rickshaw through a hutong.  Our tour guide, Grace, arrives to take our little group in a van to the hutong; while we’re waiting for everyone to assemble, I ask her about the practice of footbinding.  She tells me it was banned when the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911, but people were still doing it until 1949, when it was finally outlawed forever by the Communists.  Footbinding was practiced for about 1,000 years in China, from the 10th century to the first half of the 20th century. Girls had no say in the matter, as their mothers bound their feet when they were 4-6 years old.  The resulting stumps were regarded as beautiful and exciting to men.

inside the drum tower

inside the drum tower

The pictures I have seen of these feet are so horrible and hoof-like, it’s hard to imagine why men would find them sexy.  They look like animal hooves, honestly.  I ask Grace if it might be possible to glimpse a foot-bound woman on the streets of Beijing today.  She says that it is possible.  I determine to keep an eye out for one of these women, but I never happen to see one during my time here.

the 69 longevity steps

the 69 longevity steps

When we arrive at the hutong, our little group goes to the Drum Tower, from the 15th century Ming dynasty.  In this tower, from which we can see Houhai Lake and the Forbidden City, drums were once beaten to announce dusk and to call imperial bigwigs to meetings.  Every half hour between 10 a.m. and noon and from 2-4 p.m. a group of drummers beats on the giant drums inside.  We witness this not-especially-spectacular spectacle and then climb back down the 69 longevity steps to go outside to meet our orange-vested rickshaw driver.

suzanne, me & our rickshaw driver

suzanne, me & our rickshaw driver

We cruise on our bicycle rickshaw through the alleyways of a hutong near Houhai.  In a whir, we pass through gray alleys, cluttered courtyards, public bathhouses, symbolic gates, bicycles, and other rickshaws. Street vendors offer fruits and women artfully display their vegetables.  It’s breezy & fun, zipping through what used to be the true Beijing, but is now just a carefully preserved specimen of what used to be.

the cozy tea shop where we have a more intimate ceremony

the cozy tea shop where we have a more intimate ceremony

We make a stop for an intimate tea ceremony at a cozy tea shop; since there are only eight of us, I feel this is more like what a tea ceremony should be.  The young lady here tells us we should take 3 sips of each tea for happiness, longevity, and a good future.  The local tea of Beijing is jasmine tea, which is supposed to relax the nerves and mind and help you sleep.  She tells us you can save the tea, dry it in the sun, and make pillows to help with blood flow.  Oolong, or black dragon, tea is made with boiling water and is best in autumn.  Green tea, made with 80 degree water, is best in summer.  She tells us the Chinese tea ceremony is more flexible than the Japanese one; the Chinese emphasize just relaxing and talking with friends.  She says when you have tea in China, you should relax and enjoy.  The procedure is not complicated.

the tea ceremony

the tea ceremony

We browse in the little shop following the ceremony; here I buy some tea and then we continue on in our rickshaws, making another stop at a courtyard house where we are treated to a lovely, but aged, little garden brimming with pomegranate trees.  The owner of the house invites us into his tiny and cluttered living room, where he serves us grapes on a plate.  Grace tells us there are only 100 courtyards remaining in all of Beijing.  In this particular courtyard, surrounded by a number of small buildings, 8 family members and their families live.

a courtyard house in the hutong blooming with pomegranates

a courtyard house in the hutong blooming with pomegranates

We get back in the rickshaw and since I have to take a bathroom break, we stop at a public bathroom.  Apparently, none of the houses in the hutongs have private bathrooms, so people use public bathhouses.  We see plenty of people wandering around the streets in their bathrobes.

After the rickshaw tour, Grace walks us over to the lovely Houhai Lake.  This is my favorite place in Beijing…the Summer Palace being a close second.  Houhai isn’t necessarily a tourist place, although it draws plenty of tourists.  It’s a thriving commercial area with funky and cool shops, restaurants with outdoor cafes and live music, weeping willow trees, paddle boats, bicycles galore, and a cool breeze blowing off the small finger-shaped lake.

the weeping willows of houhai lake

the weeping willows of houhai lake

In Nicole Mones’ book, A Cup of Light, she tells an interesting story of Houhai Lake.  I’m not sure if it’s true, since this is fiction, but she says “this was the body of water to which candidates who failed the imperial examinations came to drown themselves.  There were always those who chose to hurl themselves in the water rather than return home to face their parents.  Now their ghosts were here forever, mourning by the banks of the lake.” (p. 82)

communist dolls for sale near houhai lake

communist dolls for sale near houhai lake

One street back from the lakeside street are multitudes of shops filled with tea cups, pots and teas, journals and bookmarks, scarves and lanterns, clothes, Chinese masks, cushions, Buddhas, little Mao dolls in Communist clothing, shoes, traditional clothing, Chinese artwork & scrolls… too many desirable things!

our rooftop lunch place

our rooftop lunch place

We have a light lunch on a rooftop cafe where the service is atrocious; after, some of the girls take off to paddle-boat around the lake.  Suzanne and I go on a shopping spree.  This is the kind of shopping I enjoy, in shops where I can browse and find beautiful things, not necessarily things that I NEED, but things that will add beauty to my life, to my living space, things that will make me smile.  I buy a lantern, several scarves, a ring, a tea-cup with a ceramic insert punched with holes where you can steep the tea.  Not much, but these few things make me happy.

bicycles at houhai lake

bicycles at houhai lake

Suzanne and I wander around the lake.  It is so lovely, with a cool breeze sweeping the weeping willows on the lake’s edge, like soft woolen fringe on a Nordic sweater.  The lake is filled with dancing points of light, effervescent.  We take our time, meander and wander, and finally stop at a lakeside cafe ~ AUTHENTIC MEXICAN BEER! ~ where there is a Chinese girl playing folksy guitar tunes.  Between the two of us, we hardly have any money remaining, and I have just enough to get one beer.  It is so relaxing here, I think we could sit here indefinitely.  But we are due to meet up with some of the other girls, so we can’t linger long enough.

on the other side of houhai lake

on the other side of houhai lake

When we meet them, we split up to go into two taxis to Wangfujing Food Street.  We get separated from the other girls and never find them at the food street.  There, we check out all the bizarre foods: starfish, squid, octopus, giant prawns, sea cucumbers, scorpions on sticks, sea horses, snake, legs of lamb, silkworms, and some kind of drink with volcanic smoke erupting from it.  We see giant crickets, fruits on sticks, and the typical Chinese fare of dumplings and stir-fry.  I take a picture of a brave girl eating silkworms, but I am too afraid to try anything myself.  Yes, admittedly, I’m a wimp.  Besides, at this point Suzanne and I barely have enough money for the taxi back to our hotel.

the AUTHENTIC MEXICAN BEER outdoor cafe with live music along the lake

the AUTHENTIC MEXICAN BEER outdoor cafe with live music along the lake

At the end of the food street, we come to the modern and high-class shopping district, Wangfujing Dajie, which has a huge glitzy mall full of designer shops.  The best find for me is the Foreign Languages Bookstore, where I browse and find the Nicole Mones book and Cries in the Drizzle by Yu Hua.  I actually find too many books I want and since I’ve been starved for an English bookstore since I arrived in Korea, I could be happy to stay here all night.  But again, since we are short on cash, we figure we better take the taxi back to the hotel.

starfish for sale

starfish for sale

We catch a taxi and we have exactly 39 yuan between us.  I have 34 and Suzanne has 5.  The ride to our hotel is a long and convoluted one and we watch the meter carefully, nervously wondering if the taxi driver is taking us on a wild goose chase.  Finally, as the meter approaches 34 yuan, we pull into the entrance to the Holiday Inn Lido.  We escape the taxi with 5 yuan in our possession.

scorpions, anyone?

scorpions, anyone?

I am tired as we’ve been on the go all day, so I decide to get comfortable and relax and read.  Suzanne takes off to hang out with her friends.  I am back to 19th century China, engrossed in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  Our last night in China, I’m exhausted but happy to have come here. I have found a multi-layered culture of incredible richness and depth and am disappointed that I have to leave tomorrow morning, after just four days in Beijing.  I’m left wanting more.  I’ll have to figure out another time I can get back to China to explore the hinterlands and the other cities, like Shanghai and Hong Kong.  Hmmm… When (& HOW) can I do this?  A dilemma.

wangfujing food street

wangfujing food street

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Categories: A Cup of Light, Beijing, China, Chinese food, Drum Tower, Houhai, hutongs, Nicole Mones, tea ceremony, Wangfujing Dajie, Wangfujing Street | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

tiananmen square, the forbidden city, & kung fu fighting ~ with a few concubines & eunuchs thrown in for good measure

 Thursday, September 23:  Again, “it’s a lovely day for the birds” in modern-day Beijing.  At 25 degrees Celsius, with not a cloud in the sky, we couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect day.

me at tiananmen square

me at tiananmen square

Jerry tells us that this morning, “we’re going to do the walking exercise,” 3-4 hours, through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Tiananmen Square, which means the “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” may stand as one of the greatest public squares on earth.  It was enlarged to its present size 10 years after the Communist takeover, when the Party constructed 10 Soviet-style public buildings in 10 months, including three that dominate the square to either side: the Great Hall of the People and the museums of Chinese history and revolution.  In 1976, Mao’s mausoleum was added in the center.  Chairman Mao was the first Chairman of the People’s Republic of China.

tianenmen square all decked out for the national holiday

tianenmen square all decked out for the national holiday

I have read that the Square leaves most Westerners cold, but today, with a sky the color of cornflower and the rainbow of gardens erected temporarily for the 7-day National Holiday beginning October 1, the square is quite lovely.  Splashes of red are everywhere, from flags to a long video display that alternates Chinese characters on a bright red background and dancers waving serpentine banners. Jerry says the Chinese people will flock to this square for the National Holiday; it is a pilgrimage spot for many citizens who want to show their respect to the government.  Thus, the Square is all spiffed up for this upcoming celebration.  I think in the dead of winter, it could be a bleak and forbidding place.

another view of the immense square

another view of the immense square

I am in awe to finally be standing in this place and to feel the history and immensity of it.  It’s difficult to conjure up any violence occurring here on this lovely day with these gardens, the red flags, the peaceful atmosphere and the sparse crowd.

tiananmen square decked out for the national holiday

tiananmen square decked out for the national holiday

Jerry tells us a little about the meaning of the Chinese flag. The red background symbolizes revolution, the single star represents the Communist Party, and the 4 small stars represent the commoners who support the Party.

We leave Tiananmen Square and head toward the Forbidden City.  Chairman Mao’s picture hangs on the gate to the entrance of the Forbidden City, which was once the Imperial Palace.  Mao Zedong led the People’s Republic of China from its founding in 1949 until his death in 1976.  Very controversial, he is often revered by the Chinese for transforming the country from an agrarian society to a major world power.  On the other side, he was also responsible for destructive policies such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, bringing famine and damaging the culture and economy of China.  Under his policies and political purges, it is estimated that 40-70 million people died.

chairman mao on the gate of the forbidden city

chairman mao on the gate of the forbidden city

We walk into the Forbidden City,  the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of Qing dynasty.  Its 980 buildings were built from 1406-1420 and the complex covers 7.8 million square feet.  For nearly 500 years, it served as the home for emperors and their families (including concubines and eunuchs) and the political center of Chinese government. It was home to 24 emperors, 14 from the Ming dynasty and 10 from the Qing dynasty.  In 1912, Puyi, the last emperor of China was abdicated, and the Forbidden City ceased to be the center of politics in China.

the forbidden city

the forbidden city

I love many of the names of the palaces and halls:  The Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, the Hall of Union, the Hall of Supreme Harmony. I especially love the Palace of Pure Affection and the Pavilion for Listening to Cicadas.  I think I need to sit for a long time in the Hall of Mental Cultivation.  There is much symbolism in every detail of the imperial city, Jerry tells us: 1) Yellow is the color of the emperor so almost all roofs are of yellow glazed tiles; 2) the main halls of the Outer and Inner Courts are arranged in groups of three, representing heaven, while the residences of the Inner Courts are in groups of six, representing earth.  Symbolism is ubiquitous, but too long and complicated and outside the scope of this work. 🙂

The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987.  UNESCO lists it as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.  Apparently, many imperial treasures were taken out of the Forbidden City during the Japanese invasion and the subsequent civil war, beginning in 1931.  Currently, I’m reading a fascinating modern-day novel about the thousands of  treasures, especially porcelains, that were whisked out of the country, most of which ended up in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.  It’s called A Cup of Light by Nicole Mones.  This book has great descriptions of Beijing, including the Forbidden City and Houhai Lake, where we go tomorrow on our free day.  I highly recommend it!

The grounds are immense and meant to impress.  They do.  Except for the lack of greenery throughout the complex.  Otherwise, the buildings are beautiful and colorfully painted.  Huge expanses of stone cover the ground.  We wander around, taking photos and listening to Jerry’s stories.   In one, Jerry tells how eunuchs would roll up a naked concubine in a carpet and carry it to the emperor.  The eunuchs would stand outside the door and when they heard a cough, they knew the emperor was done and they would come to collect the concubine.

me at the forbidden city

me at the forbidden city

Apparently, when emperors changed, concubines that never bore a son were sacrificed.  Some concubines might only be with the emperor once in their entire lives. What a privileged life!  The city had special buildings for concubines and eunuchs.  Originally 46 acres, the Ming dynasty expanded it to 76 acres.  In the outer court, the emperor met with foreign dignitaries.

Jerry asks if we know what the Chinese call foreigners; he says the “respecting words” are lao wat, or “old foreigner.”  But in Beijing, people call foreigners “Big Nose.”

in one of the courtyards

in one of the courtyards

Jerry tells us that in 1978 China instituted the one child per family policy.  However, any minority group can have 2 babies.  If you have a Ph.D. or Doctorate, you can have 2 babies.  Or if you are the single child in a family, you can have 2 babies.   Jerry’s birth year was 1980; his family are Manchurians, so his parents could have 2 babies. If people want to have more than 1 baby, they can apply for baby tickets, thus getting the government’s permission to have more babies.  Two years ago the price for a baby ticket was $15,000 USD.  Under the one birth policy, if you happen to have twins, it’s no problem.  If you have one child and it dies, you can have another.  But if you get pregnant with an extra child without the government’s permission, that baby becomes what they call a “black baby”: the child will have no I.D. card, no social security, no pension and cannot attend public schools.

the imperial gardens and a pavilion

the imperial gardens and a pavilion

The thing that is missing most of all from the Forbidden City is greenery.  The space is drab and expansive and maybe imposing, but it’s not warm and welcoming like the Summer Palace is.  However, at the far end of the Forbidden City are the gardens, which are quite lovely with their artistic arrangement of rocks and twisted trees surrounding beautifully painted pavilions.

After leaving the Forbidden City, we head to a tea ceremony.  Since there are 33 of us, we sit at a long conference room-type table.  It’s definitely not cozy.  Again, an experience which should be quite lovely is ruined by the sheer size of our group.

sampling tea at the tea ceremony

sampling tea at the tea ceremony

Later, though our itinerary said we would be taken to the Silk Market, the tour guide changed the plan and took us instead to the Yashow Market.  This looks like many of the cheap tacky markets in Seoul or in Daegu, South Korea and I know immediately I am not interested.  It’s a huge enclosed multi-level warehouse type of building with stalls selling sporting goods, clothing, and cheap knock-offs.  I HATE this kind of shopping, as I do in Korea.  I immediately go in search of something else to do and find a coffee shop where I sit outdoors under an umbrella and sip a vanilla latte.  Later, a couple from our group comes to join me.  When I get up to find a bathroom, I ask them to save my seat.  However, when I come back, a group of Russians has taken my seat and the girl of the couple isn’t even apologetic about letting them take it.  I’m pissed because now I have nowhere to sit.  I wander around a bit outdoors and then, too late, see a manicure/pedicure place where I try to go in for a manicure.  However, the place is too busy and though they promise they will do it, my time runs out and I have to leave before they can deliver.  Oh well, a wasted afternoon, at least in my book.

bicycles outside the yashow market

bicycles outside the yashow market

Later we have a dinner of Mongolian barbeque, which is pretty good.  Some Chinese singers perform and some lady in a fancy costume comes up and puts a royal blue scarf around my neck, which she says I can keep.

the red theatre ~ where we see the legend of kung fu

the red theatre ~ where we see the legend of kung fu

Finally, in the evening, we go to The Legend of Kung Fu, “the most exciting Kung fu show in the world,” at the Red Theatre.   I beg to differ.  The story is of a boy in an ancient temple who practices Kung Fu and Zen, becomes a master, and finally reaches the sacred goal of enlightenment.  Since we have already seen the acrobats who were flying (with the help of cables attached to their waists), I am hoping to see something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  It is a nice show, but underwhelming.

Categories: A Cup of Light, Beijing, China, Forbidden City, Nicole Mones, Red Theatre, The Legend of Kung Fu, Tiananmen Square, Yashow Market | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

jade & pearls, the crowded great wall, the summer palace, and a strong-arm chinese massage

Wednesday, September 22: This morning, I am greeted by a delectable treat: an omelet, bacon, hash brown potatoes, orange juice & toast with jelly, all Western foods that are hard to come by in Korea.  A Western breakfast is one of the things I miss most in my temporary home.  The buffet spread at the Holiday Inn LIDO is fabulous and, though I know that when you’re in a foreign country you should make an effort to eat the local cuisine, I am utterly delighted to sample as much as possible of this buffet spread.  Though there are Chinese offerings, I pass them by happily to eat the things I took for granted in the U.S. but now quietly but steadily crave.

a sailing ship carved out of yellow jade

a sailing ship carved out of yellow jade

By 8 a.m., we are off to the Great Wall, but first, of course, we must make a stop at the Jade Factory.  This is an apparently mandatory tour group stop on the way to the Great Wall, but it isn’t so horrible really.  We get to see a guy sitting in a glass cage carving some jade, a demonstration of how to tell fake from real jade (which I’ve now forgotten…), and then we are “allowed” (encouraged) to walk around and shop.  The thing I find the coolest is this jade ball with 9 diminishing-sized balls inside; apparently it is all carved from one solid piece of jade.  We also see a huge intricately carved yellow jade sailing ship that is quite amazing.

the great wall at badaling, 70 km northwest of beijing

the great wall at badaling, 70 km northwest of beijing

Jerry tells us that in China there are 1,500 kinds of jade, but 3 main types: 1) white jade stone found in the street markets; 2) jade for carving; and 3) jadeite, which is the harder top-quality jade.

me at the great wall

me at the great wall

As we drive toward the Great Wall, Jerry says in his cute little accent: “It’s a lovely day for the birds.”  We couldn’t have wished for a more perfect day to see this amazing section of wall where every tourist from Beijing goes, the Badaling section.  This is apparently the best preserved section of the 5,600 kilometer wall that stretches from the bank of the Yalu River in the east, over mountains, across grasslands, and through deserts to the Qilian and Tianshan Mountains in the west.  These walls along China’s northern frontier were begun in the 5th century BC and continued until the 16th century.  Jerry asks us if we know who the wall was meant to keep out and many of us guess the Mongolians.  Jerry tells us that it was built to keep out all foreign invaders, not just Mongolians.

a huge bottleneck on the great wall

a huge bottleneck on the great wall

Our group disperses with instructions from Jerry to be back by 12:30.  It is 11 a.m., so we have 1 1/2 hours.  We begin our climb, but there is a huge bottleneck of tourists packed on the stairs.  We take a step or two, then stop, then move a step, then stop.  It is claustrophobic on this most gargantuan of walls — a wall so big that astronaut Neil Armstrong said it was one of the two construction projects on earth that can be clearly seen from space.  We can see across a valley another large section of the wall that is empty, yet here we are, hundreds of tourists, jammed into this one section of wall like canned tuna.  We mutter among ourselves, wondering why all the tourists are brought to this one section at the same time of the morning.  Later I find this Badaling portion was the first section to be opened to tourists.

the wall on the other side of the valley ~ empty!

the wall on the other side of the valley ~ empty!

As we move further up the stairs, it becomes evident that the stairwell is narrowing.  In addition, people are descending down the same stairwell.  Tourists are holding on to the railing on the right as they ascend steeply, yet others keep pushing into the center to shove past the people on the railing.  Everyone eventually comes to a standstill when this narrowing stairwell and the descending people converge with the climbers.  I hear a French delegation complaining about this.  Though my French is bad, I can understand that they are irked that the people climbing are not making way for the descenders.  I find myself wishing I could speak better French so I could agree with them wholeheartedly.

the more sparsely populated section going to the 3rd watchtower

the more sparsely populated section going to the 3rd watchtower

Finally, we get to the first watch tower, and many people, thank goodness, are only willing to climb this far.  This decision by so many thins the ranks for those of us who want to climb higher.  I stop briefly inside this first watch tower and check out the views, but after getting a whiff of urine in the watch tower (I’m sure someone peed in there!), I head out pell-mell to enjoy the remaining climb in relative sparseness and fresh air.  I climb to the 2nd watch tower and then to the third, where I encounter a sign that says “He who doesn’t reach the Great Wall isn’t a true man!!”  ~ Mao Ze Dong.  I guess since I reached it, I must be a “true man!”

the sign on the wall of the 3rd watch tower

the sign on the wall of the 3rd watch tower

The walk up is exhausting, but of course I can never resist climbing to the highest point to get a view and just to say I did it.  There is one more tower visible above the 3rd one, but we now don’t have much time until we are supposed to meet back at the bottom.  I try to gauge how long it will take me to climb up, which probably isn’t that long, but coming down again is impossible to estimate.  The steps are all of uneven heights and some are very steep and I know that coming down any decline is hard on my right knee.  I just had a partial knee replacement in December, and my knee is still not strong when walking downhill, or downstairs.  So I decide to pass on the 4th watch tower and to make my way gingerly back down.  There are a couple of spots where it is very steep and there is no railing on the right, so I move over to grab the rail on the left, in the face of the ascending people.  I say, I’m sorry, so sorry, sorry…  but luckily there are not many people at this level; the ones who are here seem sympathetic.

the stairway up to the 4th watch tower, which i don't climb :-(

the stairway up to the 4th watch tower, which i don’t climb 😦

I painstakingly make it down to the bottom, where I wander through a souvenir stall in the tourist circus and buy some sweet dried strawberries and peanuts to snack on.  Finally, we head to lunch, which is a mediocre affair served at a large kind of banquet hall where all the tour buses come.  I HATE these kinds of places; it is one of many reasons I will never again take a tour like this.  I encountered spots like these in my tours of Turkey as well and found them utterly bland and NOT memorable.  A typical restaurant created to placate and accommodate hoards of tourists who are herded off the buses.

 

the summer palace

the summer palace

The Summer Palace, it turns out, is one of my favorite places in Beijing.  This spot is dominated by Kunming Lake, which makes up 3/4 of the whole Palace grounds.  The lake is brimming with dragon boats and paddle boats and lily pads and lotus blossoms and weeping willows, a very long open-air corridor, numerous pavilions, and a “marble” ship.  When we stroll along the palace grounds, we are happily greeted by a cool breeze whispering off the lake and dancing weeping willows around the edge.  We immediately want to stop for photos, but Jerry is on a mission and we begin the long walk around one edge of the lake, snapping pictures as we move forward.  The lake is man-made and the dirt that was excavated went toward building Longevity Hill, another dominant feature on the grounds.  It seems that in China almost everything is geared toward longevity.  Colors and teas and foods and pavilions and halls and temples, even stairs, will lead one to a long — though not necessarily happy — life… 🙂

so lovely....

so lovely….

a pavilion at the Summer Palace

a pavilion at the Summer Palace

The Summer Palace started off as the Garden of Clear Ripples in 1750 and served as a summer resort for the Empress Dowager Cixi, who diverted masses of silver originally meant for the Chinese navy into enlarging and renovating the palace.  This place is really so beautiful that I truly appreciate the Empress Dowager’s foresight (and good taste).  In 1998, UNESCO added the Summer Palace to its World Heritage List.

the long beautifully painted corridor

the long beautifully painted corridor

The Empress Dowager Cixi, originally a concubine, ruled the Manchu Qing dynasty for 47 years, from 1861-1908, after climbing her way to power.  A conservative ruler, she shunned Western models of government.  In looking up the word “dowager,” I find it means:  1) A widow who holds a title or property derived from her deceased husband or 2) An elderly woman of high social station.  I’m glad I looked it up because I thought it was an old maid, an unmarried and unattractive woman.  I don’t know where I got this idea…

the marble boat

the marble boat

The day, as Jerry earlier predicted, is a “lovely day for the birds.”  I love this place and its cool breezes, its greenery, its colorful dragon boats, its pavilions and walkways painted the color of sapphires, grass, and apples.  The Painting Walkway, commonly known as the Covered Walkway, is the longest walkway in the Chinese gardens, with its 273 sections and its 14,000 traditional Chinese paintings on the beams and cross beams.

the lake at the summer palace

the lake at the summer palace

the dragon boat we take across the lake

the dragon boat we take across the lake

I love the Marble Boat, the two-story lakeside pavilion with its European architectural elements.   It is actually made of wood but painted to imitate marble. On each “deck”, there is a large mirror to reflect the waters of the lake and to give an impression of total immersion.

the dragon head of the dragon boat

the dragon head of the dragon boat

After walking about halfway around the lake, we take a dragon boat back to the other side.  I love going out in boats, having grown up near the water in Yorktown, Virginia and spending much of my childhood on my friends’  families’ boats.  Somehow I feel I can breathe easier skimming over a surface of water.

inside the dragon boat

inside the dragon boat

Immediately upon leaving the Summer Palace, we are herded directly into a pearl shop where we are shown how to tell real from fake pearls.  If you rub them together, they leave a residue, but will still retain their luster.  I shop around, but the prices are extremely high.  I used to make jewelry and found strands of freshwater pearls in the U.S. for much cheaper.  Needless to say, I don’t buy anything.

the hot pot

the hot pot

Next, we eat a dinner of Hot Pot.  The meal centers around a simmering metal pot of stock on the table. While the hot pot simmers, ingredients are placed into the pot and cooked at the table. Typical hot pot dishes include thinly sliced meat, dumplings, and leafy vegetables like bok choy and Chinese cabbage, served with a dipping sauce.  The sauces are so delicious, I boil random food just so I can have a vehicle to transport the sauces into my mouth.

one of many pavilions along the long corridor

one of many pavilions along the long corridor

Back at the Holiday Inn LIDO, Suzanne and I have arranged to have Chinese massages.  It’s odd, the masseuses come into our hotel rooms, and since Suzanne and I share a room, we have our massages simultaneously by two Chinese girls.   We lie on our beds and they don’t use any lotions or oils.  (Earlier I had wondered how they would give us massages without getting our sheets and comforters all greasy!)  The 90 minute massage costs us 170 yuan, or less than $40 USD.  It is one of the most painful experiences I have ever had, with these strong girls using pressure points on sensitive spots and massaging relentlessly our deepest tissues.  They flap and twist our ears, pop our fingers and toes, shake and twist our arms and legs into unfathomable positions.  I feel certain when I am done I will be black and blue all over.

i adore this place :-)

i adore this place 🙂

After they finish with the full body massage, they tell us they will give us foot massages.   What a short memory I have, as I am envisioning a relaxing foot massage much like what I get when I have a pedicure in the U.S.  Suzanne is also feeling quite sore and she says, about the upcoming foot massage, this is going to hurt! With the pain I am feeling from the full body massage, why on earth am I envisioning something lovely and soothing?  Ultimately, Suzanne is right.  The foot massage is quite painful, with the girl using her tough thumbs to make volcanic craters in my tender foot bones.  Owwwwwwwww……

Painful, but it sure feels good after.  No pain, no gain, I guess 🙂Beijing China September 2010

 

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Categories: Badaling, Beijing, China, Covered Walkway, Holiday Inn LIDO, Marble Boat, Painting Walkway, The Great Wall, The Summer Palace | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

the journey, “moon fresh” jerry, the temple of heaven & an acrobatic extravaganza

Tuesday, September 21: My South African friend Suzanne & I wake up in my apartment at 5:00 a.m. to begin our journey to Beijing.  Since she lives in Seongju, where we both teach English, and since there are no buses from Seongju to Daegu so early in the morning, she stayed Monday night in my apartment.  We leave my apartment at 6 a.m., rolling our suitcases the 5 blocks to the Keimyung University subway stop, then arrive at Dongdaegu around 7 a.m., just in time to eat some hamburgers at Lotteria before we catch our bus (waffles aren’t available until after lunch, but they DO serve hamburgers for breakfast!).  We take the 7:20 bus to Gimhae Airport in Busan, where we are to meet with the Kangsan Travel tour group at 10:30.  We have a lot of time to kill, but a week earlier when we had tried to buy bus tickets for 9 am, they were all sold out because of the Chuseok vacation in Korea.  We figure we will get to Busan, find a Starbucks, and have a leisurely coffee before our meeting.

having a coffee at starbucks

having a coffee at starbucks

After coffee, we head downstairs to meet the tour group at Gate 1.  I don’t know what I expected, but I am surprised that the group is mainly EPIK (English Program in Korea) teachers, along with a couple of Mexican ladies who teach Spanish at a university in Busan.  Apparently there are to be 19 of us in this group; however, we will meet up with an additional number of travelers from Seoul in Beijing, for a total of 33 of us!  I am not happy about this situation, to say the least.  First, we had been told there would be around 20 people on the tour.  I also expected a mix of people of different ages from different professions.  Why I expected this, I don’t know!  Foolishness I guess.  But since Kangsan’s tour is an English-speaking tour out of Korea, who else would be there but English teachers?  American military guys would be practically the only other option.  Once again, I feel out-of-place, being the only “older” person in this group.

the Air China plane

the Air China plane

I am reminded that I don’t fit in by two South African girls, Trushan and Gillian, who immediately start talking to Suzanne, telling her they “researched her” on Facebook when they saw her South African name and they couldn’t wait to meet her.  They all start talking about their common background.  Trushan seems fun and cute and bubbly, the other, Gillian, rubs me the wrong way immediately. The one totally ignores me as if I am invisible.  I determine in my mind at this point that I will give Suzanne plenty of space so she can hang out with them as much as she likes; I will not care to hang out with these two girls (although I like Suzanne very much) and so I will just keep to myself.   If Suzanne wants to hang out with me, I’m happy to have her do so, but I am not going to intrude on her space in case she wants to be with these fellow South Africans.  We have arranged to share a room together, but I really don’t want her to feel tied to me because of this.  I feel that this creates an awkward situation from the start.  This is why I hate traveling in groups!

suzanne & me on the plane

suzanne & me on the plane

We embark on a small Air China plane.  It’s a turbulent flight and makes me a little more nervous than usual.  Lately, I’ve been very relaxed flying, rarely feeling any fear, but this smaller plane is a little on the rough side.

Beijing Capital International Airport looks brand-spanking new, bright and airy (though it opened officially over 10 years ago on October 1, 1999 to mark the 50 year anniversary of Chinese Communist rule).  We take numerous moving walkways and a tram to get to the main terminal, where we are greeted by red welcome signs in multitudes of foreign languages.  It’s all very modern and impressive!  Everything moves quickly and when we are through immigration, we meet our Manchurian tour guide who calls himself the English name of “Jerry.”  His real name is Hao Yuashen, which means “Moon Fresh.”  The Hao is his family name, which appears in typical Chinese fashion of last name first.

people movers

people movers

The bus already has the Seoul group on board; we settle in and Jerry begins to talk.  He asks us if we know how to say hello in Chinese.  Most of us answer “Ni hao” but he tells us that this is a formal greeting not really used by the locals.  He says they mainly say “Tru la ma?” which is translated exactly to mean “Have you eaten yet?” but really means something similar to “How are you?”  The answer is “Tru laup” which means, “Yes, I have,” or “I’m fine.”  He emphasizes too many times to count that this greeting can be used at any time of day under any circumstances, EXCEPT when someone is coming out of the toilet!

welcome to foreigners in many languages at Beijing Airport

welcome to foreigners in many languages at Beijing Airport

He tells us other common words: Shia-Shia (xiexie) is thank you, and Bu is NoNo, thanks is Bua shia (not Bullshit, he emphasizes!).  Hao is good, and ding ding hao is very good.  This is Jerry language.  I can’t find this language in the phrasebook I have. 🙂  Jerry also informs us that beginning tomorrow is the 3-day Mooncake Festival in China, which is much like the harvest festival of Chuseok in Korea.  He warns that because of this, the traffic in Beijing will be horrendous, that usually there are traffic controls in Beijing, but there will be no traffic controls during the holiday.  All I can think of is the 10-day traffic jam that was in the news just one month ago.

don't say tru la ma when someone is coming out of the toilet!

don’t say tru la ma when someone is coming out of the toilet!

The Mooncake Festival is one of the few important national holidays in China, along with Chinese New Year and Winter Solstice.  Farmers celebrate the end of the harvesting season at this time and Chinese friends and families gather to eat mooncakes and pomelos under the bright mid-autumn harvest moon.  Jerry says a mooncake has “all the sweety things in the filling.”  He tells us of other festivals such as the Spring Festival and the Chinese New Year (which has customary fireworks and firecrackers;  if one is lucky enough to eat a dumpling with a coin in it, he or she is guaranteed good fortune in the year ahead).  He tells us of the Bamboo Rice Festival where they put rice and dates in bamboo leaves.  This festival is to celebrate a minister who didn’t surrender to his enemies, but instead threw himself into the river to kill himself.  People threw bamboo rice into the river so the fish would eat that instead of the minister’s body.  “Today,” says Jerry, “we only put the rice in our mouths.”

a fancy building that hasn't been completed b/c it burned partially during construction

a fancy building that hasn’t been completed b/c it burned partially during construction

He tells us also about the Dragon Boat Racing Festival (which consists of eating rice dumplings, drinking wine and racing dragon boats) and the Lion Dance Festival.  He says most Chinese people have no religion, that Confucianism is a philosophy, not a religion and that Taoism is the local religion in China.

the city moat

the city moat

I look out the window of the bus as we drive through Beijing.  It is ultra-modern, filled with skyscrapers, gleaming metal and glass, with bursts of red everywhere.  We pass over a rather narrow canal and Jerry tells us that in ancient times this was the city moat that separated the inner and outer city.  He says we can see examples of the city gates in the famous movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

gleaming beijing

gleaming beijing

I look at the cars and see everything: Focus, Elantra, Volkswagen, Jag, Hyundai, Honda CRV and Accord.  This is as modern a city as anything I have ever seen, much to my surprise.  I think I was expecting to see a city full of traditional Chinese villages, called hutongs, but apparently thousands of these villages have been razed to make way for the modern skyscrapers.  I was also expecting total chaos in the streets of Beijing, but in the places I go, I never see this.

Jerry, our Manchurian tour guide

Jerry, our Manchurian tour guide

Jerry tells us that there are 55 minority groups in China and 1 majority group, the Han people.  Of China’s 1.4 billion people, 80% consist of the Hans.  Other sources say the Han people make up 92% of China’s population and 20% of the global population, making it by most definitions the largest single ethnic group in the world.  The name Han comes from the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), which succeeded the short-lived Qin Dynasty that united China.

He also informs us that Mandarin Chinese is spoken in Beijing, while Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong.  Beijing means “north capital.”  In 1421, the emperor moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Yanjing means “mountain capital;” there you can find the terra-cotta warriors.  He says there is only one beer in China, Yanjing Beer, but Chingdao beer is popular in the south.

me at the temple of heaven

me at the temple of heaven

Jerry tells us that there are two dreams for most visitors to Beijing: 1) To get a picture of Tiananmen Square; and 2) to taste Peking Duck, which we will do tonight at dinner.  He also tells us that it is very dry here in Beijing so we should “be sure to drink plenty of waters.”

The Temple of Heaven is our first stop and Jerry tells us it was built as a show of power and not a religious temple.  The main temple building is the three-tiered Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, made entirely of wood without a single nail.  The circular structure sits on top of a 3-tiered marble terrace, topped by 3 blue-tiled roofs.  Four pillars, representing the 4 seasons, support the vault, and 12 outer pillars represent the 12 months.    The temple was begun during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (who also founded the Forbidden City) and was completed in 1420. Though the temple was destroyed by lightning in 1889, it was completely rebuilt true to its original Ming design.

the hall of prayer for good harvests

the hall of prayer for good harvests

The building is quite beautiful and seems freshly painted in bright colors of royal blue, green, yellow, & red.  It sits in an area where there are no gardens though, just vast floors of concrete; this lack of greenery detracts from its beauty in my opinion.

The temple represents the prime meeting point of heaven and earth.  Heaven was seen as round and earth as square; thus the round temples and altars stand on square bases.  The Son of Heaven was considered to be the emperor; he was the intermediary between heaven and earth. The emperor prayed here for good harvests, after making animal sacrifices, during the winter solstice each year.  Commoners were forbidden to see this royal procession to the temple and were forced to stay locked in their homes.

the 3-tiered marble base with the 3-tiered temple on top

the 3-tiered marble base with the 3-tiered temple on top

We wander around the Temple and take pictures, and then we leave through a long rectangular park with emerald-green grass where Chinese people are involved in playing card games, playing strange musical instruments that look like miniature pipe organs, or kicking little bird-like things that looks like badminton shuttlecocks.

a man plays an intriguing instrument

a man plays an intriguing instrument

After the Temple of Heaven, we go straightaway to have a dinner of Peking Duck.  This dish has been served since the imperial era in China and is prized for the duck’s thin crispy skin, which is sliced in front of diners by the chef.  It’s eaten wrapped in steamed pancakes along with scallions and hoisin sauce.

the restaurant where we have dinner

the restaurant where we have dinner

In addition to the duck, we are served numerous other Chinese dishes on a lazy susan; these dishes are similar to dishes I have tasted in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. for my entire life.  After months of eating Korean food,  I am thrilled and eat as much as I can….it’s such a treat. 🙂

one of our delectable dishes

one of our delectable dishes

I also have some Yanjing Beer, the “only beer in China.”

me, suzanne & yanjing beer

me, suzanne & yanjing beer

We then head to an acrobatic show at the Chaoyang Theatre.  We treat ourselves to Magnum ice creams and drinks, which to our surprise we are allowed to take into the theater.

Chaoyang Theater

Chaoyang Theater

The show is an amazing extravaganza of everything from jujitsu and martial arts, balancing Pagala bowls, juggling porcelain urns, spinning plates, demonstrating head skills on stacked chairs, bicycle feats and then an ending ceremony with fanciful and spectacular costumes.

a lively dance

a lively dance

the crazy bicycle wheel contraption

the crazy bicycle wheel contraption

One of my favorite acts involves this huge metal contraption that looks like two huge bicycle wheels; two acrobats walk inside the wheels (like those in a hamster cage) and even walk on the outside of the wheels as the wheels rotate around and around.  Sometimes the acrobats, when they are at death-defying heights, attach a rope to a belt to break their falls, but on this bicycle wheel contraption, even when walking on the outer edge of the wheel, the acrobat wears nothing to break his fall!  In other feats, the acrobats twist into unimaginable shapes and support weight, both of their own bodies and of their fellow performers, that seems impossible.

spectacular costumes at the ending ceremony

spectacular costumes at the ending ceremony

Another whimsical and captivating act is that of these pink-clad girls balancing these plates on sticks that look like lily pads and dancing all over the place.  Lights in the pattern of flowers and stars and curlicues dance on the floor under the girls’ feet.  So lovely.

girls with lotus flowers

girls with lotus flowers

Apparently, professional acrobats have existed in China for 2,000 years, and students begin training at age 5 in the main training school, Wu Qiao in Hebei province.  This show is truly amazing and of such a high professional quality, including the music, lighting effects, and the scenery.  I am bowled over!

another amazing acrobat

another amazing acrobat

We finally go check in at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Lido.  It’s a beautiful hotel, and we each have huge double beds with all white bedding, including a fluffy comforter.  It’s like sleeping on a cotton candy cloud….

nighttime in Beijing

nighttime in Beijing

Categories: Beijing, Beijing Capital International Airport, Chaoyang Theater, China, Chinese food, Chuseok, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Mooncake Festival, Peking Duck, South Korea, Temple of Heaven | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

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