Beijing - Part II

June 24, 2011

As we write this it is Sunday morning in Beijing, our last day in China (actually, our flight leaves at and we arrive at O'Hare at !). We have been in this country for 23 days; our longest ever. As you recall from our last post, the group tour officially ended on Wednesday night. But you know us: we have crammed more into the last 3 days than many itineraries offer overall! We have seen, done, and tasted some amazing things. So get comfortable; this one may take a while.

Early Thursday we got our first taste of the Beijing subway system. They have 15 different lines! One, the #2, is just like the "loop" in Chicago. The subway is a real bargain. Unlike Hong Kong, where you pay by how far you travel, here it is 2 Yuan (about 30 cents!) no matter where you go! Over these 3 days we rode the train 6 times. Each time we were only able to barely squeeze onto the car as they were always packed. And there was no air conditioning! They do employ professional "pushers"; people whose job it is to push people into the train cars, but we did not get to experience that. The subway is more like ours in Chicago than like Hong Kong; no underground "cities" here, just the basic station. So our first stop was the back end of Tiananmen Square to visit the Mao-soleum. It opens at and we were advised to get there early as it is always very crowded. We got there at 8 and the line was 5 abreast, about 400 yards from the entrance. We queued up and the line began to move. As we looked ahead and behind we were astonished to see that we were the only Caucasians in line! The line continued to move fairly quickly, and by we were at the security post near the entrance. All along the way there are signs saying "No cameras, no video, no cell phones, valid ID required" but, of course, every person in the line had their cell phone. When we got to security we were waved right through (we had been told not to bring our camera, so we were ok), and it looked like a cursory check for everyone else, too. The building looks just like the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (built around the same time), and the whole experience was very similar. Near the entrance are vendors selling bunches of white lilies; many of the Chinese purchased these. As the queue got to the door, it was split into two, one to each side. You enter the building and there is a statue of Mao that looks just like Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, but more like a deity. The people laid the flowers at the base of the statue. Then you move into the Mao room itself to see the greatest peasant under glass. Though his whole body is in the case, the only part of it you can see is his head, which is bathed in an unearthly orange glow. His hair was perfect. Is it really an embalmed Mao or a wax substitute? No matter, it's the thought that counts. As in Hanoi, the line moves quickly through and then you are outside. Less than 5 minutes from entry to exit.

We then walked up the square and across the street to the National Museum. This just reopened after an extensive renovation (as reported in the NYTimes this spring.)  It is a beautiful building. Since it opens at , we had to wait in line for a few minutes, and again where the only Westerners in sight. Once inside, we asked for an audio guide, but were told they were only in Chinese! So we went to look at the exhibits anyway. Every which way we went, on each floor, they were all "Closed for remodeling"! We only found one with many ancient Buddhas, but we were not interested. Our guide had told us of a special exhibit on the recent history of China. We looked and asked but could not find it. So we were heading out in frustration, but stopped at the gift shop (of course!). Near there we saw an unmarked stairway and went up and there was the exhibit we were looking for! It is called "The Road to Rejuvenation" (nothing subtle about that!). It shows the history of China from the mid-1800s (the time of the Opium Wars) to the glorious present (through the 2008 Olympic Games). It was really very well done with lots of dioramas and photographs and artifacts, but, other than a "preface" at each major room, there were no English descriptions (a few item labels had captions). So while we got the gist of it, there was a lot we were not able to understand thoroughly. The bottom line is that they overthrew the "oppressors from the bourgeois, capitalist, west" and have created a new democratic (their word) paradise. It is true that the British, French, Germans, and, yes, the US, and of course the hated Japanese, did occupy and oppress the Chinese people for many years. So their claims to self-determination are completely justified. And every national history museum tells of its victories and progress for their own ethnocentric perspective. So while much of this might seem like propaganda and "re-education" to us, it is their history as they see it. However, notable for their omission, there were no "artifacts" or references (as far as we could tell) to "The Great Leap Forward" or the "Cultural Revolution", both of which were abysmal failures led by Mao. Hmmmm........

After the museum and a quick bite for lunch, we got back on the subway...

...and went to Yong He Gong (also known as the "Palace of Peace and Harmony Lama Temple"). It is one of the largest and most important Tibetan monasteries in the world. Building began in 1694, and many of the structures still stand. It is arranged along a line (they are big on Feng Shui "axis" principles here), with a long entrance allee and several ornate gates.

The complex contains 7 main temple buildings. In each are one or more Buddhas. There were many people there burning incense and praying. Each successive building has a bigger Buddha, until you reach the last one which contains a Buddha 26 meters tall! It is carved from a single sandalwood tree and (according to Guiness) is the largest single-tree statue in the world.

That night we had dinner in the Chinese restaurant in the hotel. Though we were seated in a beautiful private room, alas, the meal was not worth writing home about. We had planned to go to an awesome restaurant, but at about , the sky became dark and the lightning and thunder started. You may have read about the drought conditions in China over the last few months. Well...they ended on Thursday night. It was coming down in buckets, and even if we had dared to venture out (even we have our limits!), the concierge said that there would be no way we could get a cab. It continued to rain heavily all night. This was the front page story in Friday's paper: over 2" fell in just a few hours. There was a picture of a cascade of water coming down one of the subway entrance stairs (not one we had used however), and other pictures of people riding bikes with the water over the pedals.

Friday we got started early. Though it was still drizzling, we went for a walk and found a hutong (old neighborhood) a few blocks from our hotel. It was similar to the street we had found in Shanghai; lots of small shops, noodle stands, bakeries, and people going about their daily business. By the time we got back the rain had stopped and it promised to be a beautiful day. We met up with Marie and Carolyn, besides us, the last of our group still in town. A short cab ride brought us to the Silk Street Market. This is one of those all-in-one emporia that we have seen in other countries. Six floors of small stalls selling everything from clothes to toys to crafts to "ready in one day" suits. The stalls on the lower few floors are about 5 feet wide and 6 feet deep. There are hundreds! They sell clothes with labels such as Levis, Gap, Tommy Bahama, Max Mara, Columbia, D&G....all quality stuff! We did see many locals buying things, so this was not just a tourist trap. There are 5 aisles, each about 3 feet wide, and as you walk down them the vendors shout (and grab your arm as the do so!) "Mister, you want jeans?" " scarf?"...over and over. We had come to do some serious was more about the hunt than the prey. No matter what their asking price was, we offered $5. A tee-shirt? Initially offered at Y220 (about $35), but "since you are my first customer of the day", only Y180 for us (we were told this at several stalls). We stuck to $5 and threatened to walk away and they always caved! Woo woo!  As you go higher in the building, the stalls get bigger until you get to the top floor which had real "stores" selling fine pearls, jade, watches, and other jewelry.  As an aside, we have not done as much shopping as usual on this trip--the nice, local stores we experienced in other countries (where we liked to buy our stuff) are here--but are American companies so no need to spend there.  And we can buy Chinese tschotchkes at home--so we haven't even broken out our separate bag for goodies!

After an hour or so of shopping we left our friends at the hotel and went to our cooking class! We were driven to another hutong and a restaurant called "Local Time". We always avoid "street food", and this looked like the next step up. The restaurant has about 6 small tables, and, since it was , we were the only ones there. Was it safe? Was it clean? Were the flies hygienic / organic?  Was the water filtered? But our worries were somewhat assuaged by our affable host Jackie. Apparently he is the owner of the restaurant.

He seated us at a bigger table which already had bowls of chopped onions, garlic flowers, ginger, corn kernels, and a mix of ground chicken and pork.

He mixed all of these together in a bowl. After he gave us each a very large bottle of Tsing Tao, he began to show us how to make dumplings. He mixed a little water into a big bowl of flour and began to work it into a dough. He explained that each plate consists of 15 dumplings, and they serve about 100 plates a day! Do the math! Though he spoke English fairly well, at times he would smile and stop to check his Sino-English dictionary. While he was kneading, we were served a delicious green salad, a plate of slivered octopus and ginger (which was quite tasty), a plate of sugar-coated crispy peanuts, and some hawthorn jam disks (like Necco wafers) which were melt-in-your-mouth sweet. Then he showed us how to roll the dough and cut it into the proper sized pieces.

Then each piece was rolled into a thin circle, filled with a small spoonful of the veggie-meat mixture and folded into a little dumpling (or kreplach or ravioli or pierogi or whatever your national dough-filled-with-meat dish is called). Then, it was our turn!!!! We each made a few of varying degrees of quality. Then he brought out a tray of beef-filled dumplings that he had made previously. He showed and explained how to cook them in boiling water ("much healthier than in oil"). After a few minutes they were done and he gave us a plateful! Are we supposed to eat ALL of these??? They were delicious, but we only had about 10. While we ate he cooked some of the ones we had made, so we had to eat a couple of those too. Soon we began to look like dumplings! We finished up and taxied back to the hotel for a well deserved nap.

Friday night was theater night! We had previously purchased tickets to one of the city's famed Peking Opera theaters (the Hu Guang). It was a harrowing 30 minute cab ride through some heavy traffic (and a half-dozen near misses!). The theater had a main floor (where we sat) with 6 rows of 8 tables each. Then there was a balcony on 3 sides (not sure if those also had tables or just chairs). Each table had 2 chairs in back (facing the stage) and 2 on each side (also facing forward). The audience was primarily Chinese teens--chattering away with excitement. Each person received a plate of watermelon, and another with the same crispy peanuts and several prunes. Also a packaged orange-flavored cookie. And of course, steaming cups of jasmine tea (they do jasmine in the north and green tea in the south). The theater had totally traditional decorations: all red dragons and ornate paintings on the walls and above the stage. The stage (about 20' wide and 10' deep) had beautiful "silk" drapes in the back. There were 2 small electronic sign-boards that showed a short summary (in English and Chinese) of what was happening on the stage. The first "act" was a Geisha-type lady looking for her lost lover and singing a high-pitched meowing song. Then an "old boatman fellow"  (long gray beard) comes by and takes her on the river to find him. He also sings, but was not quite so cloying.  The pantomime was superb, though it went on way too long. At one point, the sign board's message said (quoting the woman) "The boatman is boring, but I will put up with him". We felt the same way, as they continued down the "river". This act lasted about 30 minutes. Then there was a "10 minute" intermission (which lasted about 6 minutes). We assumed the second act would finish the story, but were pleasantly surprised to see that it was something entirely different (did she ever find her lover?). This act was "The Monkey King Fights Off the Invaders".

This was much better. (Note: You may have seen masks from the Chinese Theater. This is what we were expecting (and of course they sell them in the gift shop!), but these performers' "masks" were make-up!). This segment was a combination of fancy tumbling, kung-fu, and spinning, juggling of sticks, swords, knives, and poles. Very entertaining! It only lasted about 20 minutes.

Then we were out into the night to look for a taxi back to the hotel. Of course most of the other people were looking for one too. We tried for a few minutes, but none stopped. We crossed the street to try over there (we are either getting braver or more foolhardy!), but still no luck. Then a man on a pedicab cycled over and offered us a ride. We were desperate so we said yes. We were on an open seat in the back and he started off.  WHAT WERE WE THINKING!?!?!!  But actually, we soon felt much safer than we did in the cab as we were in the bike lane and out of the traffic. And it was a beautiful night as we whizzed past restaurants and malls all ablaze with lights. At one point we had to cross a busy intersection, but only made it to the island in the middle when the lights changed. There we sat as cars, buses, bikes, and motorcycles sped past only inches away. But we made it safely back, in about the same amount of time the taxi had taken on the way there. When we told our guide about this the next day her eyes almost popped out and said we were very lucky!

Saturday...our final day of touring. We left at 8 with our tour guide and driver to head north to the Ming Tombs. Because it was Saturday, our guide said many people were leaving the city. And this was also the road to the Badaling section of the Wall, so traffic was heavy. Since we had the time, we asked our guide some questions that we hadn't had a chance to ask up until this point--one (very benign) about Confucius and the other (more edgy) about human rights.  Her answers were not satisfactory but we didn't push because at this point exhaustion was taking over.  On the way, we passed no fewer than 4 accidents. At one point we were nearly crushed between a truck and a bus. But somehow our driver got us there in one piece. Then we reached the tombs.

This complex was built beginning in 1409. It houses the tombs of 13 emperors and 26 empresses. There are beautiful statues of animals, each representing a different characteristic.

The complex covers many square miles. Only 3 of the tombs have been excavated. The odd thing about these is that the emperors believed that each succeeding tomb had to be smaller than that of his predecessor!  And they actually complied!

Then back to the city to see the movie "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan". It had just had its worldwide premier in Beijing on Friday, so we are definitely the first on our block to see it!

As you may know, it is based on the wonderful novel of two sets of women friends; one in present-day Shanghai (and we recognized much of the scenery), and one in 19th century China. It's an American film so we (fool-heartedly) expected English subtitles.  No such luck!  Except for limited dialogue in English (for scenes set in the present) the rest was in Chinese with Chinese subtitles.  We have no way of knowing whether the actual dialogue was in Cantonese or Mandarin and the subtitles were vice versa.  We'll see the movie when it opens in the States to make sure we "get" the whole story. Beautiful cinematography and music and a great Chinese chick flick.

We decided that the most appropriate culinary send-off for our China trip would be Peking Duck--so we journeyed to Duck de Chine for dinner.  It did not disappoint.  We were told to order "our duck" in advance; and we had done so.  Ten minutes after sitting down, our darling duck arrived--amidst considerable flourish.  The waiters hit a gong, then a carver performed delicate surgery on our crisply-roasted, Hoisin sauce glazed, exquisite duck--slicing it into bite-size pieces (including the skin).

 He then disappeared (unfortunately leaving one of your writers no opportunity to feast on the carcass, what a shame).  The maitre'd instructed us on the proper Peking Duck eating technique... take a papery think pancake (with chopsticks), spear several pieces of sliced duck and dip them in a delectable sauce of swirled peanut sauce, sesame oil, and chopped garlic, place those dipped duck slices ever so gently onto the pancake, cover them with several jullienned slices of leek, radish, and cucumber, lovingly place a piece of crispy duck skin on top, then fold over the pancake so that it resembles a pocket square, and eat it. The duck skin was melt in your mouth amazing (and unhealthy but at this point, who really cares).  Repeat the pancake creating process several times and you have a meal.  We added some sauteed vegetables and steamed rice and that was it... except for dessert, one of their specialties--mango pudding with ice cream.  We didn't have the capacity for the other dessert possibilities--black sesame dumplings, egg tarts, or duck-shaped pastries with lotus paste.  An amazingly appropriate way for us to end our Chinese culinary adventure.
Other learnings: Though we may think of China geographically as a huge "blob", while the US has a nicely defined shape, the two countries are actually almost identical in size: 307 million square miles. However, China has 1.3 BILLION people to our 309 MILLION.  We saw a Chinese map of the world and it was "backwards"! Not surprisingly, Asia is on the left center with China near the middle. Africa is on the far left with Europe squeezed into the top left corner. North and South America are on the RIGHT! Very strange.  One other random observation... across China, there is a reason that we refer to "China dolls"... Chinese babies and toddlers are exquisite.  And there is an especially interesting component we could not miss.  Instead of wearing "training pants", many of the toddlers wear split pants, au naturel underneath.  There is a split up the front and back so that they can do their business whenever and wherever they need to.  We actually saw one small boy pee in the middle of the airport... not exactly adorable, but more efficient than training pants we guess and we know the Chinese are efficient!

With that, we're off.  Thanks for joining us on this journey!

wen-wen and way-way 

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