China Trip - August 2007

Monday, August 6th

Lost: One Sunday. If found, please return to the groggy couple over there. I woke up around 5am local time, which actually happens to me at home enough that I wasn't too put out. It was foggy (smoggy?) that morning (pic 1, pic 2).

We had no idea what to expect for breakfast. However, since we were in an "international" hotel, they had something for everyone, including us Westerners. So, I had scrambled eggs, pound cake, coffee, etc. Score one for globalization.

Side note: about traffic in Beijing. They're new to this whole "driving" thing. Apparently about 70% of drivers got their licenses within the last four years. Imagine driving around the big city with 70% of the drivers having the experience of our 16-20 year olds. Plus, they have little concept of right of way beyond red and green lights (pic). The winner is the pedestrian or bicyclist or driver who is most aggressive. I don't remember seeing a single stop sign during the entire trip. Bikes are everywhere, and almost all of them are ratty, rusting things. Anything better gets stolen.

We met up with the tour guide (pic) and group afterward breakfast. The American travel agency actually had very little to do with our tour - they subcontracted most of it to a local agency, which is for whom the guide worked. She introduced herself as Claudia; we immediately asked her Chinese name. She gave the full thing, explaining how the surname came first, etc., and that her given name was Ping, which means "peace." The entire group mostly called her Ping for the rest of the week. "Claudia" just didn't suit her.

We had a chartered bus for the week, with a driver. I consider this another benefit of cheap labor. It didn't hurt a bit that he was an aggressive driver himself - the bus had two different horns, "move it" and "MOVE IT!" - and was just generally a conscientious person, good to have with us. But I have no idea what his name was. He was always "the driver."

First destination was Tiananmen Square (Engrish Alert (pic)) (Cosmo Alert (pic)). If it weren't for the uprising in 1989, most of us would never have heard of the square. Of course, the Chinese government denies it ever happened. No one in our group asked the guide about it - I figure she usually gets asked and has to sidestep it.

The square itself is - a large square. It's built around the South Gate of Beijing (pic), so with Beijing having been invaded as many times as it has, it has immense historical significance. Their parliament meets just across the street (pic). They've erected highly Communist statues (pic, pic). There's a classy, ornate obelisk-type thing in the middle (pic). But you couldn't go into any buildings (gate) or see anything up close - it was all walled or roped off and guarded.

If you look in that obelisk pic, you'll see a guard in green in the very bottom left - there were maybe 20 of those guys around the square, keeping an eye on things. They seemed much more disciplined than the random guards in blue, but the one at the entrance (pic) helped up a woman in our group who fell, so in my limited experience, they're also there to help. In the background of that picture is a former rail station built by the Brits 100-ish years ago, but it doesn't serve that function now.

The guards were supposedly there to keep "unofficial" vendors away, but there were there anyway. I actually encouraged the practice by buying two folding fans (one of which going to the aforementioned Amy). However, I had the conversion rate wrong, so I spent about twice as many dollars as I thought I was. Lesson learned.

It was hot and humid, of course. We had quite a time trying to buy bottled water from an "official" vendor who spoke no English at all. As in turns out, the 70 cents we spent for 600mL of Coke ($1.09 or so in the States) was tourist price. We found some for about 30 cents another day, once we got off the beaten path.

In the Square also occured my first experiences as an oddity. A father asked if he could take my picture with his son, about 8. I said sure. They thought it was the coolest thing. Maybe it was the red shirt - China's lucky color.

Across the street opposite Parliament was another building, which had a digital Olympics Countdown sign (pic). There are several of these scattered throughout the city.

They were setting up a stage and sound system for Wednesday's one-year-until-the-Olympics ceremony, but for Party members only. We were set to go to the one at the stadium.

Next stop was the Forbidden City (outer gate pic). It's so called because the average citizen couldn't just go there, unless somehow invited on official business. Now it's income for the State. It's actually a large compound, about 2 miles by half a mile, of buildings and walkways.

Their elite flag corps trains inside the complex (pic). The lined-up uniforms in that picture are cool, but I really like the basketball court with grass. As with many things, they're close to copying correctly, but not quite.

It was pretty crowded in the free, outer area (pic), where we waited for about 20 minutes for Ping to get tickets to the inside. So there we are, standing in the heat, when I get approached for another picture (pic). This girl and her friend seemed to think the idea of this picture was hilarious. Maybe it's the facial hair.

Once inside, there were fewer people. Also, paying for a ticket means the vendors leave you alone, and you might end up with a perk (pic). This courtyard area (pic) featured old limestone(?) bridges running over a canal (pic). According to Ping, the brickwalk (pic) was ~400 years old and 15 layers deep(!) because of an Emperor's paranoia, but I couldn't figure out what purpose that depth served.

The inner area (pic) was big - but the main building is getting a face lift for the Olympics. Imagine going to the Statue of Liberty in 1985, not knowing it was getting its face lift. That's kinda what this was like.

The odd thing to me was that every building looked the same (pic, pic). Maybe it was to camouflage the more important buildings from enemies, though they did use symbology for that - the more animals on the corners the more important. The one in this picture counts as nine (pic), with ten being the most important - I presume the central building with the scaffolding.

Crass cultural note: Being Americans, our tour group stood out, but when you're natives (pic), apparently you need bright hats or shirts to keep track of each your groupmates.

While you still couldn't go into any buildings, most at least had big windows through which to take pictures (pic).

Behind (north) of the Palace area was the Emperor's Garden (pic), where Ping told us of the concubine selection ceremony that happened there. Every three years, any unmarried daughter of a senior government official, aged 13-17, would be lined up in this garden. The Emperor did whatever it was he did to select his new concubines from among the group. Because a concubine had to sever all ties to her birth family, most girls and their parents didn't want the girl to be selected. They'd even marry them off or hire stand-ins to try to circumvent selection.

Like every good castle, this one has a large moat (pic).

On the way to lunch, we stopped at a government silk factory. It wasn't on the itinerary, but what the heck, it might be interesting, we thought. A guide gave the shpiel about how silk was made on a loom (pic) from coocon worms (pic), then spun together to (for instance) make bedspreads (pic). [Side note: As far as we ever knew, the only job of those four ladies was to stretch silk when tourists come on this little tour, and stand there the rest of the time.]

But as things progressed, we realized what this was - a sales pitch. We were then given time to browse (pic - note the workers on the right with nothing to do), and potentially pay the highest prices in China, since we were Westerners and this was a government-sanctioned place. We looked, but declined, but a few of our group bought, promoting the process. We're still curious how much of a kickback our Chinese travel agency got for taking us there. We also wanted to see more than one loom - where was the huge, dark sweatshop with hundreds of looms and millions of worms?

Back outside, the sun tried to break through the haze (pic). Note the handicapped sign. I assure you that this doesn't mean China is an accessible country.

Lunch was next. That sat the group in a private room with four waitpeople for the fifteen of us (cheap labor again), where we learned annoying Chinese cultural tidbit: the first glass of water/soda was free, but cost beyond that. And the glass was tiny - less than a cup. But the tea was free if you wanted to assume the water was hot enough to kill beasties.

Every restaurant we went to was the same - lazy susan style (pic - the glass susan was neat) Food-wise, we had no idea what to expect, so I'll admit to being trepidacious. It's common knowledge that I don't like Asian food, and here I was - in China. It was the source of lots of jokes before we left. Well, it wasn't bad, because they had plenty of meat and rice, which I can handle fine. However, Liss was hoping for exotic, and didn't get it.

After lunch was a tour of one of the many traditional courtyard-style homes in Beijing, called hutongs. A neighborhood of hutongs is surrounded by a wall, with a maze of alleyways inside. To get to our particular open home, we took pedi-cabs (pic); there were a few dozen waiting for tourists like us. They traversed the maze single file. From what little we could see while "zooming" by (pic), most of them were pretty run down.

When we got to the open one, the vendors came out - in force. Fake watches, knock-off handbags, ornamental chopsticks, fold-out fans, thin T-shirts, baseball caps, and something I was actually looking for - musical instruments. I bought a cheap flute-like thing. Yes, I supported the vendors' methods. The shame! But he was much nicer and less pushy than most of them.

The hutong we went to (pic, pic) was open to groups like ours, presumably for some fee on the back end. They served us tea while our guide and the home's matriarch told us about the home style their place in particular. Like most, theirs is comprised of four small buldings in a square, each facing inward to the central courtyard. The north building is considered the "main" home for feng shui reasons, and is where the heads of the household lived. On the east/west is where the kids and/or elders lived. On the south - the weakest feng shui direction - were used for storage unless the other three were too crowded. However, while it's preferable to own all four buildings and therefore the whole courtyard, you have to have enough money to do that. So if you don't like your neighbors, you're screwed. Her particular hutong (she owned all four) was built in 1622, and rebuilt a couple times. They had the usual - running water, electricity - but like old buildings here, you could see the retrofitting.

The hutongs are disappearing rapidly, as the government sees them as inefficient uses of space. I believe I read that 10,000 homes have been razed since they started their Olympics facelift. Plus, many are still private property, which also commands a premium on the market - Ping says the one we saw was probably worth about a million dollars.

Just outside the courtyard door, the vendors were waiting en masse. They were like very large gnats.

Elsewhere on the pedicabs, down a random sparse alley, we learned more about ancient China's rampant symbolism, this time in doorways of government officials (no pictures, sorry). First were beams over the door - two for a normal person, four for an important person. Then, small stone statues denoted whether the owner was military or civilian. The kicker for me, though, was the height of the threshold through the front door. The higher, the more impotant the person (some of the thresholds near the palace must have been a foot). That seems backwards to me; I'd think the more important you were, the further away from a flood area you could live, and the shorter your threshold could be. But I'm not an ancient Chinese person.

Dinner was very similar to lunch, but with slightly smaller first-one-free glasses.

Back to the hotel, we discovered that the $30 plug adapter we'd bought was useless - hence no updates from there using the laptop.
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