China Trip - August 2007

Tuesday, August 7th

A word about the apartment complexes in Beijing. The most obvious thing while driving around town is that they're everywhere. It's pretty widely known - even in the States - that it's common for young people to leave the rural areas for the cities. In order to meet this demand, old buildings are being torn down and new ones built at a breakneck pace (pic, pic, pic). However, there are many of them from years past, and a lot of them look like crap (pic). It's understandable, since most of them are about 550 square feet, sometimes house three generations, and get cooked in 1-3 times a day. The government is paying for facelifts for a lot of them for the Olympics, but may not get to them all in time.

Home ownership is a big deal there - the new units fetch about $200,000 in a "decent" part of town. For 550 square feet. But if you're a newly married couple, you're pretty much expected to buy one.

Cultural note: Because of the one-child policy, Chinese kids are spoiled rotten. Imagine the Baby Boomers on a permanent sugar high.

Today's trip was to the Great Wall, except first it was kickback time again - a jade factory, which was the most interesting one. Like the silk factory, they had the person with the best English (in this case, the manager) take us through the process, from the raw jade (pic) to grinding and washing (pic, pic). Also like the silk factory, we only saw a few workers, but we did notice how little they had in terms of safety equipment. OSHA would have been all over that place. Another funny thing is that some of them were smoking while they worked.

Side note about smoking: we were told that the Chinese smoke when and where they want, and to be ready for the related haze. Well, it actually wasn't bad at all.

The manager's speech was very laden with a phrase she'd probably learned was proper English - "do you know." As in, when she would give us some fact, it began with that: "Do you know the black jade comes from the south of China." "Do you know the yellow jade is the rarest form." And so on - dozens of times. Note I didn't punctuate these as questions. I also got pointed out as a "Buddha" (thanks) when she was explaining the symbolism in jade Buddhas (pic). At the end, she said "for us" - 30% off. Aren't we special? We got the same "deal" at the silk factory.

There were actually lots of neat things there (pic, pic), including two that I seriously considered ($385, $860), but figured I could get cheaper elsewhere. Since the "guarantee" card included an e-mail address for the place, I tracked down that manager and asked her if I could think about them and e-mail an order later if I wanted them. My mistake, it turns out, was deviating from her script and common questions. She had only a slight clue what I was asking. In the end, she said yes, but I think it was just to relieve her own frustration. But my inkling was that all the government guarantee ensured was that you were paying top dollar. And I'm a cheap bastard.

This ship was at the entrance (pic), made from a single slab of jade (except the chains) over five years. It's about 5 feet across, and will only set you back about $40,000. That's with the "discount." The floor was jade (pic), which I thought was a nice touch. There was also a 2-ft diameter sphere that was continually rotated by running water (similar to those plug-in tabletop fountains, but larger), but I won't post the 4-second 5Mb video clip. It was another feng shui thing.

A couple of things that we'd noticed about these factories. One, they hand out cards when you enter that say this is a government-approved shop, your satisfaction is guaranteed by government standards, etc. But it did little to instill confidence in us, because that would require confidence in the Chinese government. The other is that they all say they'll ship to the States insured - to save us hauling whatever in our luggage and you can return the item for a refund if you're not satisfied. But that means you're shipping something back to China from the States, and assuming that the people on the other end are going to follow through. If they don't, you're out the money and the item. Given our general dealings with the Chinese regarding money so far - separate the Americans from as much of it as you can - this wasn't very enticing. The hard sell tactics didn't help - salespeople follow you around and jump if you show interest in anything.

Side note: there's an applicance company with this logo (pic). Drawn your own conclusions. I've drawn mine.

Afterwards, it was a short ways to The Great Wall. We were going to a section that was a little less crowded than the most common ones near Beijing, since its parking was much closer. As we approached, driving higher and higher (the Wall is mostly built along mountain ridges), the clouds got lower and lower, and we met at the top (pic).

There were two ways we could have gone, so we chose the one less traveled, instead of the popular one (pic). That meant going through the central gate (pic) and crossing several smaller sections, up and down many stairs, to get across the defensive canal (pic) separating the two sections. In that pic, we're just past the gate; the goal was the stairway on the left side of that pic, and you can see how much lower it is than we were then. After getting down this staircase (pic), we had to find the little doorway in the hut on the left (pic), go down more steps, go across, down more steps, etc. You get the idea.

At the bottom of those steps was an odd structure straight out of an RPG game (pic). I think it was some kind of guard station, but it was kind of creepy. If you were a thief, this would have been a good place to rob me.

Pics from just before we crossed the canal (pic, pic, pic). And an Engrish alert (pic). And apparently, jumping into the canal is prohibited (pic), but only while headless.

At the base of the big steps up to the Wall (pic) was a statue of a Buddha under a tree. Someone had prepared him for the rainy season (pic).

The steps themselves were made from uniform slabs of stone about 16"W x 16"D x 5"H. The steeper things got, the more stones were stacked to make one step. It didn't take us long to lament three-stone steps, and then "oh, crap, fours!" and a few fives. Ugh.

One thing you never hear about is the wildlife around the Wall. We saw some dead frogs, and a live one (pic), but more pervasive were the feces (pic) - of what animal(s) we couldn't tell. But it was everywhere, pellets smeared around by foot traffic and light rain. The tower at the top smelled like a stable.

Ping told us about the signaling system along the wall. It was like Lord of the Rings, but more involved. [I might get some details wrong]. Each station had five fire heaps, with wolf dung as the fuel - it made the most smoke. The number of fires lit, reinforced by a certain number of cannon shots, indicated the number and direction of the enemy sighted. The signal would be passed along the wall with subsequent fires. If it was too foggy for the fires, like when we were there, they apparently just used radio (pic). Inventive people, those ancient Chinese.

We went a little beyond that radio tower, then started to go back down, lest we be late for the rendezvous on the bus. It started to rain right about when we got back to the Buddha statue (good thing it had that mac), so we kept going and ducked into a little souvenir shop near the big gate. After a couple minutes in there, it started to pour. Like, mountain monsoons pour. We tried to wait it out, but after ten minutes or so, we were going to be late, so we protected everything the best we could and made a dash for it. The drainage system, if that's what it is, channels rain down the steps to central areas before going into the forest. So we ran through a few inches of standing - and running - water on the way. Lots of people were taking shelter under the eaves of little shops near the entrance. It was ... unpleasant. Being from Texas, I miss thunderstorms and all, but not being caught in them unprepared. Wet socks are gross in any culture. But I'll bet that random animal crap and frog skeletons up the steps were washed away.

Speaking of drainage, it's hit and miss in the city, too. Here's a couple workers using some neat "natural" brooms to herd water into a drain (pic).

At lunch, we noticed a group we'd met at the jade factory. They were also drenched - from the Wall. It seems there's a pre-packaged circuit.

Blatancy (pic)! We didn't dare go in.

Remember how they were erecting speakers and staging for the Olympics kickoff in Tiananmen Square, and we would go to the one in the stadium? Well, we found out the event had been moved from the stadium to the Square. Oh, and only Party officials could attend. We were SOL. Needless to say, we weren't too pleased, especially since the entire tour was initially built around an NFL game in that same stadium that was later canceled as well. The Olympic kickoff was our consolation prize, and now it was gone, too. It's the kind of thing I can use as The example of how the Chinese government operates.

Instead, said Ping, who wanted to go to a field hockey tournament in the Olympia plaza? It was the best they could come up with on such short notice. About half of us said sure.

We had a couple of hours back at the hotel before our evening excursion, so we ... took a nap and overslept. It seems everyone got to be "those people" once, and that was our time. We got to where we were going just in time, so no harm, no foul.

That destination was a show of the National Acrobatic Team. It was a medium sized theater - about 2000 people. You only get one picture because of the low light and constant motion and - oh yeah - the no-camera policy. An usher came by a few moments after I'd put the camera away and stood behind me for a minute or so. He snoozed, he losed.

But anyway, here's a fuzzy picture of the troupe coming out for the introductory routine (pic). If you're like us, the first thing you'll notice is how young they are. Like, 7-15 young. It makes sense from a performance perspective, but can you imagine this kind of thing flying in America? And then we also wondered - what happens to these kids when they get too big?

Now don't get me wrong. The routines were impressive. But still.

Their encore method was oddly annoying. They came out for applause, then backed away while waving as the curtain lowered. The curtain came back up, and they ran back out, still waving, then backed up as the curtain came down again. So far, so good. Then the curtain came back up a second time, they came running back out waving. Then a third time. Then a fourth. Lots of people had already given up on them and gone out the door.

The restaurant after dinner was the worst of the trip. With all those cheap workers, you'd think we wouldn't go 20 minutes in our little private room without seeing one. But Liss did get a fuzzy picture of the standard Chinese toilet (pic). That's the view from above. Yes, you squat over it. I'm happy to report that I went the whole trip without using one of these. Our hotel room had Western commodes, thankyouverymuch.

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