The last three days I have been back to work, and, unfortunately for your humble narrator, I am going to be here for some time. I have to record a listening test at the end of the day, but have no classes today. I forgot my book and my electronic Japanese/English dictionary at home, so I am very board. Yet, from my adversity will come your benefit. For it gives me time to chronicle my journey in the Middle Country.
I spend the night in Osaka prior to meeting Katie. My room cost me $70. Our flight left at 9 so we needed to be to the airport by around 7. I really didn’t want to catch a train in that early, so I just stayed in Tennoji, where I was meeting Katie. Katie arrived and we caught the limited express to Kansai. We were only 1 hour late. Luckily we only had carryon and were lightning rushed through the ranks by our friendly Air China staff.
We landed in Shanghai at the Puddong airport. When we arrived we changed our money. The conversion rate was $1 = 8 yuan or RMB (an abbreviation which I forget what it means). The Japanese conversion then was about 100円 = 8 RMB. I cashed around 50,000円 ($500) into RMB right off the bat. So I ended up with around 4,000 RMB. The highest unit of currency is the 100 RMB note. So I literally had over 40 bills in my wallet. I couldn’t even properly close it. Quickly assessing how much drinks and food at the airport cost, I realized that the 100 RMB is a pretty large bill by Chinese standards. Thus, I was living large. We were so drunk on wealthy power that we bought special VIP tickets to the maglev train. Those cost us 80 RMB ($10). The maglev was AMAZING we went a top speed of 431 km/h (around 215 mi/h). When you looked out the window, you KNEW you were going 432 km/h. It was awesome. We went through a banked turn and you could feel the unbridled power of g-forces. Katie and I left the maglev with stupid smiles and a euphoria that only the drug of physics can properly induce.
We then went to the maglev museum to figure out how the thing worked. It turns out they brute force it. I had believed that the maglev was a super conducting train, it isn’t. They just induce a massive magnetic field, nothing super about it. It is brute force engineering like that that makes me smile. You have to appreciate that kind of raw power and a total lack of reliance of fancy pansy solid state quantum mechanics. The Shanghai maglev is just a baby of E&M. Which makes it, in many ways, far more viable than the super conducting variety. The Chinese government has plans to run a line from Shanghai to Beijing cutting the 12 hour ride down to approximately 30 minutes. But I have geeked out too long.
We took the normal train system into the Puddong region. It was a bit nerve racking because of the lack of English (or Hiragana – obviously) but we got off at the right stop. The train system was annoying and not user friendly. Our hearts cried out for beloved JR. The Puddong region is the “new” Shanghai. Shanghai was an important colonial spot with the Puddong region merely rice fields to feed Shanghai. The city proper acquired the land and now it is the hot spot to build your sky scrapers. The highly picturesque Shanghai Skyline is the Puddong skyline. The Bund (the old colonial sector and hot shopping district) is right across the river. We had a really wonderful woman help us. She spoke really good English and suggested a hotel. She then flagged down a cab and told him where to go. It was really great of her! Our first night we stayed in the Puddong hotel (affectionately remembered as the Pudding Hotel). Our twin beds room cost us each $12. It was here that we discovered that Chinese beds make Japanese beds seem as soft as new fallen snow. I think my bed was made out of marble. I’m not sure.
We wondered the Puddong backstreets and came across a beautiful restaurant with massive grounds. It was done in a Chinese garden style. There were lots of bridges and caves. It was beautiful in the busy city. We walked the grounds for around an hour, at first enjoying the view but later in a crazed desperate search for the entrance to the restaurant. We finally ended up entering via the kitchen. It was a bit embarrassing but I take solace in the fact that it would only get work. While ordering I rested the menu on the corner of my tea cup’s saucer. While emphatically pointing I pushed the menu down and thus the saucer up. I succeeded in spilling tea all over the table, the menu, the floor, my pants, and the waitress; Katie walked away emotionally scared, but physically untouched. We did not understand how to order at this place, because you ordered in courses. We just kept ordering things ala carte like you do in Japan. It annoyed our waitress to no end. They kept sending guy #12 (the number was the only thing on his name tag) to our table to explain things to us. We never understood, or blatantly ignored, what he told us. We ended up eating around 3 soups, we saw humor in this – they did not. We tried turtle. It was boney and not great. It turns out Katie is borderline mental and loves to consume meat more than I do. She kept suggesting that had it been a highly endangered loggerhead sea turtle there would have been more meat. Needless to say, I can now claim I have eaten (though not enjoyed) turtle. We went back to the hotel and enjoyed tea in the tea lounge and tried to learn the Chinese language.
It turns out Mandarin (colloquially called the Chinese language) is positively evil. Dan, guru of all Eastern Asian Languages, tells me that the grammar of Mandarin is similar to English and you could just do a word-for-word translation and the resulting sentence would be understandable. This did not help us though, because Mandarin is hard, and Cantonese did not sound much better. It is nothing like Japanese. I knew that going in, but it was really driven home on the “safety video” you watch when flying. It featured a side by side Chinese and Japanese narration. To hear the two languages saying the exact same thing one after the other really made you appreciate how different the languages are. The written form shares some characters but they may or may not same “pronunciation” let alone meaning. For example, one city we stayed in, Xi’an, is written 西安.
西 means “west” in both Mandarin and Japanese but it is pronounced “shei” in Chinese and “nishi” in Japanese.
安 means “safe” in both languages and is pronounced similarly as “an” (it is the first character of my name in kanji FYI)
But the fact that Xi’an worked out more or less okay between the languages seemed to be the acceptation not the rule. Our kanji sense did not extend much farther than basic directions. Our pronunciation abilities, particularly with the pitches, were even worse. We personified the “stupid tourists”, but gosh darn it Chinese is really hard!
Mandarin as a language always sounds angry to me. Every time I heard people talking casually I thought they were mad. I would turn expecting to see a fight but the people would be smiling and laughing. The inflection sounds so radically different that to my ears it sounds like uncontrolled rage! It was a bit unnerving. I also do not like the way Mandarin sounds. I really like the way Japanese sounds, it is so soft and round. Mandarin sounds very sharp and edged. To me, comparing Japanese to Mandarin is like listening to Italian versus German. I’m sure Mandarin is a perfectly lovely language when you get use to it, but I prefer the sound of Japanese.
Tea in China is particularly delicious. I think Japanese green tea is better, but you can buy much higher quality stuff in China for cheaper. China also has much more variety of teas, Katie seemed partial to oolong, but I stuck true to my beloved green. It really was a great place to drink some tea.
Day two in Shanghai consisted of finding a new hotel. We moved up in the world, literally. Katie and I agreed that one night we really wanted to go all out and get a nice hotel that neither of us could ever afford in the non-weak currency world. The solution was the Shanghai Hyatt in the Jinmao Tower. The Jinmao is the fourth tallest building in the world, and the tallest hotel in the world. It cost us $120 to spend the night on the 69th (of 89) floor. Our view faced the Bund and the skyline, thus it was fantastic. We had a marble walkway leading to the main room. The bed was a king sized monster and they brought a second twin sized bed in for one of us to sleep on later. Both were rock hard, but even that felt luxurious: like sleeping on jade instead of concrete.
We were painfully pedestrian in our treatment of the room. As soon as we got in we jammed a comb into the switch that you are suppose to put your hotel card into. When the circuit is thrown the lights in your room can be turned on. This way you cannot leave lights on when you leave because you have to take your door key. Well, our comb foiled that. We moved the brightest halogen desk lamp right up to the window and pointed it outward. We had a busy day of cityscape viewing and we wanted to be able to spot our room! At night using we managed to spot it.
We went to the Orient Pearl tower, which looks like a strange hypodermic needle and orb motif. The first deck was okay, but the higher we went the less I liked the place. Finally when we hit the “Astro Deck” I felt positive ill will towards the place. The windows were a transparent pink color. It was dizzying and sickening. We got out of there as soon as possible, unfortunately in the whole place they only seemed to have a few elevators working (making me hate the place even more given the fact that I could die in the place). We caught an elevator down, and then had to stand in line for another one. Finally we escaped from the Oriental Pearl TV tower. It is a nice place to look at, but I don’t suggest you enter. The Jinmao Tower observation deck was much nicer and the view was far superior.
We found a Muslim inspired restaurant for lunch. We, foolishly, ordered two fried rices. The proportions in China are “family style” at the minimum. We also ordered a soup, which turned out to be large enough to have as a meal in itself, and we got some mutton and bread pocket things. You put the mutton into the bread pocket and ate it more or less like a sandwich. I was surprised to see the amount of mutton there was seems to be in Chinese cuisine. I was surprised by the amount of mutton in that there was mutton at all, let alone the quantities one can get it. Katie and I were in deep trouble because we had a ton of food. We valiantly tried to put as much of it away as possible, I started drinking only soup broth to give the appearance that we had eaten a ton of soup: when in actuality I was not eating it just making it denser. Katie’s fifth dimension absorbed as much food as possible, but we still left a lot behind.
We then just walked around the city looking at stuff. At night the Bund and shopping areas were all light up and glamorous. At one point two random people came up and took a lot of photos with us. I don’t know why, but they were friendly and both Katie and I left with our passports and wallets so it seems they just genuinely wanted to have their picture taken with us. They were sweet.
One of the scarier moments happened when we were out. We were looking at stuff and a woman asked if we wanted to buy DVDs. The answer, of course, is YES! So she led us off the main street, uh-oh, and into a shop that was not selling DVD, hmmm, then up some scary back stairs, yikes, then into a room filled with DVDs and a secret backroom filled with knock-off handbags and such. Then two guys came up after us. We were both nervous, so we bought DVDs! The guy asked us where we were from, we said Ohio. He said Ohio is beautiful – proving he has never been to Ohio. He gave us a discount because he, “…loves all people from Los Angelus and Ohio.”
The annoying thing about China is that you barter for everything. I can’t imagine living in the country. Laurence told me that whatever they offer cut it at least in half as your first offer. There are next to no prices marked and they try and greatly overcharge tourists. I am sure we paid too much for a lot of things. It was cute and fun at first, but there comes a point when you just want to buy a trinket without having to go through a 30 minute back and forth so that you save $0.50. The venders really jaded me to the country after a while.
After our DVD scare we caught a taxi back to the lap of luxury.
Poor Katie has been in Japan for a few months and is going through the Western Food withdrawal. So when we spotted a Papa Johns pizza place in the yellow pages we were THERE! They delivered our pizza via taxi. We ate it in the dark on the floor of our room as we looked out over the river and sparkling Shanghai. It was a truly content filled way to spend a night.
We had a shower with multiple nozzles that bombarded you from three directions at once. I’m sure it wasted around 50 gallons of water per second, but it was fabulous. We had a gorgeous big bathtub combining the best of both Western and Eastern words. It was deep like a Japanese tub, but long enough to stretch out in like an American tub. It was heaven. Katie and I played rock/paper/scissors to see who could go first. She won. About an hour later she emerged from taking a shower followed by a bath. I followed suit. It was magnificent.
It was so magnificent that we each repeated the ritual the next morning. We ordered a real Western style breakfast ($12 room service). The porter brought the tray in and set it by the window. We ate real crispy bacon as we watched the lazy boats crawl bye. I would have liked to have lived in that hotel.
We packed our bags and headed to the Shanghai museum. It was a really nice place. Unfortunately a lot of the exhibits were closed for renovation. They were just reopening the paintings section and had a ceremony while we were there. My favorite section was the hanko section. I don’t know the Mandarin word, but in Japanese hanko is your personal seal that acts as your signature. I have one. The practice originated in China and the seal was used for a variety of purposes. We saw a circular seal broken into three sub seals. An official would carry a third of the whole. In order to get the order approved all three officials would have to stamp the document (thus completing the whole circle). The Chinese government also gave seals to potentially dangerous factions. By bestowing special seals the government provided them rank and influence in the Chinese government without actually giving them much real power. Seals also became a valuable piece of art and became highly stylized (both the script used to provide the “signature” and the actual physical shape of the entire seal). An interesting phenomenon is that owners of art would often place their seal on it in an empty corner. In this way you can track ownership of art and books. I think the whole seal culture is fascinating.
After the museum we headed to Shanghai station. We were catching a night train to Xi’an. This was the first real shock of the trip. Shanghai station was the “bad” China you see on the news. There were people everywhere. Many had all their possessions with them. They were with their families. It was cold out but they could not go into the station. I don’t know why they were there. I am not sure if they were waiting for passage or living there or waiting to be picked up. It was a jolt of reality to see all those immensely poor people around the station.
We ate at a restaurant and got burned. They didn’t have any fish and they served us some kind of bony meat. We left and ended up paying for things we know we didn’t order. But we just wanted out of there. It was a real low point. We ended up eating at McDonald’s. We bought a few doughnuts from the saddest Mr. Doughnuts on earth for the train ride. Then we waited for boarding to start on our train.
I know of 3 classes of ticket on the railways. There are the hard seats, hard sleepers, and soft sleepers. Hard seats are just that, seats. It is noisy smoky and what the general populous can afford. I popped in that car for a few moments and found it to be an assault on my senses and sanity. The next class up are the hard sleepers. These are open bunks stacked three high. They are open to the corridor, but are an actual bed. The top end are the soft sleepers. These are closed off cabins of four beds. They cost about $50 a bed. Katie and I shared our room with two other guys. One fell asleep instantly the other was a bit of an odd duck. He kept sitting on the lower (our) bunks, and read a lot. When he finally did go to sleep he snored like there was a leaf blower and chainsaw engaged in mortal kombat (for you David) somewhere in his gullet. Yet he was really nice, so for all his annoying quirks I found him quite fun. Sleeping on a train is really a cool way to travel. I really enjoyed that aspect of it.
The aspect I didn’t enjoy was the fact that our train was delayed. We were told we would arrive in Xi’an by 9, we got in at around 12. Ohh how I missed you Japan Rail! The ride through the country side was also staggering. We saw people living in decrepit buildings that would have been condemned in the States. More shocking was we saw people living in caves. It was a sobering contrast between the shiny skyline and marble corridors we had just come from. It was so hard to believe. It made me wonder which was the “real China”, if such a statement can even be quantified. Was it the wonder of Shanghai or the poverty and pollution of Xi’an? What I took away from this part of the trip is, I honestly believe China could go both ways. China could be the next big super power in the world, but I think that it could also have some massive troubles if the people living in caves ever realized how the people in Shanghai are living. Especially when the government is suppose to be equally distributing wealth. I think China is on the edge, and in my lifetime big things are going to happen there. But I am hardly an expert. I only spent eight days there. Yet, I can’t help but ponder this after seeing the opulence of Shanghai and the desperation of suburban Xi’an.
Xi’an was a much different China. It was polluted, the people were rude, and it was poor. The air was so dirty you could not see forty feet in front of you. It was an oppressive haze that hung everywhere. All of China runs on Beijing time. Despite being a huge country it exists only in one time zone. The hours in Xi’an, being so far west of Beijing, were oddly distorted and out of sink with the sun. Not that the sun could be seen. One merely had an impression of light through the smog. Dust from the desert mixed with the pollutants giving the air a brown-red color. The mixture leached out the other colors of the spectrum. The light from the sun that did find its way down to the streets of Xi’an was drab and wrong. Much like the city seemed to us. We did not like Xi’an.
We found a hotel with a travel agency built in and booked a flight to leave the next day. The flight cost around $100. So to travel approximately 3,000 km (1,500 miles) half by air half by rail we paid around $150.
We loaded up on snacks and grabbed a good non-tourist trap bus and headed for the Terracotta Warriors. The history, of the warriors as I understand it, is this: one of the Qin Emperor’s really like war. So when he was near death he commissioned a great works project to construct everything he would need in a war. The constructed out of clay approximately 6,000 warriors in the Pit 1 (the largest of the pits). They also crafted officials, scribes, chariots, etc. Literally everything the emperor would need to wage war. Each was statue is unique. It is believed they are modeled after real people. The officials are likely modeled after their flesh and blood counterparts, the solders are more than likely modeled after the sculptures. When the emperor died he was buried in a mound. The warriors where placed, in full formation with weapons, around his mound in hollowed out earth chambers. Most were supported by wood cross beams. The beams decayed overtime and collapsed. There was virtually no mention of the warriors in Chinese history. In the late 1900’s peasants were digging a well and brought up pottery. They called the authorities. Using historical records of approximately where the emperors where buried and their personal tastes the burial mound was identified. No one really expected the warriors, because they were not really mentioned in historic record. Many were still in tact, but many more were fragments. Two additional pits were discovered in the area. The largest, and first discovered pit, measures 230 by 63 meters (about 80 x 21 feet). Around 2,000 of 6,000 have been unearthed successfully in Pit 1 alone.
Seeing the Terracotta Warriors was really surreal. Each excavation pit is under a large building structure. This gives the appearance of a huge building sized room with a large pit in it. All three pits are active archeological sites, though, when we were there no work was being done. The haze and pollution of Xi’an kept into the massive dome structures adding to the surreal nature of the pits. With the heavy haze scattering the large halogen lights it felt like the warriors were literally stepping out of the fog of history. Pits 2 and 3 are largely still being excavated, Pit 1 was really the site “on display”. The Warriors stood as they once did, in rank and file. They stood three to five abreast in their corridors of earth and masonry. Their ranks stretched far into the hazy dome’s interior. Though they no longer held their weapons, they were still an imposing site. It was truly amazing to see an army of clay standing in front of you. It is a shame that we only had about an hour before it closed. It was a remarkable site. There were some of the best preserved warriors under glass. It was amazing to see how detailed and lifelike they were. The craftsmanship was unbelievable. It truly was worth the trip.
That night we wondered around Xi’an looking for food. We did not find the restaurant where we wanted to eat, but we found a nice place anyways. I don’t know what it was called or what type the name of the style of food we ate was, but it was good and unique. You sit at a table with a pit in the center of it. You order a ton of meat and the cook shows up carrying a metal cone with a basin of around it. At the bottom of the cone are coals. This sits in the pit at your table. In the basin is a hodgepodge broth with ginger, fish, veggies, seemingly anything you would have available. The meat arrives raw in rolled cold-cut form. You then dunk the meat in the broth until it is cooked. You then dunked it in a creamy sesame (possibly peanut as well) sauce that was not as thick as peanut butter but looked a lot like it. It was different, but tasty. The staff were very good sports about our ineptitude. They showed us how to do it, and then ended up doing it for us. Chinese chopsticks are much longer than Japanese chopsticks. You may not think this makes a difference, but it DOES. They also tend to be made of plastic or lacquered wood so they can be washed and reused. If they had a textured “grip” surface at the food end, it was long gone. Katie and I found it very hard to pick stuff up with Chinese chopsticks. So the staff took pity on us and bravely had someone dunking and serving our meat to us. We could have done it ourselves, and it was embarrassing to have help, but the staff was so nice we couldn’t refuse (not that our linguistic skills would have allowed that anyways). The meat platters we got were mutton, beef, and a compressed fish (which wasn’t so good compared to the mutton and beef). We took pictures with them (much to their surprise and delight) and grabbed a card. I plan to write the Lonely Planet suggesting them.
We then wondered back to our hotel, which was not a great place. Two nights prior I had taken the best shower ever, that night I quite possibly took the worst. The hot water was either 9 degrees or 900, and the water pressure was non-existent. I think I was actually wetter standing outside of the “stream of water” than in. To top it all off we saw a note from the hotel stating, “hot water cannot be drank” meaning it contained who knows what. So I took a shower and carefully avoided getting water in my mouth. The whole experience was horrid. Katie did not show any sympathy for my cause, and after taking her shower had the audacity to claim she had had worse.
We woke up the next morning and grabbed some breakfast at a diner. I got steamed buns, Katie got a spicy soup. I love Northern style Chinese food. It is where the delicious steamed buns and stuffed noodle dishes come from. Delicious sweet meat is wrapped inside dough and then steamed until it is cooked. Similar techniques are used to cook ravioli like noodle dishes (gyoza-esqu) with steam. Yum-a-dum-dum. We walked around the town and I found a huge internet café. It was an online gaming center with rows and rows and columns and columns of people playing Blizzard games. Xi’an was looking up. But we had no time to dally. I sent a few “I’m not dead” emails and we ran to our bus. We got there on time and we were off to the airport to say goodbye to Xi’an and its nasty nasty pollution.
On the flight to Beijing we met a nice photo journalist for the Asian equivalent of the Associated Press. She suggested a hotel and some sites. I should email her and thank her for her kindness. We changed some more money over and grabbed a bus to Tiananmen Square area. We caught a taxi that had no idea where the hotel the good Samaritan had suggested was located, and ended up just kind of dropping us off “close”. We either could not find it, or it looked too sketchy for either of us to want to stay in. Out came the Lonely Planet and we hailed a new cab. Our new hotel was located within walking distance of the Tiananmen which is the hub of a lot of cool stuff in Beijing. It was pretty cheap ($20/night) and nice enough so we booked for all three nights we would be in Beijing.
All the sites to see were closed so Katie and I walked right to dinner. They had awesome tea cups that had the filter built right in. We wanted one! We asked where we could buy them and they said, more or less, “around”. After dinner we walked around, on a mission to find tea cups. Beijing is such a huge tourist trap. The venders are much more aggressive and annoying. We found a pace to buy the cups for 35 RMB ($4) I didn’t feel like haggling and bought one of the Great Wall. After that we found a shop that sold personal seals (hanko) and I knew what else I wanted. Unfortunately they could not carve the seal there, they only sold the pummels. They said there was a place near by and to just buy the pummel now and have it carved. I was highly skeptical of this, so we went searching for the carving place prior to buying anything. That turned out to be a huge effort through several malls and underground shopping centers. But we finally found what we were looking for. And this person was selling the same pummels so we decided to just get it from her. We were discussing what we wanted carved on it, and it was not going well. I wanted my Japanese name, 安堵竜 but she was having problems understanding me. It was at that time that our hero, Iceman, came. He worked at the next shop over and spoke amazing English. He took about 30-45 minutes talking with us and helping to translate our names. He was really funny and cool. He did not get my name when I said it meant “relaxing dragon” and then finally he snapped his fingers and yelled, “I got it! Relaxing, you’re the Dragon!” He wrote the kanji out and I got it engraved on a dragon pummel. Katie’s name was harder it meant “superior giraffe” or “ringing bell” he had trouble with giraffe, but they finally settled on a bell. He was funny because he said that girls names are always very hard. Men always want names with “tiger” or “dragon” but girls want things that are cute or hard to think about like “beautiful ringing bell”. He really helped us out. I decided I really needed to buy something from him. I grabbed a pair of exercise steal balls that you move in your hand for relaxation and to build hand strength. He wanted 25 RMB ($3) for them, but I told him I would pay 50 RMB ($6). He looked at me very strangely. So I told him he helped us so much that he was too nice to charge such a low price. He laughed at me, and told me that 25 was his “final offer”. So he only got 25 for it. He then told us great places to visit while in Beijing and that his name meant Iceman. He was a huge help and I wish I could have bought all of his inventory.
By now it was nearly midnight, so we wondered back above ground. There was a group of about 20-40 people gathered around a clock spire on the street. They were mostly foreigners. We stood with them for about three minutes and then the bell rang 12 times. It was 2006. There was a little bit of clapping, some people kissed, and some just walked away after that. It was an anticlimactic a new year’s passing. China celebrates Chinese New Year extravagantly, but not the Western Equivalent (which is completely understandable). Katie summed it up when she said, “It makes you realize how superficial a holiday is when you are someplace that doesn’t believe in it.” I have nothing to add. We went back to our apartment and broke out the Oreos. We each sat on our bed and held an Oreo between us. We would then silently (the only way wishes are legit!) each make a wish and twist the Oreo. Whoever had the most cream would have their wish come true. I wished that I would end up with the cream side. I got my wish. So, knowing this was a trustable wish granting system, I got down to business. My first real wish ended with no cream side, so I wished for it again. I got cream the second time, fate was toying with me. So my twists went, with my wish never pulling out into the “definitely going to happen” category. In the end my wish ended with a tie, thus, as any wishologist can tell you, my wish will not come true. It was a good one too. There’s always next year I suppose.
Our first real day in Beijing was dedicated to things around Tiananmen Square. We saw the Square itself, which is the largest public gathering place in the world. It was huge, concrete, and open. We saw the Hall of Records from a distance, and the Chinese Parliament. There is a large obelisk in the center of the square. It is the Memorial to the People’s Hero’s. It has Mao’s script written on it, behind it is the mausoleum where Mao’s body rests. We got scammed at this point by a couple of college girls. They spoke very good English and told us they were art students. They led us to their art gallery on the same grounds as the National Museum of Art, so it was more on the up and up than most places. They brought us up there and the art was really beautiful. I wish I had more money at that point to buy more. It was certainly legit art, and they seemed to be legit students, what was not legit was the circumstances of the place. First off, it was the exhibits “last day” Flora told me later she had been to the same place twice, both times it was the “last day”. They also had a girl run to the backroom to “call and ask her professor if they could sell the painting a little cheaper, because it was new years and they liked me”. She would be gone all of ten seconds, then come back with a new price. I have little doubt that a professor did set the prices at some point, but he or she was certainly not providing real time quotes. The work was really nice though, and it went towards a school, so I got some calligraphy. I had her write “Knowledge” she then wrote my name in Chinese, the date, Beijing, and a message of hope for happiness. Katie got something similar. I also bought a beautiful wall scroll with a black and white Indian ink style bamboo painting. It is very beautiful. I would have liked to have gotten the more expensive one (and the good Professor on the phone said I could then take a smaller piece as a “last day of the exhibit, new year’s gift!”) as well. But I really didn’t have the money. For my wall art I paid about $80.
After the art gallery we hit the Forbidden City. It rests at one end of Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden Palace was the Imperial Residence during the Qing and Ming dynasties. It is also a city within a city and holds the actual Palace. I was really glad to go because of my time in Okinawa. The Ryukan castle was modeled after the Forbidden City only on a much smaller scale. The similarities were readily apparent. I actually preferred the Ryukan palace because the Forbidden City was so massive. It was so large it became hard to appreciate it and you felt lost. All the same it was a really amazing piece of history and someplace I was happy to see. When it closed something weird happened. All these people where stuck at the gate and we had to funnel through with a ton of other people. It made me uncomfortable. I stood behind Katie so no one would get into her bag. I don’t know how many people, but around a thousand had gathered in the Square to watch the flag being taken down at 5:00. It happens everyday at the same time. I don’t know if this was a large crowd (was a national holiday) or if this was the norm. I don’t understand why you would want to watch your flag come down. I am not the most patriotic of fellows, nor am I a flag nut. I realize that flags are representations of a country and should be treated with dignity according to their customs, but I didn’t feel like watching a flag get lowed, nor did Katie. So we split. As we were walking away two college aged people came up and started to talk to us about China, and then the conversation worked its way around to coming to their tea house and drinking tea. It was really maddening for me. Even though I got some nice art out of the last time this happened, and I do love tea, I was tired of people talking to me only to get me to buy something. They are very good at what they do, and you really feel you are connecting to them. It was so nice to talk to someone with vastly different experiences than me, particularly after being in Japan: where talking to people in my native tongue is not practicable. We told them no and they kept pushing the point. Finally we had to just kind of walk away. I really dislike the venders in China.
An interesting aspect of China was that the Chinese seemed to speak much better English than the Japanese. I don’t know why. I am advancing my theory that to the Chinese English remains completely alien and is thus treated as such. Where in Japan you see English everywhere and there are a lot of English slogans. Only they are not quite English, but a Japanese version of English. It feels like the Japanese are attempting to acquire and assimilate English and are making it their own. Just as American English deviates from the various (and in their own right highly diverse) British Englishs, Japanese English deviates from other forms as well. In China, on the other hand, it seems that little attempt to actually assimilate the language has been made. Therefore it remains in a purer form as a pocket of “otherness”. Because the Chinese do not force English to fit their rigid rules of pronunciation (there is no form of katakana), and how to write Chinese words in roman characters is not agreed upon (for example: “Mao Zedong” and “Mao Tse-Tung” is the same name - though Zedong is more widely used at this time). All of this means that English is much closer to the English I know than the English spoken in Japan. That is my working theory at any rate.
At night we had our first taste of the Beijing (once called Peking) specialty: Peking roast duck. I have never had duck before, it was very delicious. The place we went was a roast duck machine! You order a duck, they bring it out, cut it up and serve it to you with thin pieces of dough (which they call pancakes) and a thick brown sauce. Duck is greasier and gamier than other fowl I have had. They also leave you the head of the duck, cut in two. When we found that out, Katie ate the brain. By this time we had some duck soup (which worked better as a drink) on the table. I began to consume mass quantities of the soup by disregarding my spoon and drinking straight from the cup. I went on a duck induced high and I started taunting the duck head. I kept telling it that it was delicious. Then this little girl kept looking at me so I started taunting that little girl and the duck’s head. Then one of the waiters scowled at Katie, so I started taunting Mr. Scowly Face, that little girl, and the duck’s head. Then I remembered how bad Xi’an was, so I started taunting Xi’an, Mr. Scowly Face, that little girl, and the duck’s head. Good times, good times.
We headed back to the hotel. We looked at places to see the Great Wall and decided on our spots. We went down to the main desk and talked to the receptionist about renting a taxi for the day. While we were there a guy tried to rent a taxi to take him and his friends to the airport. He was from Morocco and spoke English as a second language. It was pretty neat to see him and the receptionist both speaking second languages to communicate. As cool as it was for me, it was frustrating to them both. The reason I point this out is because I want to tote my awesomeness here. He wanted a big taxi, but she wasn’t understanding. So I got a pen and drew the Japanese kanji for big (大), low and behold it is the same in Chinese. I pointed to it and said taxi, and then I pointed to him. She got it. I was uber-proud of myself and my incredible language skills. Even though I had previously assigned Katie the small and minor task of learning all of the Mandarin language, she proved that she can’t even handle one minor job *scoff scoff*. Despite the fact that most of the really important responsibilities I took on myself, I had to carry just a little more. We found out the section of the wall that Katie wanted to go to (because it was not restored) was closed so we settled for the less touristy but still restored site. After that it was back up to the room for some acceptable, though not stellar, showering.
We woke up bright and early and went down to have our complementary breakfast. We didn’t have much time so all I could eat was a few small steamed dumplings. We then met our taxi, which wasn’t a taxi at all! It was a nice Volkswagen sedan. As an aside, Volkswagens are everywhere in China. Our driver spoke little English, but we got by. He brought a friend to talk to and a huge stack of CDs. We rented the car for the day, at a price of about $50. The taxi acted more as our personal car. It went where and when we wanted it to go. It would drop us off and then stick around until we were ready to go. It was really nice, and a cheap way to get a lot of road time.
Our plan was to hit two sections of the wall, the B section and the M section. We wanted to do them in that order as well. Our driver drove Katie and I to the wrong part of the wall first, but we didn’t mind so much soon after we realized how great this spot was. The venders were not out in force yet so it was nice to walk up to the ticket gate. We grabbed a ticket and a round trip cable car ride. We could have gotten a toboggan ride down, but this looked to be about the most unsafest thing ever, we stuck with the cable car. The cable car was nice, my friends tell horror stories about their experiences at other sections. One incarnation of the Dali Lama had ridden in the very car we now sat. After a few minute ride we were on top of a mountain. The pollution and altitude did not do my asthma any favors. I couldn’t walk far without having trouble breathing, but I don’t care. The view was spectacular. There was next to no one on the wall it was all open and devoid of the clutter human bodies bring. Looking either direction it seemed to snake and spiral off to infinity. Though it was a renovated section of the wall, you could still feel the history. It was not so renovated that the magic was gone. One section was blocked off at a guard house, but people simply climbed through the window to gain access to an older un-renovated part. We didn’t realize this at first and by the time we found out we could have made it to such an interesting part a guard was posted to keep people out. We almost witnessed a bribe for a nice Chinese man to get through. He and the guard smoked a few cigarettes and turned their backs to us to discuss things. But it would appear the guard’s price was too high. The guy gave us kind of an “I gave it a shot” look when we saw him later. It is really shocking that when the Communists came to power they ignored so much of China’s history. The Great Wall was not kept up. In many places it has collapsed, decayed, or been stripped of brick by poor peasants in need of building supplies. Tourism saved the sections of Wall that still remain. It was renovated (in some places to the point of leaching the history out of it).
We spent several hours on the Wall. My breathing troubles reached a climax and I had to sit down for a while. Katie scouted ahead. A vender wanted to sell me water and since I knew I would be there and he would be unrelenting I decided to buy some in the hopes he would leave me alone (he was only selling drinks). He wanted 10 RMB for a bottle of water. I said, “Too much”. He said “Too much? Hahahaha… 10 RMB.” It was so deadpan I had to buy it for 10 simply because he was funny. Unfortunately he didn’t leave me alone. He kept asking to take my picture, or showing me good angles to take pictures from, or telling me about Mongolia. He was a nice guy, and at other times I would have liked to talk to him, but the Wall effected me very, I guess you would say, spiritually. I felt real joy from just sitting and looking at it. So, I just wanted to be left alone to enjoy the splendor and my feelings. After a while, and when my breathing was a bit more stable, I left the area to find Katie. Katie and I met up and walked for about another hour or so, and then decided to head down.
We also decided that one section of the wall was enough. Katie was not as enthusiastic about the Wall as I was, so another section didn’t matter to her. But to me, I knew that the next section was the touristy section. The venders were now out in force and even our not so touristy section had more and more people on it (including a hiking couple decked out in pink jumpsuits we called them “Team Pink Jumpsuit”). The Great Wall had a purity and beauty about it that too many people and too many venders could easily destroy. So I decided that I wanted to keep this section of the Great Wall as my idealized Wall and not risk another area. I am happy with my decision.
On the way back to our ride we had to run the gauntlet of venders. I wanted a Mao hip bag because they were fun. I stopped at a stand and got trapped by a vender. We finagled the price down to something reasonable (he wanted 250 RMB at first, I ended up giving him 80 RMB) but then I made a mistake. I also wanted Mao’s Little Red Book (how can you leave China without one?). So I picked it up and he took my money. He now had my bag and a 100 RMB note. He said he would sell me the book for another 40 RMB (making it 60 RMB) I told him, “No, give me my bag.” He didn’t, I was getting annoyed and worried. He said give him 20 RMB more for the bag and the book. Again I told him “No way, now give me my bag!” He refused again. I was afraid there might be a problem. So when he offered to give me both the bag and the book for 100 RMB (the amount he had snatched from me) I agreed. I got ripped off, but I saw things going in a direction that I was not comfortable with. He had both my money and my bag, and he knew it. Granted it was only $12, but he still had all the power. Had he just taken my money and my bag I would have had to stick around for the police (the wall is far out of Beijing so who knows what authorities I would have been dealing with), file a report (presumably in Chinese), and probably still not gotten either my bag or money back. So I wimped out, but now I have a bag and book. We walked back to our taxi and asked them to take us to the Temple of Heaven instead of the other section of the Wall. They happily agreed.
After the Wall we went to the Temple of Heaven. It is a temple that the Emperor built to bless all the people of the kingdom. It is more of a compound than a “temple” which is cool. There are several great buildings with names such as “Pagoda of Supreme Universal Harmony”. Regrettably a large portion of the grounds were closed off due to renovation for the Olympics. The grounds played an important role in religious ceremonies. There would be animal sacrifices to the ancestral sprits and processions. The place is interesting because it used a lot of circles (representing the perfect heaven) and the number 9 (highest single digit odd number). I found the temple and the grounds to be much different than Japanese aesthetics. I really liked the temple style. My favorite spot was a circular mound set within two circular court yards. The Emperor would ascend the mound and stand at the exact center, marked with a capstone, and commune with the gods. Katie and I had fun taking funny pictures on top of it. The cool thing was that it was a sounding board. If you looked down and spoke your voice bounced off of it towards the heavens. It fell in line with the main temple buildings. The whole place was an interesting experiment in geography. I dug it.
One amazingly horrible thing about China is the fact that spitting is just the thing to do. I don’t mean minor spit –as in spittle-, I’m talking about hawking a loogie. I realize that I should be culturally sensitive and remember all that Oberlin stuff, but spitting is really disgusting. Of particular distaste was the really serious spitting that the Chinese actively participate in. I realize sometimes you get some sand or something in your mouth and you have to give a little “patooy”, but in China spitting requires a huge nasal intake, a massive diaphragm adjustment, and then a loogie. It was anti-pleasant. Now it should be noted that I have had major allergies as far back as I can recall, so I am not stranger to snot. Snot just doesn’t gross me out the way it does other people. This is an adaptation development to deal with the copious amounts I produce. If I was grossed out by snot I would have grossed myself out to death a long time ago. Yet even I found the spitting immensely disturbing and disgusting. We would be really gorgeous cultural places only to hear a few feet behind us someone attempting to spit out the entire contents of their nose. Ever where you walked you were stepping in serious spit. Whenever we would be at a place of huge cultural relevance and hear someone gassing up to spit, I would turn to Katie and say, “Fabulous Chinese Culture™”. I have heard that spitting has actually gotten better over the years and they use to do it much more. This is hard to believe. If a vender was selling a shirt that read: “I saw people hawking a loogie on: The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven, …” I would have bought it in an INSTANT.
After the temple we met up with our friendly taxi and had them take us towards the hotel. On the way we spied the duck restaurant we had eaten at the night before. We told them to stop, there was a heralding traffic maneuver and they did. We paid them for the day because our hotel was in walking distance of the restaurant. We also picked up their card and booked them for the next day to take us to the airport. For our last meal in Beijing, we went back to the Peking duck restaurant. The lady at the door recognized us and said, “Welcome back!” This time we went crazy. We ordered half a high quality duck (less greasy), sweat and sour pork (a meal on its own) and a pineapple dish. It was pineapple breaded and deep fried and then a molten caramelized pineapple sauce was put over it. It was sweet! The pineapple sauce hardened to form a crystalline coating that proved most difficult to break apart. It was odd. It reminded me of the pineapple chicken at the Mandarin in Oberlin. Yet despite its oddity I liked it a lot. Mr. Scowly was back, and scowling at us. So I made it a point to always point the tea kettle spout at him. That is bad manors in China, but Mr. Scowly had it coming. He never noticed. But I got a good laugh out of “tracking” him with the kettle’s spout. I also would slyly drink a lot of tea just to pick up the kettle and readjust its point to zero in on him. Take that Mr. Scowly!
During the night we talked for a long time. It was nice and also sad. The next day we woke up at early. I don’t know if when we woke up has a number on the clock associated with it. I certainly don’t remember one. I just recall “early”. Our guys picked us up at the hotel and we were off to the airport. The airport I found to be a little scary. First we could not exchange money because those places were closed. That sucked, but we both had Japanese ATM cards and didn’t have much money anyways. The scary part was that we were allowed to get awfully deep into the terminal without having any of our bags checked. It was a little upsetting to notice that the X-ray machines were not being monitored as luggage went past. That did not build my confidence in safety.
Our landing was odd. We shot past Kansai and then turned. Every time I had landed at KIX before we never did that. Then when we were on the runway we veered hard to the right. Yikes! The true inconvenience of it all was yet to come. It turns out that it was a national holiday in Japan still celebrating the New Year. That wouldn’t be a big deal in a normal country, but this is Japan. Because this is Japan and the banks were closed the ATMs were also closed. How stupid is that? We didn’t know this yet. We were at KIX and needed to get to Umeda so Katie could grab a night bus home. We couldn’t get the ATMs to work, but figured it was the airport ATMs. I had around 2000円 on me and my ICOCA card. I had enough on my card to pay for my ride home, and enough extra to buy Katie’s ticket to Umeda. We got to Umeda and found where the busses were, only to discover that Katie’s bus was someplace that I didn’t know how to get to. To make matters worse we discovered that ATMs where, in fact, nationally closed. Katie had to book a train ticket back. It was an annoying end to the trip. I was thinking of going back to Izamo with Katie, but had, by then, developed a rather nasty head cold. So I decided to just go back to Daito and sleep and blow my nose – constantly.
I had a fabulous time in China. It isn’t like the China you see portrayed in the Western Media. One really surprising thing is how diverse China is. We saw many more foreigners from more diverse places in China than in Japan. There are also a lot more diversity within the Chinese population itself. I think I heard a dialect being spoken on a bus ride (because it certainly didn’t sound like Mandarin). China was a fascinating place. It was both modern and archaic. It was inspirational and also very depressing. And it was both familiar and completely alien. I am very lucky I had this chance to go. I hope to maybe see Hong Kong sometime as well.