Friday, August 25, 2006

Beijing Day 2 and 3

The second day in Beijing we head out 50 km to the Great Wall of China at Juyong Pass, first built in the 5th century.

Our bus parks along with numerous other tour buses. We look up, and to our left
is the stairs alongside the Great Wall going up the mountain crowded with an endless river of people. The hordes are out climbing over 1,200 steps to get to the top of the ridge from the bottom through six stone towers to the top stone tower on the crest of the ridge. Each of the towers looks like it held soldiers guarding this section of the wall. Also, the towers had a beacon system where soldiers burned wolf dung, trnasmitting news of enemy movements back to the capital.

We start up the steps to the 1st tower which holds the snack shops (ice cream is populpar) and gift shops. Up more stone steps to the actual start of the climb, with railings on left and right while the steps are here about 6' wide. Each step is a different size from the previous, so I have to pay attention. I try to keep to the right with the rest of the people ascending while those descending are supposed to keep to the left, but the problem is many people going down try to go down on the right getting in the way of we climbing up. I hear many languages: Chinese, French, German, English, Japanese--it seems like all of humanity is climbing today.

Finally, the 2nd stone tower, which has a flat area which windows to look out of. It's very crowded inside of the tower as many of us take photos or just take a breather staring out the windows. The way to towers 2 and 3 are the steepest: after that the climb levels off. Now, up those really steep stairs to tower 3. Still all those crowds of people make it though. Finally, I'm getting exhausted right below tower 3, so I just down on a step to take a breath and look at the valley way below. I've done 2/3 of the climb but feel like it's enough, so start down.

In Tower 2 there's a crush of people and a man is right up against me behind me. He annoys me but in two seconds he's gone. 10 steps below Tower 2 I realize my wallet, which was in my cargo pants pocket on my calf, is gone. I climb back up to Tower 2 and look for my wallet. Then I realize that the man was a pickpocket and stole my wallet. Oh, I shouldn't have worn it in my pants pocket, shouldn't have worn cargo pants, shouldn't have brought any money at all. I haven't lost any documents (I never keep documents in my wallet) but just lost $30. I feel terrible as I climb down the steps, just terrible as I sit on the courtyard by the snack shop. I feel as if I've been socked in the face.

I tell George, our national guide, "My wallet got stolen!" He said, "Did you lose your passport?" "No," I said. "Oh, good," he says, moving away. For the next hour I sit there along feeling bummed out until finally our whole group gathers together. Two people complain of sore muscles. Five people made it to the 6th tower. Our bus drives another hour, pulling into downtown Beijing where we get out to do more walking.

We are at the Drum and Bell Towers, two huge stone towers. We climb up more steep steps on the side of the Drum Tower, originally built in 1273 to mark the center of the Mongol Empire. In previous times the Drum and Bell Tower banged out the time for the inhabitants. Now the Drum Tower serves as a good place for tourists to take photos of Beijing's rooftops.

Near the Drum Tower we walk by the hutong area, little alleyways lined with 1-story old homes around courtyards where tens of thousands of Beijing people used to live. Now the government is destroying most of the hutongs to build high-rises. Our hutong guide grew up here but he said he also moved into a new apartment in a high-rise. As we walked by the hutongs on the left with a lake on the right, this area was the most human with Chinese sitting on tiny cafes in the hutong buildings or on chairs lakeside. I loved the hutongs! We stopped to join the crowd around a man making elegant animal sculptures out of straw! He's great!

We gather around the area with pedicabs, a tricycles with a 2-seat compartment, get in a pedicab for a tour of the hutong (our guide climbs on a bike)--off we go! In and out, up and down the little alleyways we see tiny grocery stores, some dogs (little ones are legal); tiny cafes with men grilling meat; men seated on crates playing cards; and the entrances to courtyards lined with little homes. Our pedicab stops by 1 entranceway, so we get out for our visit to a local family.

We enter into a courtyard which has trees full of thick green squash and lined with four buildings. We enter one building straightway into the reception area to be greeted by a gray-haired elegant woman of about 65, our hostess. We seat ourselves on the new purple couches and chairs--our hostess says she get them in Ikea! We talk to her through a translator. Her father, a manager of a factory in Manchuria, bought this land--4 houses and courtyard. She grew up here and raised her two daughters here. She was a librarian while her husband (who also greeted us) was an engineer but both are now retired. The government appropriated all houses including theirs but put a couple other families in the houses, so about 3-4 families lived there, but then the government gave them back their home, so now they only live there with their two daughters. She graciously gave us tea and candies.

As we walked out of the hutong area, we saw a tall European couple along with child. Our host says they are British and live in the hutongs. Though many Chinese think the hutongs are poor area, some Chinese film stars have bought homes here.

At dinner, we went to a restaurant for Peking Duck. My tablemate Humberto, a Chinese Mexican, said Peking Duck is just like a burrito! Our take a thin-taco like pancake, put a few pieces of duck, put in some onions, and then eat. Delicious. Yes, just like a burrito!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Los Angeles to China

I just returned from a 2-week tour to China, my first time there.

Arriving in Beijing airport in early August, I was impressed with how modern it is and its bilingual Chinese-English signs everywhere; the airport even had a Starbuck's near the the baggage claim but I never use Starbuck's. Our thirteen-member group was met by our local guide Wang who held up a small navy blue "China Focus" flag, the name of our tour group.

As we rode in our bus, we arrived in Beijing downtown around 5:00 just in time to be caught in a traffic jam on the freeway full of buses, trucks, and cars. Next to us was a crowded local bus whose riders sat and stood up, many looking at us in our tour bus who are looking at them. We wave; they wave. All over we see skyscrapers being erected for apartments and offices. Many signs on building were in English including Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Toyota, etc. After our bus finally got off the freeway the streets are crowded with more cars, buses, trucks and also bicycles and motor scooters; the streets are full of crowds walking on this hot summer evening. Beijing's streets pulse with energy. The sky is a dull gray from air pollution. Everywhere we went in China was the same: huge building booms in every city; gray polluted skies; traffic jams; and pedestrian crowds in summer dresses, short-sleeved shirts, and short pants on the streets these hot, humid August days.

Our four-star Guangxi Hotel has at least 10 stories and many amenities: our room had two fluffy-white terry cloth robes and a safe to lock away our valuables. In the lobby was a Business Center with Internet. The hotel also had a pool and a breafast buffet that includes both Chinese and Western food. Next morning I looked at this huge buffet, sampled some Chinese rolls and noodles as well as asked the cook to make me up an omelet. The fruits were watermelon and honeydew melon; as it was watermelon season, watermelon ended every meal.

That morning our national guide George Hu, who couldn't fly the previous night from Nanjing because of an typhoon, arrived as well as Wang, our local guide (China Focus gives us one national guide as well as a local guide for each city we visited). Since we couldn't drink tap water, we could buy 3 bottles of bottled water from our busdriver. We were off for our first stop, the Summer Palace. One the way there Wang tells us that young university graduates want to buy condos in new aparatments in the new high-rise buildings (the old apartments are run-down three story buildings form the 1960s) but need to get a mortgage. The Chinese government only lets the condo-buyers get a 70-year lease so they don't really own the land.

At the Summer Palace there are thousands of other tourists--most were Chinese. 90% of us are in tours with tour guides, each guide holding a little color flag leading the way. I felt like a little duck walking after Wang, our head duck, past the entrance with snack and souvenir shops. The Summer Palace, Wang told us, was the last Dowager Empress's summer residence as during Beijin'gs hot summer it was cooler here beside the huge lake. We had to step over the board of about 1' high on each doorway to keep the evil spirits from getting in. We walked through gorgeous old-style one-story Chinese buildings where the last Empress lived; lovely gardens; a long covered arcade; near a huge Buddhist temple where the Empress prayed; and then took a boat ride across the lake. Some small two-person boats were propelled by 1-person bicycling in a bicycle-boat.

After a Chinese lunch at a restaurant, the bus left us off at the south side of Tinanmen Square. Wang had warned us against "hello people," folks who came up to us saying "Hello, want to buy rolex." Yes, as soon as we started north in Tinanmen Square hello people come up to us saying, "hello," and asked us to buy watches, books, and silk. Tinanmen Square, the largest public square in the world which holds a million people, had a few children flying kites and thousands of tourists. Huge monumental government buildings ringed the square: Mao's Mausoleum; Monument to the People's Heroes; Musuem of Chinese History; and Musuem of the Chinese Revolution.

Next visit to Beijing I'd like to visit some of these monuments, but on this visit Wang led us north the Forbidden City where we had to enter the huge stone Gate of Heavenly Peace adorned with a huge photo of Mao. The Gate of Heavenly Peace, built five centuries ago, has 5 doors and seven bridges but only the emperor could use the central door and bridge. Mao declared the People's Republic of China here on October 1, 1949. We kept walking north the the Meridian Gate, the 2nd huge gate which was also used exclusively for the emperor. We still walked north to the Supreme Harmony Gate, the 3rd huge gate on the southern side of the Forbidden City. This gate overlooks a huge courtyard that could hold 100,000 people.

Finally, we're in the Forbidden City and we ascend the stairs of a marble terrace to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, a huge building which had the dragon throne where the emperor celebrated his birthday and coronation. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the 1st of three great halls were the emperor conducted his public business. The 2nd hall, the Hall of Middle Harmony, was where the emperor changed clothes. The third hall, Hall of Preserving Harmony, was where candidates in imperial examinations were tested. To get to these halls were walked up and down stone stairs along with thousands of others.

Wang led us to look at some of the small buildings on the west side which held 1-story houses where the emperor, his concubines, his servants lived--up to 10,000 people could live here in the Forbidden City. Wang took us into one building where courtasans lived, and told us stories of courtesans who had different ranks as well as eunuchs. The Chinese emperor had a similar set-up to the Middle Eastern caliphs with their huge harems guarded by eunuchs I had read about in school. Amazing that this huge empire was controlled from this one city-within-a city.

Most of these buildings were empty. Wang told us that when Chaing kai-check was leaving Beijing, he stripped the Forbidden City of decorations and art objects and took these objects with him to Taiwan. Finally, in the northernmost section of the Forbidden City is the Imperial Garden, a classical Chinese garden where we wandered an pathways through stone rockeries and small pavilions. I felt the Forbidden City architecture was beautiful but intimidating --designed to impress morals of the power and glory of the Empire. The Forbidden City was empire impressed into stone and marble.

For dinner we were taken to a dining house at Lama Temple, which are guide book described as a "stunningly beautiful" Buddhist temple. All we got to see was the huge dining room which was impressive with painted ceilings. I would have wished to see more of Lama Temple, but was our first day and I was suffering jet lag. After dinner we were walking through the courtyard outside the dining hall, and a woman had a stall full of pashmina/silk shawls. My tourmate Juana bargained, so she and I bought two shawls for about $7.50 apiece. Our first day we saw huge contrasts between the imperial past of palaces, temples, and stone gates versus the present day China busily building the infrastructure of buildings for a modern industrial city.