Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Beijing. September 29-30, 2014

Beijing. Tuesday, September 30.

Tomorrow is the big day: The wedding of Andrew Feldman and Caren Zhou, and the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.  Red Flags are flying everywhere, and the mood is festive.

This afternoon the group went to the Qianmen shopping area that Kent and I had visited on our first day of exploring, and the pedestrianized Wangfujing Dajie shopping street that makes the grand boulevards of London, Paris, and New York look tired.  Here were posh hotels, and flashy designer-label shops (Prada, Gucci, Apple, Cartier and others), as well as a foreign language bookstore and Tesla cars. Just south of this area was a crowded traditional "food street" featuring, among other items, skewers of scorpions (both wiggling and roasted), snakes and squid.

Our morning was totally occupied by our first expedition via the subway to pick up our train tickets for next week. It was an adventure, full of frustrations, and involved three different subway lines, but we did manage to get our tickets and get back to our hotel in under 4 hours.  Maybe the $50 fee we would have paid for ticket delivery to our hotel wasn't so outrageous.  We now know that getting to the Western Railway Station on October 8 and to the early morning start for the Great Wall camping expedition on October 4 will not be simple.

Kent on subway hanging on to nice plastic handhold wit advertising

Yesterday we visited the Great Wall at Juyongguan Pass, and several of us climbed all the way up to the Beacon lookout.  I'm not sure how high, or how many uneven steps it was, but my legs are feeling it today.  We could see people climbing straight up the snaking wall like a row of ants to what we thought was the highest point, but when we reached that height we saw that the actual top was almost equally far above and beyond.  So, hot and panting, we continued on, with crowds diminished the higher we went.  It was great to be out in the country in the fresh air, and there were some lovely views of the wild China mountain landscape.

Carrie Feldman on the wall

A cold front blew in today, and we donned sweaters and jackets.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Beijing, Monday Morning, 29 September

Beijing, Monday morning, 29 September

Touring with a group, even a small group, is not the way I like to travel.  I need to go at my own pace, to stop and really look, to immerse myself in the experience, or not, and not be distracted by someone telling me what is supposed to be important about a place.  So, yesterday was a frustrating day at Prince Kong's mansion, at Tiananmen  Square, and in the Forbidden City.

Favorite memories of the day.  (1) a group of young people wanting to take our pictures and pose with us (while we waited out someone's toilet stop) in a pavilion in the midst of a pond at Prince Kong's house. 

 (2) The red prayer cards hung at a shrine there -- but what did that all mean, and why there, whose image was in the shrine, and what did the cards say?  Many had the "happiness" character, originally written by an emperor on a stele now housed in a grotto at the mansion. 

 (3) An adorable little princess of a girl of perhaps five, wearing pink roller blades with ruffled socks, a frilly dress and a small backpack with brightly colored streamers. A bit unsteady, she clung to her father's hand.  I asked him if I could take her picture, and he asked her.  She shyly turned away,which meant no, then she gave me a lovely smile and little wave as she  as they moved away. I did find a young couple with a baby huddled under an umbrella who allowed a photo, though.  But that little girl captured my heart, the future of China.

 (4) I again loved the big basket of birthday flowers, loved  watching couples and groups and numerous selfie-takers posing there.  Tracy, our guide, said the flower vase came out every year for the National Holiday.  It seems such a lighthearted, whimsical and exquisitely beautiful contrast to the severely monumental totalitarian grandeur of the square and the solemn occasion it commemorates. 

(5) Everyone but Kent and me chose to go to a quite expensive ($40) hour-long acrobatics show.  We found a friendly little family-run hole-in-the-wall where we shared two beers and a delicious, piping hot bowl of spicy noodles (total cost 22 yuan -- les than $4) and enjoyed visiting across the table (just the two of us), and watching the friendly and curious little boy doing his homework (pages of arithmetic and characters), checked with great seriousness by his father.

The Forbidden City:  it was overwhelming, crowded, and monumental.  Also beautiful.  I lost count of the courtyards, stairways and palaces.  I could imagine visiting again after some more reading, on a cold winter day with fewer people and perhaps a touch of snow, so I could let it all sink in.  I know nothing else like it.  It dwarfs Versailles and the Taj Mahal.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

First two Days in Beijing (long) September 2014

Beijing, China
Saturday morning, 27 September

The sky in Beijing has been soupy gray ever since our arrival on Thursday afternoon, almost a twilight world, a bit like the colorless world of Lois Lowry's The Giver, or Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche, punctuated with bright red Chinese flags, almost blinding against the gray.

News flash!  The dawn is breaking on our third day, with small pink clouds in a sky that hints of blue.  From our eighth floor window I see buildings that  h ave heretofore been invisible soaring into the sky, and there  is a low mountain range on the  northwestern horizon. It is still gray, but there is hope.

Friday. 26 September, 2014
While enjoying a plentiful buffet breakfast, we watched through the window as cyclists bearing parents, children, and all manner of goods sped past in the bike lane beside the  automobile traffic.  It was still early when we set out on foot to explore and get our bearings.  The  estimated 10-minute walk to the East Gate of the Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan), took us longer as I stopped frequently to look and take pictures of my first views of Beijing.

After awhile we left the wide avenues, and wandered into a small alley, into one of the hutongs, old neighborhoods with traditional small houses no more than 1 or two stories, some in total disrepair, and others renovated.  On a market street I watched a woman frying twisted bread sticks in a vat of grease, and saw many unfamiliar fruits and vegetables. Most arresting was a mesh bag stuffed with layers of large green frogs which stared at me with their bulging eyes, their sides heaving.

We wandered with delight through a labyrinth of quiet lanes, through both run down and renovated stretches.  There were frequent toilets and bath houses for men and women as many of these houses had no plumbing, although some of the renovated streets had water and sewer lines. We met a man who spoke excellent English, who introduced us to his beautiful elderly mother.  We shook her hand.  She lived in one of the renovated houses. "Only old people live here," he told us.  "And that house belongs to a very rich man."   He pointed down the street.  The unrenovated houses have no kitchens and no running water.

I was fascinated by the interesting curved gray roof tiles, and the curves of the roofs themselves. We watched construction on one busy street, where scores of yellow-hatted workmen mixed and hauled cement, rebuilt walls, and placed tiles on roofs.  New windows were stacked, ready to insert. All the construction was in the old style, but with new materials.

Eventually we exited the hutongs just south of Tiananmen Square, onto a busy, touristy set of pedestrian shopping streets called Quiamen.  We watched through a window as a man In a fancy headdress cooked noodles in a huge steaming vat, and another made dumplings.  We ended up eating there: a delicious huge bowl of noodles with mixed ingredients and a somewhat less successful bowl of hot and sour soup. ( more hot than sour).  We passed a Starbucks, a McDonalds, and a Hagen Daz. But one small cone in the Hagan Daz cost 36 yuan (more than our lunch dishes -- about $6 -- so we left without buying.

We walked around  the ancient enormous gates and circled underground to cross the huge streets south of Tiananmen Square, where we had to go through yet another underground passage with security to get into the square itself.  Under one gate was a brass marker for mile zeros, pointing in all four directions -- the beginning of all the highways in China.

The vast square, filled with families and people of all ages, some sitting right on the
pavement to picnic, certainly conveyed the impression that this could be the center of the world, and that it was a great center of ancient and modern power.  I loved the look of the Chinese people.  Women of all ages mainly wore practical, sensible footwear and clothing, no nonsense, attractive haircuts, and had such amiable and intelligent faces that they looked like people with whom I'd love to be friends, if only I could speak Chinese.

Red carpets were being rolled out on a viewing platform for the upcoming national holiday, the anniversary of the 1949 revolution.  I was irresistibly drawn to an enormous sculpture of a red bowl of colorful flowers, whose petals rippled in the breeze.  I don't know if this is a permanent item, or temporary birthday bouquet.

The gates of the Forbidden City beckoned to the north, hung with a portrait of Mao, but knowing we'd be back, and that we had a long walk back to the hotel, we didn't go farther, but headed back through the increasingly warm afternoon.  We had walked almost constantly, except for our noodle lunch stop, for about six hours.

Showers and a brief rest felt great.  Julia and Jim were checking in when we returned to the lobby for me to check email on a slow and intermittent wifi connection, and for Kent to find a very expensive and disappointing small bottle of beer.

In the evening we met everyone: Caren's warm and welcoming parents, the bridal couple (Careen and Andy), Jim, Laura, and Carrie (father and sisters of Andy -- mother Julia-Lulu begged off for tiredness), groomsmen Todd with wife Angie, and Mike and Jeff -- all from Minneapolis except for Caren's parents and Kent and me -- for an amazing dinner at a private Yunnan hotel, where we were treated to more food than we could eat, including huge bowls of soup into which ingredients were mixed on the spot, and the highlight for me, this flat blackened, spicy whole fish, grilled on a skewer (I didn't see any head, though), that was a bit of a challenge to eat.  Most of the bones, however (all but the very biggest) were so pulverized by the heat that they crumbled and presented no danger.  In fact they were delicious.

Saturday (continued)

The promise of sunshine was fulfilled, making it a fine day to tour the Summer Palace, to which we traveled with our guide in a comfortable van.  We drove past what seemed like endless shiny new high rise buildings, along wide impressive boulevards, some lined with planted flowers and red lanterns, and all crowded with new, expensive cars.  It seemed that if I put every huge modern skyscraper city I'd ever seen together, it would not be bigger than Beijing.  I can believe that the world's future belongs to China.

We climbed to the highest temple on the artificially created mountain, took a boat on the huge constructed lake, and mingled with crowds enjoying the lovely day.  We saw presents given to Dowager Empress Cixi, about whom we are reading in a book picked up at Costco!  I was struck by the elaborate artifice of this supposedly natural place, and thought of the story of the emperor and the nightingale.  On the way to lunch back near The Temple of Heaven, we experienced traffic gridlock.  I studied the Chinese characters on storefronts, looking for patterns, and I determined that I would like to learn at least a few.  We talked softball with Jim.

After lunch around what was becoming the familiar round table with a huge glass lazy susan in the middle, we visited the lovely Temple of Heaven.   Again, there were crowds.  I enjoyed the exhibits on the history of the temple and the rites that were once carried out there.  We finished at a tea house where we sampled Oolong, purity, jasmine, and "baby tea" made with dried fruits.  Later while some of the others went to an acrobatic performance, Kent read, and I spent a frustrating hour downloading VPN software, and struggling with the slow and intermittent internet in the hotel lobby.  We finished with dinner at a unpretentious little hole in the wall restaurant near the hotel, no lazy Susan this time, just a crowded and chaotic square table.

When we returned to our room I fell asleep still in my clothes.

Connected--maybe- Yes!

I finally was able to configure a VPN (never heard of one before this trip), and I think I'll be able to post to Blogger and to Facebook, although I'm not yet sure how this works. We've had two wonderful days in Bejing so far,  and today we have had sunshine and have seen the sky for the first time!

Beijing Thursday September 25

All went smoothly to Beijing.  Sky is totally murky, though, and at a first glance the city is pretty overwhelming.  I don't think I can access Facebook, but was pleasantly surprised to find wifi in the Tiantan hotel room, and gmail seems to be working.  Not sure about Blogspot.  We'll see.

Caren met us at the airport, which was awfully nice. We'll have dinner with the family here this evening.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In Hong Kong!

It was a long flight and seat space was the usual tight economy, but Singapore Airlines had the nicest plane I've been on in a long time, with very helpful, cheerful and conscientious attendants, and a wide range of food and entertainment choices.  My new noise-canceling headphones really helped.  I managed to sleep about 5 hours , not that much less than a normal night's sleep.  Best of all was a pull down foot rest like on busses that helped me get my legs into a more comfortable position.  It was dark all the way across the Pacific as we stayed just ahead of the rising sun.  After landing we could see
the sun coming up on misty mountains rimmed by white skyscrapers.

After a four-hour layover and a three-hour flight, we'll be in Beijing this afternoon.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fall Blows In: Ten Days to Departure for China and Southeast Asia

Fall blows in, September 12, 2014

The morning, following yesterday’s solemn commemoration of September 11, dawned cloudy and windy, with a sharp drop in temperature announcing the end of the warmth and sun of summer, and reminding us that the date of our departure for China and Southeast Asia in just ten days is rapidly approaching.  We have been preparing, but there is still much to do, including tasks at home, and decisions about clothes, guidebooks, and organizing the electronic devices that will allow us to communicate, access information, and record our journey over nearly three months.  Everything will have to fit into our two carry-on sized backpacks, plus one day-pack.  Our itinerary takes us up to November 11, and the center of Vietnam, leaving the last month open.  It is lovely here.  When the time comes to go, I never want to leave home.

Washing scarves: which should I take?