New Friends and New Adventures in China

Monday, July 27, 2009

Beijing – a city of lights and high rises –  government buildings and pictures of Chairman Mao – everywhere!

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I booked myself into a new boutique style hotel that turned out to be tres chic!  It’s called the Hotel G and it was fantastic!  After two weeks of the most uncomfortable beds I’ve ever been in – I just sank into the large king size pillow top mattress with the huge sign of bliss.  It doesn’t take much to make me happy.


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My first impressions of Beijing were of a clean, cosmopolitan, urban, metropolis.

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However, there is a haze that covers the city, blocking out all but the very closest views of ancient buildings and shiny new high rises.  I like to think that it’s not all smog but a little combination of that and some heat haze.  But it does give one an appreciation for the Clean Air Act.

The Beijing Train (Railway) Station across from our hotel

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 My hotel provides free internet service, so I plan to take advantage of this and get some of my thoughts written down about Tibet.  But first – I’ve arranged to attend the Beijing Opera tonight at the Liyuan Theatre.

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We were able to watch them put on their stage make-up


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It’s a packed house…

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I’m not sure what I expected – it was surprising in so many ways. The acrobatics and dancing were exciting to watch but the singing and music sounded like a dozen male cats fighting – OMG and LOL!

I sat at a table with a family from Normandy, France and the younger of the two children frequently looked over at me in horror at what we were hearing. I think that the voice the singer was using was intended to sound like chalk on a blackboard because every time he opened his mouth – it was accompanied by a small smirk to the audience.

The costumes are stunning!

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They put the lines of the opera on two flat screen TV’s above us so that the mostly western audience could understand the story plot.  We were served snacks and tea prior to the performance – typical Chinese fair – some of it edible – some not so much – but tried by everyone at the table.

He’s pouring tea into small cups for us.  Everything is a performance!

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I particularly enjoyed listening to my new friends talk amongst themselves in French.  While I speak a little French, it’s not often that I hear it conversationally – it’s a beautiful language. I’m listening closely because I’m headed to Chamonix and Nice next month with friends.

The next morning, I hired a guide to take me around the city as well as take me to the Beijing Culinary School.  I spent an interesting morning with one of the instructors at the school.  We went into one of the training kitchens – my  guide Daphne and I – and we were given a lesson in cooking with a wok.  Our instructor showed us how to make a dish and then Daphne and I would go behind the counter and try to replicate his efforts.  We made four dishes together and I have to say that we did O.K.!  I was even tossing my veggies in the wok with one hand!

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Something confused me about their cooking style though – the amount of oil used in the dishes.  For some reason, I thought Chinese cooking was more healthy than American cooking and holy cow was I wrong! For every dish – chicken – pork – beef or vegetable – he put three cups of oil into the wok and immediately deep fried all the ingredients.  They didn’t stay in the oil for long but in they went.  After all the ingredients had been deep fried for maybe one minute, they were all put back into a more lightly oiled wok and stir fried.  I was not thinking that these dishes were light on the calories!

Deep frying peanuts

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Deep Frying everything else

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Next, we headed to an open air fresh food market and I appreciated the many varieties of fish, vegetables, fruits and other misc items that I couldn’t identify, that could be found in Beijing.  Then on to a tea house for a tea brewing demonstration.

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It was impressive and if I drank tea – I would have bought a tea set.  But being the insane coffee drinker that I am – it would have collected dust. The Chinese do take their tea seriously and I enjoyed watching the intricacies of tea brewing and serving.


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I loved this sign…it’s at the Youth Hostel where we used the internet cafe. Business man’s budget is a backpackers deluxe!  It’s all in the marketing!

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News Flash!!

There will be a solar eclipse on July 22 — not just any solar eclipse – the longest in the 21st century! It will last 6 1/2 minutes off the coast of southeast Asia – where I am!!!!

The longest, most incredible solar eclipse in our history and I should have the best view in the world and I would have if the smog wasn’t so bad here 😦     It was so bad there was almost no difference in daylight when the eclipse occurred…sigh.

As the days go on, I’m learning more about the Chinese and their habits. Behavior in restaurants has been the most difficult to move past. Many of them have a nasty habit of hacking up nasty stuff as all times – maybe from the smog? But the really bad part of this is what happens next – whatever comes up in the hack is spit out on the floor – no matter where you are – and we happened to observe this behavior mostly in restaurants – GROSS.

Now spitting is not limited to restaurants. You learn quickly – as soon as you hear the hack “aaacccckkkkk” look around quickly and be ready to jump to the side because someone is getting ready to deliver a loogy and even if it doesn’t land directly on you — the spittle has mass directionality . Between the hacking, spitting and smoking in restaurants, we took to street food quickly.

And speaking of “we” I guess I should introduce you to my new traveling mates for the next 21 days.  There are nine of us – 8 women and one man.

The married couple (Rich and Katy) are in their early thirties.  She’s a grade school teacher and he splits his time between an Egyptian Museum and a classroom as a professor of American Studies.  They’re both from the UK.

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Clockwise…me, Sara, Mandy, Rich, Katy, Amy, Steph, Katy and Alice.

Two older ladies traveling together are teachers also and from the UK as well.  They are Sara and Mandy – both very nice ladies.

Two younger girls, Katy and Alice, both around 24 years old, are from the UK and believe it or not – Teachers in Training. Lots of teachers because of course they get great vacation time every summer and al these folks love to travel.

The three leftovers are the three single women on their own – me, Amy, and Steph.  We seem to be around the same age but no one has asked yet.  Steph is another teacher from the UK.  Amy is an attorney from New Zealand but living in the UK.  You think I was joking when I said that I’m picking up a slight British accent – how can I not?  So that’s the group.  We all get along – though we’ve only know each other for three days.  We’ll see what happens on day 10 – after three days on a boat!

This is what the dinner table regularly looks like – family style – tons of food – and really, really good! Our guide, Bing, has been taking us to all his favorite restaurants.

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He tells us that each town we go to will have their own special brand of beer.  We’re all committed to trying every single one!  Keeping with the “communal” plan, we divvy up the bill at the end and all pay the same thing.  One beer each, one bottle of water each and all that food came to a grand total of 45 yuan a piece or $6.50.

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So the next day or two was taken up with touristy things like visiting the Forbidden City, Lake Houhai, taking in an Acrobatic Show and a few other cool things. You might be thinking to yourself right now – great – where are the pictures,Tracy? A funny thing happened on my way to the Forbidden City…

There I was – at the entrance to this magical place – stepping back to get a better view – when I tripped and fell on my butt – taking the camera down with me. I cracked the lens finder pretty good and in return received a message from my camera – “Lens Error” – I will no longer work for you. Damn it.

Finding and then getting to a camera repair shop took some doing and communicating my problem to the young lady behind the counter was equally challenging, but we made it work. I handed her the camera, she looked it over and managed to say to me in English “come back tomorrow at 2”. I wanted to kiss her.

we are up at the crack of dawn to hit the Great wall and we are all pumped up…to ride in the bus for 4 hours.   Back to sleep. Bing, our guide to the end, wanted to take us as far out of the city as possible for the best chance at a blue sky…but alas…we wouldn’t see blue that day.  This, however, did not stop us from taking lots of pictures to document our great journey.


We would finish on the blue dot at the bottom right…then just back up 30 other blue dots (towers) and you can see where we start – it’s the lower squiggly blue line above the two straight ones. (10 kilometers)


THAT tower was where the wall hike started…just getting there was a tough hike!


One step at a time…



Our plan was a 5-hour hike today and we were all ready for it – sunscreen, hats, packed lunch, water – and now we’re all carrying 10lbs on our backs .  We were all expecting a walk along a wall.  What we found was steep inclines and declines…crumbling rock and broken steps.

The first hour was all about breathing…in and out…and ignoring the pain in our bodies.  We lost two members of the crew in that first hour.  We planned to traverse through 30 towers.  At the 4th one, you have the option of taking a cable car to the bottom and Mandy and Sara decided that was a good idea.



We learn that at one point in its construction, fully 70% of all Chinese men were involved with work building the Wall.

What I found unbelievable was that if a person was born into a family with a criminal sentence and that sentence was not fulfilled upon their death, the criminal’s innocent offspring could be forced to finish the sentence of their father or family member and their entire life might be spent working to build the wall.



The inside of a tower



Oh yea…it was hot and humid and I’m sweating!


By the second hour…we had found our stride and we had sweat all the water out of our bodies…about 10 lbs worth…which balanced out the backpacks.  All along the way…at every tower…there are two or three ladies selling bric-a-brack, water, coke and snacks.  We bought and drank one bottle of water about every three towers…and no one was claiming that they needed to use the loo!

The wall is not smooth!  It’s old and crumbling.   They are repairing it in places…but in many…it was just tough going!


Looking at the Wall and walking on its cobblestones was a remarkable experience. In places, the pathways lean at about a 45 degree angle and going up and down sometimes felt like a 90 degree angle!




Though initially built by an emperor for protection from Mongol invaders, it never served its intended military purpose and instead served more as an ancient highway to transport goods and services from one town to another along its 4000 mile, meandering route through the mountains. However, the road between the wall towers is so steep, with many, many steps and vertical grades along the way, transport must have been backbreaking.


As I walked the Wall, I thought about the laborers who laid these stones and the people who must have traveled along its corridors. It is not merely a marvel of engineering, but a tremendous bridge to the past. It is a true world treasure.

We trekked up and down…over and under…stopping at tower 15 for a quick lunch…then off again.  We were actually on all fours climbing up some places…and we were exhilarated!  That’s another word for exhausted and broken…but still smiling.




At the end of our particular section of the wall (and finished in the record setting time of 2 1/5 hours!) there was a swing bridge that crossed over a river and gorge…and to the right was a zip line down to the bottom!  Whoo Hoo.  There were a few of us that had a fear of heights and zip lining in general…so half the group zipped and the other half walked down.  I zipped.



Today was everything that I could have asked for in a Great Wall experience!

Everyone split up that night to do their own thing for dinner.  Five of us went down the street to a little chinese diner and while we ordered way too much food…it was good and we deserved it!

Tiananmen Square

The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, culminating in a violent conflict referred to in the United States as the Tiananmen Square massacre and in China as the June Fourth Incident (ostensibly to avoid confusion with two prior Tiananmen Square protests), were a series of demonstrations in and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) beginning on 14 April. Led mainly by students and intellectuals, the protests occurred in a year that saw the collapse of a number of communist governments around the world.

The protests were sparked by the death of a pro-market, pro-democracy, and anti-corruption official, Hu Yaobang, whom protesters wanted to mourn. By the eve of Hu’s funeral, 1,000,000 people had gathered on the Tiananmen square. The protests lacked a unified cause or leadership; participants included disillusioned Communist Party members and Trotskyists as well as free market reformers, who were generally against the government’s authoritarianism and voiced calls for economic change and democratic reform within the structure of the government. The demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, but large-scale protests also occurred in cities throughout China, including Shanghai, which remained peaceful throughout the protests.

The movement lasted seven weeks, from Hu’s death on 15 April until tanks cleared Tiananmen Square on 4 June. In Beijing, the resulting military response to the protesters by the PRC government left many civilians dead or severely injured.

Following the violence, the government conducted widespread arrests of protesters and their supporters, cracked down on other protests around China, banned the foreign press from the country and strictly controlled coverage of the events in the PRC press. Members of the Party who had publicly sympathized with the protesters were purged, with several high-ranking members placed under house arrest, such as General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. There was widespread international condemnation of the PRC government’s use of force against the protesters.


Tank Man — This famous photo, taken on 5 June 1989 by photographer Jeff Widener, depicts an unknown man halting the PLA’s advancing tanks near Tiananmen Square.

I don’t remember where I was when the student protesters stood their ground in Tiananmen Square against the powerful Chinese military, known as the People’s Liberation Army in 1989. Many people do and Mandy and Sara both recall watching the disturbing scenes on TV and being horrified by the violence as well as impressed with the conviction of the students to stand their ground against obviously bad odds. I remember seeing the now famous picture of the lone individual standing before the huge Chinese tank in all of our western magazines. Now, as I stand in this fantastic public space, surrounded by other tourists and people milling around, my heart can only see the students and what they did here and I don’t know if I would have had that same courage.


Due to Chinese government censorship, numbers of how many died during the protests vary widely. Initial Chinese Red Cross reports of 2,600 casualties were revised after pressure from the government. Looking around, it’s an incredible space to launch a protest. One feels so small here, even amongst thousands of people. To be alone in this immense square, standing in front of a military tank, must have been terrifying. That guy had to have the heart of 100 lions to do what he did. I stand here in awe of him and feel inspired by his action and of his fellow student protesters.



There is no mention of what happened, no memorial plaque, nothing. That is the eery part of China, the authoritarian stranglehold on information over its people.  That is most evident in the flow of information…or lack of flow…Facebook is still not up!


Like everything else in Beijing, Tiananmen Square (ironically, Square of Heavenly Peace) is massive. I tried to get the dimensions but accounts vary. I was told it is the largest public square in the world. It can hold 1 million people easily. It is hard to grasp the size, even being there. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. The buildings surrounding the square are also mammoth sized, so it makes people look and feel like tiny ants. Perhaps this was the idea, to make the citizens feel small and unimportant as individuals. It works.


The body of Chairman Mao lays in a memorial building where the chinese people can come and honor him.  The line to get in stretched around the building and beyond.  That’s why the Chinese come here…the rest of us are here to experience the square.

Lines stretching around the buildings and the square to view Chairman Mao’s body in it’s crystal case.

The building where Chairman Mao’s body lies

They flood in one entrance and flood back out another..

The Forbidden City is the world’s largest surviving palace complex and covers 72 ha. It is a rectangle 961 metres (3,150 ft) from north to south and 753 metres (2,470 ft) from east to west. It consists of 980 surviving buildings with 8,707 bays of rooms.  It was originally built with 9,999 rooms…but…in a dream one night, the emporer received a message from heaven stating that the heavenly palace had 10,000 rooms and his could not have as many. 

The Forbidden City was designed to be the centre of the ancient, walled city of Beijing. It is enclosed in a larger, walled area called the Imperial City. The Imperial City is, in turn, enclosed by the Inner City; to its south lies the Outer City.


We entered the Forbidden City (called this because the “normal” folk were forbidden to enter) by crossing the entry bridge under Chairman Mao’s portrait then through one of the five tunnels via Tiananmen Gate, the Gate of Heavenly Peace.


Not far into the outer courtyards…came my fall from grace.  Being the celebrity that any of us westerners are…the fall brought quite a bit of attention.  I immediately stood…held up my arms in (what I hoped was) the universal sign of “I’m OK” at the same time saying “I’m OK…which most of them didn’t understand.  But I was on my feet and there was no blood…so there were sighs of relief from all.  So, for the first time in four months…there will be no pictures to accompany my story.  While the others have some shots…they are not downloaded onto my laptop and I’m not sure if they will be…I haven’t forgotten the space issue in Iphoto.


This “city” took us half the day to walk through, as it encompasses several city blocks. And Beijing’s blocks are really big blocks! Strolling around the Palace Museum which is The Forbidden City, I was impressed with its immense scale. There were some city residents who never left these walls in their entire lives. You can easily see how this is possible. If we didn’t have a guide, we would have gotten lost. This place is just massive.


Most of the structures were built during the Ming Dynasty to house the emperors, his staff of pharmacists, wardrobe masters, eunuchs, servants, empresses and concubines.  The Empress Dowager was the one who chose the concubines.  There were hundreds of them and many never even got to see the emperor…but they lived their lives here regardless. There are endless temples with haunting names like the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Hall of Mental Cultivation and the Temple of Heavenly Purity. There was one building dedicated to food, called the Temple of Lingering Taste.


At times it felt as if I was just part of a wave of people, going from one temple to the next. At smaller exhibits it was easier to see the displays, but at the Temples for the Emperor’s throne or the Empress’ bedroom, there was always a crush of people trying to see what was inside.


Although it is August, not nearly prime tourist season, there were probably more people at this attraction than any place I’ve been on my trip to date. People were everywhere, and it is best to accept them as part of the experience.  We’ve found that the Chinese are not to be messed with when they’re trying to get somewhere…usually just in front of you.  It didn’t matter if we were buying an apple, waiting to get through a doorway, or standing in a static line waiting for a taxi…they simply go right around you until they are in front of you and can go no further.  At first, it’s surprising.  Then it’s annoying.  Finally, it becomes a challenge to defeat the line cutter’s plans…that’s really messing with them   We don’t, however, mess with little old ladies and I don’t recommend that any of you do either.  The smaller and older..the more dangerous.


In recent years, the presence of commercial enterprises in the Forbidden City has become controversial.  A Starbucks store that opened in 2000 sparked objections and eventually closed on July 13, 2007.  Chinese media also took notice of a pair of souvenir shops that refused to admit Chinese citizens in order to price-gouge foreign customers in 2006.

Later that evening, we all went to the Chinese Acrobatic Show and WOW!  I recommend this to anyone coming to Beijing.  It’s exciting and dangerous and fast-paced!  Groups of men and women perform feats of agility, balance and flexibility that to us, was both unimaginable and far out of our abilities!


Afterwards, we took taxis up to Houhai Lake for dinner and some beers.  The lake is surrounded by bars that are lit up like Vegas…each one blaring their own particular brand of music from large speakers placed strategically near their doors to attract party-goers.  We are poked and prodded by men and women alike trying to get us to buy something, give them a donation, or come into their establishment.  You really have to zone out or you could get a little chinese overload.


Bing took us to a bar that he obviously frequents often because they all knew him by name.  After a couple of beers, some of us decided that we needed to get a hookah pipe.  Almost immediately, Bing rose from his seat and excused himself saying that he was tired and wanted to go to bed.  We said goodnight and didn’t think anything more about it until the train ride to Xi’an the next night.  He asked us if we had gotten very “high” on the marijuana pipe last night?  What?!  We had to explain to him that a hookah pipe just has flavored tobacco in it – no nicotine – no marijuana!  Jeez…it was Bing who told us that they cut off your head for having pot in this country.  He hadn’t wanted to hang out with a bunch us pot-heads!  Bing needs to get out more.


And so we come to the end of a busy few days in Beijing.  Tomorrow is a free day for everyone and while some are relaxing…others are touring more sights.  Me…I have an appointment at 2:00 with the camera store and I’m just crossing my fingers that my camera lens is fixed and I don’t have to buy another one.

































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