Saturday, September 06, 2008

Scenes from Badaling

There's this great book, Insider's Guide to Beijing, that we have been using to negotiate our way around the city. It's not really for tourists, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is living here for a significant period of time. Here's how the book describes the Badaling Great Wall: "This, the mother of all tourist sites, will give an empirical sense of what it means to be in a country of 1.4 billion people." With such a high density collection of people, a day at Badaling is bound to produce some funny and mystifying moments. Here are a couple of scenes we observed and participated in...

(1) No matter how far away from the entrance you walk, there are speakers all over the place. Some blast your ears with announcements (We now know that there is a movie, 17 minutes long, that is shown continuously all day. Why be on the Wall when you can sit back and look at videos, most likely shot on days when the skies were clearer than today?) Others play, over and over again, Olympic songs like Beijing Huan Ying Ni and One World, One Dream. (Kinda like going on that "It's a Small World" ride over and over and over...)

(2) At one point, we came upon this dad and small kid, toting a small cage, which we've by now figured out is where one keeps their pet cricket. (Stores all over town have these little wooden cages hanging outside their doors. So you can be in the middle of Beijing and hear chirping everywhere you go.) What a cool father-son outing! Why settle for any old cricket when you can have a pet that came from the Great Wall!?

(3) There really is no escape from the "Hordes of Badaling." Just when we thought we were beginning to get "out there," there suddenly appeared a police officer and a barrier. Although we could see the Wall stretching out tantalizingly over mountain after mountain, there was definitely no way we could go any further. We're not ready to get detained yet!

(4) There is this roller coaster-ish ride that can take you from a high point on the Wall, back toward the entrance down below. Falling into the trap, we handed over 30 kuai each (like 5 bucks) and enjoyed a low-speed, low-thrill trip back to the bottom. It really is starting to sound more and more like Disney, isn't it?

(5) Where does the tram-ish thing drop you off? At the area where everyone in China who isn't visiting the Wall is working at the Wall. It's like running this gauntlet of trinket sales men and women. I tried various strategies in response. The ever-present bu yao (don't want) to off-the-wall things like, Ni yingwen shuo de ting hao (your English is really good). If nothing else, that one really puzzles them (and makes Desi roll her eyes at me). At one point, I made a low offer for this "I climbed the Great Wall" shirt. Not getting a positive response, I kept sauntering down trinket alley. (Oh, did I mention that you can also pay, right in the middle of this tourist trap, a few kuai to feed these bears who are kept in this little area between all the salespeople?) A few moments later, one of the merchants came running down the path, searching for me, ready to make a deal. The only thing is that she ran after the wrong foreigner! Eventually, she figured her mistake out, and I walked away with my three dollar shirt. (Even though it was labeled as a 5X, it's too small for me. Julie, you're in luck!)

No real moments of solitude, as you can see. But that's not why you go to Badaling...


Wo Ai Zai Zhongguo Zuo Huoche (I Love Train Travel in China)

It all started with our overnight soft-sleeper ride to Shanghai, but doesn't end there. When we were deciding our mode of transport to the Great Wall this morning, Steve happened upon a website that told about a train that goes from downtown Beijing out to Badaling. While Badaling is the touristy part of the Great Wall (we prefer the crumbling to the restored), we figured it would be a good reintroduction.

Step onto the S2. For 17 kuai per person (less than three dollars), you get clean, comfy seats that partially recline and swivel. A large window allows you to watch all the sights (including gorgeous mountain views and "appetizer" glimpses of the Wall itself) and no traffic! The ride takes just over an hour.

When you arrive at the station, you are greeted by a huge statue of Genghis Khan (not sure of the significance here). It is a short walk, around 700 meters, to the entrance of the Great Wall at Badaling.

Train travel is really the way to go here. The kids only wish that they would build a line from our house to BISS!


PS: Walking back to the station afterwards, we were sent off by a camel and his owner, apparently returning home after a long day's work. Now that's something you don't see on Amtrak!

Midnight Mosquito Mayhem

Every morning for almost a week, Z and I were waking up with a whole new set of bites on our arms, legs, hands, feet, and faces. We would itch like crazy, but none of us were really worried because we aren't in malaria country. Finally, one night I woke up around midnight. I had my window open because when I went to bed, there was a very nice breeze. When I woke up, it was completely still and very hot. I realized that I already had several new and very itchy bug bites. Half asleep, I laid back down again, hoping to catch some more z's.

After about five minutes, I started to hear buzzing in my ears, and I began feeling bugs landing on my skin. Forty minutes of swatting later, and I decided it was ridiculous for me to continue all night like this. Into Mommy and Daddy's room for a better night's sleep on the couch. Or so I thought until I realized Z was already laying on the couch, completely asleep. Option C: Wake Mommy up. This is always one of my last options when I can't handle situations on my own. Mommy groggily jumps up and asks what's wrong. After a brief explanation, Mommy hobbles into my room where we can turn the lights on. A quick glance at the wall above my bed reveals three or four big brown mosquitoes that were either landed on the wall or buzzing about.

Without hardly a glance, Mommy had the can of Raid (not the can that was left in the apartment when we moved in!) and was spraying the room at the slightest sign of movement. We aren't usually bug killers in our household, but when I have five or six bug bites on my face, Mommy shows no mercy. (Delirious and tired as we were, Mommy and I decided to have cookies to add to the midnight mosquito mayhem.) When all the bugs were twitching on the ground, we finally went to bed. (The time...1:30am.)

Bug busting aside, Mommy and I found out early the next morning that Z was having a mosquito problem in his room, so he decided to sleep on the couch for the rest of the night. After that night, however, I don't think we will have any more mosquito fun.


Friday, September 05, 2008

More With Wang Xiansheng

After taxiing back to the volunteer station where all of the craziness started, we thanked Wang Xiansheng, thinking our time together was over. Boy, were we wrong! Wang Xiansheng asked if he could meet back up with us in a hour, right before we were going to pick Julie and Z up at school. (BISS, by the way, is just across the street from the Starbucks where we have been getting our Internet fix.) We had some idea of what he had in mind. He mentioned showing us the park (this particular neighborhood, An Zhen Xili, has a really gorgeous park full of shade trees, practitioners of tai ji quan, and little old ladies who could absolutely destroy me in ping pong). He also mentioned wanting to see how tall Julie and Z are (I have this vague notion that he might want to give the kids presents that require knowledge about their size...). But then he kept using the words for clothes (yifu), the word "Han," and other phrases I could not decipher.

An hour later, it all became apparent (sort of). Wang Xiansheng has this really awesome outfit that is in the style of what men wore during the Han dynasty. And what he wanted to do was have a photo shoot with us at various spots around the park (like the statue of Confucius ). A young girl accompanied us on this tour, snapping photos as we went, some arranged and others spontaneous (as we listened to Wang Xiansheng explain the different murals that we were passing by). Along the way, we drew lots of attention. (Was it the waiguoren, or was it Wang Xiansheng in his imperial wear?) In fact, for a while, we had a man tailing us, smiling the whole way. And then we had another Olympic "volunteer" come bring us gifts (a Summer Palace book mark and an Olympic ping pong pin).

By now, time was running short for us to jet back to BISS and get the kids. After telling this to Wang Xiansheng, he assured us he could get out of his Han clothing and be ready to walk back with us in liang fen zhong (two minutes). True to his word (and still walking at, shall we say, a brisk pace), Wang Xiansheng hung with us as we walked onto the BISS campus and waited for Julie and Z.

Wang Xiansheng's last concern of the day was getting a mental picture of how tall Julie and Z were relative to him (almost his height, actually). Satisfied that he had a good read on the situation, Wang Xiansheng wished us well and disappeared back into the urban jungle lurking just outside the gates of BISS. Why do we get the feeling that we have not seen the last of him...


Our Unexpected Paralympic Adventure

So there we were, sitting in Starbucks, catching up on emails, bills, news, and so forth. (Did we mention that the Internet is down at our apartment? Apparently, our landlady didn't pay the bill...) On our "to do" list was getting tickets to some paralympic events. This didn't seem like a hard problem, as there was an Olympic volunteer station located right outside the building where we were sipping our frappaccino. (There are these kinds of stations all around town. For weeks, we have been wondering what all of the "volunteers" actually do with their days. Little did we know we were about to find out...)

While Desi typed away, I strolled out to chat up the volunteers. (A good chance to work on some Chinese...) Knowing that (for some reason) tickets are being sold at select Bank of China locations, I asked the crew assembled there where the closest branch is located. This led to conflicting advice. One ayi told me to get on a certain bus and go one stop. Another told me not to do that, but to head to a Zhongguo Yinhang located within walking distance.

Into this mess stepped Wang Xiansheng (as you'll see, we spent enough time with this volunteer that we learned his name...and a lot more...). Mr. Wang, in an authoritative yet kind voice, said that I needed to walk over to a metro station near the Olympic Green (about fifteen-minutes away). He also said he would accompany me...right now! Quickly, I explained to him that my wife was over at the kafei guan and I needed to coordinate this sudden outing with her. Ten minutes later, we sauntered back over to the volunteer station and off the three of us went.

This was an exhausting trip. For one thing, Wang Xiansheng walked really fast. In addition, we were chatting the whole way, which took a lot of mental energy, keeping up with his clear but rapid Chinese speech and figuring out how to respond in a semi-intelligent manner.

In no time flat, we arrived at our destination. Wang Xiansheng, though, was clearly perturbed at the lack of open ticket booths. After conferring with a security guard, it became clear that we needed to move on. Wang Xiansheng, not wanting to let his waiguoren down, wasted no time redirecting us to a bus that would take us to a Bank of China where tickets were in fact being sold. This turned out to be several miles away (Beijing = big city, remember?).

When we arrived, we were greeted with quite a scene. It was one of those take a number and wait things. Behind these thick glass plates were tellers. Some were doing regular personal banking transactions. No lines there. Then there was this one window where Olympic tickets were being sold. This was the teller you needed a number to see. Wang Xiansheng informed us, after conferring with yet another security guard (wearing one of those hard, green combat helmets), that the wait was about one hour. But...and here's the good news...since we are waiguoren, we could jump to the front of the line. It's good to be a waiguoren! (I think there was a man who wasn't too happy about this. He and Wang Xiansheng had a brief discussion and they were using words I didn't know...)

At the ticket window, things were going smoothly. Until, that is, the teller asked me for our passports. Uh oh. You see, a university official needed our passports today to make some headway on getting our still elusive residency and work permits. So I pulled out the xerox copies we were carrying around today. This didn't go over too well. Then Desi suggested pulling out my Beida ID card. (Remember...Beida is the Harvard of China and the mere mention that one is a professor there gets exclamations of amazement.) Good call, Desi! That did the trick. We got our Paralympic tickets (ping pong at the Beida gym and track and field at the Bird's Nest).

His job well done, Wang Xiansheng could have gone his separate way. But he was not done with us yet...


I Know You're Wondering About the Laundry

We're living large. Well, sort of. You see, our original washing machine (I think it was constructed during the Qing dynasty) broke. (No tears, I assure you.) So the landlady had a new one ordered and delivered in two days. While it is not of the style we're all used to in the States, it gets the clothes nice and clean and I don't have to worry about "someone else's underwear."

Drying is a different story. We're still getting used to the fact that most Chinese families do not own a dryer. Include us in that statistic. So it's back to pioneer days for the Ballas.

We have a nice routine in place...we hear the washer stop and it's time for all of us to "spring into action." We have a pole on the breezy balcony and plenty of hangers. We also have a cool tool for hanging the hangers on the pole. Z likes to do this. He says he is "manning the omelet station." While this situation is not really an issue for us right now, we're of course very curious how this will work in the winter. We'll have to get back to you on that one...


The Mysterious Hutongs

One of the types of places I had planned to explore a lot while living in Beijing were the hutongs. I imagined myself walking for hours through these elusive courtyard dwellings. Today, Steve and I began our quest to understand what's behind those fifteen foot walls...the people, the living space, the retail, and of course the food.

After spending some of the morning at Gong Wangfu, we walked around the Houhai area. Turn the corner into an alleyway and you're there. Some of the hutongs we went through were old style. They weren't crumbling, but didn't seem to be renovated either. The living spaces were not really visible because you needed to go through door which were not very welcoming.

My favorite hutong visit today was on Nanlougu Xiang. Definitely renovated, it boasted neat upscale shops, backpacker hangouts, and of course trendy fusion restaurants. A shout out to Bruce for his suggestion of Pass-By Bar. With a courtyard feel and excellent food (today's selections...pumpkin soup and hutong pizza), Steve and I had a great break in a place that exuded atmosphere from every corner.

While our hutong exploration is far from over, this was a nice introduction to some of the old and the new. Rest assured, more will follow as we try to understand this very foreign form of communal living.


Prince Gong's Mansion

There's this place we've been dying to go back to ever since we first visited it four years ago. Beautiful rock gardens. A small theater with an acrobat show. And our personal favorite...a tiny gazebo with water running through it in narrow channels carved into the stone floor. (It's really hard to describe...just look at the picture!). This was the place where, centuries ago, imperial officials would imbibe from glasses of wine that had been left floating in the water channels. Talk about decadence! it was this unique aspect of the grounds that left an impression on us and had us plotting a return trip.

There was only one problem...we had no idea what the place was called! Back in 2004, we spoke no Chinese, and our tour guide spoke no English. All we knew was that these were the former courtyards of some really rich dude. to find it again?

We had some clues burnt into our memories. We knew that to get there, you had to go deep into the heart of the hutongs, Beijing's old alleyway neighborhoods. We also had some guide books that describe various sites around the city. None of these books, though, mention a water-wine gazebo.

One site kept capturing our attention. Looked like the right location. Described as a great example of a Qing dynasty official's compound. We decided to go for it.

Right off the bat, things looked bleak. We remembered trees and gardens, but we walked into newly-refurbished, baked-in-the-sunshine courtyards. Turns out, this was just another example of how quickly things change in Beijing. From the pretty but soulless courtyards, we stumbled right into the tree-lined gardens of our memories. And, there around a bend, was the gazebo, just as we remembered it.

With no wine to drink (it was morning!), we floated water and green tea bottles back and forth, and listened to passing Chinese tourists describe this quirky little place to one another. (Jiu bei was the key phrase...glasses of wine.) Gong Wangfu, thank you for leaving behind such a nice place to discover and whittle away a few hours with someone you love.


Call Me Steven

"Hey, Steven!" calls Ju-heon.

This is not a fairy tale. This is my best friend in China calling ME from across the court. That's right, ME. Steven, to be precise.

A new school, new friends. No one knows me at BISS. The perfect time to change my name.

As of the first day of school, when the teacher took attendance, I was known as Steven. So how did everyone else know me as Steven? What will my name be for the rest of the year? Steven.

Pretty weird, changing your name. Try it some time. You will understand.

Right now, I am still getting used to it.


P.S. Do not worry, I won't keep it that way in the US.

Waste Not, Want Not

Most things in China are very small. Tiny chairs, tiny tables, tiny garbage cans. Right now, I am confounded by these tiny garbage cans. As a family that usually puts out around four huge green cans and two recycling bins a week, having a teeny-tiny can with teeny-tiny bags is an adjustment for me.

What's the deal?

On the whole, China is very conservative when it comes to throwing things out. Little old ladies take your plastic bottles from you on the street. Men on bikes with cabs on the back carry recyclable boxes and other types of cardboard, presumably to some recycling stations. On two instances, I've seen people with make-shift shops on the side of the street fixing umbrellas. Working tediously to repair them, I am puzzled at their efforts since a new one costs less than three US bucks.

Finally, and probably most strange to me, is the lack of use of disposable products like plastic cups, cutlery, and if you can believe it, paper towels and napkins. It was very difficult to find actual rolls of paper towels at the supermarket. I'm the type who buys the 8-12 pack and finishes them in a week or two. This is a toughy for me. To fulfill this need, I had to go to the Western supermarket and spend around a dollar a roll on one that is not quite a quicker-picker upper (but comparable, thank goodness). Most restaurants (except the "nice" ones) don't give napkins at all, and toilet paper in a public toilet is almost non-existent. At BISS, since the kids have a water cooler instead of a water fountain, you might expect paper cups. Not at all. Try tin cups with handles that the kids put in a bin when they are done so they can be washed and reused the next day.

Right now, I'm trying to figure out if all the man/woman power needed for even tasks like cleaning the tin cups balances the "green" aspect of this type of conservation. What I have figured out, though, is China definitely has the man/woman power to achieve the tasks that would puzzle many Americans. And they do.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Backpack Blues

Today was Julie's and my fourth day at school. Yesterday was our first day of classes. To get off on the right foot, I feel that need to do everything right for the first few weeks. I have been getting to class on time, bringing all the things I need, and doing my homework. Right now, I am one of the few who has carried through with these things. Some kids forget their stuff, are in class late, and forget their homework. I have not. Yet something happened to me today that could make me just like those students and give a bad impression.

We were out of school and on the bus debriefing Mom and Dad on our school day. Some seats opened up, so the others sat down. I stayed standing. It was very hot and I was very sweaty. I decided to take off my backpack. I set it down right in the middle of Mom and Dad. We talked on and on until we came to our stop. We got off and the bus started moving away. Thirty seconds later, Mom asked me where my backpack was. I realized that I had left it on the bus.

Dad and I booked after the bus, which had stopped at the light. Three-fourths of the way there, it started moving. We decided to grab a cab and go after it. The cab driver took us to the stop before where the bus was. We searched that depot, but it was not there. Dad said to us, "I am going after it!" Then, he told us to start walking to the depot where he was going. (If you know what Crocs are, Dad was wearing a pair of them and carrying a heavy backpack.)

When we came to the bend in the road, we saw Dad walking back. When I saw the green Geico bag in his hand, I was jumping up and down. Then I ran to him. On our walk back, he gave us the details. Here is what happened...

Question: What happened?

Answer: I looked around for the place where bus 683 stops. At first, I couldn't find it, but then I saw it across a busy intersection. I saw that there was only one 683 there, so I figured the bag was gone. But as I got closer, I saw there was a group of small building, so I figured I would ask around. Sure enough, a man inside one of the shacks held up your bag.


A Chinese Guy Speaking Russian to an American...How Weird is That?

Yabao Lu is the heart of the Russian district in Beijing. It is also where you'll find a healthy dose of Uighur culture and cuisine. Uighurs hail from the western province of Xinjiang. (Look it up. Pretty much every US story on the Uighurs contains the phrase "the restive Xinjiang region.")

All in all, it makes for a really strange mix, totally different than the Imperial history like Beihai Park and the Confucius Temple (both of which we visited this week). An entire block of pelts and fur coats for sale. Markets with, shall we say, more generous sizes in clothing. (Maybe you haven't noticed, but the typical Russian woman is proportioned differently than the ordinary Chinese nu ren.)

The only real attraction for Desi and I was the Xinjiang Muslim Restaurant. This was where we chowed down on some chuanr (kebabs) and, at last, dined on da pan ji. The direct translation of this dish is "big plate of chicken." That pretty much sums it up. We hardly put a dent in the thing!

Which brings us back to that Chinese guy. Strolling around after lunch, we came upon a street hustler peddling pedicab rides, Great Wall name it. He was doing all of this in Russian, a reasonable assumption given the surroundings. A great example of the Beijing that is lurking just beneath the surface...


Return to Tiantan

Before 2004, I had never heard of Tiantan. Now it is truly one of my favorite buildings. Located a bit of a walk south from Tiananmen Square, it is a place that I would guess most Americans don't know about, but many have seen in passing.

Hey, Marcia. Remember that building on the front of the Chin and Lee take-out menu? I promised I would take a picture of me in front of it and send it to you. I know I'm supposed to hold up the menu, but will this suffice?

Tiantan, also known as the Temple of Heaven, is the place where the feng shui masters of ancient China said that heaven meets earth. Back then, only the emperor and his entourage were allowed to go. He would visit twice a year, once in the spring to pray for a bountiful harvest and once at winter solstice to offer thanks for the year's blessings.

Now it is one of the leading tourist spots in Beijing. People from all over China make a pilgrimage to see it and walk on the beautiful grounds that boast 800 year old cypress trees and nooks and crannies filled with gardens and other amazing structures.

To return to Tiantan without a tour guide (that's the stuff of another blog) was a wonderful experience. To be able to sit and stare at this highly decorated, ancient building that was constructed without any nails was a highlight I will be ready to back and see in every season.


Monday, September 01, 2008

The Laowai Tax

People who live here a long time, including foreigners, dread going to markets that are frequented by tourists. It has nothing to do with nationality, insider-outsider, or anything like that (well ,maybe just a little bit...). Rather, like most things, it comes down to cash. Simply put, lots of waiguoren equals artificially high prices, even for experienced bargainers.

This past Sunday, we did our part to put money in the pockets of merchants by visiting this one gigantic market. Take the biggest flea market you have ever seen and put it on steroids. You get the idea.

We needed some pretty basic dryer, electric razor, dish rack, lunch bags for the kids. That sort of stuff. We did our best to save as many kuai as we could, but we know we paid too much.

Here's one example. At this one stall, some pretty nice lunch bags we being quoted by a merchant at 80 kuai. We went back and forth. I tried to get it for 30, and then went up to 40 (less than 7 bucks). When he said no, we started to walk away and that did the trick. I felt like it wasn't bad...half the original quote.

Then we walked down the next aisle and came across a seller with the exact same bags. Julie was asked by this merchant how much we got our bag for. I told Julie to say "san shi wu kuai." (Thirty five kuai.) That was good enough. We had the second bag we were looking for.

For sure, we paid 5 kuai too much for the first one. How much more could we have gotten off both? Obviously, we need better bargainers to help us discover the answer.


Hey Bubba, Is This Up to Code?

When the Scaleras come to visit us in Maryland, Bubba always checks over the house for any signs of fire danger. He makes sure the carbon monoxide detector and smoke alarm are in good working order.

Bubba would have an "attack" in China. Wires everywhere. Gas jets and gas water heaters (remember the picture?) with valves that can be opened or closed by anyone. "Keep the kitchen window when you have the gas water heater on. It's safer that way." Ayah!

Coming from a country with many regulations, I am surprised every day by the differences I see here. Some are definitely a bit unsettling. Others are a bit "freeing."

Take today...Our taxi ride to BISS was met with some heavy Beijing traffic. No problem for our driver. In an effort to get ahead, he passed around fifteen cars on the right shoulder and cut in to make a left turn. I'm not sure if this is regulated here or not, but I know a lot of drivers back in the US who would love to try that move without getting a ticket. Wowser!


Two-Fisted Youtiao

AS most of you know, I am a very, VERY picky eater. You might want to know what I eat here for meals. I will focus on breakfast.

For breakfast, I eat youtiao. There is it, plain and simple. Youtiao. (Yo-tee-ow.) What is youtiao? Youtiao is a long, fat piece of bread which is cooked in boiling water. [Editor's note: Hot oil.] It is very greasy. It is awesome!

Where can you get youtiao? It can be found on almost street corner in China. Go there from sun up until around 9 am. Order around two to four. Don't get the soy milk with it!

One tip. DO NOT TOUCH IT!!! You cannot get the grease off for a long time.