Friday, January 30, 2009

My current favorite website to play around with is With Marina in town, we have needed to figure out how to get to locations that had previously been off our radar screen (like the now-legendary Marco Polo Bridge and, unfortunately, the Beijing United Family Hospital).

The best little feature of this website is how it maps out your route from one bus stop to the other. Sure, there is the Mapquest-like dark line that connects your starting point to your ending point. The real fun, though, comes when an animated bus appears and drives along the route. If only it were so easy in three dimensions...


By The Way, The Sound And Light Show Goes On

Apparently, according to a cab driver I was talking with last night, the fifth day of the new year is an especially big day for fireworks. That explains the incredible show we saw last night from out Marina's hospital window, as well as the mess that I walked by this morning on my way out of the apartment.


Flying High With Dreams

After much anticipation (all told, five months), and a few mishaps with timing (we now know that 17:15 and 19:00 mean 5:15 and 7:00, respectively), we attended the Beijing Chaoyang Theater Acrobatic World. The young men and women who performed took their trade of thrilling the audience very seriously. Hailing from earthquake-stricken Sichuan, this troupe was eager to get back to telling the stories of old, with moves and routines that left us with our chins dropped for an entire hour (which was about as much of the heart-stopping action I could take). From men balancing on seesaws atop other men balancing on seesaws and flipping bowls on to their heads, to women who we able to contort their bodies as if they were boneless, each segment held us in awe. Perhaps the thrill of the evening, though, was two men who performed in a contraption that resembled a large axle with two rotating wheels around it. First, the men were inside the wheels, walking and rotating the entire contraption. Then they jumped outside the wheels and walked there in sync with one another. As if this was not enough, at one point, one of the men put a bag over his head so he couldn't see where he was walking while on the outside of the wheel. Next, the other man jumped rope while on the outside...All without safety lines!

Cutest moment of the evening was when a little girl, who couldn't have been more than eight years old, worked with five other young girls to contort their bodies and pile into amazing displays. Dressed in costumes resembling little lotus flowers, their dedication to acrobatics at such a young age is simply beyond understanding.

Oh, and did I mention the thirteen women on one bike? I could go on and on...

Despite being one of the more expensive Beijing activities (at 200 kuai per person), the thrills and skills we enjoyed were worth the qian and the wait. I'm already researching stages for our next acrobatic excursion. Luckily, there are three or four venues of this type in Beijing.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Imagine Eating Squid On A Stick At The State Fair

For me, this is a visual that pretty much sums up our first-ever Miao Hui outing yesterday.

Much of the experience was of the familiar variety. The fair was essentially an enormous midway. Up and down the street strolled thousands and thousands of visitors (the ever-present sea of black heads). Along both sides were food stalls, merchants hawking all kinds of products, and games for kids (and adults!) to play. We could have been back in North Carolina, except for a few unmistakable Chinese characteristics.

The toys. What you saw kids (including Julie and Z) walking around with were these colorful, noisy handmade contraptions. (The name of these devices now escapes me. The word feng was in there, as the wheels spin round and round when caught in the wind.)

The games included ones of the shoot 'em up variety, where you fire plastic pellets at balloons on the wall. Z claims he popped six balloons during his go at it.

Then, as always, there is the food. We sampled a variety of lao Beijing snacks. These are classic walk-around treats that the locals enjoy at fairs like this.

There was this plate of what looked to be potato slices, slathered in oil and garlic. Except that our Beijing friends insisted they were not potatoes we were eating. So who knows!?

There were skewers of bing tang hu lu, the Chinese hawthorns that were exotic to us just a few months ago. By now they have become a regular part of our "fun-place" diet.

There were big round pieces of nang, a Muslim flat bread that has, thankfully, become a staple for Z at events like this.

And then there was the biggest surprise of all...A bowl that was called something like cha tang. This "tea soup" came in a variety of familiar sounding flavors. I chose the "milk tea" variety. What I was handed was a small plastic bowl that was piping hot and white in color. (Other varieties were dark in color.) It was kind of slimy and there were small nuts and things floating in there. Totally delicious. And the kind of thing I probably would not have known to try had it not been for Andi and his family. So thanks guys for helping us continue our little culture and food exploration!


Monday, January 26, 2009

Last Day At BISS?

I am happy to announce that my last day at BISS is not really my last day at BISS. One reason is that, on the last day, I forgot my locker key.

It was the morning of the last day at school. The previous evening, I had packed my backpack with all my books and other things that I needed. One of those things was my locker key. So, Mom tells me to pack as little as possible for the school day. I took out the things I needed for the day and packed them in a different bag. Of course, I forgot my locker key. Without turning in my locker key, we cannot get our deposit of $9000 back from the school. This means that we have to go back to return my key.

Another reason is that BISS has dances and other school parties. Kids from the school can invite friends to them. Julie and I plan to go to as many as possible.

During these drop-ins, we will visit our friends and teachers. We will be able to hang out and have fun as if we still went to BISS. Well, I guess we are still part of the BISS community!


You Really Have No Idea!

Take all of the fireworks you and everyone you know have ever seen in their collective lifetimes. Then multiply the result by some absurdly large number. That calculation will give you some idea, at least in the abstract, of the magnitude of what we saw and heard here on New Year's Eve.

For the culmination of the celebration, right before and after the clock struck twelve and the Year of the Ox began, Z and I hung out of our balcony windows, watching an indescribable scene. There were fireworks of every imaginable kind, being set off in locations nears and far.

Right below our balcony, we watched neighbors light up boxes of rockets, which then soared right up to our eye level and burst into colors.

We looked out over the alleyways of Saoziying and listened to strings of firecrackers and sticks of dynamite being detonated with great effect.

We turned the other way and gazed out over the city skyline, lit up from end to end under a seemingly endless barrage of light and sound, the culmination of hundreds or thousands of individual purchases and displays.

And then there we were, early the next morning, walking through Yan Bei Yuan. Who was the first person we encountered? A man with a straw broom, sweeping up the remains of the previous night's party. A fascinating scene that was no doubt playing out, at that very moment, in countless locations around the city and, indeed, the entire country.

All I can say is that New Year's Eve is simply another example of the vast scope of China and the way in which this nation is stitched together by the contributions of millions of people acting in unison in their own local communities.


The Five Senses Of China, Part III: Hearing

When considering the sounds of China, I could easily write a lengthy piece contrasting a concert of honking taxi horns on the streets of Harbin to the tranquility of a bus ride on the Beijing 106, where the only noises you may hear are the occasional roaring motor, squeaking breaks, or the ayi announcing each stop.

Instead, though, I'd like to report some observations from last night...the eve of Chinese New Year...spent in an unlikely venue...the Beijing United Family Hospital (hanging out with Marina after a tough day at the Temple of Heaven).

Yesterday evening, I was in the loudest place and the quietest place that I've probably ever been at the same time (except maybe a Bruce concert...Born to Run v. My City of Ruins...but that's not China).

It was 11:15 pm on January 25th. The final day in the Year of the Rat. There had been a barrage of firecrackers, fireworks, and dynamite exploding in the streets of Beijing for a few hours. But then there was something different in the "air." With countless revelers preparing to celebrate the incoming Year of the Ox in just under an hour, they kicked it up a notch, giving it all they had to create a true "fireworks spectacular." While we weren't in New York Harbor and the sponsor definitely wasn't Gucci, it became apparent why everyone knows China invented fireworks. These people have 'em and they know how to use 'em!

For close to an hour, the hisses and booms tickled our eardrums. For a moment, I thought about Francis Scott Key as he wrote the Star Spangled Banner. In another train of thought, I remembered the people in warring nations and truly appreciated my safety given that these explosions were celebratory, not confrontational. Combined with the voices of Chinese singers belting out traditional tunes on CCTV 1's variety show--a program that was, no doubt, on every TV in China and even some in the US (right, Song Wei?)--the excitement drummed up by this ear candy was an auditory feast.

While the mood on the streets of Chaoyang was festive and loud beyond compare, inside Suite Eight on the fourth floor of the Beijing United Family Hospital, the silence was deafening. The hospital gave peace and quiet new meaning. No constant intrusion of boisterous nurses. Rather, the soft, soothing voices of caretakers whose mission was to provide prompt service and immediate comfort to their patients. Throughout the overnight, the intermittent sounds of joy outside were followed up with, well, not a peep inside. A calm during a storm, you might say.


When The Sun Goes Down...

...Over the Marco Polo Bridge...


The Marco Polo Adventure

Coming back to China to visit the Ballas worked out to be an opportunity to make right a previous mishap. While researching landmarks to see in Beijing two years ago, I came upon the Marco Polo Bridge. Sounded interesting, historic, and significant...but it turned out to be hysterically elusive.

My friend Kellie and I hopped in a cab, and I tried to communicate to the driver what we were looking for. Not having much luck, I held up the map to discuss the possibilities of where the bridge might be. We just happened to be driving on the freeway at the time, and just so happened to get sideswiped by another driver. The deal here in China is that if you have an accident where there are no serious injuries, you both just pull over and haggle out a price for repairs. Money is exchanged on the spot and everyone is on their way. In advance of the accident, my other friend who comes here all the time as a flight attendant had told me that, if you ever get in an accident, to just get out and walk away if, of course, there are no injuries. Otherwise you can get hauled off to jail as a witness and could spend days or months winding your way back out of endless bureaucratic red tape. But when I said to my friend to get out of the car before we get mixed up in this, she refused. We went round and round and, finally, the cab drivers' negotiations were settled and we got back on our way. At Tiananmen Square, though, he wanted us out. OK, fine...he must have thought we were trouble or just bad luck.

So we started walking to find our Marco Polo Bridge. We walked and walked and walked...for two or three hours. Then we finally the Marco Polo Hotel...not the bridge....oops! Apparently, I had read the map wrong. So this time around while doing China in Balla style, Steven did the research for the bus lines to locate this timidly advertised landmark. So several buses and many miles from where I thought the bridge was located last time I was here, we arrived. A beautiful, ancient bridge loaded with history and life. We stayed until a spectacular cold winter sun set over the Marco Polo Bridge's 501 uniquely carved lions. The locals still commute home over this beautiful old thoroughfare on their bicycles with fresh produce. Worth the trip. Worth the adventure. Great company and way more impressive than originally anticipated. Marco...Polo...