Friday, April 03, 2009

Underground Beijing

Here's how the "Insider's Guide to Beijing" describes what's under our feet...

Little did you know, but Beijing is mostly hollow underneath. The city sits on a warren of tunnels, air-raid shelters and escape routes, rumored to lead as far out as the Summer Palace. Most of the 85 square kilometers worth of tunnels were dug out manually, by a combined force of the army, citizen "volunteers", and schoolchildren. Ordered by Mao after "big brother" USSR ceased to be so brotherly, the extensive network was designed to hold 40 percent of Beijing's population and had everything from arsenals to infirmaries to a mushroom cultivation farm (not even chemical attacks can overcome the Chinese passion for fungi).

With a description like that, you know we had to go check things out! So there we were on this little jaunt through an old, crumbling section of hutongs just south and east of Tiananmen Square. Predictably, we had to dodge a veritable army of hawkers. What were these guys selling? This time it was rides on their sanlunche (motorized three-wheelers). "Are you going to the underground city? It is far away! You should ride in my car!"

Well, we bantered back and forth with these guys as we searched for the entrance to the underground city. At one point, I knew we were getting "colder," as there were no more sanlunche drivers following us around. A couple of turns later, and I was equally sure that we were getting "warmer," as there they were again, puttering along slowly by our sides.

And then came that feeling that we were getting "hot." Once again, the drivers started to peel off and leave us to our own devices. But this time, they were not yelling at us to turn around and come back. This time, they were not screaming that we were heading in the wrong direction.

At least they were not lying about this, as a few steps later and we were finally at our destination. So what was it that they were lying about? These guys were willing to take our hard earned cash and transport us to an underground city...that isn't open! That's right...Blow up the picture of the sign on the door and you'll get the message loud and clear.

And you wonder why we are suspicious every time drivers follow us around places we've never been before...


Thursday, April 02, 2009

I Want My KTV!

I woke us this morning singing. I had a Backstreet Boys song in my head and I couldn't stop humming, "I want it that way...Tell me why...Ain't nothin' but a heartache..."

No, Steve and I aren't breaking up.

No, I don't even really like the Backstreet Boys.

No, it wasn't stuck there because I found a radio station in Beijing that plays your favorite hits from the 80s, 90s, and today.

The reason this song, as well as REM's "Losing My Religion" and Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild," were on my mental play list was because of an outing we shared with Steve's Beida students last night. For the first time, I had the opportunity to experience KTV...Chinese style!

Karaoke is a very popular past time here. There are KTV establishments all over the city. Decorated in neon lights, 17 Miles KTV (our venue of choice) housed a maze of baofang (private rooms) ranging from small to large. Our room had a large leather couch and comfortably sat around ten people. Free snacks and soft drinks were available (and word has it that if you come in around lunch time, there is a free buffet). We arrived around 6:30 pm...on a Wednesday night, no less...and the place was packed. Every room we passed was full. Sound proof rooms let hardly a sound out, but all it took was a peek through the small windows to see that everyone in every room was having a great time.

And so did we. In fact, I'm wondering why we hadn't tried this sooner. I really thought I would be nervous of singing in front of people I don't very well, but for some reason, when the music started, so did I. While the selection of English-language songs was a bit limited, there were just enough tunes to get the Ballas going. In addition, Steve's students were belting out both Chinese and English songs with voices like the angels.

While the nature of KTV definitely takes me back to the 80s (Wurlitzer's and JJ Rocker's come to mind), the innocence of sharing a few songs and a few soft drinks (or beer if you prefer) was refreshing. We had no qualms about bringing Julie and Z there, and I, personally, am ready to head back for another go-round. My vocal cords were just getting warmed up!

Step aside, Ms. Scialfa...I may be coming after your job when I get back!


Do You Know What This Means?

We were hoping that the lack of white smoke billowing from this smokestack was just an April Fool's joke, but apparently April 1st is the day Beijing's thermostat guy gets to do his job of shutting off the heat. Now while the sky was definitely a bit bluer today (although that may just be due to the strong winds that blew through overnight), our apartment was definitely a bit chillier. After experiencing what we've all deemed "the longest winter," I am hopeful that this is a sign of the warmer days ahead. In checking Beijing weather, it seems that the next few days will peak out at somewhere around 24 degrees Celsius. While that is encouraging news, the single digit lows are a bit less so.

I guess it's not time to pack away those extra blankets yet...


My Little Cubby

As we have started home school, I needed a place to work. My room is too cold and messy, and the living room is used too much. Conveniently, there is a desk out on the balcony cubby!

After deciding to move out there, I spent some time cleaning it up and putting supplies out there. Now, the balcony is fully equipped with a curtain (actually, a blanket), some chairs, a small box, and a place for my pens and pencils.

While I work, I feel the wind through the open window, hear and see the construction going on outside, and hear the birds fly by. I can see the Summer Palace out my window, too. Now, away from the boring stuff and on to the humor.

I have a "drive through" window that opens into the house. When I finish a subject, I open the window and hand it to Mom, while saying, "Here's your double cheeseburger!" We also check answers from the opposite sides of the window. Well, everything is working out great!


A Couple of Burgers, An Order Of Chicken McNuggets, And Some Fries

Yep...It was McDonald's (Maidanglao, as it is known here) we went to that day. Hey...It happens!


PS: Special bonus hot pot picture (old-school Chongqing style) for Paul. It's what we would have wanted to eat, anyways...

The Shard Box

There's an interesting little shop in Beijing that specializes in taking treasures that have been turned to trash and transforming them back into treasure.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Chinese citizens were, shall we say, highly encouraged, to get rid of their antique porcelain. As a result, many people smashed their beautiful collections and tossed them into the trash. The owners of this shop, The Shard Box, began collecting these remnants and, in an effort to "bring them to life again," have created beautiful trinket boxes by fixing the salvaged pieces to silver or lacquered wood boxes. In their words, "The Shard Box is not only a collection of antique porcelain, but also a collection of Chinese history."

For the kids and me, a visit to this small but significant specialty store served not only as the fulfillment of our art requirement for the week (the museum quality of these samples kept our eyes busy for over an hour), but also a unique opportunity to feel a connection with a profoundly sad time in Chinese history . In addition, we had the ability to purchase a piece of that history that we can keep with us as a reminder of the true beauty of the freedoms that we often take for granted back home.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

My Jack Bauer Moment

Previously...On 24...

A few months ago, an acquaintance of mine told me about a great DVD store in the greater Beijing area. Eight kuai DVDs. Good quality ones, at that. Given that I'm not really even sure where to rent or buy the "real thing"--I haven't seen any Blockbuster or Net Flix in this town--I went with her to this neat, clean, and organized shop, and watched her stock up.

The following events take place between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. The events are in real time.

Fast forward to today...Running a bit low on our movie choices (you can only watch Zoom so many times!), the kids and I decided to venture back to make a few selections for ourselves. A bus, a subway, and a half mile walk later, we reached the store and walked in. The place was unrecognizable to me. I thought that maybe we were in the wrong place, since the videos were marked with hefty prices and the selection was, shall we say, meager in comparison to my previous visit. Bummed and befuddled, we walked out a different door...And paused, as I realized there was no way I was wrong on this one.

At that point, we turned around and went back in. I walked up and down the aisles, searching for the piles I had seen last time and was convinced that they had just reorganized. Noticing my confusion, an attendant came over to me and "asked" what I was looking for. "You ershisi ma?" I asked. "Xiao deng," she said and went to get another clerk. When the second girl came from what seemed like out of nowhere, I asked again, "Do you have 24, Season Seven?" She looked at me strangely and said, in English, "Season Seven? Season Seven is only half finished." I said, "I know." Then I asked again, "You ma?" She gave me a look of knowing, and said, "You."

Then, she ushered all three of us out of that store and into a hallway that led to another hallway, through a door near the toilets, and through yet another closed, gray a small room with no windows.

There they were! Bundles and bundles and more bundles of DVDs, boxed sets, and...ahh!...24. But where were we? Should they have blindfolded us before bringing us into this smoky, back room? They didn't, but nonetheless, I don't think I would be able to find this place again even open-eyed, given the maze we went through to get there. It doesn't matter, though, because what was waiting for us was worth the walk and the "danger." We walked out with a nice stack of good quality DVDs at a price to match.

I guess the password was 24. But...shh!...Don't tell anybody...