Thursday, July 26, 2012

Foreigners Are Forbidden To Pass Without Permission

That's what the sign says, so Desi gave me permission and I gave her permission in return. There was a really good restaurant just up the road, and they were happy to receive the business of these two stray foreigners.

~Steve

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Desi Arrives!

And she already has a hot pot meal under her belt!

~Steve

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Biking Beijing

The three of us have had this goal of renting bikes and pedaling around the city for the day. More specifically, we have been searching for a place locally, near our apartment, that caters to Beijing residents. This is as opposed to going to the tourist, expat sections of town and paying a fairly significant amount of money to bike through the hutongs for an hour.

But we were having a tough time of it. I thought I had remembered identical bikes stacked next to each other in the ubiquitous parking lots that exist for bikes up and down Zhongguancun Lu. Every time we asked, however, we were faced with quizzical looks that told us there we no bikes for rent.

And so, when we accidentally happened upon an ordinary bike parking lot not far from our apartment, and noticed a bunch of identical green-colored bikes, my thought was that this was just another false alarm.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Z came back from his query, informing us that, yep, they rent bikes. It would have been easy to miss, that's for sure. Look at the first picture very carefully. There, on a tattered sheet of white paper, on the window behind Julie and Z, are the words 出租自行车..."rent bikes." That's it, that's the extent of their advertising.

It turns out there is a woman who lives in that little shed. Her job is to watch over the bike parking lot, collecting fees and so forth. She was washing her clothes in a little plastic basin when we arrived.

We got the impression that these bikes are not rented very often. The woman had a hard time finding the key and unlocking the chain that bound all of the rental bikes together. Then there was the issue of putting air in the tires. The pump that the woman had was pretty basic, rather old, and required two people to operate. But we got it done.

The woman told us we could keep the bikes for a half day for RMB10 or a full day for RMB20. It didn't matter what time we came back, as she has a bed and everything inside the shed.

The woman then asked me for 900 kuai as a security deposit. This is how things go in China. I give the equivalent of $150 to a woman in a shed at the side of the road. She gives us three bikes. There is no receipt or any other kind of paperwork whatsoever. We didn't even shake hands.

And so off we went. Biking toward the center of town, we passed by the grave site of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. We biked through hutongs. We biked on main roads, along side buses, electric scooters, cars, you name it. We saw a pane of glass coming crashing down from in front of a building right in front of us, narrowing avoiding disaster. (It was pretty unnerving, and prompted a yelling exchange between the store proprietors and other passing cyclists.) We had lunch at Yabao Lu, enjoying Xinjiang food all the way over on the other side of town from where we live. We biked on Chang'an Jie, the famed wide street that crosses in front of Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City. We found the West Cathedral (see the preceding post).

And when we made it back, the woman was there waiting with our 900 kuai...

~Steve

Monday, July 23, 2012

The West Cathedral

We had heard from a friend that there is a so-called "West Cathedral" in Beijing. This news surprised us, as for years we have known about, and been attending Mass at, the North, South, and East Cathedrals. How could we not have known about the West Cathedral?

We were especially intrigued given that the West Cathedral, we were told, is located in the vicinity of Xizhimen, a transportation hub that is not far from the apartments we have called home over the past several years.

A neighborhood parish...in Beijing...imagine that!

Julie, Z, and I took the occasion of having rented bikes for the day (more on that later) to try and find the West Cathedral. You see, our friend didn't know exactly where the church is located, other than it is within a short pedicab ride from the Xizhimen metro station. That radius, to put it mildly, covers a lot of ground, and so bikes were a much preferred alternative to hoofing it around for hours searching for what could be a hard to find location.

And hard to find it was. After pedaling around a bit, we decided to go right to Xizhimen station and ask one of the pedicab drivers for some help. Our second target, an older gentleman with a motorized, enclosed three-wheeler, seemed to know exactly what we were talking about and gave us precise directions.

Well, as precise as things get here in Beijing..."Go over the bridge and it is on that road."

Following our rough guide, we asked again for directions when we had crossed the bridge and go on for a bit.

"Keep going that way. It is not far."

Another block later and we were getting ready to ask again, when we spied a cross, hidden a bit in the cluster of surrounding residential and commercial buildings. Riding just another 50-100 meters brought us to the front gate.

I can say that without help we would never have found the place. It is a bit further from Xizhimen than we expected, in a direction that we may never have been before.

But we found it, and it is actually quite convenient to reach from our apartment. Just take Line 4 four stops from Weigongcun to Xinjiekou, get out at the south west exit, walk a few meters west, and there it is.

As for the church itself, it is smaller than the other cathedrals we have been to. It is also much less crowded. This may have been the first cathedral Mass we have been to where there weren't people standing. And the facilities are not as well developed. No massive screens with the songs and responses displayed. The lectors, choir members, and gift bearers seemed to be from the same family. It appeared to us as a faith community still in the early stages of formation.

And we liked it that way. The Mass, for us, was more contemplative than at some of the larger, more well established cathedrals, where the Chinese-language Masses can be quite spectacular affairs. Not that there is anything wrong with pomp and circumstance, mind you. But we really enjoyed the change of pace, and I'm sure we'll be back.

~Steve

PS: There are pigeons being raised in the front courtyard of the cathedral...

Blue Skies After The Rain

That's our building in the background...

~Steve

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Flood Basin That Is Beijing

Our trip back from Longqing Gorge took four hours, about twice as long as should be expected.

One of the main reasons was all of the flooding that had occurred in Beijing at the end of a full day of sometimes torrential rain.

This picture was taken out of the window of the 919 bus we were riding back into town. All of this water had built up not on a small back road, but on the Badaling Expressway, one of the major arteries that travels north in and out of Beijing city. The situation on the side roads, as we could observe, was much worse, with lots of cars apparently stuck.

None of this explains the delays we experienced high up in the mountains, where the roads were not flooded, yet we nevertheless were stuck in traffic that did not move for nearly an hour. We had enough time to get off the bus, find a place to answer nature's call (don't ask...you don't want to know details on location), and flag down the same bus, which had barely moved while we were scouting things out.

At least I wasn't driving. Sleep is so much better than a right leg that you want to saw off because of the fidgets...

~Steve

Lamb Hot Pot

We have had lots of different styles of hot pot over the years, but this was our first venture into an establishment that specializes in a particular version in which pretty much all of a lamb is boiled in the bowl. You eat the lamb and drop into the resulting broth whatever accessories you order. For us, it was sliced potatoes and toufu skin.

~Steve

The World's Longest Chain Of Escalators

The path up to Longqing Gorge involves a ride on what is advertised as the longest chain of elevators in the world. (Check the Guinness Book if you don't believe the hype, as it is supposedly listed.)

There were six separate escalators we had to ride to get to the top. Oh, and at the top is the largest dam in all of northern China. So this place really is the Three Gorges of greater Beijing!

In case you hadn't noticed, the six escalators are enclosed in a huge yellow dragon. To get onto the first escalator, you have to walk through the dragon's mouth.

Really what is impressive about the so-called "longest dragon in Asia" (look that one up, too) is not all of the kitsch (well, the kitsch is pretty impressive), is the fact that the entire structure is built along the side of a sheer mountain wall, a fact we did not fully appreciate until we up in the high reaches of the dragon's belly, looking out the windows at just how high we were and just how vertical the cliff is. Yikes!

~Steve

Longqing Gorge

A few hours north of Beijing is a place that has been compared to the Li River and the Small Three Gorges.

Longqing Gorge is quite a hidden and little known gem, given that it is not all that far from flat-as-a-pancake Beijing.

Although it was raining, at times like crazy, during the day we visited (the upside is that many of the normal weekend tourists were scared away), our collective judgment is that the place is spectacular and makes for a nice outing for someone who is visiting Beijing and has no time to check out the much more famous Three Gorges or limestone peaks of Guilin.

~Steve

PS: There is bungee jumping off one of the peaks. No, we didn't try it...