Wednesday, May 20, 2009

5/20 - Second day in Beijing (you will be sore, and you will get a great massage)

We've had such a great time and are already very sore to prove it.

We ventured out on our own this morning to treat ourselves to a great breakfast burrito (for lack of a better Chinese term), two of them for 3 yuan (about fifty cents).

Caught a taxi (39 yuan, about six dollars) up to the Summer Palace and spent an amazing day exploring each of the many royal buildings which border a beautiful lake (I assume it was once very beautiful).

A couple of traditional opera singers danced elegantly while a musician played some stringed instrument (a few days later, and I could name all of the traditional stringed instruments of China).

Alex came out and met us at the exit gate after her classes ended. We ate a fine lunch of tall beers, leeks, beef, and spicy chicken and watched as Alex overwhelmed the proprietors with her Chinese language skills (it's readily apparent that few young blonde Americans speak Chinese), all while her taxi driver patiently waited to take us 50km farther north to the Ming Tombs.

We spent the afternoon deep in the 600 year-old main tomb and later along a substantial stone wall (20 feet wide and 50 feet high and probably a half mile in circumference) which, wonderfully, the three of us explored by ourselves. From the wall we could see many of the twelve distant, grand emperor tombs of the Ming Dynasty. Our driver waited patiently to deliver us back to our hotel where we tried to clean up a bit before meeting up with Steven at his favorite restaurant run by some Mongol friends.

We ate a large dinner of beer, roasted garlic on skewers, skewered lamb, fried potato slices, kung pao cabbage (Stevo knows the recipe), spicy green pepper chicken, beef with unidentifiable veggies, chicken in a red sauce, and fried bread to help soak up all the various wonderful flavors. We enjoyed this feast on a '50's formica table on the sidewalk outside the Mongolian restaurant, which was far too crowded inside. We were entertained by our 10-year-old waiter and a group of young people involved in a lover's dispute (a dramatic spat where two suitors shouted and pushed one another, with girlfriends pretending to hold them back, assisted by the boys friends and others). Mind you, this was just a few feet away from our table in the alley. I considered it another fine cultural education. I found the young lady jumping up and down on a padded, overstuffed living room chair across the alley to be even more intriguing. She jumped uninterrupted for well over an hour, apparently practicing for the rhythmic gymnastics sport of baton twirling. We weren't sure of her age, somewhere between seven and thirty (like my estimate of just about every person I saw in Beijing), but she bounced in her long cotton summer dress, oblivious to the commotion and crowd all around her. After it got pretty dark and the love spat performers had cleared, the toddlers and little ones were encouraged to play in the alley. Grandma let one little 3-year-old have it, whacking him on the head a dozen times with a rolled up newspaper, after he'd almost been run down by a bicycle. Surprising thing is that I felt it was totally appropriate. The kids had better learn young that pedestrians need to avoid bicycles, which need to avoid scooters, which need to avoid cars, which need to avoid buses because there is no formal hierarchy. There are no rules. If there is an open space, however brief, it will become filled with some mode of transportation, if only for an instant. I'd describe all of the near misses we witnessed, but it is not possible to remember them all, even for a single cab trip. Let me summarize by just saying it is a constant hum of chaos, yet it seems to work very efficiently. We only saw one traffic mishap returning from the Tombs, and it only involved four crunched cars and some drivers yelling at one another.

After dinner, we grabbed another cab to return to near our hotel. Steven found a nearby public neighborhood toilet so that he and Karen could make one of their three visits (they both blamed the Holt bladders and Chinese beers). A wise move, because all four of us spent the next hour getting full body massages from very nice blind masseurs, spending a whopping fifty yuan. Steven made sure I was provided with Master Li, who had the strongest hands of any human I've ever encountered or imagined. He found every sore, tight muscle I'd ever had, and worked every joint until it popped or clicked into place. He even spoke a small amount of English, but I was in such a state of total relaxation that I couldn't form two words myself. But it wasn't necessary. Steven was on the table next to me, and he was speaking up a storm with Master Li, laughing at every grunt coming from me. Toss in Alex a few tables to my right, and the two of them kept the masseurs in stitches with their mastery of the language. Or at least I thought it was funny. I have no idea what they said.

You'd think the day had been full enough. Turns out this massage parlor is just a few hundred yards from our own Bamboo Garden, where an hour at the hotel spa ran ten times as much, and Karen and I did indeed call it a day. We'd already called upon our fourth winds to enable us to walk any more steps after the $7 hour-long massage. Alex and Steven, however, were headed off to a rock concert at a local venue (never mind that it's 9:45 pm). We were asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Continue to travel beyond Beijing...

Author's note: Many more photos from the fifteen day trip around China can be found at

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