Thursday, May 21, 2009

5/21 - There are cities other than Beijing in China (but Beijing is a lot of fun)

Thursday morning here now, and we're due for a day of "rest" around here until we check out at noon, take our bags up to Tsinghua, take just the clothes we'll need for the next 8 days and stuff them in our backpacks, and meet up with Stevo for dinner on the way to the train station for an overnight trek to Xi'an. The next post will come (hopefully) from somewhere on the Silk Road, though the road would be better described as dusty or well worn and very dirty. I’m amazed at the number of people who spend most of their days sweeping dirt from the Beijing sidewalks using hand made straw brooms.

Thought about my youngest daughter's acting recital and wondering how it went back in the US. Was also thinking of several of her operas while wandering the Summer Palace . There was the main opera house, as I’ve mentioned, a grand outdoor stage where, historically, visiting foreign dignitaries (now us) were able to enjoy some local show tunes. We were entertained by two singers, dressed in yellow gold silk and moving in unison while singing some beautiful chant. We toured a bit more, then on our way past the stage again, there appeared to be a half dozen musicians playing bamboo and strumming chickens (or preparing them for dinner). It was magnificent. No, honestly, I don't know what they were strumming, which pretty much sums up how well I can identify what we've been eating. I think we just use the word "chicken" in the same way we used to tell the girls while growing up that chicken was the main ingredient of clam chowder in order to get them to eat it.

We're off to find some "chicken" for breakfast. Instead of eating out faithful burrito (which we should have done), we climbed our first Bell Tower (the adjacent Drum Tower was closed for renovations) to escape a rickshaw driver. He’d waited for us anyhow, since he’d successfully convinced me to say "maybe" we'd hire him when we went in, and although he was disappointed after we said we wanted to walk, he became distracted and left after a cyclist crashed into me. The lady apologized profusely, even though I’m certain it was my fault, and what little discomfort I felt was nothing compared to the pleasure of avoiding the incessant hounding of the street vendors. We walked the other direction around Houhai ("Ho" "Hi") Lake in central Beijing. We walked past a six hundred-year-old bridge, which still supports traffic (which is good, since I realized our taxi had driven over it the night before). Houhai has become a popular spot for tourists and young expatriates. The lake is surrounded by old people and children, though we had our share of vendors to deal with in the more touristy parts of the park. It seemed many of the older residents wandering the streets wore name or address tags. Could these be simply aids for a concerned neighbor to help point the elderly in the right direction? After all, I’d seen many instances of people assisting older folks by holding their arms while walking along the sidewalks. I’d like to think that this was the purpose of the necklaces, so that I could imagine a very sensitive and caring society.

We couldn’t help but laugh when we saw several men wearing Speedo swimsuits as they prepared for their morning swim in Houhai after using the exercise equipment at the lake’s edge. But these were brave souls, swimming in any body of water in China we had concluded was off limits for our family, and the water temperature had to have been fairly brisk. One unusually tall fellow smiled broadly and said proudly, in English, "Welcome!" It was too charming, and both Karen and I did what we could to communicate our friendliness back.

We checked out of our hotel before noon. Karen and I felt like we'd already accomplished quite a bit, a couple of round eyes carrying their backpacks, rolling their bags, and flagging down a taxi to get up to Tsinghua. Too bad the front desk had written "North Gate" rather than "Northeast Gate" (a rather major difference at a large university). Ultimately, I had to get Alex on the cell phone (smart move of Steven’s to provide us with a temporary cell phone) to explain to our driver where we needed to go.

Alex needed some alone time. She was recovering from concert, which was some American band. The venue had been so crowded and so hot that Alex and Steven had both become dehydrated. While she relaxed and visited with a friend on Skype, Karen and I ventured out alone. Since we’d been unsuccessful at finding breakfast, we were more than a bit hungry. We were able to find the cafeteria at which we’d eaten on Tuesday, and Alex had given us her meal card. But you would be surprised how difficult it is to order food when all one sees is Chinese symbols. Although we’d made it in time to catch lunch, and there were still a dozen windows open, we had to simply stand there like idiots and watch the various dishes being set on the stainless steel counters until some person who had ordered came along to collect them. I ran after a student, hoping he might speak a bit of English, to ask him what he called the bowl of noodles, broth, veggies, and hard boiled egg he had carried off. He was very friendly, and tried two times to help me pronounce the name of the dish, unsuccessfully I’ll admit. He then offered to buy me the dish using his meal card. Maybe he thought I was a visiting professor, but I think he was just being compassionate. I think I thanked him, but every time I said "she she" it probably sounded more like "shay shay" (and I couldn’t help but think of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his thick accent). Karen and I settled on simply grabbing a few of the dishes as they were set out, hoping not to offend anyone, but letting our stomachs dictate our needs. We swiped Alex's meal card and assume we paid for someone's food.

Back to Alex’s place for a brief nap. We ran out of time and couldn't meet Steven for dinner as planned, so we grabbed a taxi to take us to a favorite restaurant of Alex's. Traffic had come to a complete stop, so our driver decided to climb the curb and drive on the sidewalk for the two hundred yards to the next intersection. I don't think the photos I took sitting in the front passenger seat really captured the experience as much as I'd hoped, but you'll just have to understand (as I was beginning to) that it was just another afternoon on the streets (sidewalks) of Beijing. We went to some sushi place near the university. We didn’t ask where the fish came from, but it was tender and buttery, quite exceptional really, and like every other place we’d eaten, cheap. The waitresses were petite, at attention, smiling, dressed alike in red and gold, and ready to serve. Afterward, we took a taxi to one of several of Beijing’s train stations, stopping just short so that the girls could run in the upscale three-story contemporary shopping mall to find a rest room.By the reaction of most of the people at the train station, very few Americans ride the night train. We kept a close eye on all of our belongings while Alex bought us all some Propel-like drinks and enough water to last through the night. We boarded our train and found Alex's top bunk. Karen and I were in a different car, and we also had top bunks. We were luckier than Alex, who would be sleeping in the same car as a screaming child. She spent the first hour or two of the trip up in my bunk. We played lots of poker until we could no longer keep our eyes open. I slept with my money pouch suspended around my neck.

Another cultural experience, sharing a room with a Chinese couple. We were completely unable to communicate with our lower bunkmates, though while the wife was off to use the facilities, the husband decided to make every bodily noise possible, as loudly as possible. Karen and I found it oddly amusing, for he didn’t make any effort to excuse himself or say anything, as one might expect according to Western decorum. I was beginning to think that in China I could get away with just about anything, and it made me feel incredibly young.That didn’t last long. Although I slept well, by body was very sore. Using the moving train’s very small bathroom to brush my teeth with bottled water was an adventure in itself. The tracks around Beijing made for a very smooth ride, and we hardly noticed when we’d started out. That was not the case as we approached Xi’an, and the sounds and movement of the train were noticeably apparent.

Continue with us to Xian...

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

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