Monday, January 25, 2010

China Trip #3

Interesting buffet breakfast at the Dongfang hotel. Some western foods but most was Chinese and very abundant and fresh. Of course, there were things we liked and things we didn’t especially care for... we tried almost everything over the three mornings we were there. Fruit juices were sweet and syrupy. Bacon was like the cheapest you'll find in the U.S. The guy making omelets was a pro. The sauteed greens were great as were all the fresh fruits.
We left for the Great Wall about 8:00 AM. Almost a two hour bus ride starting in very heavy traffic until we cleared the most urbanized areas of Beijing. Along the way our guide told us more about the Great Wall, about housing and other living conditions in Beijing, and about some of the things we passed along the route.
The Great Wall. Words cannot do justice to the overwhelming awe it inspires. Awe for the work over very difficult terrain. Awe for the immensity of it. Awe for the human lives sacrificed for its construction. We walked as far and high as time would permit, returning to the bus with only a few minutes to spare. A bitter cold day, probably 0° to 10°F, my mustache and beard was stiff with ice crystals. Along the way a teenage girl asked to take my picture, saying I looked like a Panda - probably because of my black hat contrasted with with white beard. My wife pointed out, mine and another in our group were the only beards to be seen.
In spite of the cold, there were many people walking, some elderly and others with small children. Some women in fashionable boots hardly designed for walking the steep steps and uneven stones of the Great Wall.
Returning to the bus and visitor center, some in the group enjoyed tea in the gift shop while others browsed the merchandise. There were abundant clerks who followed us, as soon as we showed interest in the item the clerk was there pushing the sale or offering alternatives. We saw pesky store clerks and overstaffing often, especially in and around Beijing. When checking into the hotel (late evening) there were three or four clerks (in the U.S. two would have been a surprise). Small teams of men would be chipping and shoveling snow along roads.

When we got back to Beijing we took a rickshaw ride through narrow streets and alleys and along a large frozen lake. We understand it is beautiful in the warmer months, brightly lit at night, and a popular area for locals to gather. Today though, it was bitter cold and mostly deserted.

Perhaps you can see the Budweiser sign on the restaurant. Often repeated. According to a young bartender at the Dongfang Hotel Bud is very popular. Ditto for other beers found in American stores - Corona, Coors Light, etc.
Okay, it was sort of a tourist thing to do, but the the rickshaw drivers seemed to appreciate the work and tips on this bitter day. When we arrived they were passing the time playing cards and playing hacky sack. And, trying to stay warm. Along the route they played pranks on each other, got a tow by holding the back of the rickshaw in front, and raced through the narrow alleys.
In Beijing and at the Great Wall we saw many wielding traditional brooms and garden shovels to remove snow from sidewalks and gutters. Just days before we arrived, Beijing had been brought to a near standstill by an unusually heavy snowfall and low temperatures kept most of it around. Most main roads had been plowed, but side streets and even some lanes of highways had significant snow cover.
In the urban areas, most Chinese live in apartment buildings like the one above. This one was nicer than many, but not as upscale as others. Many apartments, especially in lower income areas, are well under 1,000 square feet and often house multi-generation families. You often see clothes drying outside windows or on small balconies in apartments and dorms all over China. Looking for a place to live in Beijing - check these out.
Our Virginia group broke from the NY group since they had arrangements to meet students at a Chinese University. We caught a cab and went to the Pearl Market, a shopping area famous for haggling to set prices of both legitimate and knockoff goods. Five stories tall and with all sorts of vendors - watches, electronics, luggage, clothing, leather goods, on and on! The sellers were aggressive talking to us as we passed, waving items in our faces, the most aggressive grabbing our arms. We bought a few items, all probably knockoffs of name brands, and maybe good deals. Maybe not. While we haggled and made counter offers, we were clearly on their turf and this kind of negotiation is foreign to most Americans except for a yard sale. Plus, there is the whole currency conversion thing - in short, we probably shouldn’t have done this our very first day in Beijing. I bought a SwissGear backpack for about one third less than it is listed on Amazon and a Canon camera battery for about half the price as on Amazon. So far, both perform as if new, but time will tell, I reckon.
But we did fall prey to a minor scam. Coming out of the market we took a waiting taxi who said it would be 40 RMB or about $5.85. Since we didn’t know exactly where the restaurant was and we were in a hurry we jumped in. Turned out the restaurant was pretty close and the ride should have cost perhaps 15 RMB. Counterfeiting is a huge issue with RMBs and one of our bills he said was “no good,” but we told him it was all we had and he took it, probably to pass it on to another unsuspecting American in a dark cab. Our guide told us to avoid cabs that are parked near "tourist" areas and to always demand to see the meter (the driver said his was broken).
Dinner that evening was at a local restaurant famous for Peking Duck. We experienced the “joys” of the traditional lazy susan which perhaps was a good thing as we became quickly acquainted with students from Adelphi University on Long Island. I ordered a Yanjing beer that came in a large bottle (500 ml, I think) but the glass provided was small - about twice the size of of a shot glass.
In addition to the food likes and dislikes, much of the conversation centered on the day's travel adventures and misadventures, the morning at the Great Wall, and some of the cultural differences we’d observed at the hotel and local shops. One of the NY students said she was very surprised at a local shop, “yeah, they had like cigarettes, water, condoms, and dildos right at the checkout. You don’t see that back home?

1 comment:

Progressive said...

Facinating post. Thanks.