A Travellerspoint blog


In which a simple update turns into a diatribe.

overcast 9 °C

Since our trip to the Great Wall, we've been laying low and enjoying our quiet life out in the suburbs. I've been working on my Chinese, but am still too shy to use it very often. I did have a rather lengthy conversation with the owner of the shop in Hua Zhuangr from which we buy our tomato paste (they see me coming - and probably any other foreigner - and run over with several cans of the stuff, which they mercifully have not yet marked up)! I try to communicate with the laboratory technician. I feel stupid and flustered. I ask for a kebab instead of a spoon at a restaurant. I'm getting better at shopping, but generally have a really hard time with listening comprehension. I guess I just need more practice...

Aaron and I, along with many of my colleagues, attended a Major League baseball game in the city. As part of the "China Series," the LA Dodgers played the San Diego Padres. The crowd was composed largely of obnoxious Americans, the kind who seem not to notice or care that each individual is an ambassador for his country. This bothers me. I may occasionally be hypocritical, and act in a way unbecoming to my nationality, but I'm going to complain anyway.

It seems to be human nature to form an opinion of a group after having an experience with only one or a few members of that group. For example, many Chinese people will base their opinions of Americans or America on the very few Americans they have met (whom they most likely do not know well). A colleague of Aaron's, Huang Laoshi, was visiting his sister, who works for the World Bank, in California. While out walking her dog, he began to chat with a local man. Huang Laoshi mentioned that his sister worked for the World Bank. An entire conversation ensued regarding the president of the World Bank who was about to step down, and his replacement. Huang Laoshi left the conversation with the impression that Americans are really well informed about world news and business. He probably talked to one of the very few such people in a miles-wide radius!

On the other hand, a person could form a negative opinion of an entire nationality by having one bad encounter with one representative of that nationality. I do this even now, on a bad day. I will make a statement (usually to poor Aaron who bears the brunt of my frustrations) regarding how "all Chinese" do, or are, such-and such. In Texas, all Mexicans certainly fell into some sort of stereotypical category on more than one occasion.

I have decided that, given the current global reputation of my home country I must do everything I can to make positive impressions of America and Americans to individuals from China, and my fellow colleagues. I am sure that I am not always successful. But we are all ambassadors when we leave our own countries, whether we like it or not.

So, American boys who yelled profanity and said unsavory things about the Chinese, loudly and repeatedly, while we at lunch at adjacent tables before the baseball game, and who exited the baseball game yelling "Vagina!" repeatedly...shame on you. All it takes is one encounter to determine the end of the sentence, "All Americans..." We have the power, through our actions, to write the end of that sentence for any Chinese or other foreigner we encounter. We are ambassadors.

Posted by ucpegasus 22:06 Archived in China Comments (1)

Return to the Great Wall

In which we spend more time on my favorite Chinese landmark.

overcast -12 °C

Two weeks ago, on what was unfortunately the grayest day of a beautiful blue week, Aaron and I returned to the Great Wall. We arranged to be dropped off at the same place we last left the wall. Aaron first scouted out places for his family to stay (for that essential out-of-the-city experience). The village in which we started our hike is a tiny community of mostly persimmon orchards. One family grows mushrooms, and there are a variety of other vegetables grown in gardens along the river that flows through town. The guest houses were mostly collections of 5 or 6 rooms built around a courtyard. One place even had a wood-fire heated bed, called a kang! After scoping out the guest houses, and avoiding several intimidating dogs, we ascended the terraced persimmon orchard through which we had descended last time. We hiked up to and onto a crumbling guard tower atop the wall. It was then that we remembered why we had called it quits at this particular point last time: to proceed from that guard tower to the unrestored wall, one must exit through a door which now hangs over open air, and edge out along a narrow ledge to drop down onto the wall below. That having been accomplished safely, we set off over the rough wall. The wall in this area is in an advanced state of disrepair. There are no sides to the wall, and deposition of soil on the top surface of the wall has allowed for scrubby bushes and other plants to colonize. A path, which has been worn though the vegetation, weaves its was from the middle to the edge and back. The wall faithfully follows the highest ridgelines in the area up and down and back up in elevation. After hiking up and up and up and then down, down, down, we crossed into a restored area of the wall. Here, the side walls have been repaired, and the top surface of the wall has been covered in new stone pavers. The surface is much less irregular, and the appearance of the wall as a whole is striking in an entirely different manner from the crumbling ruins. Personally, I prefer the unrestored wall: its colors blend in with the surrounding fields, the guard towers are mysterious and fallen down, the wall is deserted and is adjacent to beautiful orchards, terracing up the hillsides from little farming villages. The restored portion is much lighter in color, more regular in appearance, and marches through more settled and noisy areas that attract more tourists and their amplified-music-playing cell phones.

We walked on the restored wall for some time, wondering how they decided when to install achingly steep stairs versus just applying the stone pavers directly to the vertical side of the wall as it ascended to the next hilltop. Even a restored section is not easy hiking. The footing is more sure, but the changes in elevations are drastic. Eventually (ok, 2 km as the crow flies; several hours as we limped along) we reached a reservoir: our halfway point. We stopped to eat our lunch at the highest point in the area, where we could look down at our taxi driver as he dozed in his car, waiting for us to call it a day. After our peanut butter and jelly, bananas, and sandwich cookies (with little badminton motifs - only in China!), we continued on down a very steep section to...a dead end. Suddenly, we were overlooking a sheer drop to the road below, just adjacent to the reservoir. Powerlines crossed inches from the top surface of the wall. We backtracked and took a steep side trail down from the wall, and crossed the road.

On the other side, we paid 2RMB to obtain a little paper ticket to allow us to re-ascend the wall. We walked parallel to the wall, along the shore of the still-frozen reservoir, to an access point (a tree-branch ladder leading to a window of a guard tower) in the wall. Once back upon her, we continued east up excruciatingly steep steps (and now, it was my turn to carry the pack). We hiked alongside a father and his very young (about four years old) daughter and their dog. The dog made leaping strides ahead up the stairs, doubled back, and ran ahead again. The little girl made a fantastic pace up the stairs (faster than me!) as her father watched from well behind.

Soon, we were again on an unrestored section. We ascended still higher, and then began a long downhill. How did the soldiers defending the Motherland deal with these extreme changes of elevation? We know that there was a system of lantern signals for communication, but what when a person must physically move himself (or a whole army of men) from one tower to another? Downhill, I'm sure a zipline must have been employed, but uphill? I can only imagine that some emperor issued a set of instructions that stated that the wall be constructed always on the top of the highest ridge. His orders were carried out to the letter, but not always with the most logic: the wall is not in a straight line, includes many spurs and switchbacks and, as I may have mentioned, has numerous alarmingly steep stretches.

Next we hiked into an area where the wall was is experiencing an increasingly advanced stage of disrepair. Crumbling sides and rough footing eventually led to a section of what were, long ago, stairs. Sliding, lowering ourselves, moving backwards with hand and footholds, we slowly made our way down this steep section. Just as we finished, the gray and gloomy air let forth an intoxicating scent of impending rain. We enjoyed an enjoyably light sprinkle for a few minutes, as we inhaled and enjoyed the view. Our endpoint, a dirt road below, was a short, stairless walk away.

After we left the wall (and noticed several signs informing us that the wall was "closed for repair") we began our walk through a piece of pretty and quiet farmland. We met the owner, and his price for allowing us on his land. We paid, and continued past a cemetery (the first I've seen in China) and more orchards to our waiting taxi driver.

The drive between Changping and the Great Wall is striking due to it's drastic difference from the city within such a close proximity to urban life. Beijingers enjoy going to the country on warm weekends to eat "natural" food and enjoy the rural surroundings. Aside from farming, the small tourist industry provides restaurants, side-of-the-road produce stands, and even a few camels, with which to have your picture taken. The scenery is mountainous, with villages tucked into the foothills.

I have not yet been to the famous section of the wall at Badaling, but I can't imagine that I'm missing any must-see experience!

Posted by ucpegasus 22:00 Archived in China Comments (0)


In which the letter R relocates with amusing results.

For generations, in the Boston area ("neah Reveah") people have "pahked the cah in Hahvahd Yahd" and other such actions that slight the letter R (or, "the lettah ahh" as it is often called). The poor R, banished from the language of "The Nation," excluded from the Hub, exiled from inside 495. But where did it go? Some have speculated that it became part of everyone's favorite Friday night food, "Pizzer." But I have long wondered, "Does this one measly, though delicious, word really account for all those Rs liberated by Bostonians? I couldn't imagine that it did.

The truth is that the R fled Boston. Indeed, it fled the country, and has settled happily in Beijing.

In standard Chinese, one might ask "Na li?" (Where?) In Beijing, one inquires, "Nar?" And then, to ask for yi ping pijiu (a bottle of beer, which becomes yi pir pijiu) one calls for the waitress (normally fuwuyuan), "Fuwuyuar!" Further, do you need a shaozi (spoon)? Then, you'll be asking for a shar! This goes well beyond dining, as asking for yidian (a little) of anything turns into "yidiar!" Are you having fun (hao wan)? Then you'll announce to your friends, "Hao war!" This rampant alteration of standard Chinese pronunciation explodes from there to the point where nonBeijingers poke fun at those living in the capitol for their "Ar, ar ar" speech!

The letter R, having been ignored, mistreated and thrown from the English of Beantown has found new life in Beijinghua (the dialect of Beijing). No wonder most television programs are subtitled in standard written Chinese! So here's (or heah's) to the R - the transposable marker of my two favorite dialects, tying my present home to my native land.

Posted by ucpegasus 21:50 Archived in China Comments (0)

Diving in The Cube

In which we obtain tickets to the next best thing to the Olympics.

On Friday, Aaron, his colleague Jia Xu, Jia Xu's friend Mr. Wong, and I went to the Water Cube (a.k.a. The National Aquatics Center) to watch the Good Luck Beijing World Cup Diving Competition. We watched the men's 10 meter synchronized preliminary session. We're talking two speedo clad men diving from 10 meters simultaneously and in perfect harmony. Competitors came from all over the world. I believe that this event was a qualifier for the Olympics.

The Water Cube has created much buzz in Beijing. It sits in the shadow of The Nest (a.k.a. The National Stadium), which is striking in itself. The Cube is made of translucent material in giant bubble shapes fitted together in four equally sized square sides. Apparently the thing is fitted with giant spotlights or LEDs because a designer's rendering showed it lit up in a myriad colors. It is rumored that movies can be projected onto it's sides. This building apparently heats and cools itself and has other environmentally friendly aspects. Clearly, we were excited to go, but we could not obtain any tickets for Olympic events taking place there (or anywhere but in Changping for the kayak slalom. Oh well).

After being metal detected (walk through and hand-held wand) and made to part with our Nalgene bottles (there shall be no drinking of free water here!), we walked into an airy lobby lit by sunlight streaming in through the bubbles. From inside, the structures used to support the bubbles are visible. Our seats were way up in the cheap section (and not for lack of trying to pay for some up close ones!), so we ascended some very nice carpeted stairs to our section, as directed by some extremely eager-to-help college volunteers (with megaphones, which they enjoyed using even for close-range conversation). The seats had little bubble motifs on them (as did the men's bathroom, in the way of little bubble cutouts in the dividers between each urinal, so Aaron reported!), and the bubble structure of the building itself could be seen on two sides and the ceiling of the main part of the Cube. On one end was an Olympic swimming pool, and on the other was the diving pool with ten platforms and springboards of various heights. Our seats put us right in line with the platforms, which gave an excellent view of the athletes climbing the staircase and preparing to dive.

The diving itself was phenomenal. My favorite is the reverse pike. Two people diving and rotating and entering the water simultaneously is really something to watch. Between dives, there was pop music to listen to as the scores were posted (on a tiny electronic board at the far end of the space - I should have brought binoculars).

China won, predictably and with a wide margin. After the competition, there was an open practice session for all the athletes, which involved body after body diving from all of the ten boards in rapid succession. It was even more fun to watch than the competition!

Posted by ucpegasus 23:33 Archived in China Comments (0)


In which our long underwear becomes our constant companion.

-10 °C

And finally, the details of our holiday in the frozen north:

After the Lunar New Year, when the crowds travelling had died down a bit, Aaron and I travelled north towards Russia, to the city of Haerbin. We took train on which we had booked hard sleeper class tickets. Hard sleeper cars have three-sided compartments, two sides of which are lined with bunks – three high. Despite buying our tickets on the first day they were sold, we had third tier bunks. Avoiding your lower neighbors’ heads, you shimmy up some little foot holds, and worm yourself into your bunk near the ceiling. One benefit, though (aside from being able to lay down all night and sleep – yay!) was that no one wanted to sit on your bunk, as with the lowest bunk which became a seat during the day. Our train left Beijing at 9:45 pm, and we pulled into Haerbin, well rested, at about 8:30 the next morning.

Haerbin is cold. They specialize in ice, snow, ice and snow festivities, and all things Russian. To keep cozy, each day I wore two suits of long underwear, pants, boots, two shirts, my biggest woolliest sweater, winter jacket, gloves and mittens, scarf, hood or hat and ear warmer. And I was still cold while walking outside in the evening. And sometimes during the day. If you go, I highly suggest carrying a hip flask (or at least a bottle of hot water)!

The city is adjacent to a river which was frozen solid with at least two feet of ice. Sun Island lies about a 20 minute walk across the ice (or horse carriage ride, or cable car). Once making it through an utter gauntlet of people hawking winter wear, horse rides, photography services, rides down the giant Coca-cola slide (complete with repetitive disco music), snacks, dog sled rides, ice bicycles and little sleds powered by “rowing” sharp metal sticks against the ice, the river is a huge expanse criss-crossed with deep cracks and areas of flawless black-colored ice. The island is mostly a park with some conference center and hotel buildings. During the winter, one end of the park is transformed into the Haerbin Snow Festival. This year’s theme was Beijing buildings, complete with a replica of the Gate of Heaven. Part of the stairs at the front had been smoothed into slides for those willing to drop a serious amount of cash (over the 120RMB entrance fee!) to rent a snow tube. The rest of the park was filled with snow sculptures of various sizes, including quite a few devoted to the French and drinking. There was also a snow sculpture competition. These sculptures were much more well-preserved (we were in town at the very tail end of the festivals) and very detailed. The park also had a collection of iron and bronze sculptures depicting families and children of enormous scale and beautiful texture. My favorite was called “Bean” and showed a very elderly bespectacled grandmother reaching waaaay down to retrieve from the floor one single bean (cast of a gold-colored, polished metal that contrasted with the bronze). I think we enjoyed these sculptures more than the snow sculptures!

More striking than the snow festival were the two ice festivals we attended. One was smallish, and in a city park, and one was enormous and just off the island. These ice sculptures ranged from refrigerator size to a nearly life-sized Westminster Abbey. There were slippery ice steps to climb to the top of slippery ice castles, and slippery ice mazes, another ice Gate of Heaven (still no Mao portrait – very disappointing as I’m sure it’s possible to do an ice Mao!), ice rinks with more sleds with sharp metal poles (watch your toes!), and really lovely ice sculptures. The ice edifices were lit with neon from within, and they glowed brilliantly. Some had moving lights for an extreme 80s disco feel.

My favorites here were the competition ice sculptures. They weren’t huge (would definitely fit in your dining room), but they were very intricate, and artistically designed. Like the snow sculptures, these were better preserved than the rest (due to ropes around each, and a greater security presence). Many countries were represented, including excellent combinations, such as a joint India/Canada team! I intend to post pictures soon – these are beyond description.

One of the things (yes, there are many) that has bothered me while living here, is the general disregard for keeping hands to ones self. In the natural history museum, people stood in the exhibits with the mounted animals, in Xi’an people stole soil from the pits of the terracotta warriors and banged on drums labeled “Do not bang on drums” (in several languages), and in Haerbin, people touched and stood on every reachable snow and ice sculpture surface, even crossing rope lines. We saw one guy, with his group of friends, cross the rope line and touch a really beautiful under-the-sea sculpture, breaking off a little piece. He then pushed the sculpture AGAIN, and an entire ice sting-ray broke off and came crashing to the ground. Over and over again, Aaron and I have noticed that rarely is anything said by witnesses in these situations – people just turn a blind eye. Aaron often does say something (and I would too, if I could!). He walked over and pointed out the sign, “Can’t you read!! Do not cross this line! What are you doing?!” The guys sulked away…I hope this dissuades them in the future. What selfish, unacceptable behavior.

In more exciting news, one ice festival had a very long slide, but Aaron said, “It’s hardly sloped; it doesn’t look very fast!” We went to the end to survey people’s reactions, and were told that, if we pulled some sleds to the top, we could skip the long line! So we did (up yet more treacherous stairs – my insurance surely does not cover ice accidents!) and were the next to go. A man sat me down on a tiny child’s sled and indicated how I must, must keep my feet together and pointed forward, my arms across my body, my elbows in and here you go!! It was not mildly sloped. It was very nearly an Olympic luge. It was terrifying. The high ice walls (inset with yellow neon that blurred by as I whizzed along) provided hard surface from which to bounce (like that luge team that gets a little out of control and pings like a pinball off the walls until being disqualified and breaking hips and arms). As I neared the bottom, I began to wonder…how would I stop? And then I hit a slight incline complete with a pile of fluffy snow that worked its way up my pants and into my nose – and in which I had come to a halt. How fun!

Aside from ice and snow festivities, Haerbin boasts an enormous Siberian (Manchurian?) tiger park north of the city. We spent the day. When we arrived, we boarded a mini-bus which drove through all of the large fenced-off areas full of free-ranging tigers and lions. You can purchase a chicken (or lamb, or cow!) on your way in. While riding in the bus, an SUV armored with a steel cage drove out. The tigers gave chase (a Pavlovian response to an SUV!). The driver opened the door just wide enough to throw out a chicken, which roosted (momentarily) on the roof of the car. Until a tiger jumped up, grabbed it, and ran off to enjoy its snack (after carefully plucking the chicken first)! In another part of the park, there are smaller enclosures of tigers with an elevated walkway for viewing. There were people selling chickens and strips of lamb. When the tigers saw that someone had bought meat, they moved to that part of the fence. I bought a strip of lamb and, holding it only with some little tongs, lowered it through the gap near the bottom of the fence (tiger head height). The tiger helped out by jumping up (now my height was tiger head height!) and grabbing the meat! This fencing system would never be seen in the US – literally just a chain-link fence between us and the tigers! The park also has pumas, jaguars, tiger and lion cubs (aww!), a white tiger (who looked pretty irritated to be separated from his orange family) and a liger!

Haerbin was a site of Japanese occupation during WWII. The Japanese had a germ warfare base just outside of the city where they “researched” Black Death and cholera and ran a death camp. We visited a museum on the site of the base (the Japanese destroyed it at the end of the war). The goal of memorializing these atrocities is so future generations of Chinese never forget what happened, and to make a permanent record of the event so the Japanese can’t deny their actions. The museum was pretty terrible. Exhibits included descriptions of experiments on humans, video of Japanese war criminals describing what they did, and clay models showing vivisections and infecting people with disease. It was all very sobering, and very well done.

We also went to the Science and Technology Museum. This museum rivals that of Boston. It is quite new, and really, really excellent. Their physics and mechanics exhibit featured a giant track around which you move a giant ball-bearing using simple machines. The whole museum is hands-on. They have a hall of mathematics, energy production, fire safety, water (including an incredible water table – I was hooked like a pre-schooler), light and optics, electricity and magnetism and sound. We were there for the entire day! The exhibits had explanations in Chinese and (good!) English. The most impressive thing about the museum was the exhibits requiring staff supervision. Some exhibits were open for ten minutes each hour, during which time a staff member was dependably there to show you what to do! I rode a bike across a high wire (Aaron was deemed “too big!”), and rode in a gyroscope chair (the kind that spins in every direction – ooo, woozy). There were many very fun exhibits with big moving parts labeled “be careful!” that never would have made it in a U.S. museum. We also saw an Omni film called “Back to the Cretaceous” which was dubbed in Chinese and had some scary, in-your-face dinosaurs. Quite a good time and very, very inexpensive (20RMB per person – compared to 120RMB for the ice festival)!

Food. We ate quite a bit. Haerbin was settled by Russians in the late 1800s and still boasts some commercialized culture (lots of shops selling nesting wooden dolls). We ate at two Russian restaurants. The food was ok, but still looked quite like Chinese food. For Valentine’s Day, we had the set meal at one Russian restaurant which included peppery steak – the first I’ve had since moving to China. It was delicious. We ate at another non-Chinese restaurant and had baked stuff scallops (yum), “salmon” (I’m quite sure it was not), and little rounds of chicken-wrapped bananas with an orange glaze. That was different enough to be really delicious and very un-Chinese food. Having a wide variety of food was a great change. We also had a Haerbin specialty – very thin pancakes into which you roll your choice of filling – eggs, pork, sprouts, spinach, onions and brown sauce. Delicious! Haerbin has a brewery with at least three kinds of (light colored) beer. It was just enough of a change from YanJing to be quite enjoyable.

I found Haerbin to be very touristy (we were there during the tourist season), and quite expensive, even more so than Beijing. This may be because we’ve learned to avoid the touristy in Beijing, and were vacationing in Haerbin amid many other (mostly Chinese) tourists. We had a very bad experience at a restaurant near the train station (web of high-priced misery for tourists – avoid it in any city, we’ve learned!) where the owner grossly overcharged us, and then physically held us (with the help of a very big man) in the restaurant until we paid. She and Aaron had a fantastic-sounding yelling argument in Chinese (while the rest of the patrons turned a blind eye). We eventually paid a slightly lower (though still inflated) amount of money. The next day, Aaron still didn’t feel right (neither did I, but I was done, DONE with that place!) and decided to return. He stood outside and told would-be patrons about his experience, until someone told him to go to the police. He did, and the police officer actually went and brought the restaurant owner to the police station! She returned some money, and was civil (but did admit that she’d rather make money by cheating people than run an honest business). We’ve learned to be careful; I hope she’ll be dissuaded from cheating people in the future.

I often wonder if people are inherently good or inherently evil. I tend to remember the evil ones more clearly, though I am making a huge effort to really appreciate the very, very kind people who give us directions and other help when we’re travelling in this strange place. I feel quite confident that the good people are greater in number, though they are lesser in volume of impact. Having terrible experiences does remind me to be as kind a person as I can and to remember that my actions may characterize to a Chinese person the way all foreigners act, just as I sometimes think that all Chinese behave in the way one certain rude person acts. That is not true, but any action can make a permanent impression in another person.

We took soft seat home, because sleeper was not available for any range of dates we were looking for. Our train was an express, and left Haerbin at 6:45 pm. I was under the impression that it was an overnight, but we arrived in Beijing at 3:30 am! Just an evening train with a very late arrival! We hung around the train station until the subway began service at 5:15 and arrived back in Changping at 7:30 am to sleep for the rest of the day. Overall, it was an excellent trip, and a nice change of pace and location from Beijing and Changping.

Posted by ucpegasus 18:38 Archived in China Comments (3)

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