Monday, January 01, 2007

Stick A Fork In It...

We booked the most expensive train cabin, a "soft sleeper". What I did not realize when booking the ticket is that soft sleeper = first class. And first class is nice. My previous train experiences consist of the NYC subway, MetroNorth, and Amtrak between D.C. and NYC. So, the soft sleeper was a pleasant surprise. Two pillows. A bed. A little table with a white table cloth. A fresh flower. White on white five star hotel linens. Yeah, we enjoyed the train. The train to Beijing is 12 hours, which seems like a long time until you realize that you can actually go to sleep. And not wake up with a weird cramp, or closer to your neighbor than you would have liked. None of the discomfort of plane journeys here. No painful ear popping, no stale air, no wishing you and the person sitting next to you were both 50 pounds lighter so that you could have some space, no climbing over people to go to the restroom...none of that. And going first class train is still cheaper than flying, so it worked well for us. We went on Christmas eve, and so in addition to the complementary meal (very much like airplane food), we got a little "gift" of chocolate and goodies. Ah, I love first class.

We arrived in Beijing to wonderful brisk air. The nigh before our cabin was hot, because we didn't realize that we could control the temperature - something we discovered on our way back. And so, for the first few minutes the brisk air felt good. I got over that good feeling quickly. Beijing was cold. We took an expensive cab journey to our rental apartment, got the keys, dropped our bags, and made our arrangements for the day.

Within our first hour in Beijing we realized two things. First, Beijing cabbies are notorious for the way in which they cheat foreigners - and we learned that this reputation is well earned. Our first two cab rides were twice what we were told they should have been. After that, we tried to get female cab drivers (more honest) and we started using public transportation. Second, the "r" of the Beijing accent is as serious, noticeable and pronounced as everyone said. We had some hilarious moments trying to get them to understand words like "15", "shi-wu" in Shanghai, but "shir-wu" in Beijing. We spent the next three days cracking jokes that ended in "r".

On the first day, we went to the Summer Palace. It was nice, and cold. I wonder if it defeats the purpose to visit a "summer" palace on Dec. 25th. The grounds are beautiful and large, it was a palace after all. I spent most of the time wondering what it would have been like to be there in its heyday, before it was a tourist site. As the Emperor's niece, perhaps, with the benefits of royalty without much of the responsibility. The famous lake at the palace was frozen, and after much convincing, almost to the point of annoyance on their part, I joined my classmates as they walked across the frozen lake, thinking the entire time that this was a stupid decision on my part. Hearing the shifting and creaking of the lake did not help my general disposition, and the pockets of bubbling water that became visible towards the middle of the lake, well those almost put me over the edge. I walked NYC long-stride style across the rest of the lake. When we finally arrived at the other side, and climbed the fence to get to get back on solid ground (we did not climb a fence to get down), we saw the following sign:

Yup. That was a stupid decision, and the fact that I am safe does not make it exhilarating for me as it did for others. I am not from the culture of thrill-seeking at the expense of safety, my people do not say "Here kitty, kitty" to lions. We are the people that move in the other direction while the other tourists are taking pictures. Things like bungy-jumping and hand-gliding are big deals, complete with safety equipment and licensed, trained professionals. Walking across a very large partially frozen lake...well, that's just not our thing. And now I know why. Grateful that nothing untoward happened, I appreciated being on solid ground for the rest of my trip. And I took in the beauty that is the historical sights of Beijing.

On the second day we went to the Great Wall. Oh wow. I am not sure what it was, but from the moment I stepped on the Wall, I felt like China was done. I started saying, "I've done China. I can go home." And I truly do feel like that. Perhaps it was simply being at one of the most recognizable wonders of the world. (Although it is not a part of the Greek canonical list, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, most scholars currently include it as part of The Seven Wonders of the Medieval Mind or other revised list.) The Chinese name for the Great Wall is 长城, Long Wall. And it truly is long. Apparently over 6,000 km. We only walked and saw a small section, it is mind boggling to consider a wall of that length. The fact that we went in winter meant that the wall was pretty empty, which was good for us. Apparently in the spring and summer it is choking with tourists. If only the vendors stayed home in winter also. Alas TIC, and vendors are everywhere, including on the Great Wall of China. We took a lot of pictures, joking about our Great Wall photo shoot. We met some other travelers braving the Wall in bitter cold, including a group of Bahamian New Yorkers. And the beginning of our camera troubles began. Between dead and dieing batteries, frozen cameras (both meanings) and otherwise uncooperative technology, we also enjoyed trying to figure out whose camera would be functional at any given moment. So, our time on the Wall (and the next day also) was also punctuated by the following words "Quick, quick, mine is working now."

After a long, cold and tiring day, we returned to Beijing (the wall is outside of the city, in the mountains). That night, a Business English student of one of the girls took us all out to dinner. He booked a private room in an upscale establishment. I still wonder what the employees thought about our group, one older Chinese man surrounded by young foreign females. Apparently we were the talk of the staff, as various employees would sneak a peek throughout the night. In order to make life easier, we told him that we're all vegetarians (that avoids offending when you turn down cow tongue, duck feet, and in my case, pork, among other things). So, after the hilarious hassle of trying to order vegetarian dishes (This one only has very small pork), we began a very lovely meal. Three different managers came in and gave us their business cards on two separate occasions. And then later Santa Clause and an elf came in and gave us Christmas presents (chocolate and candies). We took pictures with the managers, and the Santa and elf. Gotta love the Western holiday of Santa Clause, large decorated trees and gift giving otherwise known as Christmas. Chocolate, chocolate everywhere. We think the photo with the managers will end up in the lobby, as soon as I e-mail it to them as per their request. At the end of the meal, one of our servers asked if she could have a picture with each of the foreigners. I obliged, having the only camera, and took 4 separate pictures which I have to e-mail to her. I wonder where these photos will end up.

Completely exhausted, we went home and went to sleep. Our last night in Beijing. On the third and final day, we visited 天安门 (Tian'anmen, I think sometimes the English spelling is Tienanmen), Tian'anmen Square, the Forbidden City, a Cultural Street, and the Temple of Heaven. The highlight for me was Tian'anmen, because of the history (including the 1989 protests). And of course, I finally got a picture of myself in front the infamous HUGE picture of Chairman Mao (I've been envisioning myself in front of that picture since my East Asian Civ. class in 1996). What a whirlwind day. The most striking thing on the last day for me was the beauty of everything. Of course, they are sprucing things up in preparation for the Olympics, but even the things they haven't gotten to yet exude excellent artisan and craftsmanship. I know that we didn't see the "real" Beijing, as we only really visited the tourist sites, and apparently the non-tourist site Beijing is filthy. But it was a great experience and I am so glad to have been able to go. We managed to do all of the "major" sites in Beijing.
Our three day trip was over, and it felt like we had been there for at least a week. We made it to the train station with time to spare, back to our wonderful first class cabin and home to Shanghai.

Stick a fork in it, China is done.
Oh, and 新年快乐,that's Happy New Year folks!


扇子 said...

Happy New Year!
But the Great Wall is called "长城" in Chinese, not "长成".
Happy New Year!

Sacred Stitch said...

哦,you're right. I've fixed it. 谢谢。新年快乐!