October 5, 2006

Michael and CaraI’ve found in our travels that talking to people offers unparrallel insight into a place. So thanks to Seth Golub, who hooked us up with his friends Michael and Cara, two ex-pat diplomats living in Beijing.

They were warm and friendly, and really went out of their way to make us feel welcome and give us a glimpse into working and navigating Beijing. What was funnier is that they both speak better Mandarin than I do, which should not be surprising since then have taken months of formal language training. Yet when the four of us went out, all of the vendors kept trying to speak to me — and I kept pointing to Michael.

Certainly, I would unlikely have even thought to have, or indulged in, a Chinese foot massage had Cara not invited us along with her. A foot massage, I found out, included a shoulder, back and leg massage, while having unlimited drinks brought to you for an hour and a half – total pampering. The massage itself was both pleasant and a little painful, yet soothing afterwards. They really massaged out foot muscles I never knew I had. And wow, are they strong! There was lots deep specific kneeding followed by foot slapping.

Traditional Chinese medicine believes that the entire body is mapped on the soles of the feet, and anything tight or out of place in the foot relates to the specific part on the body. Jonathan’s masseuse kept telling him about specific ailments he had – did he have phlem in his throat? Jonathan, being a smart ass, answered with a coughed out “No”.

Another truly wonderful experience was being taken out for Muslim food in Beijing, where they ordered a dish typical of the far western Xinjiang region (borders Kazakhstan). “Big Plate Chicken” is a sumptous, spicy(!!) chicken dish with mounds of red dried chilies, green chilies and potatoes in a rich thick sauce. Michael and Cara had a great vacation in the region, and had been telling us about this dish, with piles of chicken enormous enough to feed 6 people. Which made it all the funnier when the dish appeared on the table, well proportioned to feed, say, 2 people. They looked at each other, and Michael began discussing the size of the dish with the waiter. The exchange went something like this:

Michael: I thought we ordered Big Plate Chicken.
Waiter: You did. This is Big Plate Chicken.
M: But this plate isn’t very big.
W: Sorry?
M: This is supposed to be “BIG” plate chicken (motioning with his hands)
W: Well, I could put it on a bigger plate.
M: No, when we ordered this in Xinjiang, it was a very big plate of chicken (now some arm waving).
W: Yes, but this isn’t Xinjiang. We are in Beijing.

Eventually, Michael convinced the waiter to add some more chicken to the dish, and we did indeed get our Big Plate chicken, thrown in with some noodles on the bottom to soak up the sauce. Delicious, and spicy to the point of painful, it was fabulous.

So thanks to Cara and Michael, who really showed us a wonderful time in Beijing. They have their own entertaining blogsite detailing their experiences in Beijing too.

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Despite my mother’s worrying, we decided not to book a tour to see the sights in Beijing. Even though we had traveled through South America, and made our way overland from Tanzania to South Africa, through big sprawling cities and tiny roadside villages, my mother was worried about my being in Beijing. She’s read stories in the newspaper, she says. But Mom, I told her, I’ve been traveling independently for a while now, through places in Africa which were much less developped. Never mind that she says, with a tone of parental omniscience – this is China.

I needn’t have worried…like any city with major tourism sites, it was easy to hail taxis, use the Beijing Metro, and figure out the ticket offices. Viva good hotel receptionists and Lonely Planet guides!

The major obstacle was my being obviously Chinese to the locals, yet not being able to speak Mandarin – mass confusion ensues, but more on that in another blog post.

Our first day in Beijing, we made our way to the Forbidden City, the seat of imperial China for the last 500 years. The sky was deep blue, the sun was shining, and it was a beautiful autumn day. I had been there before, yet it was still an impressive sight. This time, however, I did not have the 25 companions of a tour group, did not have to find a tour leader touting a flag and bullhorn, did not have to wear a stupid cap, and did not have to be hustled out of the site to get on the tour bus so we could have lots of time at the state run tourist souvenir shop. Hooray!

We picked up audio tours for an extra $5, and got a so-so treatment of Chinese history from a soothing female voice with a slightly British accent. The incredibly beautiful architecture and snippets of history sparked my imagination what it must have been like to live there in the western palaces, and to be received at court.

Ten years ago, I was surprised at the sad state of disrepair the buildings were in. No efforts had been made at conservation, as tourists streamed in and out of rooms, smoking, snapping photos with flash, and brushing up against 300 year old delicate wood panels.

This time, we could no longer go into the buildings, just allowed to look in through a doorway or a plexiglass window. Smoking is not permitted, and the main largest hall (Temple of Harmony?) was being entirely renovated. An inconvinience, but well worth it, as we saw the sections which had been restored, breathtaking in revealing the intricate detail and the vibrant colors of the red laquer and gold gilt.

The Forbidden City is an enormous complex, yet almost completely lacking in informational plaques. The ones that are present only state the name of the building, but little else. So, I found myself wondering at the differences between the “Hall of Preserving Harmony” and the “Hall of Supreme Harmony”.

So, of course, in swoops privately sponsored plaques, from… American Express! They provide a little bit of history for the major buildings, in both Chinese and English, and end the description with the little blue Amex logo. Sigh…I can understand why putting plaques on a major cultural site is not top priority for the government, and at least someone is doing it. But it is a little jolting, as there is no other advertising inside the walls.

I remarked to Jonathan how weird it would have been to be someone who lived in Beijing while the Forbidden City was, well, forbidden. It is so giant, and so off limits to normal citizens. Jonathan then pointed out that we have lots of places that are “forbidden” to us, such as military bases and government buildings, etc. Oh, yeah…

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October 4, 2006

Haagen Dazs Moon Cakes It is very festive being in Beijing with the upcoming Mid Autumn Holiday – the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, aka August Moon Festival. I have never seen more mooncakes on sale in my life. They are everywhere, and people are bustling to and fro carry multiple bags of them as they head off to visit relatives and lavish these mooncakes onto their bosses and friends. The China Daily newspaper reports that the Chinese ate 200, 000 tons of mooncakes last year.

The mooncakes I’m familiar with have lotus bean paste, and if you spring for the “good” ones, have several preserved egg yolks inside. I like them, but they are really rich, and really sweet – once a year is enough. Since it is obligatory to have and to give mooncakes during the holiday (think Christmas fruitcake), everyone and their brother is in on the cash cow.

There are mooncakes with extensive packaging, and new styles for every taste. One store is offerering moon cakes packaged in boxes shaped like the return cabin of the Chinese spaceship, with two mooncakes inside. They range in size from as small as a beer cap to a meter in diameter, with an amazing variety of fillings – among the crazier ones are cheese, rose, black plum, dried scallop, cranberry, and Peking duck. Asparagus mooncake, anyone?

Of course, the western chains in Beijing are also in for some action. Starbucks offers coffee flavored mooncakes, while Haagen Dazs offers several varieties of chocolate covered ice cream filled ones. Since Haagen Dazs was out, and I was determined to try some, we found some at a TCBY. Very cleverly presented, the box of 4 had several flavors of yogurt wrapped in a thin chewy dough. They even simulated the traditional preserved egg yolk in the middle with a little ball of orange sherbert.

So, sadly, I am not in Boston with my family on the holiday of family reunions, but I am taking in and filling in my knowledge of Chinese holidays and customs. I am looking forward to the 80-90% reduction in price after the holiday to try more of these goodies – sort of like my hanging around the Lindt store the day after Easter. Now, off to find some chocolate moon cakes…

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We were lucky to be in Beijing for National Day, commemorating the 57th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Huge red laterns and enormous banners in red and yellow hung everywhere in the city. Hundreds of thousands of potted red and yellow flowers were arranged in enormous formations in Tiananmen Square, along with huge displays of the “Friendlies”, the 5 mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Families are everywhere, with many people getting the entire week off from work, and the festive and optimistic mood is contagious.

But my oh my, Beijing is very little like I remember it 10 years ago.

Beijing TrafficMy first thought was -where have all the bicycles gone??! Although there are bike lanes, the number of cars easily outnumber bikes 15 to 1, whereas I remember that cars were once forbidden during rush hours. And unlike in Europe, where they have mini cars, every car is a 4 door sedan. The traffic is unbelievable, at all times of day, crawling along the roadways at 5 miles an hour. Often we would budget an hour when going anywhere in the city from our hotel. We also heard that for the Olympics, residents will be forbidden to drive to see the games, in an attempt to try to reduce the congestion. Given that they are mostly new drivers, and many are cabbies, it is more than a little stressful to try to cross a street, dodging the bike lanes, the taxis, the buses, and the thousand other people trying to do the same.

The next thing that really struck me was the way the women were dressed. 10 years ago, local women were mostly wearing floral print skirts with pantyhose, layered with ankle hose in low pumps. Today, the younger women are almost indistinguishable from women in any large metropolitan area in the western world. Sporting tight blue jeans and little T shirts, with red highlights through their hair, they teeter on pointy high heels while chatting on their cell phones. With jeans and a polo shirt on, I’m a little stunned how much I look like I fit in here.

Lastly, it’s impossible to be in Beijing and not see the explosion in real estate development. Huge glossy billboards advertise high-rise, high-end modern apartments. Older builidings and the hutongs are reduced to piles of rubble, hovered over by the enormous cranes setting up the supports for the new buildings. Shiny buildings of glass, and high rise apartments…it really reminds me of Shanghai and Hong Kong. With the demolition of builidings within the 2nd Ring Road, residents are forced to move out to the “suburbs”. One of our tour guides told us that buying a car is now within the reach of most working urban families, with a base price for a car about 5000 yuan, or ¼ of an annual salary. An expense, but with the sprawling city, a necessary one.

The subway is definitely the easiest way to get around the city, especially in rush hour. With the 2008 Olympics looming, the city is in overdrive, trying to complete an incredibly ambitious subway routing, adding about 70% more subway coverage of the city.

And when I question my various tour guides, so far who are all young female recent University graduates, about the changes from 1997 until now, they simply shrug, and say, yeah, it’s changed. No sweat. I suppose it’s what makes time lapse photography so interesting…I only have two points to compare, whereas they have lived it every minute.

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