May 31, 2008

I'm Living in a Spaceship

Last night my parents took me to dinner at Epicure, the revolving restaurant on the 45th floor of their hotel. INSANELY expensive, of course, but far far below what you'd probably pay for a comparable night out in a place like NYC, LA, or Chi-town I'd imagine. Just one of the bonuses of living in Shanghai -- sometimes you can pretend you're a rich industrialist. Muhahaha.

Anyway, aside from the great food, the opportunity afforded me the chance to snap some incredible pictures of the neon apocalypse that is the literal and figurative heart of Shanghai: The People's Square / Lujiazui interchange.

As always, click a photo to be taken to its page on flickr (and subsequently view related pictures).

For your perusal:

Neon Apocalypse

The close-up building on the right, outlined in blue, is the Shimao International Plaza, which I like to call the "Batman Building" (you'll see why if you click the link). The lit-up street leading into the distance is Nanjing Dong Lu.

Further back, the lit-up spire in the upper-left of the picture is the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. From there, across the picture to the right, is a taller building with the triangular top lit up -- that's the Jin Mao tower. To its right, not lit at all (since it's still under construction) is the World Financial Center.

Another view, from 20 floors below:

Neon Apocalypse

Here's another view where you can see the buildings a bit more clearly, as the photo was taken earlier in the evening:

Neon Apocalypse

Here's what it all looks like in the daytime:

Pearl Tower, Jin Mao, and WFC in the Distance

Back to the neon. Here's my favorite: a zoomed-in view of the pedestrians on Nanjing Dong Lu on a Friday night.

Neon Apocalypse

Here is the same scene viewed at ground level:

Neon Apocalypse

Perpendicular to Nanjing Dong Lu is Xizang Zhong Lu (Central Tibet Road). It looks like this:

Neon Apocalypse

The large building with "Capital Land" at the top is Raffles City Plaza.

And here's another high-up view: this time of the Shanghai Museum (small yellow-lit building) and the, well, I'm not entirely sure what the other building (in green) is.

Neon Apocalypse

Notice the lone non-lit-up building in the lower-right, a model of restraint! I think this is the Shanghai municipal gov't building.

As always, you can see these and more pics at my photostream.

Many of these pics are blurry at their original size. The reason is that a) I have shaky hands, b) lack a tripod, and c) when taken from a revolving restaurant, pictures with a slow shutter speed (like 1/2.5 th of a second) will blur by default :-) But some of them came out really nicely, regardless. And if you think these are blurry, you should see the ones I didn't upload to flickr :-)

The new camera is holding its own even though it has some UI deficiencies relative to the DSC-H1. For example, on the DSC-H50 there's no way to instantly review the last picture taken, a feature I really liked on the old model. On the H50 you have to switch into 'Playback' mode. And for some reason, although pictures taken vertically (with the camera held sideways) auto-rotate during playback mode -- which is great -- but they download to my computer as un-rotated. And when when I manually rotate them and place them in the flickr uploader -- the manual rotation doesn't come through. (I still had to do manual rotation on the DSC-H1 -- but those settings were preserved in the flickr uploader.)

Strange. But these quibbles are terribly minor. (I suppose that was redundant.) In every way shape and form, this camera kicks serious ass. I can already see the increased image quality in the pictures I've taken just this week. Sometime soon, possibly tomorrow, I plan to get a tripod and then map out some nighttime shooting locations for even MORE neon insanity!!

I Promised I'd Do This

I saw my parents off safely about two hours ago. They did and saw so many things here that they are afraid they won't be able to remember it all -- a fear that is extremely understandable.

In order to help, I'll post a day-by-day itinerary of their major adventures.*

  • Arrival in Shanghai
  • Hour-plus taxi ride to hotel
  • Room service dinner (tuna fish sandwiches)
  • Sleep
  • Taking the subway one stop
  • Walking down Nanjing Dong Lu
  • Walking down the Promenade alongisde the Bund
  • Xintiandi
  • Jin Mao tower sightseeing deck
  • Thumb Plaza
  • My apartment
  • Guided tour of Shanghai, including Yuyuan
  • Dinner at hotel restaurant Windows on the Park (2nd floor of hotel)
  • Shanghai Museum
  • Dinner at Gongdelin
  • Tour of the Ohel Moishe synagogue and the surrounding area in Hongkou
  • Duolun Lu Cultural Street
  • Garden Books and Changle Lu / Shaanxi Nan Lu area
  • Dinner with me and my co-workers
  • Taking the subway 5 stops by themselves
  • Shanghai Science & Technology Museum
  • Taikang Lu
  • Dinner at Epicure, the revolving restaurant on the 45th floor of the hotel (which also produced these insane pictures)
*Not listed: crossing blocked-off streets, almost getting hit by cars, negotiating with cab drivers, bargaining with shopkeepers, withstanding satellite malfunction, overcoming jet lag, getting swarmed by hundreds of touts trying to sell them knockoff knickknacks at every conceivable location, successfully communicating in Chinese, enduring tourist traps, attending conferences, journalling, etc.


With all the insanity going on, the month of May has been bad for blogging / picture taking. I look forward to doing some more before my trip back to Austin in late June. I think a trip to Suzhou is in the cards, plus some more tourism stuff in & around the city. But for now -- relaxation!! :-)

May 27, 2008

Proof of Life

Practice makes perfect!!

Mad Skillz Wif Dem Chopsticks, Yo

This was taken at Gongdelin, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Shanghai. est. 1922. They are famed for their tofu and soy-based meat fakery. I think what you see here is fake chicken.

And whoah, this new camera is pretty badass. I think the shot came out great.

May 24, 2008

The Pigeons are in the Henhouse

Or some such nonsense to describe the fact that my parents arrived safely in Shanghai this morning :-) I met them at the gate, then took them to their hotel. I wanted to show them the Nanpu Bridge, but some roads were closed due to the Olympic torch running through town (I mean, being carried by people, not that the torch has anthromoporphized and is scurrying around under its own power). This situation caused our taxi driver some consternation, so we ended up detouring to my neck of the woods, so I showed them my area (Thumb Plaza, apartment, metro stop, etc.) and such. The driver asked if we still wanted to go see the bridge via this new route, but my parents were barely awake in the back seat so we decided to just get to the hotel.

After checking in and such, they were too tired to even leave the room, so we ordered room service (tuna sandwiches -- got to ease them into the local cuisine gently) and then I left because I could tell they were barely hanging on to consciousness :-) Not that I can blame them after a 2-hour flight, 2-hour layover, and 14-hour flight that all began at 3 AM EST. But they're safe here and that's all that matters :-)

To get to the airport to pick them up, I took the Maglev, which was pretty slick. The 50 kuai ticket is about half the cost of a taxi ride and gets you there about 10 times as fast. So in every sense, it's worth the money. I think I'll just take it out there from now on, especially because the terminal station is only two metro stops away from my apartment. The train reached a top speed of 431 km/hr (about 268 miles per hour) which, I mean, is insane. The speed is displayed as an LED readout in the cabin. And you can indeed see the scenery, what little of it there is, rushing by super fast. At one point I heard a loud WHUM and felt a small vibration. I was a little unnerved until I heard another passenger say "the other train just passed us!" Yes there are not one but TWO Maglev trains, and they run in parallel to keep up operations. When two trains are moving at 268 miles per hour and pass each other within like 10 - 20 feet, there's bound to be some noise :-)

Anyhoo, all is well, and tomorrow I begin to play tour guide :-) Well, moreso than I did today.

May 19, 2008

For What It's Worth

Some quick things about the earthquake:

  • Yesterday at 2:28 PM, exactly one week after the quake, China held a three-minute moment of "silence". I have "silence" in quotes because outside our office, the air-raid siren blared and cars outside leaned on their horns for three minutes. Still, it was meaningful, as all my co-workers stopped talking and working and stood up at their desks, heads bowed. Other reports indicate that traffic, including the online variety, came to a standstill.
  • Web sites are being directed to scuttle entertainment-related content for the official three-day mourning period that also began yesterday. I've heard that entertainment venues, such as bars and clubs, also will be closed. The national flag, which I saw in Beijing, will be at half-staff during this time -- the first time it's ever been lowered for ordinary citizens.
  • All TV channels I get via cable are showing either CCTV 1 (the main station) or CCTV 9 (the English-language station). I've heard reports that foreign-owned stations or satellite stations are blacked out.
  • Some of the SHist staff have reported being approached on the street by beggars saying that they are soliciting $$ for earthquake victims. Sad that people have to stoop that low.

May 18, 2008

#100: Keyi Chi Yu

This is the 100th post on this blog. Yay!! I honestly thought that, after my insane post-up in January, I wouldn't be able to keep up the pace. And while it's dropped since then, I continually find things to post about. Good times.

This one post is just to say that the best part of last night was seeing a Chinese cover band doing a bluegrass version of "Something in the Way" (the best line of which is in Chinese in the subject of this post).

My ayi is here now and she continues to serve as a great way to learn Chinese. I rarely see her because she usually comes while I'm at work, but this week she is here on Sunday. I told her my grandpa (wai gong, or mother's father) passed away and so I had to go to America last week. I also managed to convey that he was happy that I was in Shanghai -- Ta xihuan wo zai Shanghai kuai le, if I'm not mistaken :-)

Like many things in life, my Chinese (spoken, understanding, and now even a little bit of reading) improves when I don't think about it. So I'm trying a new approach. The idea is still to surround myself with Chinese (which is not difficult to do, given the circumstances) but instead of concentrating on words and sending them straight to my conscious, I'm going to try letting my unconscious do most of the work. Things seem to work better when I do that, even if it might take longer to bring words to the forefront.

May 17, 2008

Pedicab ride in Beijing

Okay, I forgot this last video I wanted to post. This is the beginning of the pedicab ride that cost me a shitload more money than it should have :-)

May 16, 2008

It's the Little Things

Just now I called my financial services institution (how's that for vague) in the US to verify that they wanted me to send them some info. I explained I was in China and would have to do some workarounds instead of faxing them the info they needed. So in closing, the guy on the phone said:

"Stay safe over there in China; come home whole."

So nice :-) That just increased my positive feelings about this company by, well, a lot.

May 15, 2008

Beijing: Final Post

Four videos from Beijing that I just finished uploading:

Impromptu choir at the Temple of Heaven:

View from the Great Wall:

Taking the zip line down:

Me eating fried scorpions:

All that, plus more Beijing photos.

My late-night snack:

Hao Chi!

Ten points if you can identify every organism in this picture:

Hao Chi!

Pics from around the 798 Art District area:

798 Art District

798 Art District

798 Art District

798 Art District

798 Art District

Olympic buildings:

The Bird's Nest

Water Cube & Bird's Nest

All the rest are now uploaded at Beijing 2008.

May 12, 2008


Woke up this morning to see there was a terrible earthquake in central/western China (in Sichuan province). Some friends in Shanghai have reported feelings their office buildings swaying, and were evacuated along with thousands of others into the street.

I can't comment on it because I (somewhat thankfully) am not in the country right now. But Shanghaiist has an insider's look with a constantly-updated post.


May 11, 2008

Harry London, 1922 - 2008

Today's Sunday, and I'm in Maryland. On Tuesday morning at 10:30 AM, I got a call that my grandfather had passed away. Five hours later, I was on a flight from PVG --> ORD --> IAD and now I'm home in MD, thanks to the wonders of technology and this semi-flat world we live in. He was a wonderful man, in every way imaginable, and will be sorely missed.

Being back in the US is far less strange than I'd anticipated. Perhaps it's the comforts of family and/or the familiarity of the place where I grew up and spend 18 years of my life (22 if you count my time in VA before I moved to Austin). About the weirdest thing I experienced was realizing that I could drink the tap water and use it to brush my teeth. And buckling my seatbelt when getting into a car. And driving! And seeing flowing, green, manicured lawns accompanied by two-story houses, leafy trees, and spacious streets not clogged with traffic and insane drivers. And stores where you don't have to shove past people to get to the products you want or to get in and out of an aisle. Such are the trappings of suburban life in the US.

I also think that being home is not so strange because I had literally no time to, you know, build up to the fact that I'd be leaving China. It was like, phone call, and then thirty seconds into it I knew I'd be coming home. No time to wonder what it'd be like or worry about driving or jet lag. I just booked the tickets, ate lunch, and hopped on the plane. If I'd had a long time to think about it, like the several months I'll have before I'll be back again, I think it would have been stranger. Because then I would have gone over it a kajillion times in my head.

I also think that it would have been much stranger to back to Austin first instead of MD.

I've enjoyed the chance to speak Chinese twice since I've been back. Once to one of the ladies at the hair cut place on Saturday. I don't think she understood me too well, or I misinterpreted one of her questions, but the general idea was "hey, hello, I live in Shanghai ... etc.". But the women at Hunan Manor understood me perfectly when I asked for three pairs of chopsticks, said that I lived in Shanghai, and said there are a lot of people there. I also understood her when she said she'd never been :-)

I've been here since Wednesday night and I'll be leaving on Wednesday morning, so that's about a week. My jet lag is still present but going away slowly, as evidenced by the fact that it's 10:30 PM EST and I'm still awake. And also that I woke up at 6 AM this morning instead of 1:30 or 3 AM like the previous nights.

In addition to everything else that's going on over here, I also had a chance to buy some new books and upgrade my camera like I'd planned. So that's good.

I have been voraciously looking for anything on China that I can read about. Fortuantely, I don't have to look very hard. I picked up a copy of the latest Economist while at O'Hare, specifically for its cover story on China. And each day's Washington Post and Baltimore Sun are full of stories. The New Yorker had a small bit on an authentic Chinese restaurant that serves mapo doufu, chou doufu, and mala tang. And the latest Newsweek has one that quotes a study from Jiaotong University. When I read that, I was like -- "I've been there!!" Even a Vanity Fair at my aunt's house contained an article about weather in Xinjiang.

(Jeez, I just realized that you can tell a lot about me and my family by what reading materials we have lying around ...)

Funny, right now I'm looking at a map of the world, circa 1980, on my dad's wall. I see Shanghai, but also Hangchow (Hangzhou?), Ningpo (Ningbo), Chengtu (Chengdu), Chungking (maybe Chongqing?), Tientsin (Tianjin?), and Sinkiang (Xinjiang?). And of course Peking. Without doing much research, I'm going to assume this is Wade-Giles spelling since that was the dominant form until the late 20th century.

And I can hear dad practicing his tones in the next room. Awesome :-)

I understand that I picked up some new readers of this 'ol blog and met a couple of you in person. Thanks for all your kind words, your interest in my China adventures, and for the support you showed my family during this time. We really appreciate it. I look forward to making Grampaw proud by continuing my adventures in China for as long as I get the opportunity to do so :-) Since he was instrumental in my decision to go, I'm going to assume this is one of the best ways to honor his memory ;-) Funny how that works out, eh ...

May 5, 2008

Why Skype is Awesome

Back when I first got here, I had my debit card declined by accident. I'd swiped it at a Carrefour, and the transaction went through, but my bank flagged it as fraudulent because I hadn't told them I was going to China.

The next day I got an email telling me this, and saying that my account was locked and that I had to call to get it back. I did so, via Skype, and explained the situation to the lady who answered. The first thing she said back was:

"You sound like you're calling from a long way away."

Yes. Yes I am.

May 4, 2008

Beijing: Day 4

This day was amazing. I could go into detail, but I just flew in from Beijing and I'm a little tired. Maybe I'll elaborate in a couple of days. But here's the two highlights you need to know:

Highlight 1:
Holy shit. Holy shit shit shit. Sooo amazing. So mind-boggling. It was cold and wet and rainy, but oh-so-amazing. My legs hurt from the crazy-steep ascent. But nonetheless I want to go back, really badly, and bring like, some food and a book and just sit up there, on top of the world surrounded by nothing except the occasional tourist, and read for four hours, maybe take a nap, eat some cookies, you know, just relax and soak in the atmosphere. If I hide from the occasional guards they post at some of the watchtowers, I could probably sleep up there.

Choice pics:

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

More on flickr.

Now, check this out:

The Great Wall of China

That is a guy, harnessed to a zip line, suspended over the lake as he plummets from the base of the wall to the bottom of the mountain. You better believe I did that on my way down, and you better believe I took video of it too. I'll post it soon. Meanwhile, here's two of my tour-mates:

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

I spoke earlier of a steep ascent. Here's what I meant:

The Great Wall of China

See the wall there and how it goes up and to the right at at 45 degree angle? Yeah. Not an illusion. We went straight up that.

You can see the steepness again, straight-on, here:

The Great Wall of China

Ouch. My quads are killing me :-)

Highlight 2:

I ate fried scorpion! Not as exciting as the Great Wall, but still worth a mention. Check one off on the crazy-ass food category, I suppose.

Anyway, more on Beijing soon, including the last day, organized pictures, and videos.

May 2, 2008

Beijing: Day 3

Okay, so, yesterday's entry read "Part 1" but it's also the last part. I didn't do much after I posted; just went out to walk around Houhai, bought some more souveneirs, and ate dinner. Pretty relaxing, really.

Today though, I saw Mao Ze Dong.

Here's how it happened.

Mao's tomb is in the south-central area of Tiananmen Square, in between Qianmen and the Monument to the People's Heroes. The entrance faces north; the line starts at the north-west corner and wraps all the way around the west, south, and east sides before coming to the actual entrance. The line (I have some pictures up on flickr) wraps around the whole building and is five to six people wide. It is set off from the rest of the square by some rope, and there's about 50 feet in between the rope and the line, so we cut a narrow swath of people through an empty spot of the square.

I got to the starting point and it took about, oh I don't know, an hour? to get inside. I'm bad at tracking time in these situations. Luckily, at no point did we stand still. We were all just shuffling slowly forward. That kept the blood flowing :-)

So there's the line, which is like 5 people wide, as enforced by some painted line on the sidewalk. On either side of you are several dozen attendants, telling people to hurry up, move along, remove troublemakers from the line, and intercept people from crossing the open space in between the line and the rest of the square. (The orange twine is not a big enough deterrent, it seems.)

As you walk, loudspeakers enumerate the rules in Chinese and in English: be quiet inside, no picture taking, turn off your cell phones, dress respectfully (people with vests will not be allowed, apparently), and so forth. After shuffling forward around the building, you come to the front, at which point the line splits in two. Each half goes into a small bunker-like building in the courtyard. In these buildings, guards give you the airport-security treatment: metal detector, put your stuff in a plastic bin, wave the metal-detecting wand, etc.

When you're through, you go up the big steps in front of the building. At this point you can turn and look out over the square and get a sense of how many people there are milling around.

Then you go inside, and if you're wearing a hat, signs tell you to remove it. The signs also say to be quiet and no picture taking. I had a hat on, and I removed it before we got to the doors. I didn't bring my camera, because I'd heard the rules when walking around the area yesterday, so I didn't bother bringing it. Guards (this time in nicer dress, with white gloves) hurry you along and shush you if you talk. It's an eerie atmosphere, because there are so many people in there with you but they're all really quiet.

The first room has a big scenic painting of mountains on the far wall. In front of it is a row of vibrant green potted plants/bushes. In the middle of this row is a large white statue of Mao, seated and smiling. There are bouquets of flowers at his feet.

As you enter the door each line hugs the wall and you move towards the painting. As you get closer you realize it's not the far wall but just a partition. You move behind the partition and through another small antechamber.

Then you arrive in Mao's actual tomb. You can see him now. He's in a large glass-topped coffin, draped with a Chinese flag so only his face is showing. A light is shining on his face. The coffin is inside a glass room that's inside of the room you're in. There are three guards standing at attention inside this smaller room. The attendants rush you past. You spend maybe a total of 12 - 15 seconds viewing his actual body.

Then it's back outside and down the south steps of the building, back into Tiananmen where Qianmen stands guard.

And that's that.

After doing this, I went back to the hotel to pick up my things and began the journey out to the Summer Palace. I took the metro out to Xizhimen and then hailed a cab to the Beijing Zoo. From there I walked east along Xizhimenwai Dajie until I got to the Beijing Exhibition Center. It was a long walk, as the front gate of the zoo is (understandably) quite big. And it was really hot and sticky out. I stopped for a nice meal of Wuhan spiced duck neck, stir-fried pork, and potato pancakes (not the ones I'm used to though, haha.)

At the BEC I told the guard I wanted to get to the Summer Palace. You see, my travel guide says that you can take a boat from the north-east corner of the BEC all the way up the river, to the Summer Palace. I thought this would be more fun than a cab, so I wanted to do it this way.

The guard pointed me in the right direction. As I wandered toward the dock, I encountered two expats walking away from it. Since I was unsure of where I was going, I stopped and asked them if I was in the right spot. They said yeah, the ticket office was just around the corner, but that some guy was trying to scam people into getting into his private boat, so they were going to wait until 2 oclock.

I got to the ticket office, chatted with the lady behind the counter for a bit, and then bought the ticket (70 RMB). Soon enough, a speedboat came along to pick up myself and like four other tourists. I got some pictures of the boat as it came to the lake, so I knew what to expect. We rocketed through the water, swerving this way and that, until about 10 seconds later we arrived at a dock on the side, of the river.

We all hopped out and I started to stroll around the grounds of our landing spot. However, something was amiss. I didn't see any pagodas or giant lakes. All I saw were ... rhinos! And tiger statues! And signs for the aquarium!

I wasn't at the Summer Palace -- I was at the zoo.

Crap. Did I just get scammed again?

I was pretty pissed off right now. Memories flashed in my head of my foolishness from yesterday, with the pedicab and all that. So now I was like, shit, I just got scammed again, and even after those expats warned me!

I guess I could have just given up and wandered around the zoo. After all, it's a fun enough attraction. And there are pandas there! But I didn't feel much like it after yet another failed attempt to go somewhere scenic without getting ripped off. I just pictured this woman, and the guy who herded me into the boat, laughing at yet another lao wai victim.

Instead, I decided to try and get my money back. I walked all the way around the aquarium until I got to the north gate of the zoo. I checked my map and saw I was on Gaoliangqiao Lu. Great -- I was really close to where I'd embarked from. So I began to walk along the street towards Xizhimenwai Dajie. It was turning into a really long walk - like 15 minutes at this point and I hadn't seen the street. It was really hot and sticky out, the street was really dusty and dirty due to roadwork and construction, I was sweating like crazy, and I was still frustrated about getting ripped off again. I was picturing, you know, going up to the woman and asking for my money back, and then what happens if she refuses, could I get help, and maybe I could call one of my co-workers and have them explain it to a cop, if I could mange to find one. Robert told me that yelling works really well in situations like these, so I was psyching myself up to yell (because it's not something I do very well, so I have to, like, prepare for it).

But as I was walking along, I thought, hold on a second. What if I misunderstood something, or I should have stayed at the dock, or something like that? Did I even buy the right ticket? Maybe I was mistaken. After all, well, I don't understand Chinese very well.

The walk was dragging on, so I hailed a cab for the rest of the way. He deposited me out front of the ticket booth, and I marched right up to the woman and explained myself. "I didn't arrive at the Summer Palace. I arrived at the " (and here I pointed to the Chinese characters for 'Beijing Zoo' since I don't know how to say it."

Through the conversation that followed I figured out the problem. It was my mistake. After arriving at the zoo, I was supposed to transfer to a bigger boat. That would take me to the Summer Palace. Duh!

The woman and the guy apologized profusely. They explained the situation to the speedboat guy who came by in like 5 minutes -- this lao wai got off at the wrong stop, he's supposed to continue on to the Summer Palace. Considering it was my fault, or whoever's fault it would be for me not understanding the directions (if they had indeed been given to me in the first place), they were very very apologetic. I of course said, you know, that's okay, it's my fault, I'm wrong, thank you, thank you, etc.

And off we went again :-)

This time when we exited the boat at the zoo, a staffer pulled me aside and led me to the front of another line a short distance away. I guess the woman at the BEC radioed ahead or something: "The next boat has a tall white guy on it, make sure he gets to the Summer Palace!" Man, I was so embarrassed. And it happened in front of a shitload of people, a vast number of whom were already waiting in line, too.

After like 20 minutes of waiting in the hot sticky sun, the next big boat came and off we went. It was me and maybe like 40 other people. The woman conducting the tour did so, and of course I couldn't understand much except for a couple numbers (dates) here and there. But it was nice to be on the way ...

and on the way ...

and on the way. This boat was S-L-O-W. I guess I thought it would be faster, given the speedboat ride to the zoo. But such was not the case. I'm not sure exactly how long we spent on the river, but we got off at one point to wait for another boat. That boat took like 20 minutes to arrive, during which time I met and talked with two English students at Beijing University. They were taking the boat back to their school, which is out near palace.

Finally the next boat came, and we started off towards the Summer Palace. After like, I don't know, maybe another 20 - 30 minutes on the water, we arrived. Finally! I was really really tired by this point, after expending mental energy on the accidental zoo trip and physical energy on walking, waiting, and sitting out in the hot sun all day. I'm not sure what time it was by now; probably like 3:30 PM. I think I'd started on the first boat ride close to 1. Talk about your slow boat to China ...

*rim shot*

I debarked and immediately took in Kunming Lake. My first thought was "Hey, this look a lot like Xihu." And I come to find out later that this design was intentional. Makes sense. But, having already seen and appreciate the original -- and having been so tired and beaten up about getting to the Palace in the first place -- I didn't really have the energy to appreciate Kunming Lake that much.

I started walking around the path, just kind of relaxing and settling down from the journey. Along the way I met an expat, Odette, and her mom. I guess I'd just been frustrated by poor or nonexistent English all day, so when I heard Odette and her mom speaking in, you know, actual English, I was like "woohoo!" Haha. So I joined up with them, and we walked around for a bit and took in some of the sights around the lake. We saw a little impromptu musical performance, which I made sure to capture on video. I made comparisons between KL and Xihu, not knowing at the time that KL was designed to resemble it, hehe.

The three of us went into one of the museums around the area, the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. It was here the Empress Dowager Cixi watched theater performed onstage just for her. We took in the theater building and the halls surrounding it, which contained pictures, imperial dinnerware, costumes, jewelry, and other items of the period.

After about an hour of looking through here, I was exhausted. Luckily Odette and her mom wanted to leave also, so I tagged along with them and we caught a cab back into the city. We all made plans to meet up for dinner later on. I came back to the hotel and vegged out, watching some TV and writing the first bit of this blog entry.

Our goal for the evening was to hit up Quanjude, a 100-year old restaurant that serves the most famous (but not necessarily the best, I've heard) Beijing roast duck in town. According to wikitravel there is a branch near my hotel, so they picked me up in a cab and we headed off. We gave the driver the address and he got us most of the way there -- or so we thought. After he dropped us off, he told us to take a left at the next street -- he couldn't drive there (we think because it's in a hutong).

Long story short -- we wandered around for about half an hour, asking person after person, haggling with pedicab drivers, to no avail. No Quanjude to be found. We have no idea why the cabbie dropped us off where he did, because we walked quite a bit farther down Qianmen Xi Dajie. Perhaps we were going in the wrong direction altogether. Anyway, I was a little disappointed, because I'd promised Adeline that I'd go. But it seems it was not to be. It's apparently really difficult to find -- especially when you don't speak or understand Chinese all that well :-) But it was an adventure, you know, the unexpected kind you have in these situations.

We did end up at another restaurant that served Beijing roast duck, so we did get to eat it. It's really damn good, the sauce especially. And the restaurant was nice besides. I'm planning on maybe trying to find it tomorrow for lunch, but honestly, I'm not holding out any hopes.

After dinner, we cabbed it back to our respective hotels.

And that's the end of Day 3.

May 1, 2008

Beijing: Day 2, Part 1

Whew, I just walked in from Gulou Dajie, and boy are my legs tired!

*holds for laughter*

Today started bright and early at 8 AM. I flopped out of bed and ate breakfast in the hotel's dining area, where I was informed nicely that I would be charged extra because breakfast wasn't included in my stay. Oh well.

Then I showered and dressed and hopped out on Chang'an Da Jie. The destination was the Temple of Heaven. I made it there eventually, but it took some doing.

According to the map it is just south of Tiananmen. According to reality, it is WAY south of Tiananmen. So I walked all the way down Tiananmen, past Qianmen, past the HUGE CROWDS of people lined up to see Mao's tomb (seriously -- the line went on forever and was like six people wide) and down Qianmen Dajie, expecting to see the temple. No dice. I got tired of walking and asked a group of official Olympic volunteers, no doubt practicing for August, where it was. They were like "Go down this street and turn right." I was pretty sure that was wrong, since I was facing west and I knew the temple was to my south, which would have meant a left turn. I tried to ask youguai/zuoguai? But that didn't produce much of a response.

I asked if it was possible to walk there, and they said yes, but I think they were misinformed. Either way, I didn't feel like walking more, and I felt like absorbing some local "color" so to speak, so I hired a pedicab driver. I named the destination, and off we went.

Big mistake.

Pedicab drivers have no meters, obviously, since they're just bikes with carts attached. And I didn't ask for the price. So after swerving in and out of traffic, dodging buses and going down hutong lanes, we arrived at the corner of the Temple of Heaven Park.

At this point I got out and said "How much?" At first he wanted American dollars. And I was like, I've been living in Shanghai for four months, I only have renminbi. So then he whipped out a price card and showed me what the ride cost. I'm man (or stupid) enough to post the amounts here.

The minimum charge was 300 RMB. That is a fucking insane price for a 10-minute bike ride. The 45-minute ride in from the airport didn't even cost 100 RMB, and didn't almost involve getting smashed by a bus. For 300 RMB, you could get a fancy dinner for 4 at a nice restaurant in Shanghai. A cab to the park would have cost about 15 or 16 RMB. But 300!!!

I easily could have pulled a "I don't understand" or argued with him or whatever. I could have brought the price down by saying I didn't have that much, or simply refused to pay. But, you know, I was dumb enough to ask him to go somewhere without asking the price first. That's my fault. So I paid him.

Then he was like "Hutong. 300 RMB." And pointed at the card. "Hutong tour" was listed separately on his "price list" for another 300 RMB. He mean that, since we went through the hutongs (not even stopping once, I might add) I should pay him ANOTHER 300 RMB. Sheesh. This time I argued a little bit: "I never asked you to go through the hutongs, I just said go to the park." Eventually we "settled" on an extra 200 RMB.

So a 10-minute bike ride cost me 500 RMB, or over $70. Again, a cab ride would have cost me about $5. I could have ran off, or not paid, or just thrown 20 RMB at him and left. But I consider it the stupid-tourist tax. By enforcing this on myself, I learn a lesson and will be far FAR more careful in the future.

But that doesn't mean I wasn't angry with myself about it. No, to the contrary, I was quite pissed off at myself for making the mistake of not asking about price first. I'm a little surprised that I'm posting about it. I guess I'm trying to shame myself into never doing it again :-) And, well, we all get scammed once or twice. I've managed to avoid it so far. But I got caught today.

I hope that guy treats his family to a nice dinner tonight and for the next month, that's all I've got to say :-) So yeah. A lesson to you all - unless there's a meter in the cab or whatever, ask for the damn price first :-)

To top it off, I was looking all around for that nice pretty tall pagoda you see in the Wikipedia entry. That's what I'd been looking for all morning. But it wasn't where we'd arrived. It was hot, I was a little hungry, I was essentially lost, and I'd just been fleeced for 470 more RMB than I'd intended to pay. So I was in a little pissy mood.

To calm down I just sat on a bench for like 10 minutes and just tried to relax. Then I got up and asked a bus station attendant where the park was. She pointed me in the right direction; thankfully it was really close. So I paid the 35 RMB entrance fee and learned a little something. I had thought that "Temple of Heaven" referred to the pagoda. That's incorrect. "Temple of Heaven" is an entire park, a scenic area, with numerous little areas of interest, of which the pagoda is one. It actually was an entire temple. The famous pagoda is the highlight of the area, the centerpiece (although it's not in the center of the park). Its name is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. So next time someone shows you that picture and says "look, Temple of Heaven!" you can correct them and impress them with your knowledge of China :-)

Anyway I found this out the hard way, by wandering around in the hot sun and getting increasingly frustrated that I couldn't find this famous landmark that I'd just gotten screwed out of $70 to see. Finally I made it there though, and it was pretty damn impressive. The thing is huge and pretty. In fact the entire temple really is nice. If you don't want to go to the Hall of Prayer, you can just pay 15 RMB and have access to the park grounds, which are really nice and spacious. So there are lots of people just lounding around, sitting on benches or sleeping in trees (I got a nice picture of that guy) or rollerblading or doing tai chi or whatever. Very nice. I went to a couple of the other areas in the park, including the Hall of Divine Music, the Nine-Dragon Juniper, and several of the gates. I also got a sweet tourist map for 10 RMB, which I'm considering framing and putting on my wall when I get home. It's that nice.

After the ToH, I decided it was time to see the Forbidden City. I didn't realize how large of an undertaking this was. All I've ever seen of the city are some photos of the palace itself and, of course, the south gate with Mao's picture hanging over it. But good lord, once I entered it, I realized - uhh, yeah, this is a city inside Beijing. It's massive. My tour book says it has an area of 7,860,429 square feet, or 180 acres. So it's easily a full-day site, even two days if you want to see everything. I was unprepared :-)

I entered through the south gate (the arch directly under Mao's portait was blocked off, so I went in to the gate immediately to the right) and begun the tour. Where you go first is the courtyard, which is free. However to go into one of the little museums or to climb one of the gates costs 10 RMB. I climbed the gate immediately after the south one, and looked down on the crowds.

At first glance, the FC is incredibly boring. It's pagoda-lined walls with huge empty stone courtyards in the middle. This is the design throughout the entire city except for the gardens near the north end. What you have to realize is that all the best stuff is hidden off to the side, through one of the doors in the walls or in one of the back rooms. I guess it would look strange if the exhibits were in free-standing modern buildings in the courtyard. But the design was off-putting at first.

The city itself is actually a museum (the Palace Museum), and you don't come to it until walking quite a distance past the south gate. All during that time you see little shops and restaurants on either side of you. Once you pay 60 RMB and get inside the city proper, these are replaced by museums. Again, everything interesting is tucked away inside the walls that divide each section. There's absolutely nothing of interest to see in the courtyards themselves, apart from being wowed by the vast expanse of empty ground.

After you pay your 60 RMB to get in, most of the other little side museums, for example the Hall of Jewelry and Treasure Gallery, cost an extra 10 RMB to get in. I went to this one, plus another couple of areas, like the Hall of Supreme Harmony. I also saw the Nine Dragon Screen, which was pretty slick.

So the FC is like the world's biggest open-air museum. And the little side museums themselves are overcrowded, hot, and noisy. And you can't take pictures in them (or so I was told; after a guide told me that, I went to the next room and saw tons of people taking pictures, so I joined in). Honestly, the FC was grand, but the sameness of all the pagodas and walls and steps and courtyards wore on me after awhile. I just didn't have the energy to cover the whole grounds in one sitting. It's definitely something to do over the course of a week, maybe, although that means you'll pay the 60 RMB entrance fee many many times :-) But it was informative and entertaining and I'm very glad I went.

At the north end you come out facing Jingshan Park, which looks like a lovely wooded hill to climb (with a pagoda on top!) but I was dead tired and so didn't even bother. Instead, I hopped a cab to the Nan Luoguo Xiang hutong up off Gulou Dong Dajie. Here I plopped my ass down in a little coffee shop-cafe type of deal, ate some spicy spaghetti with cucumbers and ham, drank a cup of coffee, and tried to relax the stink off of me. (Not sure that worked though, haha.)

This hutong runs on for a good clip and seems to be popular with the lao wai, for good reason. It has a ton of little arty/crafty stores, clothing stores, cafes and bars, and such. It seemed very peaceful and nice. I probably stayed there for like an hour and a half, just relaxing. Then I went shmying around and ended up buying a stuffed monkey, because really, who doesn't like stuffed monkeys?

That's all the excitement for today. Right now I'm relaxing in my hotel room. At some point I'll head out and eat dinner, maybe take a picture or three of Tiananmen at night (the whole thing is lit up like a stadium) and do some walking around Wangfujing or Houhai.

Tomorrow I want to see Mao, visit the Summer Palace, and walk around Peking/Tsinghua universities. Anything else will be considered a bonus :-)

Oh yeah, I took tons of pictures of course, but I haven't uploaded them yet. They're coming soon.