A Fortnight in Beijing

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
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13
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Trip End Feb 28, 2013

Flag of China  , Beijing,
Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Average temperature is 33-35C, humid days and balmy nights with occasional hefty thunder showers and downpours. Ozone and pollution creates a gray blanket of high clouds on most days. We had several days of clearer skies and we could actually see our shadows. Still the pictures we took during those blue sky days look a bit muddy due to the pollution. We hope this is a summer phenomenon and other times of the year are better. Between the air quality and our overuse of air conditioning, our throats became sore and we developed annoying little hacks.

Beijing population is 19,612,368 as of 2010 with an annual disposable income per capita of 26,738 yuan and growing rapidly! ($4100US)

QIANMEN DAZE
Qianmen is the "front gate" of the old Beijing city walls (since demolished) and also the neighborhood south of Tiananmen Square. In fact, the real gate was demolished in the 1950's and the landmark gate we see today is a newly constructed concrete look-alike.
 
The most famous hutong is on the west side of Qianmen Dajie and is called Dazhalan. Dazhalan shops are said to have 'history’ to when this area supplied goods to the Forbidden City royalty. The story goes that our hutong was built during the Ming Dynasty as service workers quarters for the palace, They were the craftsmen who made the items needed for the Emperor and the court. The area developed into a rich shopping area as craftsmen opened stores to offer their wares to the public.

Our routine for the next fortnight consisted of American or Suisse breakfast at our hostel (great coffee with so-so everything else), stopping into the shops in Dazhalan, and then hopping onto the subway or bus to explore other places in Beijing.

We had an informative and interesting discussion with Matthew from Thousand Oaks during one breakfast. Matthew has the summer off from his teaching job. He has traveled mostly by train trough China this summer and is continuing on to Mongolia from here. Then our discussion turned to his work with severely autistic kids. He told us of the communication weaknesses of autistic children. They tend not to learn incrementally and usually will have difficulty with language form, content, or use. And there is a theory that sign language can be used with autistic kids to strengthen the content portion of language because they are typically intensely visual and often tune out spoken words. He demonstrated his teaching abilities to us by the way he explained some of the behaviors and challenges with models and anecdotes. He is passionate about his work with the kids. His kids are lucky to have him. 

One of our first missions was to get tickets for the 30 hour train ride from Beijing to Ulaanbataar Mongolia. Booking well in advance is recommended. Matthew told us the international tickets are sold in a CITS office located in the Beijing International Hotel north of the train station and a few km east of the Forbidden City. We took the subway then walked the rest of the way. We needed to ask directions once and ended up in the business tower next door before finding our way to the hotel.

We had a choice of trains on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. We picked Monday the 18th and paid 2720 RMB ($210 each/ $420 total, cash only) for a pair of bottom beds in a 4 bed compartment. They needed our passport numbers on the tickets and we were happy they settled for the numbers only because we had forgotten to bring our passports. From there, we took another subway ride to Ghost Street, a popular area known for its hundreds of restaurants whose red lanterns light up the street at night (still daylight when we were there). We went into one that was recommended in the Nat.Geo.-Beijing guide. It was set around an attractive courtyard with menu pricing to match. And the place was dead.  So we went a few doors down to a place that seemed to have some action. There the food was excellent and prices reasonable. Name of the place was just in Chinese so we only have the picture of the storefront to remember it by.

We walked past a printer on our way back to the subway. Their sign was in English so we popped our heads in to see about having new name cards made. We found some excellent samples of their work on the out-shelf of the office and decided to put together a new card and bring in a jpg for printing. They are happy to design the cards for customers but we were afraid of English mistakes and decided to do it ourselves. We ordered all the upgrades, 2-sided photo, water-proof, heavy card stock, etc. The results again exceeded our expectations.
   

 
MARKET DAY
Saturday is the day we went to see the giant Panjiayuan, Beijing's infamous weekend ‘dirt’ or what we know as a flea market. It was two subway changes and a 15 minute walk from our hotel but we found it. People have things for sale and laid out on the sidewalks leading up to Panjiayuan. The market itself takes up a city block and is enclosed behind walls. About half the market is in permanent buildings and half outside but under roof structure that protected us from the sun. You can find anything from Mao pins to 15 ton stone elephants to put on your lawn. We still need to travel light so can’t really buy anything. Michelle found a tiny charm, a wood carving in the shape of a fish and some embroidered pouches. Dave got a kick out of the sign: "Articles Left from So-Called Cultural Revolution." Those articles turned out to be propaganda posters from the 60’s communist era. His favorite was uniformed Zhou and Mao presenting bulging sacks of wheat to the smiling and grateful subservient peasants. It remains difficult to comprehend why many Chinese still venerate those maniacal bastards. They must because it is not the government making people buy the Mao statures and other paraphernalia. And it is not all bought up by misguided foreign tourists either.   



Next stop, the Silk Market. The (New) Silk Street Market is a seven floor shopping center notorious among international tourists for their wide selection of counterfeit designer brand apparels. We walked out the exit tunnel at Yongan subway stop and climbed stairs that emptied directly into the market. We have seen this kind of market before so we were not surprised to see Louis Vuitton, Prada, Monte Blanc knock-offs. The government has been responding to international pressure by shutting down factories and levying fines on the counterfeiters. And it is said that many of these vendors now have trademark licenses. There is even a banner telling everyone; 'protect intellectual property rights, be Law-abiding citizens". It is in Chinese and English. We have to admit that the vast majority of the market is not IP protected items. They have fine silks, jade, rugs, shoes, tailor shops and the like. But somehow, I just do not believe the $2 Chanel wallets are sold under license. I firmly believe the government is turning a blind eye to this activity and merely putting up a propaganda smoke screen for the international community.  With that said, we had great fun looking around and haggling with the sellers. The feisty shop keepers shout at you and will physically pull you into their shops. They are astute. They notice your eyes resting a fraction of a second longer on one item and it's pulled off the rack and in your face. They flatter and insult. ‘Beautiful lady’ or ‘handsome man’ heard on entry will become ‘you crazy lady’ if you walk out. 

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
We planned a day outing to Temple of Heaven and to a Costume Factory. Bus 129 stops near our hostel goes to the Temple of Heaven's south entrance for 1 yuan. We liked the bus because we could see Beijing out the windows which you don't on the subway. They told us to get off at the final stop. We stepped off along the river front where they have stone pillars decorating the wide walk way.








Temple of Heaven is rated one of the top temples in China and a place where Ming and Qing Emperors made offerings for good harvests. It has two groupings of structures, segregated by gates, within walls surrounded by a grand park like setting. 

The temple complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City. It was expanded in the 16th century and parts have been damaged and rebuilt over the centuries.




We entered the south gate to the southern set of structures which features the ‘Circular Mound Alter’ used to worship heaven at the winter Solstice. The center of the altar is a round slate called the Heart of Heaven (天心石) or the Supreme Yang (太阳石), where the Emperor prayed for favorable weather. The ‘Circular Mound’ is made of marble. It has dragon head ornamentation on the outside edges with round holes in their mouths (perhaps to hold flag poles). The Animal Killing Pavilion is to the east of the mound along with a Kitchen.

Next we took a peek inside a circular building, the Imperial Vault of Heaven (built in 1530) with the Echo Wall outside to the east. We walked north on the raised 360 meter marble walkway connecting the north and south alters called ‘Red Step Bridge’. A similar walk noted on the complex diagram is the Danbi Bridge connects the Vault and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. This Hall is a raised structure at the north end of the complex and has the big (36m diameter) umbrella looking 3 level roof pictured on most the Temple of Heaven brochures. It has been reconstructed several times over the centuries. The original of this version burned down in 1889. It is completely wooden building that was rebuilt without nails from Oregon fir trees a few years later. Inside are two rows of urns on red lacquer stands leading to a throne, a ceremonial set of wooden steps with special blue container inside a little house on top that reminds me of a confessional. We could only peer in from the outside over the hoards of people. And the contrast between the bright sun outside and the dim unlighted interior, made it quite difficult to see the interior well. We saw the inside of the upper roof (aka the ceiling) with complex wooded architectural detail covered with detail intricate paint. This is the ‘pièce de résistance of the site and a good one to end at.

  The site is over 500 years old but does not exude a sense of antiquity like I expected. I did not sense its oldness. I did not see signs of wear on the marble, just pockmarks from pollution damage. The architecture and craftsmanship are beautiful but without the information signs and guidebooks, I wouldn’t have known the age. Perhaps structures at the site had been rebuilt, reconstructed, and ‘face-lifted’ too many times.



After a few hours in the sun at the Temple, we were hot and parched. But we had a factory and another market area on our agenda. Right off, we decided to skip another market for now and just find the State Owned Costume factory. We walked and walked trying to locate a small factory on a side road. We knew we were close but the smaller alleys did not have street signs. Then we looked north and saw Qianmen Daijie, the rebuilt historical outdoor pedestrian shopping street with Qing style buildings that leads to our hotel. Michelle disappeared while Dave continued to look for the factory alley. Ten minutes later, Dave found Michelle cooling off in McDonald’s airco licking an ice cream sundae. Exploring for this day was over! Michelle later wrote to her sister ..." We went to the Temple of heaven today and walked so much that my shoes need to be resoled. Easy day tomorrow."


FOOD HANGOUTS

The small family restaurant we discovered on our first day became our home café for most our stay in Beijing. We must have gone there at least10 times and were never disappointed. Patty Xianghe is another tiny place we hit 4 or 5 times, usually when we wanted light meal. They serve a made to order pancake filled with fennel, onion or leek and a small amount of meat or egg, all for a buck to a buck and a quarter. Can’t beat that! The lamb, potato and onion filled Samsas grilled on the street in front of a Muslim restaurant across the alley were heavenly too. The other place that became a repeat for us, we are reluctant to admit, was Sizzler. Yes, it is the US salad bar chain with 5 locations in Beijing. When it was time for crispy greens and fruit, that's where we went. The scope of the selection is smaller (no ice cream station) but what is there is superior quality, is restocked and cleaned continually. They create ambiance by playing hip mood music. 


  

THE DELECTABLE DUCK DIDN'T DISAPPOINT
One cannot go to "Peking" and not taste the renowned and decadent "Peking Duck" . The fist time we were in Beijing 20+ years ago we forked out a small ransom at the Bian Yi Fang Roast Duck Restaurant, which uses closed ovens, not open fire. The duck is carved by expert chef at the table. It takes less than 5 minutes for the duck to be expertly boned and sliced into up to 120 slices each with thin sliver of crunchy skin and delicate meat. This time we went to a less pricey option in one of many restaurants parallel to Qianmen Daijie. Instead of the expert slicing job at the table we received a plate with our duck hacked in chunks with a clever. Accompanied with the paper thin rice pancakes, sliced spring onions, cucumber and delicious plum sauce. It all tasted wonderful but the place definitively lacked ambiance and the staff's indifferent attitudes detracted from the dining experience too.

DA DISAPPOINTING DUD DINER
The worst attitude award for food service goes to the staff at a small place near the south gate of the Temple of Heaven. Nothing but scowls and frowns from all the staff. And not just for us but the other customers too. From across the room, I believe I saw one of the waitresses almost crack smile. But maybe it was just gas pains. We had overpriced bland food. It is definitely the low-light of Beijing dining (can't win them all)

KRISTEN & SUE
Sadly, we couldn't get reservations for Kristen and Sue at our Hostel, even 10 days in advance. The hostel just received a booking for a large group arriving the day before them. We checked out some other options for them nearby and in the end, made a reservation for them at the popular Leo Hostel, about 2 minutes from us. Leo Hostel has a lively backpacker scene and great sounding tours and a travel service. In the early evening on the 15th, Kristen and Sue came through the door of our hostel like seasoned travelers carrying only small backpacks. It was great to see Kristen again and to meet Sue, her friend since 5th grade.
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We let them check in at Leo and get cleaned up before taking them to our favorite little restaurant deep in the hutong. It was 7pm by now and both of them were struggling to stay awake. They also got caught up in the excitement of it all; the hustle and bustle of the hutongs, the pedestrians and eco cycles, pedicabs and scooters co-mingling in the narrow alleys. Sue is vegetarian and was happy with the veggie choices at our little restaurant. Kristen reached into her bag like Santa Claus and pulled out a new Ace knee brace, two Necta-sweet sacharine bottles, and Tom's toothpaste for Michelle. Before she left Canada, Kristen had asked if we needed anything. 'Sure, we have been looking all over China for a few things we lost or are running out of and can't find a replacement in China'. We told her not to go to too much trouble. She had to go across the US border to find the stuff! It was Christmas in July! 
 
They only had 2 full days and made good use of them. First day they visited the Forbidden City. (You know, the royal palace grounds where uninvited visitors were put to death in the old days) While Sue and Kristen were submitting to a heavy dose of Chinese history, we went on shopping a expedition to Carrefour and got tickets for the 7:30pm Peking Opera at the lovely Huguang Guild Hall for that evening.

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
Michelle had been to the Opera at the intimate Huguang Hall 6 years ago with Tante Agnes and knew that the cheap $25 seats were great. We just needed to be there 30 min before the show to have best choice of seats. In the afternoon, after the Forbidden City visit, Sue and Kristen had grabbed a little catnap and relaxed a bit and at 6:30pm we tried to hail a cab for the short ride to the theater. No proper taxies were to be found. But two open motor-scooter rickshaw drivers wanted to take us for 20 yuan per cab. Too much, a normal taxi that can hold us all would cost 20. A minute later, the necessary negotiations were done and... we got our money's worth! For 10 yuan per cab, we got a wild ride through narrow hutongs and busy main streets and finally a nail biting intersection-crossing to the finish line. We were all grins when we arrived (safely).

Built in 1807, and at the height of its glory, the Huguang Guild Hall, along with the Zhengyici Peking Opera Theater was known as one of the "Four Great Theaters" in all of Beijing. Many famous past and present opera performers have performed here. The theater is renowned for its magnificent interiors, which is colored in red, green and gold, and decked out with tables and a stone floor. We secured ourselves a great table. All the tables had plastic wrapped dishes with prunes, peanuts, fresh melon and a tea pot. A menu with high priced drinks and tea was put in front of us and we declined. A bit later, they removed the plastic and motioned that the dishes were included in our ticket price. The teapot got filled and refilled as evening progressed.



The first act was part of a folk play 'Autumn River' about a love lorn lass pining for her beau, Pan (who the old nun forced to leave town) and she hires a boat to go find him. After intermission we were treated a scene from a different play about the Monkey King. This one had combat and acrobatics. The acrobats, with exception of one performer, were sub par. The performance here at the Huguang Guild Hall has changed drastically from the one Michelle had watched with Tante Agnes years ago. It was now more of a watered down Peking Opera sampling with more spoken language less singing, fewer characters and a less 'Peking Opera-ie' cling clang coming from the small orchestra. They even had an electronic sign board explaining in English a little about what the actors were depicting. We really would have preferred to see a more authentic folk-play (which can go on for hours) and then leave when we have had enough. Still, the theater is beautiful and interesting and it was a most enjoyable evening.

The next day Kristen and Sue went to the Great Wall with a group from the Leo Hostel. They said it was great. 8 people were in their van and they went to an almost empty part of the wall with both reconstructed and unreconstructed parts of the wall. Only a handful of tourists? That's like the good 'ol days. One big change we have noticed during this 2011 China trip has been the dramatic increase in the number of Chinese tourist. They are everywhere now. They crowd all the venues previously left to the foreign visitor. They take loads of pictures, film video, buy goofy hats, shop, eat ice cream; the works. It must be all that disposable income they have now. Good for them!

FACTORY LIFE
While Kristen and Sue were at the wall, we decided to hunt down that elusive State Owned Costume Factory. We went to the spot where we had given up before and started asking people. Each time we were pointed in the right direction. Four people later, we poked our heads into a tiny store; YES this was it. And Méi yǒu, we couldn't tour the factory now. The non-English speaking lady then dialed someone on the phone and handed Dave the receiver. The man on the other end was the factory manager and he would be happy to give us a tour when everyone returned from lunch. How about 2 o'clock? Great! Xièxie. (We hadn't had lunch so went to the KFC nearby for the first and last time; yuk!)

We were warmly greeted by the 56 year old Manager who proceeded to show us inside the factory that has been at this location since 1956. He showed us to a room where a young woman was tracing an embroidery pattern from a 50 year old Peking Opera costume on to tracing paper. This is the first step in recreating a new costume from the old patterns. The next step was to transfer the pattern to a different type of paper then machine punch a line holes along the trace line in the paper. The next stop was inking of the pattern onto a roll of silk fabric by pushing the color through the holes of the paper with a small squeegee.


The bolt of fabric with the newly printed pattern is shipped north to another factory where they will hand embroider the design. The workers at the other factory are paid less for the labor intensive hand work. After, the embroidered fabric is returned to this factory, it is cut, pieced together and sewn into a new costume. It ends up taking six months to produce a new costume. We also saw a decorative hat being made and other items being glued, embroidered, ironed, and sewn. Two workers argued about how a pattern was suppose to go together. Pace at this State Owned factory was slow, steady, relaxed, and uncontrolled. Most workers have been there many years. Some are children of parents and grandparents who worked at the factory. The Manager told us the typical wage at this factory is 3000 RMB ($464) per month. It was a cool way to spend a few hours! We had gotten he idea to visit this factory from a Nat Geo Guidebook to Beijing that we had found in the hostel.   

FINAL DAZE
We met up with Kristen and Sue for a last supper. How about Peking Duck or a place with western food? No, they hadn't have enough of Chinese food yet and they wanted to go back to our favorite little place again. We filled the table with even more great dishes this time.

Their flight to Delhi was at 8PM so had most of Saturday see another side of Beijing. We took them to the Dirt Market and Silk markets for a dose of that craziness. Did they have fun? They made the most of the few days they were here and Kristen said she was going to see about getting another layover in Beijing on her way home from India. FOR SHOPPING!  


FUN FACTS:
Four Great Inventions
of ancient China: paper making, the compass, gunpowder, and printing.
China is also believed to have invented chopsticks.

Chopsticks:
the most ancient archaeological find of a pair of chopsticks, made of bronze, comes from Shang Tomb 1005 at Houjiazhuang, Anyang, dated roughly 1200 BC. By 600 BC, the use of chopsticks had spread to Yunnan. The earliest known textual reference to the use of chopsticks comes from the Han Feizi, a philosophical text written by Han Fei (c. 280–233 BC) in the 3rd century BC
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fin5prtw
fin5prtw on

fantastic! brings back so many memories for me! am really enjoying your blog entries =)

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