Friday, January 30, 2009

China Chronicles: Day Five (Part One)

The Great Wall (really is great).

We got up extremely early to meet our tour guide for the day. Most day tours of the Wall cost anywhere from 20$ to 50$, so of course we opted for the cheapest option. You'd think we would have gotten the bare minimum tour for this price, but actually (and I do not like organized tours) we saw a lot, learned a lot and ate some delicious food for a minimum cost. When you are planning a trip to the Great Wall, don't pay anything over 20 bucks!

Our guide arrived at 7 AM and took us to the bus in the freezing cold. I fell asleep immediately. When I woke up, there were more people on the bus from the States, Korea (what a coincidence!) and Canada. They were all nice people. We were a happy and enthusiastic bunch, needless to say. Also, when I woke up, I looked out my window and saw nothing but beautiful mountains on all sides. If I squinted I could take my first glimpse of the Great Wall, winding along the tops of the mountains. It was a magical moment.

The magic sorta ended when we arrived at the Badaling portion of the Wall and our guide told us we had two options.

"You can either hike up the mountain in the freezing cold, or you can take the rollercoaster up and then take it back down".

Um... what? Rollercoaster? That wasn't what I was expecting. Also, it looked pretty rusty. And the guys operating it looked pretty young.

So of course, we all decided to go on the rollercoaster and risk our lives rather than face the bitter Mongolian wind. It was much colder here than it was even in Beijing! * Am I really from Canada?

When we got to the top, we proceeded to make our way to the top of the Badaling section. Some parts were really steep, and some were pretty icy, but there were people everywhere and even more people there shovelling the snow and scraping the ice. So it was fine, albeit crowded. If I go again, I would go to a different, less touristy section of the Wall as Badaling seems to be the place everyone takes their group tours.

Regardless of what I will do next time, I really enjoyed myself on Badaling. It was beautiful, the Wall stretched out as far as the eye could see, and it was a beautiful day despite the freezing cold.

Communist garb on the Great Wall. I couldn't figure out why so many Chinese men were laughing at me as I walked along. The only reason I even wore the hat was because it protected my cheeks. I soon figured out that, even though I was not the only tourist on the Wall wearing this hat, I was the only person wearing the hat, carrying a communist bag with another big red star on it, wearing a khaki jacket and wearing bright red mittens. I looked like a Chinese soldier.

"Char! Bernie! Give me a pose that says 'I'm extremely cold'".

More self portraits.

Braving the wind for a few seconds...

Hello, comrade.

Wall-ey Greatness.

People going uphill. We were some of the few non-Chinese tourists there.


Scared, going uphill on the "rollercoaster".

More wall.

And more!

The whole group.

We made it to the top!

Now it's time to go back down...

Angry communist pose (sorry for making fun of communists so much- I actually really enjoyed my outfit).

Getting ready to go back down...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

China Chronicles: Day Four

We woke up semi-early an had a yummy breakfast in our hostel's lounge/restaurant area. We were feel pretty confident that we wouldn't be needing a map, and we were right, of course. God, Beijing is so easy to find your way around. If you have a general idea of where something is, walk in that direction and you'll come to it. That's how it was with the Forbidden City. First of all, it's kind of massive and it's right at the centre of the city. You can't really miss it. So, we walked for about ten minutes toward the East side of the city and we were there! Except we arrived at the wrong entrance, so we had to walk for an additional five minutes to get to the public gate (and not get shouted at by Chinese policemen).

Oh! And at approximiately 6 AM that morning, Bernie and Charlene arrived by train from Shanghai. Bernie promptly knocked on my door and woke me, as well as my five roommates, up to say he had arrived. Thanks, Bernie.

Anyways, you can tell you're getting close to the Forbidden City because all of the buildings start looking more traditional. We took a route slightly off the beaten track and were rewarded with lots of beautiful houses, traditional restaurants and tea shops and less (touristy) traffic.

We arrived, bought our passes, and made our way through the buildings. They were really impressive. The Chinese Emporer used this area as a centre for government and military control for about 500 years, as we all know, and it was as impressive as it sounds. However, I think it would be nicer in the summer when the gardens are abloom. That being said, it would also be more crowded in the summer and it was already pretty crowded in the dead of winter. So each season has it's upside!

After we wandered around the city for a few hours we made our way through the South gate and were immediately greeted by Chinese soldiers, standing guard at Tiannamen Square. We took some pictures with the Chairman (you know who I'm talking about) and were once again on our way. All of the tourist attractions were pretty crowded. We decided to head to a teahouse to thaw out.

We had some tea and stayed inside for about an hour, and then decided it wasn't too far to the Temple of Heaven to walk. This was our only real location mistake. We knew which direction to go into, but from Wangfujing it would have been much easier and much faster to get into a cab. We walked for a really long time in the cold, but we (I) were stubborn and kept saying "It's just the next block over". Finally we arrived to the park where the temple is located. It was really cool! They used this temple as a place of prayer for getting good harvests. Looking into the temple you can see piles of grain as offerings. On the outside it was really ornate and beautiful, so I was a bit surprised when I found out it was just about grain. But then I rememberd reading "The Good Earth" by Pearl Buckman and realized how important getting a decent harvest was (and still is) to the massive Chinese population. Of course it would be foremost on their minds after a long, cold and hungry winter. I mean, duh. On our way out, we saw lots and lots of senior citizens in the park. They didn't look nearly as cold as we were. They were singing beautiful songs, playing hackey sack and dancing to strange techno-like music. They made my day... and they made me stop complaining about how cold it was... for a little while...

On our way to the Temple of Heaven the ladies spied a big building across the street with a sign that said "PEARL MARKET". The guys never had a chance. Actually, I think they welcomed getting out of the cold. The Pearl Market is similar to the famous Silk Market. You can get all kinds of counterfeit stuff as well as regular souvenir stuff. Of course, you could also get pearls. There were all kinds. Any kind, size and colour you can imagine! I was in love. We shopped around there, made some purchases, and then made our way to the Silk Market where we bought MORE stuff. And we would go back again. And again.

We took Bernie and Char to the same restaurant as the previous night and then took them to the Eating Street to check out the goodies. They were sufficiently grossed out and entertained. Then we went back to the hostel, had a tasty Tsingtao (my new favourite beer) and went to bed.

The couples across the street from the Forbidden City. Ask me if I missed my boyfriend.

Getting excited. Walking along the Forbidden City moat.

I'm such a communist. Wait til you see the Great Wall pictures.

The entrance to the Forbidden City.

It's hard to take a bad picture here. The achitecture is too well placed.

Inside the entrance to the city.

If I were emperor, I would skip everywhere. And I would shout "It's MINE!" a lot.

And I'd make this building my master bedroom.

This kid was really cute. So was the turtle/dragon statue. Double whammy!

Speaking of cute...

Jer and Allison in the garden area.

At the Northern entrance.

Hayyyyy. This guy totally knew he was being photographed.

Bernie and Char, playing dead in a Hutong.

Moi et Mao.

On our way to the Temple of Heaven... we were the only ones walking...

Temple of Heaven: first sighting.

Oldies, but goodies.

This guy was my fav. He was playing along to the weird techno music.

Hackey sack.

Temple of Heaven

Monday, January 26, 2009

China Chronicles: Day Three (Part Two)

At around 4:30 PM, my friends and coworkers Allison and Jeremy showed up at the hostel- we thought Bernie and Char would be arriving the same day but their train came around 6 AM the next morning.

Allison and Jer had spent the last few days in Hong Kong, so needless to say, Beijing was a literal shock to the system. They were wearing tee shirts all week and suddenly were thrown into the sub-zero temperatures of Northern China (which, even coming from chilly Korea, was a shock to the system for me). We decided to rest for a bit and then head out into the cold night to find a place for dinner and have a look around Wangfujing. We met up about an hour later and I led them to the eating street and market area where we found a nice little restaurant (or, rather, the restaurant found us as the owner practically dragged us in by the elbows) where we were seated with a family of three we assumed were from Beijing. As we struggled to order, the mother asked us, in perfect English, if we could use some help. Um... yes. It turned out that the mother and her two daughters were visiting from Hong Kong and all three spoke English and Mandarin on top of their native Cantonese. They ordered us some dumplings, soup and fried rice and we thoroughly enjoyed our meals.

In Chinese cuisine they tend to be very liberal with the spices and seasoning- this is not so in Korea. Usually it is left up to the one eating to season their food, so soy sauce or dipping sauce or salt is often provided with your meal. It was nice, however, not to have to dip my dumplings in slippery soy sauce before eating. Having said this, my love affair ended with Chinese food after about day two, when I started missing Korean food again. It's so oily!

After dinner we tried our hand at haggling in the market. Chinese vendors start their prices ridiculously high and you are expected to go extremely low in retaliation, often though, your price is more accurate to the actual value of what you are buying so you need to stick with your gut and try not to go above the bare minimum. This is, coming from a polite, non haggling country, more difficult than it sounds and I was pretty bad at first. After awhile, though, I got sick of the vendors bugging me and got a little more aggressive with it. Jeremy was a natural and helped me with some of my initial purchases.

When we were tired of spending money, we decided to take a different route back to the hostel where we found the massive street food market about a block from what I initially thought (mistakenly, and to my disappointment) was the eating street. No way. THIS was the eating street. Vendors were shouting all kinds of obsceneties at us, trying to make us buy their scorpion kebabs or sheep testicles.

"Hey! Pretty lady! You like penis?" was a common jeer. They also weren't afraid to make thrusting motions to make sure we understood.

There were all kinds of delicacies on the menus- some appetizing to a Western palate, like the delicious rose flavoured tea with a piece of dry ice added to make it all smoky and bubbly; and some not so appetizing to a Western palate, like the sea snake kebabs. Or the penis kebabs (surprisingly small). Or the seahorse kebabs. I could go on.

This was, by far, my favourite place in all of Wangfujing. You cannot go to Beijing and miss out on the experience. It was hilarious and extremely cool.

After, when we could no longer feel our legs, we decided to head back to the hostel. Only instead we got lost in a hutong. It maybe wasn't the warmest adventure, but I still had fun with it. You could look into people's houses and see a real live Beijing community. People were out walking their dogs, restaurants with grills outside provided some interesting aromas, people were out drinking and walking with their families. It was pretty cool. We eventually found our way back to the hostel and got a good night's sleep before tackling the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Pearl and Silk Markets the next day.

Sleepin' on the job. Wangfujing market area.

Where's Janine? The entrance to the Wangfujing market area.

Enjoying some soup and dumplings for dinner.

All the different kebabs on the Eating Street.

Showing off his seasnakes...

Mmmmmmmmm.... centipedey.

Mmmmmmmmmmmm... sea snakey.

Mmmmmmmmm... self explanatory...

This guy wanted a picture with me. Then he wouldn't let me go...

Allison and me with our cool dry ice teas.

Old man on bicycle. Wangfujing.

Wangfujing market area. The most happenin' place in Beijing.

Chinglish is very similar to Konglish.

Eating Street.

The testicles are to the far right, the penis kebab is the little one in the middle. They were yummy. Actually, I won't lie. I didn't eat anything interesting.