Well kiddos, unless something outrageously fabulous happens or something goes drastically wrong, this should be my last entry in this year's China travelogue. Today we went to the Summer Palace. I went to and raved about it last year. Similar to all of the other attractions in Beijing, this year there was a large portion open that was not open last year. So I got to see a whole new area. And a very cool one it was. And actually "cool" can be interpreted two ways. The weather today was quite phenomenal, practically like being at home -- cool, slightly breezy and dry. The Beijing skyline was virtually crystal clear. So in two years I've spent a total of a little over 2 weeks in Beijing, and this is the only day that I've seen such amazing, clear sky. And as it happens, the Summer Palace has a good-sized hilltop from which to look out across the city in all directions. So it was a real treat to get to see an actual skyline instead of just a vague haze out in the distance.
The newly opened areas were under renovation last year ... which means that they have been repainted to the current Chinese imagination of what the colors looked like in the past. This turns out to be almost painfully bright, saturated colors. These photos aren't manipulated in Photoshop, just FYI, to dramatize or saturate the colors ... that's really how brain-meltingly bright they are.
The Long Corridor, which is the centerpiece of the Summer Palace, is closed down this year for "restoration" (i.e. it's being repainted with the same zeal for pigment). I'm so relieved I had the opportunity last year to walk through it. However, you can walk along the outside on the lake-side of it and still see a lot of the 14,000 paintings along its length.
Couldn't believe I found this statue alone this time ... last year it was a mob of people when I tried to take a photo. This is right at one of the entrances to the palace grounds. Notice the faded and weathered paint on the building ... next time I come back it's sure to be eye-poppingly restored.
Some more shots wandering around the grounds in more off-the-beaten track areas. Erik tries to find enlightenment in a quiet niche.
After our success with the subway system last night, we utilized the subway and public bus (and our feet) to get to and from the palace with ease and inexpense. Last night, by the way, it was funny to us to watch people riding the escalator up from the subway tube. As you may have deduced from my descriptions, public transport systems and their stations tend to be havens of havoc, and people seem hellbent on pushing and shoving and getting to the front of the line/crowd/mob at all costs. When we boarded the escalator in the subway, Erik noticed a sign explaining how to use the escalator -- to stand on the right and walk on left. One gets the feeling these escalators are new-fangled things, for everyone on it was standing in complete order, everyone stood to the right side of the yellow line painted on the middle of each step. Like completely on the right side, no part of them or their luggage crossed that yellow line. Except one guy was standing kind of in the middle but when we came through on the left, he immediately and obediently stepped over to the right side. It was kind of spooky, this group of calm, orderly, well-behaved crowd of Chinese people. It felt a little bit like Hotel California ... as if these weren't real people, merely some sort of strange ghosts or holograms. It's funny that we were the only people walking rather than standing still. We never saw another person try to walk up the escalator steps. Everyone stood like tranquilized cattle. (Until they get off the escalator – then, as if someone flicks a light switch, they resume their usual pushy behavior. I'm telling you, it's strange!)
So that pretty much brings us to the fish blossom. Oh, except one other thing that makes me think of. Last night when we had dinner with Anrong, we were talking about our train experiences up north, about all the people sleeping on the floor and underneath the seats and how we didn't have reserved seats once. ... And Anrong told us that he on several occasions slept on the floor of trains and underneath the seats when traveling to and from home for holidays while studying at university. He said the floor was actually cleaner back then because people were poorer and most of them couldn't afford food like sunflower seeds, which they now spit on the floor, and chicken bones, which they now throw down, etc. But here's where you (or I in this case) realize what type of subconscious thoughts/stereotypes/assumptions we might make about people. If I see someone sleeping on a filthy dirty floor in a public space, I realize now that I make an assumption of sorts that they are perhaps uncouth, uncivilized, lacking self-respect, or perhaps they're a little "off" or homeless but refuse to sleep in a shelter. But then when you learn that somebody like Anrong has done that because there was no other choice, suddenly it makes you think again about the people you saw. Now Anrong has it pretty posh compared to most Chinese people (at least judging by his apartment and his traveling repertoire and things he buys for his family, etc.) but maybe you forget the kind of poverty he comes from. Anyway, we were kind of surprised to hear his tales of travel and sleeping in these horrid conditions. But a person has to sleep, and if the floor is the only option, well so be it. Maybe I would have done it if the nice Chinese man who had been to Nederland hadn’t found seats for us. Anrong also said one time he stood up for 12 hours on a train.
So for dinner tonight we set out to try to find a restaurant in the Back Lakes district that was well-reviewed in my guidebook. We knew its basic location along the lake side and that the entrance was supposed to be like a little bamboo forest. Earlier we rented a little boat to drive around the lakes in for hoots. The shores are lined with restaurants and cafe, and long stretches of public tables where people ather to play games with each other and socialize.
So we found it pretty easily; the most difficult part was just being able to keep moving through the row of westernized restaurants with a crew of young "hip" men with their puffball hairdos trying to rope you in -- "happy hour!" "come sit!" "looky looky!". We survived the gauntlet and found our way into a little park where there was another neighborhood sing-along with some musicians playing in a little pagoda and a bunch of people singing along, and also dancing the same movements together. It was like the Chinese macarena (?no idea how to spell it, but surely you know what I mean), but very graceful and slow. Then a little further on, we had to wend our way through couples ballroom dancing across the sidewalk. It's just so darn quaint.
And so we found the restaurant at the far end of the lake and were seated, and upon the immediate revelation that we didn't speak a very useful amount of Chinese, they brought out to us an English menu: one little notebook with each dish handwritten in ballpoint pen in English. It was quite extensive, and we thumbed through it while the wait staff looked over our shoulders. Finally I asked what was their specialty, what was the waitress's favorite dish. So she picked out three items for us. The main hot dish was not priced on the menu. When we got the bill at the end of the dinner, it was a little surprising. However, it was worth every darn yuan, in my opinion. It was sweet and sour fish, but the sauce was crazily delectable and with tiny diced bits of watermelon and cucumber and pine nuts. And the whole fish (head to tail) was breaded and deep fried, then cut up to look kind of like those "onion blossoms" at the fairgrounds or some restaurants. I don't know if you can picture that, but we didn't have our camera with us, so you'll just have to do the best you can.
The presentation was gorgeous and the taste was heavenly. And the wait staff service was excellent. Couldn't drink more than about three sips of tea or beer before it was being filled up again. They cleared away our plates with our scraps on them periodically and set down new ones. While we were waiting for our food and were drinking our beers, we played "rock, paper, scissors" as a drinking game. The Chinese do this same thing but the items are something different than rocks, papers and scissors. However, we see them doing this everywhere. When the wait staff saw us playing this kind of game while waiting for our food, they were quite bemused. In the past, we've tried to figure out the hand signals that the Chinese use, and tonight one girl in particular was watching us intently trying to figure out our hand signals and what overtook what, etc. The loser, of course, drinks, and it should be pointed out that Erik's glass of beer had to be continually refilled while mine was very daintily drained ever so slowly.
A couple more photos from Beijing to close out our trip ... first the inside of the Drum Tower where -- surprise -- in ancient days people beat tremendous drums to mark time and events. Take a close look at the second photo, for it's a pretty good depiction of the cross-section of modern and traditional in Beijing ... on the left you see the traditional Drum Tower, below it a line of bright red rickshaws waiting to whisk tourists around from sight to sight; the rising skyline of modern Beijing in the background on the right and the lower half of the pic on the right is a traditional hutong, where the houses are packed together in a maze of alleyways. My guess is, that portion of the photo does not look like that anymore. The government was on a mission of pretty much wholesale destruction of hutongs as we left.
And finally, a look of trepidation I imagine often befell my face in the face of unknown foods around China, as we tried this version of fondue ... only instead of dunking meats into hot oil, you dunk meat and veges into boiling water in the tray, heated by a fire in the middle cylinder. As with all meals I ate in China, save the notable exception in Guilin, the trepidation was unwarranted and the meal delicious.
Thanks for being my default journal for the past few weeks! Zaijian one last time from China.