Sunday, July 15, 2007

Dongbei ("The Northeast"), Part Two: Beijing

We were only in Xi'an for 1.5 days, so it was nice to "settle" somewhere for a bit before we all headed our separate ways. On the second day we took a hop-skip-and-a-jump plane ride to Beijing, and stayed there for 4.5 days. It was cool to get to know the city from a different and no-parents (for the first part, anyway) perspective. We did a lot of the touristy things that I'd already done again, but with a city like Beijing (similar to Xi'an), those things are so cool that you generally don't care about doing them more than once. In the end, the only thing I skipped was the Forbidden City/Temple of Heaven, because that place is freaking huge and I didn't feel like walking around in the 39 C heat (that's like... 110 F or something ridiculous) for 3 hours.

One of our first stops was, of course, the Great Wall. It wasn't my first time there, but we went to a different section of it this time, less touristy and differently shaped. (The section I went to with my parents in 2003 was all stairs, this one was some stairs and some curvy parts.) The coolest part of it was the toboggan track they put in along the side. John and I took the cable car up together, then he went off to do his crazy super-fast thing while I took my time exploring the towers and resting from the crazy heat, then tobogganed down the mountain at the end. When I got off, some Russian woman came storming up and started yelling at me, presumably because I was going too slow (one could control the speed of the toboggans.) I just looked at her and said, "I don't understand you." In retrospect, I should have started yelling back at her in Chinese-- that would have thrown her off but good.

The Great Wall

We also went to Tiananmen Square (really huge and expansive, as usual) and the Summer Palace, where Empress Cixi, the craziest and most ruthless ruler in possibly all of Chinese history, used to take her vacations. There's a big lake there where Cixi had an enormous marble boat made (it doesn't run, just sits in the water and weighs a huge amount) along with a really pretty vacation house and the world's longest hallway along the lake (so she'd never have to put her face in the sun.) Now the place is a complete tourist attraction, swarming with tour groups, people hawking Olympics 2008 t-shirts, and tacky stands where you can dress up in Imperial Garb (John took the bait, of course.) But it was a lovely place to be on a sweltering Beijing day.

The longest hallway in the world

John, channeling his inner Imperial Pimp

The Summer Palace as seen from the water, where we rented a paddle boat for an hour

When we weren't doing the history student thing, there was plenty of other Beijing things to do. We braved the famous Beijing traffic to eat at Lush, a favorite Western restaurant/bar of the several SIT kids who studied in Beijing Fall semester; explored the Beijing subway system (So clean! So precise!); went to the Silk Market (where they sell way more than silk, everything from jade to fake Fendi to scarves) to buy souvenirs and hone our bargaining skills. At the Silk Market, we made friends with a pearl seller who gave us all free water and discounts--Mike bought a necklace "for his future girlfriend." I thought that was both pretty smart and hilarious. I proved to be a terrible bargainer because I get guilty, but John made a reputation as a bargaining genius, saving something like Y2000 on a knockoff purse for his mom. There was also lots to do at the hotel, which was the nicest we stayed at all semester. We thought about going swimming until we found out it was a whopping Y60 to use to pool. But we did end up bowling in the basement twice-- the place had a real mini alley, I felt like I was back in Maine. The only indication of my location was the Chinese characters on the "high score" placards.

One night, the program took us out to a famous teahouse where pretty much all the political leaders that come to China go to experience Chinese culture. The evening features traditional tea snacks, tea (of course), and entertainment such as jugglers (one guy balanced a huge clay vat on his head), acrobats, Beijing Opera, traditional music, and shadow puppets. The shadow puppets were my favorite, the men doing them made all sorts of different faces with their hands and the faces lipsynced along to the unlikely musical choice of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" by Wham!. Oh Chinese culture...

Doing some ca-razy stuff with a teapot at the famous Beijing Laoshe teahouse

After a few days in Beijing, my parents arrived, fresh from their cruise on the Yangtze River. It was wonderful to see them and catch up, and they hit if off almost disturbingly well with my friends, especially John. They took Tania, Sophie, Mike, and John out to dinner one night, and then the same group plus Kailey out to lunch the next day. They made an excellent impression-- everyone thought they were super cool. They came with us to Panjiayuan, too, one of my favorite places in Beijing-- an amazing antique market full of hustle and bustle, cluttered stands filled with wrought-iron carved Tibetan Buddha daggers, calligraphy, Miao minority embroidery. We didn't get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, but I can always come back another time-- here's hoping.

On the last night the whole program got dressed up and went out to A Fan Ti, a Uighur theme restaurant in Beijing. Uighurs are a Chinese minority that live in Xinjiang, China (incidentally where we were heading the next day. It was a good cultural preview.) The meal included traditional Uighur pita bread, "chuanr" (basically shish kebabs), specially made vegetables, and pomegranate juice. It also featured a show, with women doing a traditional dance with bowls balanced on their heads, traditional Uighur music, and belly dancing. SIT students got special attention throughout the whole thing, mostly because we were the only white people there (I think.) Kailey got to dance on stage with a male belly dancer; Chris got picked out for another stunt; and (craziest of all) John, through a contest and a series of unexpected turns, ended up with a snake around his neck and a scantily clad woman belly-dancing her way around him while the whole crowd screamed. The night ended, rather appropriately, with the MCs encouraging the crowd to get on the tables and dance (a Uighur tradition.) I wish I could say that I didn't have the image of John dancing on the table with my mom and dad forever etched into my brain.

That night, everyone went out to a bar district called San Li Tunr. Tania, Mike, Sophie, John, and I went, too, but as soon as we get there we were kind of turned off by the whole thing-- basically drunk Westerners as far as the eye could see. "I didn't transfer away from UC Boulder for nothing," Tania said, and so we went to a nearby coffeeshop for fancy dessert and then went back to the hotel to do the same thing we had every night in Beijing-- hang out, be really silly, give and recieve massages, and listen to music. It was an appropriate ending to an amazing program-- a mundane but lovely night spent with friends. At 4:30 AM Tania and Sophie said goodbye and headed to the airport, and later that day John had a protracted goodbye with my parents. There may have been tears involved. And then it was the three of us, off to unknown parts, intrepid explorers always.

Nextime: Kashgar, the China you (and I) never knew about

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