May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkey’s howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches where storms come and go as lightening clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you---beyond that next turning of the canyon walls. ---Edward Abbey (thanks Trudy Hall)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Beijing First!


DRAGON!  Let go of that hat!
Saris for sale
May 12-14—Back to Delhi from Nepal for a few days.  Did we sleep so much yesterday to escape? To transition? To integrate all we have seen and done in Nepal?  Well we went back to the area of Rama Krishna Ashram Metro.  “Cottage Yes Please” hotel put us in a higher-class room because they were out of standard rooms, but we had to move the next day.  It was ok.  We went back to see our Amir who set up the grand tour and showed us the pictures and told him how it all turned out.  When I asked him if he wanted to know a few things that didn’t work, he said I needed to talk with Fida, but he wasn’t in until later, that I should come back tomorrow.  Now wouldn’t you think he’d like to know how to make his customers more happy and where the glitches were?
Monkey on horse
Anyway, we had food and nice coffee across the street, and I decided that I was going to go out sari shopping.  While Les stayed in to blog, I took the metro to the center area to look at saris from the state emporiums.  A man who said he was a banker gave me directions; but I knew the map, and he was telling me to turn right instead of left.  He said it was Sunday, that the ones I wanted to go to were closed.  He brought me to a tuk-tuk driver.  (Now I’ve been through this before, why can’t I learn my lessons?)  We ended up at these places that give commissions.  I was going to walk two stores down to check out the prices but the driver said he knew another place.  Then he drove 50 feet and said I could check out that store too.  Ok, so I asked… Yes, he said he got 2% on anything I bought.  He said the saris I bought in Dharamshala were cheap because they came off of people who were cremated and were resold.  I said I’d like to go to one of those stores!  Too far away, he thought.  (Now what taxi driver wouldn’t want a long fare?)  I asked him to take me to the Emporium.  “But there’s no parking there, I’ll have to drop you off.”  There was parking.  It was open.  But it was too expensive, and so I walked down the street and there were venders with clothing and once they knew I wanted saris, they all gathered round me and practically tossed saris in my lap.  Finally I got across that I was looking for plain one-colored ones.  “Too busy,” I’d say.  I looked at lots with big holes, worn spots and stains.  One I showed two little holes I thought were from a tag, but she said it was from the pin they wear on their shoulders.  Hmmm, maybe these were from the deceased?  Anyway, I offered what I thought was a fair price (too much upon retrospect), but didn’t have the money. 
The old and new Ronald. Who is who?
So a guy went to an ATM with me and another seller showed up with the one sari I sort of liked, and ended up buying hers too.  The guy said he had a storage room full of saris and wanted to show them to me, since I didn’t like the colors of the ones he had.  He did have a shed full of bags of saris.  Wow.  I found two that were good. 
Back at the hotel I went out again looking for saffron and maybe another sari and got lost.  At 7:30 I was in an alleyway and bells started ringing all over—on second floors, behind doors and through small openings to temples.  People were ringing, and singing.  A man floated a candle around a wall, a toddler pushed a chair around, neon lights flashed.  As I walked I passed temple after temple with the same thing going on.  It was quite exciting, but I couldn’t find my way out.  Finally someone could read the crumpled and faded business card of the hotel, and I returned to tell Les that I’d like to mail the saris (making them even more expensive). 
I gave away my Indian outfit (though it was REALLY comfortable—especially in the heat) to a smaller begging woman with a little girl.  She offered me chai in return!  I ended up getting those saris out via India mail.  I hope they make it.  We went to the airport at 10PM for a 1AM flight.
Phone SIM card: how does this work?

Hostel at night

Hostel gathering space

Hostel courtyard

May 14-16—Getting into China was ok. The immigration man kept asking Les a thousand questions.  I didn’t get one!  We took a shuttle in, then decided to walk the 4-5 blocks to the hostel by the workers stadium, but we walked the opposite way, so we took a taxi.  It’s really hard to know where taxis will pick you up!  Our hotel is named after a nearby street, so it was very confusing to convince a taxi not to go to that street, but this street and that hotel.  He kept saying, “No!”  Well we got there and ended up in a deluxe room because they didn’t have the standard room.  We slept off the late flight, bought SIM cards for the phones, learned how to get through the China blockade of Facebook and made arrangements for a tour to the great wall and an acrobatic show nearby.

Wall!  The Great One!

Emma Willard goes to the Great Wall

Jack Easterling visits the Great Wall too
The bus picked us up in the morning, and the tour guide yacked with his mouth too close to the microphone, so we could only hear the vowels and distortion.  Bummer.  When we arrived, we took the ski lifts up and clamored about on the wall for several hours.
Long wall.  How did they do that?

Wall Detail
Steep, really steep.
 It was GORGEOUS and MIRACULOUS!  How did they build this on such steep terrain and for so many miles?  We went to the end where they stopped restoring the wall.  Trees were taking over the structure.  With binoculars, I could see that people were walking the ruined wall too.  I heard that people do this walking like they do the Appalachian Trail, only as a prayerful exercise.  The scale of the wall is mind-boggling.  When it was time to go down, there was a toboggan slide; but Les was too old to go—no matter how fit he was.  With his white beard, he couldn’t convince anyone that he could do it, so he had to ride the ski lift back down.  Not a happy camper…
Matthew Sue and Tori
 Lunch was included, and we ate with other tourists, one of which has taught English in China for a long time, and his visiting sister from Boston: Matthew and Tori.  We were collecting info on volunteering, and were lucky to meet them.

Before: too old for the toboggan ride...
After: I bet they'd let him ride the toboggan now!
That night we went to the nearby acrobatic show.  I must say I was impressed by the finesse and accuracy of the performers.  I thought of my friend Sarah, who works with circus folks in Montreal, especially when the contortionists were flaunting their stuff.  My favorites were the tumblers: such force and lightness combined!  Two vertical poles were used to climb, slide, spin and tumble up, down and around. Impressive!  The parts that were choreographic in nature were not so successful, nor was the clown, meant to distract as they changed scenes.  There was one woman who balanced and twirled umbrellas and square pieces of fabric on her feet and hands.  I tried making that spinning action going the same way with my hands and couldn’t do it.  Think of the hours of training for everyone!
Tianjin outside train station. Cool clock
Ancient town temple
Inside a temple--a fearsome god!
Tianjin Tower
View of Tianjin

Building on a stick... illusion
Antique Alley--Ancient street
Sculpting candy in your likeness from photo
May 17—Les and I caught a bullet train to Tianjin to see a friend from my home town—Cedar Rapids, Iowa!  Lindy is the third sister of 3, who I went to high school with, and we had a spectacular time with her.  Like Mother Theresa, she had a calling to China, and is now having the time of her life helping those in need.  She invited us into her wonderful home, showed us around the city, introduced us to the bus systems, took us to dinner and told us so much about her perspective of Chinese culture, politics and values from her perspective. She has been living in China over 4 years, is tall, has blonde hair and speaks Chinese very well.  It was wonderful catching up with Lindy as we walked through the touristic ancient street and temple, watching a guy sculpt the likeness of a man (from a photo on his phone) out of candy, or gazing out over the city from the tallest tower in town-360°-, sipping VERY expensive drip coffee and watching the world go ‘round.  Every street had a median that was crowded with fragrant, beautiful, multicolored roses! 
Old schoolmates
I love Lindy’s approach to integrate with the Chinese culture while she lives and works with them.  She said that she will be sad when she must leave when she is 60 years old.  We stayed up late chatting and entertaining each other with little movies and photos of her new big grandson.  Lindy gave us some homemade banana bread for our travels!
May 18—Mom’s birthday!  We couldn’t take the slow train, so we got the bullet train and stood in line to get a train ticket to Xi’an for the next day.  Luckily, Anna spoke English and helped us find out that there were no seats available.  We decided to go the following day, and even then they didn’t have any sleeper tickets, only hard seat tickets for an overnight train.  We nervously bought them.   
Yang and the bird/bug monsters

Coral and Jacque
Jacque and you-know-who
 We waited until 5:30 when we were to call our new “Couchsurfing” host, Yang.  He came by and picked us up and walked us to his big, beautiful place atop a high building by the train station.  It was hot, so he turned on the AC while we set up the cot along side the comfy couch.  His 8-month-old kitty named “piggy” in Chinese is skittish and shy, but very athletic and quick.  I taught him how to call in the hogs in Iowa. J  Once Yang found out how much Les liked film, he called his friend Jacque and his wife Coral to meet us for a hot pot dinner.  We each received a pot of water with spices and mushrooms in it on a boilerplate, then thin slices of mutton, duck blood tofu, turnips, and squid.  It also came with nicely marinated peanut salads.  We drank beer and a cheap 80 proof liquor that tasted a little like schnaps and ouzo—not bad.  We entertained each other with stories, movie memories and lines, hand puppets, table tricks and even moon-walking.  We talked of the tribulations of living in China, and learned more about the young people of this massive country.  Back at the couch, we called mom to sing happy birthday, then stayed up late talking about existential ideas, dreams for the future, misfortunes of the past and travel. I learned  how the government has power partly because of the indirect consequences for your actions.  You talk about Christianity to a group of people, and soon your visa won’t be renewed.  You insult the government, and somehow you disappear without a trace.  It’s difficult to take a stand with those kinds of “unknowns,” and the fact that policies and consequences change rather whimsically, depending who is in power at the time.
Yang's family enjoying tea in the country

Yang's Parents
Shupin made his own alcohol drink with grapes
Chinese cooking country style

May 19—After a long sleep, we waited for a taxi that never came, took a bus to a good taxi spot and jumped in Yang’s girlfriend’s (Vicky’s) car for a trip to the countryside to see his parents at their second home.  It was a beautiful place with roses and gardens everywhere.  His mom quickly got some tea together and we sat around and tried 3 different varieties.  In the home (2 floors, a loft and a little atrium) were many photos of Yang’s father with famous people that he had interviewed on his sports station.  He is retired, but still is sending his son to the London Olympics to cover the events for the station in July.  We sat with him next to the pond while he fished for little orange and grey fish.  He had a basket with about 9 fish, and used little pellets with rubber bands that he slipped the hook under to toss out with a bobber.  Lead sheeting helped keep the bait down.   Then they took us to a spectacular dinner at a nearby hotel.  We had a little room to ourselves with a huge plate of fish and soaked bread and tofu.  Plate after plate of food kept coming.  We drank corn soup that reminded me of grits, and we had the famous 1000-year-old eggs!  They were delicious with their tea-colored gelatinous white parts and green innards.  The older Les was called “Ty ge” (big brother), and I was named Sue Zha-Meh after the sister of a famous poet.  It was a beautiful and charming day with Yang’s family and girlfriend. 
Chinglish:  What IS this?
We loved getting to know a native from our generation too.  The beautiful lightning storm accompanied us home and rumbled outside the window in the night.  We chatted until sleep overtook us—about 1AM.  Les decided it was too much to see the Forbidden City AND the World Park in one day, so we could relax a little more into the day.
We're are not "there."

Tienanmen Square
May 20—We had a late start, went to Kentucky Fried Chicken for coffee and a bite, then to the train station to see if we could buy a ticket on June 1st (not yet) or trade in our hard seat for a sleeper.  I was nervous about the stories of thieves on the trains, slitting bags you’re holding while sleeping and taking your wallet.  

Forbidden City... even to us
Disappointed Les at closing time

So close.  Rooftops with spirit protectors

We asked how to find bus 67 and learned we had to cross the street again.  But instead of going in the direction of the Forbidden City, we went to the end of the route in the other direction.  We wandered around there some more until we boarded the same bus going the other way.  I was able to find our location on the map and we were waaay off.  When we reached it and after a cup of espresso, we got to Tian’anmen Square and were underwhelmed until we turned the corner and found out that it really was huge!  Les read the Lonely Planet on this section and learned that we only had 10 minutes to get into the Forbidden City before it closed and we really only had about an hour before we had to get ready for the train.  We thought we had gotten in, after paying and going through a gate, but we only were in the garden.  One many said, “Run! They are closing!” so we went faster.  We got to the city just as it closed….  What a disappointment, especially for Les.  It was the one thing he really wanted to see while in Beijing.   
Our deluxe train car.
We went back to the ticket counter and I was ready to say yes to any alternative to the hard seat.  It turned out to be the deluxe soft sleeper.  I didn’t even calculate the Yuen into dollars.  I’m afraid we spent quite a bit on the tickets.  I think we would be able to fly for that amount, maybe.  The room was nice:  A/C, sheets and duvets, table and easy chair AND our own bathroom!

Watch what you do in KFC!  The warning is clear.

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