beings are collectors; We all have an innate desire, hard-wired into
our tightly-coiled DNA, to hoard things from our environment. Grain
for the winter, fruit from the ripe tree, nuclear weapons for macho
aggressive posturing – it’s our nature.
things I’m saving (and what for):
Money (new TV)
Cereal box tops (Betty Crocker silverware set)
Frequent Flyer miles (Trip to China or India)
Virginity (right girl)
midway into my 4th bowl of Frankenberry (one more cereal box down!),
I decided to check out Continental’s web page. Imagine my rapturous
joy when I saw “Beijing for ½ miles”. Why, that’s only 30,000
miles - to go to China! And, to make the deal even better (how
could it possibly get any better?!), the trip could be paired with
an optional Continental vacations hotel package: 5 nights (at a new
4-star hotel), all breakfasts, airport transfers and 2 tours (Forbidden
City and Great Wall) for a mere $268 per person. Sweet Frankenberry!
there are several people I know who want to go to China, few
have the flexibility and ability to escape the bonds of employment
on short notice. Hey Lisa!
China. OK. This is Lisa, in red. Pretty much like our Costa
Rica Journal, we’re going to tell this tale together.
yeah – 30,000 miles and a week of free time in January? I figured
I could swing it. We booked within a day or two of his find. On January
13 we were off, taking the 13-hour polar route to Beijing from Newark.
Mark looked for Santa. I slept and grumbled about Continental losing
my vegetarian meals. Pretty uneventful.
– 13 hours. That’s a brutal flight - almost the record. The record?
Well Lisa and I have each done the L.A. to Sydney thing before (14
hours! We took separate trips within a few weeks of each other – those
silly competitive Pedersen kids.. Maybe that’s why we travel together,
to avoid expensive, competitive trips just trying to “keep up”).
and just for the record, I collect Pez and glow-in-the-dark saints.
(Because I’m not right in the head.)
13, 2006 – Arrive in Beijing 3:30 p.m.
Mark said, our land package included transfers, so we picked our way
through the throngs of sign holding greeters at the airport (Nope,
we’re not the Wangs) until we located a pleasant, non-English speaking
man with a tattered Xerox that said “Continental Vacations”. Upscale!
It sounded like us, but it took a while to confirm, as there was more
than a bit of a language barrier. Eventually he called someone on
his mobile and handed it to Mark. The voice on the other side said
stay there. Someone would get us. There was a couple that had also
identified the shabby Xerox, and as we waited and they went out to
smoke, we thought that was it; we’d be a “group” of four and get going.
Turned out we were 19 in all, and we would be family for the next
two days, as our tours would be on the same bus that picked us up.
If you read the Costa Rica account, you know how we feel about traveling
in groups – we sure hoped this wouldn’t kill us.
discovered, on the way to our hotel, that all of the other people
worked in some capacity for Continental or else were there with a
CO relative. Apparently this flight and package were both new and
employees could go for free – to check it out and be able to tell
potential customers about it. …I want to work for Continental. Anyway,
they all seemed nice enough, and not one offered our guide, Lei, any
No cum gum, but one member of our group did inquire if perhaps there
were any Martial Arts Academies around our hotel. Oh my. Well, I didn’t
know at the time that the man in question (“Chuck from Boston”, who
turned out to be very nice) ran his own academy, so I suppose it was
“work related”. But I’m sure I still winced visibly at the time. Lei
was also very quick to point out that we would be seeing the “New
China”, very open, friendly and safe – but make no mistake, also very
inclusive of Hong Kong and Taiwan. …and Tibet.
suggested that we all grab dinner in our hotel that night and rest
up for the tour the next day. Mark and I felt slightly more adventurous
and so headed out as soon as we got checked in.
yeah, you don’t travel to China to sleep – you can do that in Cleveland
or Houston. We found a large tourist and “antique” market right
next door to our Hotel. There, we got a quick introduction to
the goods we’d be bargaining for during the next week: Carved stone,
jade jewelry, beautiful Asian artwork, silk scarves, pearls – everything
a tourist heart desires.
we wandered down the street looking for food. Pretty early on, we
saw a place that had, in English, “A Sunny Place to Be” written on
the side of the building. Sign us up! Sun was not something we were
really able to see in Beijing – a result of the addition of, literally,
millions of cars to the roads in the past few years. Beijing, my friends,
is a very smoggy place to be.
bumped into a “frequent Beijing traveler” during our stay who said
that the 2-block visibility and throat-burning air were not the norm
for this city. The fact that Beijing was surrounded on 3 sides by
mountains (I’ll take his word for it) and the lack of a breeze were
making this “very unusual” smog. Hmm… if you say so, but in the mean
time, the haze, neon lights, darting bicycles and oodles of Chinese
people (Wow, there must be a billion of them!), made for many
a Blade Runner moment. Anyway, where were we?
to Sunny Place interior. A bustling food court type place with no
English speakers, Roman character writing, or instructions anywhere.
Totally local. We saw people at a podium at the entrance and assumed
they were paying for their food, but could not be entirely sure, as
the food was not with them. We bypassed the podium and took a look
at the grub. Most places had pictures, plastic models or actual plates
of food in front, so English was not totally necessary to order, however,
we just couldn’t figure out prices or how/where/when to pay. And people
kept talking to us in Chinese and we kept mispronouncing the Chinese
phrase for “I don’t understand”, confusing everyone. “Wah poo doh!
Wah poo doh!” Exhausted, we admitted defeat and opted to eat in our
hotel restaurant after our exploring was done. We should have listened
to Lei. Still, the Sunny Place to Be fascinated us, so we vowed to
return one day after more rest.
wandered a bit further and toured a supermarket – one of my favorite
things to do in foreign countries. We marveled at stinky fish, bizarrely-flavored
potato chips (Italian Red Meat, Cucumber, Peking Duck) and other great
China-only tasty things.
love supermarkets in Asia – you might as well be on another planet.
The packaging is what trips me out the most. All the flashy colors
and odd characters, and it’s really hard to tell what’s even in most
packages. Sometimes you might have a cute cartoon character of a squid
or something, which gives a little insight, but it’s usually
a big culinary crap shoot. It would be tough being a vegetarian like
Lisa (are those dried plums, or dried beef tips?). Can you imagine
what might be in a Chinese hot dog? <shudder> Okay, maybe I
do want to be vegetarian like Lisa. So, back to the hotel.
Chinese restaurant in our hotel (I’ll borrow our friend Jeff’’s joke
here and point out that they just call it a restaurant) was really
swanky. Expensive, showy, great presentation – it actually was a fun
time. And the food was quite tasty. My favorite part of the experience?
The man hawking loogies at the next table.
–and I should point out that it was mostly a Seafood restaurant, so
outside the actual restaurant, in the foyer of the hotel, they had
tank after tank of swimmy things for you to pick out to eat. We saw
tiger prawns, abalone, carp, some other kind of prawns, lobsters,
seals… SEALS??? We still cling dear to the hope that the seals are
not for eating – we are pretty sure they are just fun little hotel
pets. Initially, I thought there were four, but when we went back
to count and take photos, there were only three. I don’t want to know.
You don’t either.
to bed – or rather what the Chinese call a bed. I, being a savvy world
traveler, immediately identified it for what it was: a coffee table
covered in a duvet. A queen-sized coffee table, to be sure, but unmistakably
a table. Zzzzzzz
think the plywood bed-thing is supposed to be good for your back.
Just be careful before you take health advice from a culture who wants
to stick needles in you to make you “feel better”. Though I must say,
I woke up very refreshed!
breakfast buffet in our hotel was awesome. We could munch on traditional
western breakfast items or “go local” and have the Asian fare (dim
sum, noodles, rice, steamed veggies - mmmm). I’m a big proponent of
cultural immersion, so I tried to eat Chinese food whenever I could
(but remember what Lisa said above, they just call it “food” there).
packed into the airport bus for the first of our tours: Tiananmen
Square and the Forbidden City. Lei told us that the Tiananmen is the
“Largest public square in the world”. I suppose there’s a largest
everything somewhere in the world, and tour guides need to
know when they have the biggest “something”. We had some time to walk
around on our own. Chuck from Boston used the opportunity to strike
some awesome kung-fu poses in front of the various structures. Not
to be outdone, Lisa put on her “Misses Smonnkenny” polyester coordinates
for a quick pose. <sigh> I suppose I should explain. Well, perhaps
know, sometimes it’s funnier not to explain. But I’ll let you
chose. Click here
for an explanation or here
just to see the photos. (Use your browser’s back button to get back
here if you go. Hitting “Back” on my site will only make you confused.
And cold and alone.)
let’s go to the Forbidden City.
seen the Last Emperor? This is the place they filmed most of
it. It’s a fantastic city-within-a-city built in the 15th century
during the Ming Dynasty. It’s got 9,999 rooms (numerology is huge
with our Chinese friends), luscious red walls and (royal) yellow tiled
roofs. So amazing – truly a Mecca for anybody who calls themselves
a travel photographer.
our trip I read the book Imperial
Woman, by Pearl Buck. It chronicles (as historical fiction) the
reign of the last Empress of the Qing dynasty. It has great descriptions
of the city and life in that era of Chinese history. I recommend it
if you are interested in learning more about the Forbidden City (Imperial
Palace) or Imperial Chinese culture.
spent a couple hours here taking about 800,000 pictures and then went,
as a group, to lunch. At the restaurant, we split into two tables
and I have to say, really had a great time bonding with the people
at our table. (Cheap beer helps that.) My favorite moment was when
I brought out my “Point It” book – a picture book for travelers to
help you communicate basic needs where you don’t speak the language.
We all took turns coming up with bizarre requests for the more unusual
photos. (Pointing to photo,) “I am looking for a man in boxer shorts
doing the washing up. When I find him, I will need this,” (flip the
page, point to sea sponge type thing,) “a contraceptive sponge and
a (flip, flip, flip, point,) “disabling car boot.”
lunch we were off to the Summer Palace – another fabulous playground
for the Empress Cixi, but not before what would turn out to be just
the first of our many state-sanctioned tourist stops. Turns out that
pretty much all tours get diverted to state run factories that have
– surprise! – convenient stores attached where you can divest yourself
of many, many yuan (or, conveniently, dollars).
best part about the state-sanctioned stops (and there were many, each
causing a strong rolling of my strange, round, western eyes), was
the literature handed to us as we entered each “factory”. Each pamphlet
or card “guaranteed the quality” of the goods found within. And please
don’t confuse these high-quality items with the similar looking, but
certainly inferior products you might find in the various open markets
in Beijing. Dear tourist, isn’t the peace of mind that a government
thumbs-up gives you (roughly 10 times the market price) worth
the extra money? Oh, I thought so. On to the silk factory!
got an informative little tour from Mark’s future wife (oh,
that wonderful, piercing voice) that started with little cocoons
we could touch, went through the unwinding process where cocoons are
turned into thread and then moved on to a room where they stretch
whole cocoons into batting for “fluffy quilts.” As a hardy peasant
woman demonstrated the technique, we had a moment that made the entire
stop not only worth it, but a highlight of our tour.
one child on the tour, five-year-old John, interrupted her speech
from in front of the workstation that held a bowl of cocoons and a
bowl of discarded larvae. “How do you kill them?” he asked, in the
guileless manner only a child can. “My mom says you have to kill them
to make this.” Several of us hid our faces as we began to titter.
“We use very high temperature,” Mark’s wife replied, “boiling water…”
at which point John’s sweet little five-year-old lower lip began to
tremble. Sensing impending tears, our silk maven quickly threw in,
“We have to kill them. If we don’t they will all fly away.” At which
point my titters hit full guffaw and I had to excuse myself.
was not the only one who loved the strange non-reason she provided,
and in fact, “You have to kill them, or else they will fly away” pretty
much became our catch phrase for the rest of the trip. “1989 Tiananmen
Square? Well, you see we had to kill those students…if we didn’t…”
You get the rest. Anyway, after that bit of insight we got to shop
for silk for about an hour. Joy.
how I love waiting for 17 other tourists as they shop for overpriced
crap. Eventually reassembled, we continued to the “Summer Palace”.
the middle of January, it seems anything but a Summer Palace – the
beautiful lake is now completely frozen over, with scores of people
out on it walking, skating and falling with frigid delight. One of
the best parts of the Summer palace is the 700m “Long Corridor” which
spans the North shore of the lake. The hand-painted beams stretch
as far as you can see, creating a diminishing effect very similar
to looking into 2 opposing mirrors (except they’re all different!).
Lei explained that the Summer Palace was destroyed by war, rebuilt,
and then much of it destroyed again in the Cultural Revolution of
the 60s and 70s. I try not to be too negative with my reporting,
but every time Lei mentioned some incredible part of Chinese cultural
history being destroyed in an effort to “Clear the Slate and start
a new China” (and he did – a lot), I became sad and cursed the not
very forward thinking revolutionaries who didn’t realize that people
will come to your country and spend a lot of money to see all your
old stuff. Hey, just ask the Egyptians!
was “surprised” by a Chinese art store “he had never seen before”
that was on the grounds of the Summer Palace (“Perhaps we should stop?
I don’t know what it is”). Ha. Sure Lei. Oh my, there were some very
nice works! Lisa actually bought some unique art. I
have refined my travel purchasing philosophy over time – original
art is the only souvenir that will bring back wonderful memories of
fantastic trips, as well as beautify your house. Little paper fans,
hats, castanets and snowdomes will only cause grief on your next move
and should be put into a garage sale immediately upon return to the
mother country. This time I got a great folk art oil – about 10”x10”
– very cool. I resisted, opting to make my own
art with the now overcast skies and moody silhouetted images of the
nearby peninsula .
Hey, I’ve got one of those, too!
done with the Summer Palace, it was time for our next state-sponsored
“factory”. This time: Pearls! Another future wife provided a very
informative lecture about fresh-water oysters and the pearls they
carry (Did you know they make the pearls by transplanting tissue from
other oysters? I didn’t either! Neat!). She then split one open and
gave each member of our group a little pearl (Sorry John, they had
to kill it – otherwise it would fly away!), then we were taught how
to test our pearls to see if they were genuine.
side note: when she showed us the tiny, “inferior” pearls, she said
they were used for cosmetics and diet supplements. Mmmm, pearls, they’re
so good for your skin, the more you eat, the more wrinkles fill in!
Well, then later, when it came time to test their authenticity, someone
in our group suggested that you test against your teeth for grit,
our pearl wizard said they didn’t suggest that – it’s not very good
for you. Uh, OK. Can I return my diet supplement now?
method she proposed was rubbing the pearls against other pearls. Mark
took his sample and mine, so recently plucked from the unsuspecting
oyster and tried it. I immediately determined
mine to be a fake, causing the necessary suppression of titters.
I may have been punchy, but that was almost the funniest thing I had
another round of tourist power buying, we returned to the hotel. Better
rested this evening, it was determined that we would return to the
“Sunny Place To Be”. Additionally, we made our new buddies Jeff and
Mark go with us, as there’s culinary safety in numbers.
time when we entered, there was no one at the entry podium, se we
just went in and tried to figure it out. More hawking vittles in Chinese,
more “Wah poo doh” and then we found a place with prices printed on
the pictures. Bingo! We all ordered and were very, very pleased with
our MASSIVE meals that ranged in price from $1 (my kilo of veggie
fried rice and bowl of weird tomato-egg soup) to $1.30 for Mark’s
giant bowl of beef and noodles, 4 dumplings and side of weird radish
salad. Score! We washed it down with bubble tea and felt very proud
of our native-like experience. After that it was a repeat visit to
the Supermarket (fun and 13 cent beers) and then back to the hotel
for a night on the coffee table.
Today we go to the Great Wall! However, before we take in the majestic
splendor of one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval Mind, the authorities
in the ministry of tourist exploitation have decreed that we will
enjoy the splendor of the majestic jade factory first.
I’m glad we made this stop for one serendipitous reason. While the
finished jade carvings in the gift shop (more like gift warehouse)
were indeed impressive, I directed Lisa to one carving in particular
I thought she would enjoy. It was an elaborate Buddha riding on the
back of a fish like a rodeo cowboy. Although sorta funny in itself,
I whispered “card… look at the card”. Each carving had a title card
with information about the stone, dimensions, price and title (and
the coveted certificate of quality and authenticity). Our little
piscine sculpture was entitled the “Crap of Wealth”. I guess when
English isn’t your first language, you need to be careful with the
carp. Thankfully, Lisa had her camera, and now we can share:
sharing our discovery with everyone on the bus (well, the cool people
in the back anyway), and discussing the $146,000
table and chair set. YES that is US dollars, we continued on
to the Great Wall.
98 percent of all visitors to the Great Wall go to one of four state-approved,
safely remodeled and well-maintained entry points. I’d be willing
to bet 98 percent of those go where we did – to the Badaling section.
Even in the off-season (which includes our balmy 0°C
day in January, the Wall is pretty crowded. We arrived and set off
with several dozens of other visitors to scale to the “top” and back
in our allotted two hours. Oh my shit! I know several people who have
visited the Great Wall and not ONE told me how frigging huge the steps
are! It was a difficult, steep climb up randomly sized steps (a defense
plan – uniform steps are easier for invaders to climb) that absolutely
SEARED my lungs.
stopped a good way up at the “Hero” point to take the requisite smonkenny
photos (It’s the same batch from the last link – if you already
went.) They call it the called the Hero Point because it is said in
China, that you are not a hero until you climb the Great Wall. I think
they just made that up so they could sell more people - i.e. even
the natives - more souvenirs. Hey, Wu-- you can’t leave without your
hero card, on sale here at Hero Point, only 15Y. I went up one turret
further, while Mark and two of our more fit companions went up three
I managed to wheeze and pant my way to the top tower, expecting to
find a magnificent panorama of the wall receding into the mountainous
distance as far as the eye could see, but found only some more mountain
that you couldn’t see from the bottom, and 2 more fortifications.
Not wanting to be “that asshole” on every large tour group that makes
the rest of the bus wait, I decided to head back without the view
from the tippy-top. Upon reaching the bottom, I heard an American
woman complaining how the wall “just ended”, so perhaps I was unknowingly
wise not to try a mad dash the rest of the way up.
though the section we are on was wholly rebuilt in the 70s, it still
was an impressive sight, and if you blocked out all the souvenir stalls
and the highway below the wall, you could get a good idea of how ridiculous
and impressive a prospect this whole wall project really was.
and nothing captures the awe of such a monumental architectural accomplishment
like stalls full of cheap tourist crap! After everyone bought a little
something, (Mark got a swell Mao watch – he
waves!) we cast off for lunch at the Friendship Store.
side note: Though by far, more Westerners can probably be spotted
on the Wall than in any other place in China, to many Chinese we are
still a huge novelty. Some have never seen live whities before; so
it happened quite often that people wanted to take pictures of, and
more often, WITH us. While Mark was climbing past me, I took no less
than 20 photos with 3 teenaged boys and their 3 cameras in every possible
combination of boy/camera. Very weird, but also kind of fun. I just
hope they didn’t photoshop out my clothes and post it to the web with
a link from Censor-rific Chinese Google. Ok – sorry to get waylaid
– back to the Friendship Store.
A cultural icon in its own right, the Friendship Store is a living
fossil of the “classic” communist era, where tourists and diplomats
could buy the required silk, pearls, and cloisonné (hand made
copper-decorated porcelain) in state-run convenience. Several members
of our tour had been asking about this place since the airport. I
suppose as long as word-of-mouth continues (and the government keeps
making it a mandatory tour stop), this overpriced (no-haggling allowed!)
tourist trap will continue well into the next “New China”. Um,
I bought more art.
we bought a wealth of crap (hm – that translation is useful…) we headed
for the Ming tombs, burial place of several Ming dynasty emperors.
The thing about the Ming tombs is that they, for the most part, have
not been excavated. Some of the tombs are buried so deep in the earth,
the logistics of excavation have not yet been figured out – plus the
estimated costs are staggering – One guess I read was a cool $4.5
million. So there’s really not much to see. I’d say if you had just
a few days in Beijing, you could skip this. The walkway into the tomb
area is lined with great statues of men, beasts and man-made beasts.
Nice photo op, I guess. The “tombs” themselves are dotted throughout
several hills (40 sq. km. worth!) and we, like most people, really
only visited the oldest and largest one with a shrine holding artifacts
placed above ground.
I need to give my 2 Yuan’s worth here. It bugged me to no end that
there’s 10 Ming Dynasty emperor tombs just sitting around unexcavated.
Isn’t anybody curious?! Don’t you think China needs some new treasures
to share with the world after destroying a big chunk of their old
treasures in the Cultural Revolution? Don’t tell me it’s about the
money. China is among the top 10 economies in the world, they own
most of our debt, and they’ll be economic juggernaut #2 by
2020 – just dig up the damn tombs already! (Okay, I’m off the soapbox).
guess the interesting thing we learned there was that the location
and all of the individual sites within it were selected for very specific
Feng Shui reasons. Since I thought Feng Shui was pretty much a Queer
Eye/flaky decorator concept, and not really actually used in any degree
of seriousness, this was interesting. Actually all of the Imperial
constructions were located and built following very strict Feng Shui
principles to maximize positive Qi. If you take any knowledge away
from this journal, know this: Qi is now an acceptable word in Scrabble
(yes! No getting stuck with the Q anymore, baby!).
– so yeah. Ming tombs. Then the bus home. Oh man – we totally forgot
to tell you another big thing on this trip. We had a videographer
in tow for both tour days. About 900 times we all had to wave at her
as we entered sites, passed through doorways, etc. Well, on the bus
ride home, we got to preview the video (only $38USD for VHS or $44USD
for DVD. I think the Chinese are doing OK with the whole capitalism
experiment) Let me just tell you it opened with approximately five
full minutes of kung fu routines in front of Mao’s tomb in Tiananmen
Square. Chuck was mortified, but we all had a good laugh, especially
as it was followed by a full minute of my posing in polyester coordinates
in the center of the square. I guess our behaviors do not translate
well to Chinese and I’m sure the video girl thought she had done the
right thing. :)
went back to our hotel, hit the internet for a panicked, last-minute
search for our travel documents for the following day’s trip to Harbin,
and retired to our coffee tables, yet again.
was the beginning of our impromptu trip to the Northern city of Harbin.
I think the logic in planning this was: Since we saved so much
money with the airfare and bargain package, how could we afford not
to fly up and see the ice and snow festival? Lisa sent me pictures
from the internet and I had to agree it would certainly be worth the
trip (And when were we going to be back to these parts in the middle
up we were before 5 for an Air China flight up to the 45th parallel.
Although there was very little Beijing road traffic at that hour,
the airport was still crazy, and we endured quite the “Chinese fire
drill” with our departure gate. 45 minutes delayed, we were finally
off and ready to enjoy our in-flight breakfast. Like
on our Continental flights, we were offered a choice of Western or
Chinese breakfast. I assumed I would only be able to pick at either,
so Mark and I decided to get one of each and share. He got the Western.
The flight attendant looked surprised when I ordered Chinese, hovered
over one and then said it wasn’t warm, so she would skip me for now
and come back later when they had more. Yeah. She never came back.
I started to think maybe I misheard her original query and that I
had, in fact, opted for the Starving Chinese Orphan breakfast. Which
I got. It was nothing. Again, strangely, exactly like our Continental
landed in Harbin to a balmy -9° (that’s Fahrenheit people! and
in the sun!) It’s -22°C – which I like better
because it sounds so much more brutal. But we knew it would
be like this before we left, so we made the appropriate pre-Harbin
garment purchases. Laugh, if you will, but I
went ape-shit at Sierra Trading Post and got a fur trappers hat, some
“expedition weight” long underwear bottoms (rated to protect against
-45° while sitting and doing nothing but monitoring Arctic seal
mating calls) and several packets of instant hand warmers. I’m a Texan.
Even I bought some long underwear, and whoo-ee, am I glad I did. If
my boogers froze in 20 seconds, imagine what might have happened to
wanting to waste the precious sun, we bundled up and ventured out
of our warm hotel. We knew there was a snow festival to be found,
though we weren’t exactly sure where. We spotted a minor festival-looking
thing next to the river, complete with an ice rink, ice slide, stalls
of crap and most interesting: your choice of horse, dogsled or snowmobile
to take you somewhere on the other side of the frozen river.
actually knew that it was the island where the ice and snow festivals
were, but I wasn’t sure how big the island was or where, on it, the
festivals were. I suggested we hoof it across the frozen river – there
were a couple other people doing it and it didn’t look that far. If
we got across and didn’t see anything, it would still have been a
easier said than done. We were accosted first by a horrible “fake
dirty” beggar child. This was NOT common in China, and so upset me
even more. His mom probably made him spread coal dust on his jacket
to elicit pity, but we only got more and more angry as he kept touching
us and trying to block our path. We both brushed him off several times
before I think I yelled, loudly, at him something akin to, “Get away
from me NOW you little fucker!” (I tell myself it’s OK because he
didn’t speak English) Mark finally stopped, stared him in the eye
and said I don’t know what to get him to bugger off. (Jedi
mind trick – the force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded…
we were accosted by many, many sled operators (dog and horse pulled)
who, though we shared no common words, clearly were expressing to
me the impossibility of someone western crossing by foot. Pantomime
indicated I would either 1) Fall on the ice, 2) Fall through
the ice, or C) Spontaneously bust into an ugly interpretive dance.
(At least that’s what I think they said.) We politely declined and
I am proud to submit that not one persistent sled driver was called
any kind of “f” word.
crossed in about 5 minutes- and it was awesome. COLD, but awesome.
On the island we found a map and were able to find the location of
the snow festival, though our own location was subject to interpretation.
(Someone had removed the “you are here” red dot.) A nice Chinese man
pointed out where we were and we set off.
we arrived at the snow sculptures we were absolutely floored by the
of many of them. We strolled around the park, stopping briefly to
warm ourselves (and our camera batteries) in a mobile snack/coffee/gift
shop. Although we could still see our breath, when you’re walking
around in below zero temperatures, 40° seems tropical in
a separate area reserved for an international competition, several
teams had sent over their best sculptors and the results were miraculous.
The combination Mexican & American team created a large fish and
somehow managed to hollow it out, turning the outer body into an elaborate
snow grid. I couldn’t figure out how they did it (and still lose sleep
several billion pictures, we walked back across the frozen river to
our hotel, defying the sled operator’s prophecy of doom. After the
restoration of our core body temperature, we struck out to find food
around our Hotel. Although we came up empty on the food (finding exactly
zero restaurants with an English menu), we did discover one of the
new Chinese Wal-Marts. I am a little conflicted about this sort of
thing. On one hand, it’s great that China is opening up to foreign
companies and investors, but on the other hand, it’s frickin’ Wal-Mart.
The omnipresent McDonalds had the same effect on me; Why must we export
the worst of our culture? Maybe it’s our secret plan to make the rest
of the world fat and ignorant too – then America will be “normal”
– Brilliant! (Ooh, how’d that soapbox get there?) Preachin’
to the choir, my brother.
by dinner and a beer apiece we got MASSIVELY bundled up
(Including Lisa’s awful
blue outfit on the outside of her winter garb) for
the rest of the snow and ice festival. Ice. This was the part I had
most looked forward to. I had seen pictures of previous ones, and
as we planned this trip, googled photos of this year’s. Truly amazing.
They build a whole park’s worth of giant buildings with lights actually
imbedded in the ice bricks to make a frozen wonderland of unbearable
cold. I mean beauty. :) The scale of these things is beyond comprehension.
Even though I had seen a picture that looked exactly like this one
that I took ,
it still didn’t sink in, until our cab pulled up to the park, exactly
how huge these things were.
of our jaws dropped, and we just took it all in as if we had just
been escorted to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. We paid the entry
price and went to play. Most of the buildings had at least some stairs
(ice stairs) to climb and some even had internal “rooms” to pass through
while climbing. It was not lost on us that this could NEVER happen
in America. Not because we don’t consistently stay in the -20°
to -30° degree range fro months on end, but the lawsuits! Ice
stairs on ice buildings with either no railings or, yes, ice railings?
Get out! It rocked.
it rocked at approximately -30°C, and so after about an hour of
mad photo taking, we returned to the hotel and our new twin–sized
coffee tables. (Chinese beds are apparently all made and monitored
for quality at one huge factory/sweatshop. In China. Is that the opposite
and as just one more illustration of how cold it was, this picture
from the INSIDE of our hotel room. There’s a bit of a permafrost.
breakfast we decided on a cultural expedition to see if the Wal-Mart
across the street was anything like its Western counterpart. The verdict?
Well, sort-of. There were 4 floors of goods, with the bottom 2 containing
foodstuffs (fresh meats!) and the top 2 filled with the Chinese equivalent
of normal Wal-Mart products. One interesting difference was the tiny
shopping cart that could be pushed in any direction thanks to its
better engineered wheels. The wheels also fit perfectly into grooves
on the moving sidewalk-escalator that took you to different floors
– this kept the carts from rolling, Tiananmen style, over your fellow
Wal-Mart shoppers. Neat!
buying a few gifts, we decided the next exploration should be the
Cathedral of St. Sophia – a picturesque Russian church in the middle
of downtown Harbin. Just 300 miles from Vladivostok,
Harbin was, at one time, a Russian colony. But first, a re-warming
while we played another of our many travel scrabble games. During
the match, BBC International started a story about the deplorable
conditions of captive bears in the Chinese medical trade. At least
that’s what I think it was about, since the screen went black a few
seconds into the report. “Ooh. We just got our BBC censored” I said.
Lisa thought maybe the cable just went out, but as the story cycled
the next hour, we got a few more seconds into it before the screen
went black again. It was a reminder that although China does seem
very open under casual observation, big brother is watching
(or at least watching BBC).
and paranoid, we ventured out to find St. Sophia. The hotel front
desk wrote down the name of the cathedral, in case we decided to take
a cab ride, but we learned that there was a pedestrian-only shopping
district that would take us in the general direction of the church
should we decide to hoof it. “Hoof it!” we voted.
feet into our journey, a man on the street corner asked us if we spoke
English. “Yes, very well”, I replied. I expected him to ask if we
had been watching BBC a few minutes ago, but was relieved when he
introduced himself as Peter, a Harbin business interpreter and part-time
tour guide. Peter asked if he could practice some English with us
on his lunch break. “Absolutely” we said, explaining our destination.
He knew exactly where the church was and would be happy to accompany
– sometimes I wish I was not the most cynical woman alive, but about
50 (ok, maybe 14) steps into our walk I wondered how much “Peter”
– if that was his real name - was going to charge us for the service.
I said as much to Mark, under my breath of course (this dude’s English
was excellent) and we decided to feign innocence if he asked for money
later. “But Peter,” Mark practiced, “I thought you just wanted to
practice your English!”
this kinda thing has happened to me before – In Peru, a “tariff-free”
guide scoffed at my 3 solas tip, stating that the minimum tip for
his service was 10 solas. I am now wiser in the ways of the world.
out Peter (which was his real “English name”) actually just did enjoy
talking in English. He pointed out sites on the way to the Church,
helped us get tickets to enter the church (which is now used as a
museum of the history of Harbin) AND pointed out a second attraction
below the church that we NEVER would have known about without him:
A replica of the entire city of Harbin in miniature. Pretty cool.
was supposedly on his lunch hour, so after the church, we were surprised
when he offered to take us to the “Dragon Tower” – Harbin’s equivalent
of the Space Needle or similar. “Don’t you have to get back to work,
Peter?” (Mind you, I – at this point – still thought he was going
to ask for money at some point) Pete said he wasn’t very busy, and
he could go with us. He got us all a cab, and surprisingly, on the
way, I did not even once think maybe we were off to Siberia
to be held hostage until appropriate tour guide payments were received.
tower was OK – more Mark’s kind of thing than mine. (yay
towers!) The visibility wasn’t the best – a fact Peter repeatedly
apologized for, as if maybe it had been up to him. That Peter. What
a nice guy. Why am I such the a-hole?
by 3 or so, we really needed lunch. We invited Peter, but he declined
He said he had already eaten before he met us, but offered to show
us a good place near the tower. After his first suggestion was closed,
he took us to another place, negotiated our food orders for us and
said his goodbyes. I was so overwhelmed by all he had done for us
that I INSISTED he take cab fare from us to get back to the area where
we had met him. Making me feel even worse for my initial cynicism,
he refused. …but I’m a really good insister, so eventually he relented.
Mark and I had a nice lunch in a cool, non-touristy place, complete
with big beers. A truly great experience.
lunch I whipped out the Point It (first official use!), hailed us
a cab, showed the driver a photo of an airplane and flashed 100Y,
had our offer accepted, and we were off. Back to Beijing.
sad day, our last in China (for a while), so we stuffed ourselves
a little extra at our final breakfast buffet (I
am addicted to those little bean paste buns. Yum!) and hailed
a cab to the “Pearl Market”. Word on the street was that this place
was where we’d find the best bargains, although we would have to work
for them. I must say that I enjoy the art of the haggle. The trick
is not to commit yourself emotionally to anything, so you can really
walk if you don’t get the price you want. There are also fun little
psychological tricks and bad acting you can do to help your cause,
but ultimately the rule is to have fun. If you’re too serious about
getting a price, you’re not doing it right.
did a little internet reconnaissance and found that the Chinese are
already well aware of the 50% rule (cut their initial offer by half
and go from there). You should counter their initial price (and every
one of them does it on their trusty desk calculator) with about 10%
and try not to deviate too much from that. Ultimately, if you settle
on a price you’re happy with, then it’s a success for you (even though
it’s probably a bigger success for them). Lisa and I had a
lot of fun at the market. I would frequently mutter some advice or
bargaining strategy to Lisa at key moments and get the “aw, c’mon
man” stare from many of the vendors, but my favorite part was having
fun with the calculator, typing in 9 digits with a very serious look
on my face, or once, even offering to buy the calculator itself. They
didn’t laugh. I laughed my ass off. “How much
for the calculator?” Brilliant. Actually, Mark should have pointed
out that he DID make several people laugh. I think we were, by far,
the most entertaining customers they had had in a while, as many came
to watch Mark gut the price on a sweater he wanted. (Successfully,
might I add.) My favorite was when the lady asked him, “Why you so
stingy?” – I had to laugh. So did they. What a great word for her
to have learned. They also called us “hard” – which I told people
up front after the jacket lady called me that. I’d say, “Look, I’m
very hard. You can charge someone else too much.” They’d giggle enough.
it was all over and the calculators were silent, I had a new Chinese
chess set (very different from the classic game), a marvelous jade
rhino (with veins of bright red that really look like a circulatory
system!), various gifts for people in Cleveland, earrings and a fridge
magnet for Mom’s birthday – Um, what did you get, Lisa?
My first purchase was a lovely embroidered silk jacket – for the same
price as the crappy polyester ones we saw at Harbin’s Wal-mart. The
lady looked really pained when I wouldn’t budge on my 100Y price –
and I was told by subsequent stall owners (who just Looove to tell
you they would have given you a better deal), that I had gotten a
very good price. Yay. The rest of my purchases were little gifty things.
to the hotel, we left ourselves just enough time to go to the supermarket
(in the event Continental screwed up Lisa’s vegetarian meal again)
and take a few last-minute pictures.
leaving I went to take photos of the restaurant seals. (Still 3 of
‘em…) While we were there something very bizarre happened in the large,
cylindrical tank that held the tiger prawns. There was a little rippling,
then a mass escape attempt. Shrimps everywhere! Flying through the
air, flopping on the floor. It was mayhem. I stared, open-mouthed,
for a minute before trying to locate someone who might care. A little
guy came out of a workroom, and assuming he spoke no English, I launched
into sound effects and pantomime. “Pew! Pew!” I squealed, raising,
then swooping my cupped hand down in an arc. Then I pointed to the
floppy floor shrimp. He got it. He poked them into a dustpan with
a broom and plopped them back into the tank, but not before I documented
then home – without a vegetarian meal. (Bastards!)
trip was a great introduction to China and a chance to see firsthand
how the world’s newest super power is developing and attempting to
shape its identity. Make no mistake, they are not the next
super power – they are already there. We could really tell that, while
there, and with each passing day after our return, I’ve noticed it
even more, here… one article at a time in the news. Look for the stories
– read up. You don’t want to be surprised when the rest of the country
gets the hard truth that we are no longer the biggest dog on the porch.
And I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s just a fact. China is the
New Russia. Or maybe even the New USA. And in case you didn’t get
the memo, Bean Paste Buns are the new Egg McMuffin.
the Pedersen kids are the new Marco Polo. And we’re outta here. Catch
ya on the next ½-off frequent flyer sale!