Saturday, October 31, 2009

Lama Temple and the Olympic Park

October 20th was originally to be our final day in Beijing but we wanted more so we booked an additional night at the hostel and then an overnight train to Pingyao, leaving in the evening on the 21st. Unfortunately only one room was available to a cot had to be dragged in for Chris.

Pavan needed to do a bit of work so she setup in the coolest accounting office (if an accounting office can be cool) ever!

We also stopped to admire the novel money we had been accumulating.

The outside door of our courtyard hostel feels quite authentic. It`s cool, meets our stereotypes of Chinese, and is understated enough it feels like it might have been for somewhere semi-normal people lived rather than a palace.

During Pavan`s accounting time Rod & Chris decided to go see the Lama Temple. Taxi`s being old hat, we decided to walk out of the hutong and then slightly North to use an ATM and get the subway. In retrospect this would have been easier if a reference for where North was had been available but eventually a local street map was found. Along the way were a staggering number of trophy stores. In one location we observed a trophy store adjacent to a trophy store, across the street from two trophy stores, just North (like 100 meters) of three other trophy stores!!

After eventually finding an ATM that liked our cards, we headed off into the subway. Subways are underground warrens. Luckily they have English signage. They also have the coolest single-use ticket ever. For ¥2 (about $0.30) a plastic card similar to an Oyster Card, is issued by a vending machine. There is also what looks to the naive eye to be a manned ticket booth but our experience proved to be that most of the time the ticket booth lady just pointed you at an ATM. We did once get tickets from a human so we know it is possible but apparently it is not preferred. The ¥2 card is scanned to get into the part of the station with actual trains and then fed into another machine to get out after you get off the train and presumably re-used.

The subway lines have English signs but the trains are quite crowded, even off peak times. In a novel twist, the subway also has an English stop announcement in much clearer, better spoken, English than the translink skytrain back home in Vancouver!!

After a few subway stops we wandered out of the warren towards daylight. We popped out and started trying to match street signs to our map to figure out where the temple might be until it dawned on us there was the corner of a fairly distinctive complex right accross from us.

Lama Temple
At home if you went to a temple you might expect basically a single building. Here it invariably means a fair-sized complex and any self-respecting complex must have a gate.

They also had a bell, but it was the bad kind of bell: unringable.

The Lama temple has the most staggering incense burning we had ever seen. For blocks around the temple are stores selling incense. The temple itself is full of incense stalls. This was a bit confusing until we found out the temple is also full of giant incense burning vats PACKED with incense, billowing massive clouds of smoke skyward.

The temple rather predictably had lots of little statues and so on. Some of them were a little surprising for a Budhist temple - the guy with a spear of heads evidently eating brains for instance.

One interesting aspect was that the Lama Temple was actively in use by local Budhists, who would come to burn incense and kneel in little alcoves, as opposed to being 100% a tourist attraction.

Another new twist we saw was traditional style buildings connected by an overhead walkway.

We also ran into a few more peaceful looking little statues and cool drum you can slap with your hand to spin (aka prayer wheel I think).

After the Lama temple we took the subway back, grabbed Pavan from the hostel, and cabbed down to the somewhat fancy hutong to explore a bit more. Pavan particularly wanted to see it as she spent most of our first visit getting her feet massaged. We grabbed a meal at Tian Hai (delicious again!) and then took another look around the hutong. We encountered a man taking care of a large vat of stuff. Bits of animals you might think of as garbage mostly - entrails and so on. This things boiling in the rather sulpherous looking brew appeared to be pulled out, cleavered until unrecognizable, and then dumped on rice as far as we could tell. None of us were brave enough to actual eat this concoction!!

The olympics in Beijing is still quite a big deal in Beijing. There is an entire Olympic merchandise store still going strong. It is on a street that tries way too hard to be fancy and western. The prices are essentially the same as North America and the only thing distinctively chinese about it is the people on the street. No character, no charm, and really expensive. You could call this one Pretentious Street.

Some of the cross-streets heading off Pretentious Street are much more entertaining. On one we blundered into a Rui Fu Xiang store, which promised to have tailored suites done by the next day for ¥1200-3000 depending mostly on what fabric and how much of it was required (eg Rod is expensive). This was almost tempting given that their merchandise is well-known and the results are likely FAR better than a suite you might get tailored in the west for several times the price. Unfortunatley for the salesman, the absence of any reason to actually use the resulting garment was a major deterrant.

A little further down the street we observed another novel food production mechanism. As far as we could tell, a gentlemen was whaling on what may have been a fairly dry dough with a huge mallet, then folding the results, beating again, and eventually cleavering it all to layered chunks. A nearby store sold by far the nicest chopsticks we had seen. These were rather tempting but the price for nice ones was rather high (¥800 for Mahogany, ¥2000 for Ebony) and we do not use chopsticks at home all that often. Still, they were VERY nice.

Pavan disappeared in a stretch of small vendors and was eventually discovered after purchasing a $8 purse (apparently bargained down from about $40).

We then took a cab to Olympic Park to see the Water Cube and Birds Nest Stadium as we had heard they looked rather impressive by night. After we got through a military-manned security point we got a decent view and they were indeed quite impressive. Unfortunately we never managed to go for a swim in the Water Cube. We stayed for a while but eventually they turned off the lightshow (though the Birds Nest still looked pretty cool) and seemed to be considering sending guys to herd out tourists so we headed for the exit. Shortly before we got out a changing of the guard took place. The neatly groomed day-guards (day going until 10pm or so in this case) swapped out with a team of guys wearing thick green trench coats. The best way to describe these humourless looking gentlemen is that they looked like WW2 Red Army soldiers. These guys looked FAR more badass than the day security.

After that it was back to the hostel for our last night in Beijing before our overnight train to Pingyao!

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Greatest Wall: Jin Shan Ling to Simatai

October 19th, Beijing. The day of our big hike from Jin Shan Ling to Simatai.

We woke up unusually early - 6am - to meet our driver on time. We were the last ones into the van, which was nice as it meant we didn't have to wait to drive around picking up others. The first people to get picked up had boarded the van at 6am and had already enjoyed about an hour of meandering around the city before the van reached us. The driver headed out and drove in the traditional mildly homicidal local manner for a little while, then got onto a freeway. Unfortunately, this appeared to intimidate the driver. The road was generally wide open before us and the signage appeared to suggest left lane speed limit 70 and right lane 50. Our van stuck to about 45 km/h in the right lane the vast majority of the time. After 3.5 hours of semi-sleeping in the van we reached a stopping point where we met another van  and our English guide showed up, gave us a short speech about the hike, and then we were off again. Another hour took us to Jin Shan Ling. At this point it was about 11:30am. Our guide explained the hike was typically 3.5 hours, plus another 40 minutes or so if you walked up to the wall rather than taking the cable car, and that she'd be meeting us for lunch at 1:30pm at Simatai (English guide means short speech in semi-English at start, not a companion). The odds of completion of a 3.5+ hour hike in 2 hours didn't seem to faze her and we figured she'd simply be obliged to wait for us, so we set off.

Probably due to altitude, Jin Shan Ling was quite chilly even at noon. Luckily Chris had warned us of this so we'd brought fleeces. We planned to walk the whole thing so we set off past the cable cars and soon caught our first glimpse of the greatest wall. Note that it is NOT visible from space, per NASA.

The wall at the Jin Shan Ling starting point is in remarkably good repair so, at around noon, we set off in earnest towards Simatai.

Between Jin Shan Ling and Simatai are 30 watchtowers. The first few are in excellent repair and despite frantic picture taking we made good time through them.

A short distance further along the wall we ran into a crew enjoying a brew on the wall. We assisted them in taking group photos and they offered us a brew and then took some pictures of us with our camera.

Whenever we stopped and looked around it would almost feel surreal "OMFG, we're on the Great Wall!!".

Some parts were in better repair than others and on occasion it became fairly steep, enough so that it felt falling wouldn't be too terribly difficult. In the rain, or even with a decent water-bottle spill, it would be fairly lethal.

Somewhere along this rougher section a couple of local villagers, one lady in particular, started tailing us. We had been warned they would wish to sell us stuff and tried to avoid being indebted to them. However, the main lady, who claimed to be a farm worker of Mongolian descent, kept following and ultimately proved a major asset in helping Pavan along steep or loose (or both) patches of the wall as she was unerringly sure-footed.

In order to visit all of the thirty towers between Jin Shan Ling and Simatai in some cases it is necessary to climb into and to climb or leap out. Sadly Pavan may be limited to telling of the time she visited "most of the towers between Jin Shan Ling and Simatai".

All along the way were vendors selling water, coke, beer, and in some cases trinkets. This was wonderful as it relieved us of the need to carry water. Trucking the inventory up the wall each day must suck for the vendors but evidently the profit from the inflated prices (as much as $1.5 for a water sometimes!) makes it worthwhile.

Somewhere around kilometer 6 or so, after accompanying us for an hour or more, our villager declared we were leaving her turf and began to pull out merchandise. We felt the service had been worth something so we negotiated fairly weakly and ultimately bought a book of rather nice photos for ¥60. This should represent good profit for her and is a good price for us so it seemed a nice mutually beneficial arrangement.

At the end of the trek the wall stretched on up the hill but this area was semi-blocked off and is apparently quite steep and hazardrous.

After a fantastic hike we had a quick lunch at Simatai and then loaded up the vans for the long drive home. At the end of a rather long day it was incredibly nice to sit down to some hostel dinner and then crash. The whole experience seemed (and seems) somewhat unreal. Perhaps one day we`ll have a chance to do a multi-day wall trek!!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Summer Palace

October 18th, second full day in Beijing.

Big Plans
We had our beloved hostel western breakfast, booked a hike from Jin Shan Ling to Simatai along the Great Wall for Rod & Pavan on the 19th, and booked a show for the evening. The front desk girl was not sure what tickets would be available, and we did not wish to wait while she investigated, so we asked her to try for what we thought was a Kung Fu show, and if that was not available to book Chinese Acrobatics.

Summer Palace
Our big attraction for the day was the Summer Palace. We took a taxi out and wandered in the North Palace Gate and found a charming row of shops and little restaurants arrayed around the edges of a canal, aka Suzhou Street.

It was still pretty early so we decided to stop for tea on the side of the canal. One of the nicest locations to have tea so far, beating out fancy tea houses easily.

Next up was a delightful walk through building covering Longevity Hill. The Summer Palace generally has a very nice, sprawling, greenery-rich feel. It`s a little bit like the Forbidden City but sprawled over a much larger area. The effect is quite charming as the result is there is much more greenery and each building stands out on its own more rather than having to compete for attention with the ten other buildings immediately beside it. There is a pagoda, pavilion, hall, or garden for just about anything. Sadly we never managed to see the `Pavilion with Fish and Algae` but it was probably very nice. Past the crest of the hill are a variety of palaces and a view out of Kunming Lake. It was a bit gray but still quite nice. Normally you can take boats across Kunming Lake but the wind got pretty enthusiastic so the boats all called it a day.

The workmanship on all the old pagodas, walkways, and so on was rather impressive.

The biggest building is the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha. Along the way up there are several bronze dragon and pheonix statues that are quite weathered except in the few spots people rub for luck (or whatever) so much they stay shiny.

Luckily the whole affair is kept safe by a bronze ox that prevents flooding. This suggests an election platform for the mayor of Richmond: "vote for me and I will install a bronze ox to keep us safe from flooding".

The Summer Palace was one of our favorite attractions and one we would love to visit again. It is quite large so you could easily spend the whole day there. We came pretty close. Tours sometimes try to take you to the Tien'anmen, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace in one day. This is a bit baffling as the latter two are worthy of a day each.

Off to the west on a hill, substantially outside the Summer Palace, stands a rather large and imposing pagoda. We couldn't figure out what this was while at the Summer Palace but later determined it to be the Yu Feng (or Jade Peak) Pagoda.

Fancy Hutong
After the Summer Palace we went to a very fancy hutong near Tien'anmen. Pavan stopped for a foot massage while Chris and Rod wandered the shops. As tea had been rather good thus far, the first stop was a tea supply (cups, teapots, etc) store. The gear was very nice and often reasonably priced but the store had about eight sales people and four customers. The sales staff eyed us from afar, jostled a little for position, and then the saleslady who somehow established dominance pounced like a wolf on wounded sheep. The result was we walked around with the sales girl frantically hovering over us, picking up any item we so much as glanced at to extoll it's virtues and amazing price. The novelty of this rapidly wore thin.

The next stop was a tea store. The pouncing of the sales was similar but the sales pitch was amazing. We had a private tea show for some forty minutes during which we sampled five or six teas. Each tea sampled was brewed in a small cup, then poured through a filter into a little teapot, then into our small cups. More hot water was then added to the tea leaves and the cycle repeated seven to nine times per tea! The ten year aged Pu'er was especially delightful. It was also VERY expensive. Six year old Pu'er was ¥200 per hundred grams. Ten year old was something like ¥300 (about $48) per fifty grams!! There was also the most impressive jasmine tea pearl ever, with one pearl expanding to around two inches wide complete with a flower in the middle. This sales pitch was far more effective as we felt like we almost owed it to them to buy something after all their efforts so we got some tea cakes and Chris bought some tea.

As we were near Fancy Street, we went to Tian Hi for dinner. Not exactly high-brow but delicious every time. We particularly enjoyed the Chinese Broccoli, which was some sort of leafy affair, sort of like asparagus with leaves at the end. "jie lan" in Mandarin, "Gai Lan" in Cantonese, or "Chinese Broccoli" in English, listed in Wikipedia as Kai-lan.

Kong not Kung
We had asked the hostel front desk girl to book tickets to "The Legend of Kong Fu", or the Chinese Acrobatics show (whichever turned out to have tickets available) in the morning, with transport leaving from the hostel so we had to get a cab back. Once again, finding a cab in the Tien'anmen was a bloody nightmare. We ultimately had to employ the "charge it and climb in" approach Pavan had pioneered the previous day. The cabbie didn't really want to drive out to the hostel but we eventually got one after some twenty minutes of excitement.

Once back at the hostel, we were given tickets for the Kong Fu show, then driven out to the show. We arrived and some sketchy little punk, supposedly son of our driver, tried to arrange to give us ¥30 for a cab home instead of providing the ride home we had paid for. As it was quite cold and  we had been having trouble with cabs this had very little appeal. After some rather hostile conversation about this it was determined they would keep the ¥30 and we would keep our driver for the ride home, as per the initial arrangement.

We had expected the show to be Kung Fu and thus rather martial but it proved to be something closer to interpretive dance. It was a very pleasent show, despite being not at all what we had expected.