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!

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