Sunday, December 29, 2013

China 2009: Beijing - Around Town

The last stop of our 2009 China tour was to Beijing, the capital of China and formally called Peking (as in Peking Duck, so you know what we will end up eating!).  Beijing falls in between the ultra-modern and commercial Shanghai, and the seemingly "frozen in time from a past era" feel of Xian.

Throughout out trip to China, we had to occasionally deal with the dreaded squat toilet.  Older generation Chinese actually consider these toilets more sanitary than the modern seated ones, since your skin doesn't actually touch any part of the apparatus.  They must have developed extremely strong thigh muscles to be able to manage the squat without toppling over.  My first experience with the old-style Chinese restrooms was quite stressful.  You had to remember to get the toilet paper from a common dispenser outside of the stalls (or bring your own).  The lock of the stall I was in did not work properly.  So at the same time as I tried to hold the squat position, I also had to keep the stall door from being pushed open by impatient and aggressive patrons who didn't want to wait their turn.  Imagine a one-legged squat with the other leg trying to keep the door shut, and both hands propped against the side walls to maintain balance.  After that, we agreed that it was a bargain to pay $6 Canadian for a Starbucks latte (enough money to feed dinner to an entire Chinese family), just for the right to use their clean, modern Western toilets.

Beijing used to be full of hutongs, which are alleys and pathways lined with rectangular, courtyard residences called siheyuan.  To prepare for the 2012 Olympics, in a misguided attempt to appear more modern, the Chinese destroyed many of the historic hutongs, replacing them with roads and skyscrapers.  Luckily, a few were left intact and now act as tourist attractions.   We took a tour of the hutong neighbourhood while riding in a bicycle-pulled rickshaw.  Visiting a siheyuan, we learned about the traditional organization of the structures that surround the courtyard.  The males and elders, considered the more important roles in the family. would live in the northern building with most sunlight.  Children, wives and concubines would live in the east and west wings,
while the servants stay in the south building, which receives the least sunlight.  There was one common bathing and toilet area, shared by the entire hutong.  In comparison, the personalized and private squat toilet didn't seem so bad after all.  Our guide told us that the residence was available for rent as a honeymoon suite.

We visited a few of the sites of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, including the Beijing National Stadium (famously dubbed the Bird's Nest due to its design) where the opening and closing ceremonies, and various athletic events were held.  Ai Weiwei served as the building's artistic consultant, but later disassociated himself from the Olympics, in protest of human rights issues.  The outside of the aquatic centre resembled a giant ice cube.  It was fun to see the pools and diving platforms, surrounded by flags of the different participating countries.  Outside the venues, people dressed up as the official mascots called the Fuwa mugged for photos with the tourists.

When we reached Tiananmen Square, before even viewing any of the sites, we first marveled at clear blue sky.  Prior to the Olympics, Beijing was so full of smog that you could not properly see across the Square.  In preparation for the games, the Chinese government shut down many factories and mandated a driving ban on cars, so that people could only drive every other day, based on their license plate numbers.  The results were amazing but unfortunately not long lasting, since the Beijing air has since returned to its former smoggy state.

The Tiananmen Gate was first built in the early 1400s and is considered a national symbol, with the huge portrait of Chairman Mao hung prominently over the entrance.  Lining the bridges that led into the square were secret police, trying but not succeeding in looking inconspicuous in their jeans and t-shirts with matching white visors and stiff stances.  There was a uniformed guard positioned in front of Mao's mausoleum.  The lineup was too long so we didn't try to visit his tomb.

It was fascinating to see the revolutionary Worker's Sculpture, found at one end of the square.  If you look very closely, you can see bullet holes in a few of the sculptures–the only remaining evidence of the military crackdown during the Tianamen Square protests.

While standing in the Square, we were approached by a vendor trying to hawk copies of Mao's little red book of propaganda.  He was not very good negotiator though.  He started off asking for 200RMB (about $30 Canadian) but when we declined and walked away, the price immediately dropped to 10RMB (just over $1 Canadian). 
Beihai Park was formerly an imperial garden and is now a public park, filled with plants, flowers, pavilions, temples, bridges and a lake which surrounds Jade Flower Island.  Built on the highest point of this island is the White Pagoda, a Buddhist temple made of white stone that hosts a reliquary holding monks' bones and other artifacts.  You can rent paddle boats or take a guided tour on a motorized barge.  Old men were practising "water calligraphy", dipping their brushes into pails of water and then writing chinese characters on the cement ground.  Other men were standing in front of what looked like newspapers placed behind plexiglass.  In fact, these were government notices about policies and bi-laws, as well as other propaganda from the politically self-censored People's Daily Newspaper, which lets the public know what the government's positions are on issues that the government considers as "news".

The Donghuamen Night Market is the mecca for the ultra-adventurous eater.  Rows of food stalls offer "delicacies" like gigantic cicadas and grasshoppers, hearts, kidneys, offal and other innards from a variety of animals, miniature sharks, scorpions, lizards, and more.  Many are deep fried and served on a skewer.  It seemed like something you would do on an episode of "Fear Factor".  Coincidentally, a few weeks after we returned home, this market was featured in a challenge from an episode of "The Amazing Race".  Prior to visiting the night market, I had made a pact with Rich that we would each eat something "icky".  My big brave husband chickened out at the last minute, but I successfully swallowed a silk worm! It wasn't so bad since it was deep fried.

A much more pleasant dining experience was having Peking Duck in its city of origin.  We went to a restaurant renowned for its duck and had it as our appetizer course.  While the duck was very good, we found that the Peking Duck available in Toronto is comparable.  This again highlighted how lucky we are to find such excellent and varied ethnic cuisine back home.  It was quite the treat to have our teapot filled by a skillful waitress who poured the tea out of a LONG spouted dispenser from several feet away.

While staying in Beijing, my sister and I decided to go for a deep tissue massage and foot scrub. These services were incredibly inexpensive, relative to what we would pay back home. The back massage and foot scrub were each around 35-38 RMB ($5-$6 Canadian) for 45 minutes each.  In preparation for the foot scrub, I was told to soak my feet in a bucket of hot water filled with herbs.  The masseuse then scrapped away at the dead skin on the heels of my feet with the furor of a kungfu master.  At the end, my heels were as smooth as a baby's bottom.  If only they could have stayed that way.  It's a long way back to Beijing for another foot scrubbing!

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