Friday, May 07, 2010

China Video - Part 3

Part 3 is now up on Vimeo. On a completely unrelated subject, I'm currently stranded in St. George, Utah and it is Boring Alert, giving me ample time to do stuff like post part 3 on the internet. Too bad Vimeo won't let me post part 4 until next week or it would be so posted right now.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

China video - Parts 1 and 2

So I've made a 16-minute video of my China trip and divided it into 5 internet-friendly sections for your viewing enjoyment. Parts 1 and 2 are up on Vimeo now. Unfortunately, Vimeo will only let me upload one HD video a week, so the other parts will have to follow the next few weeks.

Here's Part 1

And Part 2

I'd embed the videos, but Vimeo only allows embeds in SD. Bu hao! Links it is.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Fight Nights and Water Streets

I'm home, safely back in the good ol' USA. Already I've celebrated my return with a visit to Carls Jr which my body promptly rejected. I had been eating a lot of non-processed foods in China. I think my body is telling me I need to keep that practice up or else it'll get all barfy on me again. Trust me, it doesn't mess around.

Despite my current non-Chinese location, I believe I have a couple China posts left in me. So here we go:

It had been pouring rain all week in Shanghai, as covered in the last post, and Ness and I were spending a lot of time in the apartment where it was dry and we didn't have to look and feel like drowned rats. Still, there's only so much internet to surf before you're all surfed out – which meant we needed to get out. A visit to Ramsey's gym was a good diversion.

The Sai Rui MMA and Fitness Club is on the 6th floor of an office building on Wuzhong road, a quick bus ride from the apartment. Ramsey started it with his business partner, another expat, several months ago, and it's an impressive facility, with a full fighting cage, heavy bags suspended from the ceiling, an aerobics/dance room, showers, massage room, weights and other work out equipment. I got to experience one of Ramsey's fitness classes first-hand as he took Ness and I through a kettle bell routine. Turns out I'm not very good at coordinated repetitive motion, especially when it involves squatting a lot and swinging a heavy kettle bell between my legs. Good thing Ramsey is good instructor, and I ended up learning a lot, just ask my hopelessly sore legs and thighs.

That night there was a brawl. Okay, not so much a brawl as a planned fighting event which brought three local gyms together to compete along with a bunch of MMA enthusiasts, their supporters, and a few small children. A fighting magazine even came to cover the event, attaching fancy cameras to the tops of the cage to capture the action. The whole thing was very multi-national, with Americans, Brazillians, Russians, Germans, and Chinese in attendance. The Russians seemed to be the most into it, shouting loud encouragement to their countryman during a kickboxing match. Their enthusiasm was infectious. One of my favorite bouts involved a guy who showed up randomly from the street. He was a portly Chinese dude, his belly hanging out and his helmet too small to fit over his chins. One of the on-lookers called him Kung Fu Panda – and it was really the perfect name, considering the crazy arm movements he was doing between punches. Just awesome.

The next morning it rained even harder, but we went out in it anyway. Ness wanted to show me Qibao, a famous water street filled with small shops, street food, and traditional architecture. It was a lovely place, but man were we drenched. Umbrellas didn't seem to stop my shoes from filling with water, my clothes absorbing every last bit of moisture, the sharp wind turning me into a walking refrigeration unit. It just didn't let up, and yet the street was packed with people. We had dumplings at a small shop in an alley, grateful to be out of the downpour for a little while, and then ended up cutting the visit short. It was just too much damned water. We fought the rain, and the rain won.

On an unrelated note: if you like cheese, don't go to China. For some odd reason it is really hard to find, and when you find it, it's pricey as all hell. $10 for a small bag of shredded cheddar. Boo! Same for sour cream. Worth it tho. My last night in China we ate tasty, tasty burritos, most everything made from scratch. Our tortillas could have been rounder (they looked like someone had dropped dough balls from a very high building) but it all tasted so delicious! I love me the Chinese food, but after a full month of it, Mexican really hit the spot.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Shanghai Days

We're in the final stretch. There's not many days left before it's goodbye China and so I'm spending the remaining time back in Shanghai, avoiding any more trains and planes save for the one that will carry me back to LA. So turns out Shanghai learned my time here is short and that I had been hoping for sunny weather in which to explore and romp about the city. Well, Shanghai says to itself, it says, “Ain't no way I'm letting that jerk off easy,” and at that very moment the clouds opened up and the rain came a' tumbling down.

It hasn't let up. A quick check on the internet forecasts stormy days the entire rest of the week. If Shanghai had a face, it would have my foot in it.

Ness and Ramsey are back to work, welcoming a new class of students who already speak way better English than I could ever hope to speak Chinese, even if a funnel was shoved down my throat, foie gras-style, and giant chunks of Mandarin were forced through. Considering it took me practically this entire trip just to remember how to count to ten, I'm not sure there's hope. Bu Hao.

I joined Ness and Ramsey in some of their classes on Tuesday and had fun soaking in that whole dynamic. My favorite thing was hearing the “American” names the students had chosen for themselves. Most students stuck to the conventional ones: Michael, Lily, Kristen, etc. Others were a little more...creative, with names like Tree, Grape, Demon, Linky, and BlackSister (yes, BlackSister). One guy so proudly announced his name, Fantasy, that we just didn't have the heart to tell him that Fantasy is a stripper name. Well, Ness, didn't have the heart. I would have told him if she'd let me.

When not at the university, Ness and I have been wandering the soggy streets of Shanghai in search of good restaurants or cheap souvenirs to bring home to the nieces. Saw the Propaganda Poster Art Center, stuffed away in the basement of an apartment complex (super fun to find!). The posters are all original prints, and there are hundreds. Upon learning our nationality, the owner, Yang Pei Ming, followed us around and pointed to the images of long-nosed crazed-looking American caricatures and chortled incessantly (It was weird, but you kind of just had to laugh along with him.) When I pointed to my own long nose and then back at the posters, that set him off even further. He spoke pretty decent English and helped us decipher a lot of what were were seeing. In the posters, Mao is always depicted as valiantly leading peasants and workers against Western imperialists, or holding smiley children, or surrounded by a village family, their modest home stuffed with the bounties of harvest (this while the Great Leap Forward was starving millions). One of my favorites was of students on a train, waving their little red books happily as they are being sent to the countryside to be re-educated through hard labor. Gotta love that stuff.


Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Wuzhizhou Island and the Tropical Fruit of Death

If you're going to spend hours throwing up into the sand, there's no better place to do it than Wuzhizhou Island. Really. It's a gorgeous little island, with clear waters, white sand beaches, and iconic temple-like structures jutting out in the ocean. Teddy, a cool English-speaking guy from Shanghai who we met on the way to Monkey Island, strongly recommended Wuzhizhou be part of our Sanya itinerary.

So we went the very next day. Booked a car with our hotel and sped off in the early morning light. It was on the short ferry ride to the island when it first hit Vanessa: the sickness, origin unknown. Our best guess is bad tropical fruit consumed earlier, exasperated by close-quarters inside the rocking ship. “Do you have a bag?” she asked. I did not, but I could tell one was desperately needed. Quickly rummaging through my belongings I found a small kleenex package which I de-kleenexed and handed over. She promptly threw up inside of it, sending chunks onto me and onto the floor. I next opened and emptied a package of dried plums, which she soon filled.

Then it got worse. Scrambling off the ship as it docked, we found a spot on the beach for her to continue her expulsions. Did you know the beach is a great place to vomit? It is. Lots of sand to bury the mess and soft on the knees to boot. While she recovered I searched for water and took some time to get my bearings. The pedestrian path above the beach was crowded with tourists and trams constantly beeping their horns. I found small market stands where I collected water and further down there was a bathroom. Most important, I found less-crowded, shady sections of beach where swimming was prohibited and Ness could continue to barf in peace.

When I got back, she was face down in the sand, half conscious and rather belligerent (excess vomiting will do that to a person). I had to coax her up to follow me to the shadier spot which she conceded was a better choice. Our car wasn't scheduled to pick us up until much later that afternoon, so for the moment we were marooned. I spent most of the hours that followed tending best I could to Ness, taking pictures, and walking along the shore collecting coral. At one point Ness felt well enough to go for a dip, and we enjoyed the cool waters in the swimming area before heading back to our spot at Upchuck Beach so Ness could get back to work.

On the ferry ride on the way back, the sickness at last hit me. As soon as we touched shore I raced for a bathroom. It was downhill from there. All the rest of the day, and all the rest of the night, Ness and I took turns vomiting. I have never vomited so much in my life, even during my worst food poisoning experience in Africa. Of course the vomiting was peppered with plenty of diarrhea, as everything we had ever consumed was determined to escape our bodies thorough any orifice available. (Now there's a fact I bet you wish you didn't know.)

Lest you think this was all a cakewalk, we returned to our rooms to discover we'd both been horribly sunburned. The expensive fake Avon-brand Chinese sunblock turned out to be just as useless as the face whitener. Soon we were further burning up with fever, our teeth chattering as we lay on our hard Chinese mattresses listening to the sounds of mosquitoes buzzing past our ears. At one point, close to midnight, I stumbled down the stairs to the reception desk to request more toilet paper and bottled water. Ness couldn't get out of bed, so it was left to me to try and explain our needs, mostly through pantomime. My throwing-up action, followed by flashes of fingers to indicate multiple times made the reception desk lady's eyes grow wide. It would surely have been comical to any third party passing by.

Fever does strange things to your head. While I struggled and struggled for sleep, between heavy sessions in the bathroom, all I could hear was the never-ending chorus of “Nobody” by the Korean Spice Girls wannabee group, the Wonder Girls (as seen on Chinese MTV.) I think that was the greatest torture of all. No matter what I did to try and block it out, that same insipid chorus is all I heard over and over again. Ness was similarly plagued by Shakira's “Gypsy.” I'm not sure which one of us was luckier.

We got through it. Having secured a late-check out, we slept much of the sickness away, waking in the afternoon and stumbling wearily to the airport.

But let's not choose to remember Wuzhizhou for all the stomach fluids we left there. Let's skip right past that part in the film reels of our minds and instead focus on these beautiful, vomit-free photographs. For all our sakes.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Monkey Island

It must be said that Ness's primary motivation for coming to Sanya, more than the scenery, the ocean, and the warmth, was the monkeys. There's a whole island full of them - just off the southern coast of Hainan island. Home to over 2,000 macaque monkeys, the island's primary purpose is to be a nature preserve. Secondarily, however, it's quite the tourist attraction, with several acrobatic shows in which the performers are all ticked-off looking monkeys (oh, and a pony...and also a goat.)

The monkeys were great (more on them in a bit), but getting to the island was the best part. After the hour-long drive through rural Hainan, with pointy-hatted workers bent over rice paddies, small fruit plantations, dilapidated buildings, and strange species of pigs and cows wandering the streets in families, we arrived at said best part: the overseas cable car. It looks like a ski-resort gondola, only a lot more terror-inducing, with sagging spans of cable and sudden drops. It's a short trip, maybe 10 minutes, but it's magic. As the car took to the skies, we stared wide-eyed at the gleaming blue ocean below which, after a short stretch, transitioned to vibrant rain forest hills of uninterrupted green. As the cable reached an apex, the car lurched downward towards the forest, the ocean now on our left. It was pure beauty, seen from a rare perspective, and I was reluctant to get off.

And then the monkeys. They were everywhere, sitting on the side of paths, hanging from trees, climbing on the sign posts marking the way to various attractions. One smacked me on the backside with both palms as I passed by. Not sure what that was all about. We took in two shows which were pretty amazing, but not without a tinge of guilt. I don't think this kind of thing would fly in more sensitive countries. Some of the monkeys looked less-than-thrilled to be balancing on increasingly tall stacks of wood, walking on stilts, riding the backs of ponies, peddling small bicycles off ramps, or doing handstands on the back of a goat which itself was on a tightrope. Yeah. Don't pretend you wouldn't want to see that.

Side note: what is it about being the only foreigners at a place that makes the locals think you're part of the tourist attraction? As is often the case, Ness posed for photo after photo with random people. I sat off to the side and people snuck photos when I wasn't looking. Weeeird.

After the shows, we further walked the monkey-filled paths and stopped at the various observation areas. There were swimming monkeys, monkeys holding flags, monkeys you could pose for a photo with. I struggled a bit getting about, my foot and knee still badly sprained from having too much awesome on a boogie board. At one point, a man yelled something loudly in my face, pointing at my leg, which Ness roughly translated as "Your leg is hurt." Nice one, Sherlock. Despite the injury, I had a good time. After all, it was an island full of monkeys. Cute, playful monkeys. What's not to like?


Friday, February 26, 2010


I am on a tropical island in southern China. The last couple weeks of shivering in six layers of clothing are behind me. Here in Sanya, along Hainan's southern coast, it is in the 80s, hot and humid.

Hainan advertises itself as “The Hawaii of the Orient.” In truth, it has a long way to go before it is a fair comparison to Hawaii. The climate and foliage is similar, but the crowded rush of people and mismatched development is still very China. Our hotel is on Dadonghai beach, across a parking lot from wooden boardwalks that line the waterfront, shaded by thick palm trees. The ocean here is cool, but not cold – perfect for escaping the heat. The beach itself can be crowded, but there are non-congested areas where the sand is soft with room to relax and swim.

It's like the vacation from my vacation.

After Beijing I spent a few days at Ness's place in Shanghai, not doing anything touristy, just spending time with Ness and Ramsey and writing all those blog entries on Beijing. Ramsey hasn't been able to travel with us at all this trip. Ness has time off from teaching, but in addition to his English classes, Ramsey is an instructor at a Mixed Martial Arts gym he co-founded. His fitness classes keep him glued to Shanghai, with no time to venture elsewhere for the moment. A shame. It would be nice to have him along.

We took the metro and then maglev train to the airport, instead of our usual bus/taxi combo. It's the only operating maglev in the world and at 267 miles an hour, floating above a track of giant magnets, it's pretty damn fast.We got to the airport with time to spare.

Then, as things are wont to do, everything went to hell. We had booked our flight via Lu who used a Chinese website. Our e-tickets were printed out entirely in Mandarin characters, so neither of noticed we were supposed to fly out of the small, regional Shanghai airport and not Shanghai Pudong International. When the guy at the check-in desk informed us of our mistake, the look of utter shock and terror on our faces must have been priceless. We had an hour before the flight and the other airport, far across the opposite end of the city, took at least an hour to get to.

So we ran, our luggage hefted onto our shoulders, back onto the Maglev, hearts pounding. You know you're in dire straights when you're internally screaming for a train that travels 267 mph to go faster. From the maglev stop, we hopped on a taxi and told the driver to step on it. He complied, darting through cars on the expressway like a maniac, his hand constantly on the horn. Through some miracle we made it before the flight took off. It helped that the check-in and security lines were practically empty. It wasn't until I was on the plane that I at last let myself breathe.

Nothing like a warm beach to de-stress from a panic attack. And it's pretty dang nice here. I ended up shaving the beard I'd been maintaining the last four months to stave off the heat. We spent forever trying to find sunblock. I would have thought it'd be readily available since this island is thick with pale Russians – half the signs in the Cyrillic alphabet. The first tiny bottles we found started at $25. Yuck. After more searching we found something cheaper that said spf 30 on it and of course ended up being face whitener. I figured this out when I spread it on my face and instantly turned into Casper. It was a horrifying sight. I do NOT need to be any whiter.

Consequently, we sprung for the expensive stuff.

And this post has already gotten too long, with so much left to say: the paper hot air balloons floating above the darkened beach on the last day of the Spring Festival. The huge fireworks exploding overhead, so close we could feel their heat, as waves lapped against our toes. The strange screeching lizard that woke me up in the middle of night, perched next to my head. My unfortunate accident on a boogie board (I'm still limping).The fact that the not-quite-snug swimming suit I bought here keeps getting knocked off by waves (I've managed to avoid exposing myself to everyone on the beach...mostly).

The days have been full. It's been good.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Beijing Addendum – Terrible Trip to the Tombs

The plan was to visit the Ming Tombs on the way back from the Great Wall. This is what most tourists do, since the tombs are 50 kilometers from the city. The internet made it seem so simple: take the 919 (slow) bus from the Wall to a stop that connects it with the 314. Take that bus directly to the Tombs and voila: more sight-seeing bliss. Easy-peasy.

Wrong. The real instructions, at least in our experience, have many many more steps. So here they are, for your edification.

Jeremy and Vanessa present “Instructions for getting to the Ming Tombs from the Great Wall”
  1. Look for the the 919 (slow) bus at the entrance outside the wall. Ignore scores of fake taxi drivers shouting, “Hello, Taxi, Hello. Ming Tomb. Hello” into your face. Find a parking lot full of 919 buses. Approach official-looking lady and hear her argue with her coworker in Mandarin over who will deal with the foreigners. Ask, in Mandarin, where the slow 919 bus is. Be told it's “behind” with vague gestures. Walk in the direction she points, asking two other people along the way who also declare it's “behind” something. Walk a huge staircase to an area that looks “behind” the parking lot. See nothing. Walk back down. Ask again. Be told it's actually a steep climb further up the mountain. Experience strong desire to hurt someone. Begin ascent.

  2. Walk at least 25 minutes through tunnels and past signs before finally reaching another 919 parking lot. Discuss how this other location could even remotely be considered “behind” the previous parking lot. Shake fist in anger.

  3. Realize new parking lot is a mix of “slow” and “fast” 919 buses. Ask several people which buses are “slow” and which “fast.” Realize no one knows anything. Get help from a man who asks around the parking lot. Finally be led to a bus that says “Fast Slow” bus. Yes, “Fast Slow.” Look for a baby to punch in the face.

  4. Settle on the “Fast Slow” bus as only alternative. Queue up in a disorderly mass of people. Wait. See bus pull up and be forced inside by the shoving mob of bodies. Notice every seat on the bus is already taken. Get crammed further and further back into the aisle as more people get on. Have no room to breathe. Try to keep from passing out from the heat and stink of bodies. Watch the lady in the seat nearby throw up into a bag. Travel for 20 minutes of agony, cursing your parents for having met.

  5. Hear a stop announced, not matching your desired stop. Get off anyway, pushing past bodies as you go. Celebrate the “fresh” air and freedom from discomfort. Notice the bus lady is shouting at you for having not paid for the 20 minutes of hell. Keep walking. Hear the lady chasing you down, tugging on your arm. Quicken your pace.

  6. Lose the bus lady around a corner. Notice you're in a ghetto. Get harassed by several more fake taxi drivers. Find a toilet, regroup. Walk back to 919 bus stop. Jump on next bus and blessedly find a seat in the back. See the new bus lady approach for money. Pay glady – then immediately be asked to move forward to front of the bus as your stop is approaching. Get off.

  7. Check the bus stop for any sign of the connecting 314 bus to the Tombs. See nothing. Absolutely nothing. Where is this mythic 314 line? God only knows. Ask around for any information. Receive bubkiss. Then a lady who speaks surprising good English appears. Breathe a sigh of relief as she describes a 314 bus stop that will go to the Tombs. Retract relief as she informs you the stop is at least a 20-minute walk away. Curse loudly.

  8. Begin walk. Continue walk. Walk and walk and walk. No stop. No 314. Freeways, and streets, and hobos. Feel a wave of utter defeat sour your spirit. Wait on a corner for a long time. Hail a taxi. Ask the driver if he's heard of stop 314. The taxi driver does not, because he is brand-new. Of course he is. OF COURSE HE IS BRAND NEW!

  9. Tell the driver to take you home, away from this horrible place. He does not understand. Where is this Beijing metro stop you speak of, he asks. Really, taxi driver? Really? Swallow your pride and call your friend Lu. Hand the driver the phone. Hear a long stream of Mandarin. Watch as the driver looks further confused, then defeated, trying to work his GPS. Get out of the taxi.

  10. Walk back the way you came as Lu searches the internet for a route to bus 314. Finally reach where the bus dropped you off. At Lu's suggestion, get on bus 376, which takes you past a fork in the road to another stop. Realize this was where the English-speaking lady was pointing all along. Try and find bus 20, a route Lu says will take you near the tombs. No bus 20. Cross the street and search the bus stop there. And suddenly there it is on a rusty metal placard: the mythic bus 314! Whoop and jump around in sheer ecstasy.
  1. Squeeze into the crowded bus when it finally arrives, ignoring the pungent alcoholic breath of the old man pressed next to you, and the foul, rotting breath of the man who announces each stop by wheezing into your face. Whatever, this is bus 314 – blessed 314. Next stop: the Ming Tombs.

  2. Next stop is not the Ming Tombs. Nor is the stop after, or after that. But eventually, yes, the Ming Tombs. The mother #@*ing Ming tombs at last.
And so we arrived, 4 hours after leaving the Wall, at the famous Ding Ling tomb, the only tomb excavated of all the Ming Tombs. It was a hour before closing and the place was virtually deserted, making our visit almost peaceful. We took the long stairs down to underground chambers, saw the burial sites of the Emperor, his Empress, and many concubines. Saw thrones and artifacts in the museum. Very satisfying.

In retrospect, we should have done a little more research before trying to take the bus. Our source had listed the wrong stop, the cause of most of our problems. The correct stop was available upon further search. Still, even with all the correct info, the 919 (slow) bus is a horrible steaming pile of dung. Never take it. Repeat: never take it. It is a blight upon the Earth, a scourge against humanity, a great evil.

Triumph upon our arrival.

Underground tomb entrance.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Beijing - Day 3 - Great Was the Wall

There are many ways to get to the wall, located out in the low rolling mountains northwest of Beijing. Most tourists get their hotel to arrange a bus, some hire a taxi for the day, others fall for the so-called private tours which stop at jade factories along the way, encouraging them to shop for cheap souvenirs for hours before finally dropping them at the less scenic sections of the wall, closer to the city. Ness and I opted for the official Chinese (cheaper) route – the 919 bus.

Of course this way is also confusing as hell. To get to the right 919 bus stop, one must walk several blocks from the metro stop past several other 919 buses going in the opposite direction. There's also fake 919 buses, claiming to be the official line, and even people who will tell you the 919 bus stopped running and offer their tour as an alternative. All this must be ignored. The official 919 bus is green and white, situated behind Deshengmen, a large tower gate. We got there in the early morning and hopped on the 919 “fast” version (there are 2 versions), which doesn't have any stops along its hour-long route and only costs 12 yuan.

That part was a breeze. Getting back from the wall, on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster. It is is a tale of much horror and woe, but I will leave the telling of it for the next post, in the interest of brevity.

It's funny how a visit to the wall seems synonymous with any trip to China. It's the main event, so to speak. I surely wasn't going to let this trip pass without seeing the ancient relic. And now suddenly I was there, and so was the wall. Miles and miles of it, rolling along the mountain ridges, clear as day. Ness and I purchased a ticket and then walked the steep steps to the watchtowers higher up, taking it all in. It was crowded, and perhaps that detracted somewhat from the majesty of it all, but still – we were on the mother-lovin' Great Wall of China.

Facts you may not know about the Wall:
  • You can't see it from space. That is one of those persistent myths, one that I'd been told my whole life and was later surprised to learn to be false when designing the Great Wall section of a textbook. It stands to logic that a relatively narrow object that blends into the landscape could never be seen that high up, but who thinks these things through?

  • Much of the wall has crumbled into ruin. Only select portions of the wall have been fully restored, a few near Beijing. The section we were at, Badaling, is the most heavily visited, but other long stretches can be reached.

  • The wall turned out to pretty much suck as a defense. It was breached twice, first by the Mongols, then by the Manchu. Oops.

  • In 2007, the Wall was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And rightly so.
You can walk the wall for as far as you like. Way off in the distance, we could make out several ant-like figures still marching along its heights. We didn't go that far, but we certainly got our fill. Then instead of walking down, we elected to go by pulley– a roller coaster-like vehicle that winds down the mountain to the tourist stalls near the entrance. And for some reason there is a bear at the bottom you can throw apples to. Whatever, the pulley was awesome.

We will now fast forward to later that night, skipping the Ming Tombs fiasco for the moment, to our ride along the new Olympic metro line to the Bird's Nest, as seen in the 2008 Summer Games. Currently the Bird's Nest is filled with snow and has been converted into a kind of winter wonderland – complete with indoor ski slopes. We decided not to pay the 50 yuan to get in (having had plenty of winter wonder, thanks) and instead walked along the boardwalk outside. Everything was lit up, including the ultra-modern Water Cube, where all the swimming competitions were held. Best of all the boardwalk wasn't crowded, and despite several vendors trying to sell us kites (look, 7th kite lady, if I didn't buy a kite from the first 6 kite ladies, I won't be buying yours), it was a peaceful stroll after a long, long day. 


Beijing - Day 2 - Palaces and Temples

Grannies playing hacky sack. That's the first thing that greets you as you step through the entrance and into the park-like corridors of the Temple of Heaven. It's quite a sight: circles of old folk, mostly women, spread out in small clumps kicking feathered hacky sacks high into the air with surprising skill. One lady catches a sack with her forehead, balancing it on her brow with a low chuckle before letting it fall back to her waiting feet. It's hard to tell if these women are demonstrators or just enjoy the “sport.” Yes there are vendors spread throughout the crowd, selling the feathered sacks. But the number of these circles gives the impression that hacky sack, much like at a freshman dormitory, is a common game in these parts.

The Temple of Heaven is where the Emperor would pray for a good harvest in the days of the Ming and Qing dynasties. There are gorgeous circular buildings and wide rectangular halls in the ancient Chinese style. We were lucky to visit during Cultural Week. Halfway through our wanderings, the inner square was roped off and scores of figures in colorful traditional robes performed a sort-of Tai-Chi with weapons. Awesome. The whole complex is huge. We walked a lot, stopping at sections of interest haphazardly. The Circular Mound Altar was swarming with people behaving as if in a punk concert mosh pit, shoving their way to stand on the altar where the Emperor made a burnt offering to Heaven. Through all the feet, we were at least able to catch fleeting glimpses of the altar.

We passed an outdoor market on the way out, stopping to buy dried kiwi. Back on the streets we realized the metro entrance was at another end of the complex, far away, and there was no way back in, short of paying again. Thankfully we found a bus back to south Tiananmen (Ness recognized the correct characters) and walked the tunnel under the street to the Forbidden City, dodging more “art students” and suited-men demanding we take their travel service to the Wall.

The Forbidden City covers a smaller area than the Temple of Heaven, but it has a lot more buildings – a small city's worth, essentially. This is where Emperors, their households, the entirety of the government lived for five centuries, cut off from the common people. It is a feast for the eyes, every alleyway and enclosed garden felt like walking through another age. Still, it was hard not to think of the enormous gap between the lifestyle of the royal and peasant-class. I had the same thoughts at Versailles years ago– the sheer opulence of that palace is almost suffocating, especially taken in the context of the time. Unlike Versailles, however, the excesses of the Forbidden City are more aesthetically pleasing, with intricate sculpted dragons and painted archways, and not so much gold-plated this, and jewel-encrusted that.

Later that night the city exploded into celebration. Up until now fireworks had been going off daily ever since the start of the New Year, louder and more frequent in Beijing than in Mudanjiang or Harbin. But this night in particular was intense. Searching for a restaurant on the street near our hotel, we dodged explosions left and right. Rockets whizzed passed our heads, sparkling fountains of light sprouted in every direction. It was like moving through a war zone, bright and chaotic and deafening. We later learned it was the 5th night of the New Year festival – the birthday of the Chinese god of wealth. All the fireworks are to get the god's attention, ensuring his favor and good fortune.

Ball's in your court, Money god. Best deliver.