Friday, February 29, 2008

Beijing Part III - The Great Wall

Getting to the Great Wall was a little difficult because our handy guidebook to Beijing (written in Korean) had guided us to a particular bus stop. At that bus stop were some hawkish vendors who were offering to take us to the wall at bargain prices in their own vans. Most of the regular bus drivers were too preoccupied to help us out.

So we decided to forget that place and ask back at the hotel. We ended up choosing a Great Wall tour company called Destination Travel that were recommended by the hotel. It was only $40 per person for transport to and from the wall with commentary. Some of the vendors back at the bus stop were offering us the same trip for around $15, but if you ever visit the wall I think the wiser choice is to go with a more reputable company. Cheaper vendors have been known to ramp up the price once the journey is underway.
On the way to the wall, we stopped off at this ceramics factory, where we were shown techniques on making coloured vases and other such things. I had a very vague interest in ceramics, which was confirmed again after the tour of the factory.

At the end of the factory tour, we were taken to this ceramics shop where we could buy produce. The factory itself was in the countryside and I think their main source of revenue comes from passing tourists. There were six of us on the tour, but the ceramics shop had 8 staff on duty who tried to coax us into buying ceramic pens, chopsticks and keyrings. I half-heartedly tried to bargain a $5 pair of chopsticks down to $1, but it didn't work. One of the other ladies on the tour bought a whole bunch of stuff though.

The Great Wall has a couple of focal points for tourists which are about 2 hours out of Beijing. We went to a place called Mutianyu, which has a cable car service. Luckily it was 'the best'.
I never settle for anything less.

As we walked up toward the cable car, a dog that belonged to a souvenir vendor looked on.

Good doggy.

The cable car trip was quite nice. Although cable cars seem quite scary to me because I'm afraid of heights, I took comfort in the fact that they are the safest form of transport with a 1 in 1.6 million chance of being involved in an accident. Just remember that the next time you're on one.

And then we were there. The Great Wall is a very long defensive wall running across the north of China for 6,500 kilometres. I'm unable to comprehend that kind of distance in my head. At the height of the Ming dynasty, more than 1 million men were employed to guard it. I couldn't help but thinking of an old Far Side cartoon where, at the completion of the wall, one guard says to another "Now this should keep that pesky dog out."

Heather makes the wall look a lot prettier than I do. On that particular day it was very cold and the winter sun was bright, making the photos pale.

At regular intervals along the wall are defensive forts that were guarded a long time ago. Lines of communication were kept open by smoke signals from these.

We walked for about 1 hour before reaching this super steep section. It rose up vertically for about 150 metres and took around 10 minutes to climb. By the end of it I was huffing and puffing. Apparently they built the wall with irregularly spaced steps to impede any advancing armies that managed to breach it. I guess the considerations of the tourist hordes of the future were low on their agenda.

But after the long hike we were rewarded with some spectacular scenery. The mountainous terrain surrounding the wall is stunning, but completely inhospitable. It makes you wonder how anyone could comprehend attacking such a position.

Here's a video I filmed while climbing the last section.

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall was restored back to its original glory with the help of a German company. This is where the restoration stops, about 2 kilometres from the cable car station.

On the way back down I tested the strength of the wall. It didn't budge one bit.

While we were walking back to our tour van we were confronted by a new wall - The Great Wall of Merchandise. A lot of these shops were selling exactly the same things, beach towels, curtains and snowglobes somehow related to the wall. One friendly female vendor with two teeth greeted us with "Hello, buy hat".

Also along the journey was this Bactrian camel. Bactrian camels are endangered in the wild now and are restricted to the plateaus of Mongolia, where they survive by eating snow. Contrary to popular belief, camel humps do not contain water, but fat which is then metabolised into energy and water. After I took this photo an old lady screamed at me that a photo of it costs 1 yuan. I was under the impression that it was within the public domain, being on the pathway and all. I would have paid if she asked nicely.

Back in the hotel we had a short rest before venturing out into the nearby shopping areas. The prices in these outlets were noticeably higher than in Korea so we refrained from buying anything. On this floor we were the only two customers in the area, with about 50 retail staff who were watching us and pretending to rearrange items on the counter.

In one of the DVD shops we went to later that day, I spotted some imitation movies. Pirated movies are copied without license, but some of these movies like 'Ratatoing' (a copy of Ratatooie by Pixar), had been completely redrawn and given a similar script to capitalise on popularity but avoid legal issues. It reminds me of a similarly written Chinese Harry Potter book entitled 'Harry Potter and the Filler of Big'.

I'd never actually been to a massage parlour before. I always found the concept of someone massaging me to be a little too over-indulgent. But I gave it a go anyway. In China, a one-hour massage will cost you $20 at the more upmarket places. A policeman who seemed to be guarding the business guided us in.

A range of different styles were on offer including foot, face and 'lymph node' massages. These buckets in the doorways were filled with scented water for the feet. We chose a general body massage which was quite enjoyable. I found it funny when the lady massaged my eyeballs. My old hairdresser in Korea used to do that too. I need to learn how to say 'Leave my eyeballs alone' in Korean.

Here's Heather getting ready in her outfit. We were massaged in the same room and Heather told me what to say in Chinese if they started massaging too close to any naughty parts. But they massaged quite appropriately and the time went by surprisingly quickly. I found out that I have a ticklish spot on my back that can only be triggered with an elbow.

For our last night in Beijing we went to a famous hotpot restaurant that our tour guide recommended to us. It was quite busy and only 2 blocks from our hotel.

The customer service was excellent. When we asked what was in one of the dishes, the waiter behind Heather took pains to describe every aspect of the dish in minute detail. Heather is smiling in this photo because she then proceeded to practice her Chinese and inquire about each dish on the menu. The waiter diligently described every dish she pointed to and approximately 30 minutes later we had chosen our meals.

The hotpot had a divider in the middle separating regular soup from spicy stock. We went all out and ordered a whole lot of different dishes. The meats and vegetables are dipped in the stock until cooked, similar to shabu-shabu in Korea or sukiyaki in Japan. It was pretty good.

These herbs came with the meat. Korea is devoid of many different herbs, making exotic cooking very difficult. I've only seen coriander in Korea once and I've never seen Thai basil.

We left the hotel in the early hours of the morning to catch our flight. Beijing was an interesting city and distinctly different from Korea and Japan.

On August the 8th, 2008 at 8pm, the Olympic games will begin. Beijing has chosen this particular time because the number 8 is considered lucky in China. All across the city preparations are underway for this massive event. I'm sure it will be incredible for those who can make it over.

Well that wraps it all up for Beijing! It's definitely a destination worth visiting and a country with a promising future. I'd go back if I had the chance, but I also have Shanghai and Taipei high on the list.

For the next post we'll be back in good ol' Korea. See ya!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Beijing Part II - Sights, Sounds and Food

We declined to take a full tour-guided package because we wanted to do things in our own time. Heather lived in China before and speaks fluent Chinese, so we were free to make our own choices for the whole time we were there. If you get to travel with someone who knows the local language, it's infinitely more convenient.

We woke up early to head out to the Great Wall, but got a bit confused at the bus station. A strange man told us in Chinese that he could take us there and back for about $40 each. He said he'd wait at the bottom of the mountain until we'd finished sightseeing and then take us home. After Heather told me that, we decided that on a scale of 1 to 10 for trustworthiness, he was about a 2. So we decided to leave it for the time being and investigate further. Because we had freedom to choose what to do, we left and decided to see the Forbidden City instead. This photo is of Tiananmen Square, which is directly opposite. The square itself is large, but not as large as I had previously imagined.

In front of the Forbidden City, security is a little tighter. These soldiers were marching up and down the sidewalk. Others were standing and looking ahead sternly. I would have had a photo taken with them if I was game enough.

And here is the quintessential tourist's Beijing photo. Upon arriving in front of the Forbidden City I felt like I had made a small pilgrimage to a noteworthy corner of the globe.
Crowds constantly poured in through the gates.

The Forbidden City itself is huge. Heather told me there were once 999 rooms. Once upon a time the emperor of China was confined to living here and unable to leave. It was named the Forbidden City because no one was allowed to enter without the emperor's permission. The name Beijing means 'Northern Capital'.

The grounds consist of many temple-like structures and courtyards that lead into each other. The entire construction itself was rebuilt and extended over hundreds of years by the various dynastic kings and tyrants. If you walk at a reasonable pace, it takes you over an hour to walk from one side to the other.

This is the largest stone carving in the palace and consisted of water and dragons. It was carved in another city a long time ago and was incredibly heavy. The workers waited until the roads became icy in winter and transported it to Beijing by sliding it with ropes.

At the end of the Forbidden City you are greeted with the sight of a temple off in the distance. A lot of the architecture in the area emphasises harmony and symmetry. The grounds themselves were very spaced out and large. I admit that we did get a little bored after walking for a couple of hours.

This defensive moat runs around the whole palace. It's 52 metres wide and 6 metres deep. Because we visited in the middle of winter, the entire thing was frozen over. I'm still not used to seeing so much ice outdoors.

After a long walk around the palace grounds we decided to track down this famous Peking duck restaurant. It's name is Quan Ju De and it's one of the most well known restaurants in Beijing. During Kim Jong Il's last state visit to Beijing in 2006 he wanted to eat at this restaurant. Apparently he requested to the management that they close the restaurant to the public on that particular day. The restaurant management refused, saying they had other customers to attend to. Mildly disappointed, but without his normal dictatorial powers, he came anyway. After that incident the restaurant's popularity soared.

The restaurant is quite large and on multiple floors. I'd estimate there were around 100 staff working on the lunch shift. The restaurant has been running continuously since its opening in 1864 during the Qing dynasty. I was eager to find out why.

In China they don't translate the menus as frequently as they do in Korea and Japan. But at this restaurant they did have some basic translations. I decided to let Heather order and she wisely chose the Peking duck.

There are no real words to describe how good this duck is. The skin is light and slightly crispy. The oil is flavoured with tea and herbs making it heavy yet somehow light in texture. The meat itself is full of flavours that are incredibly balanced and difficult to describe. It's like eating the finest wine that happens to be a piece of duck. I couldn't help but chew each bite slowly. You must try it for yourself.

The normal way to eat it is to wrap it up in special pastry with sauce and spring onion. The sauce is amazing too. It's slightly tangy and sweet, not overpowering, but with enough kick to complement the duck perfectly. I give this dish a 9.5 out of 10 (I've never given a 10 before).

The service was also excellent. Staff were always available and friendly. In the toilets there was a waiter whose job it was to welcome you to the toilet and after you'd washed your hands, to hand you a piece of paper towel using a pair of tongs.

In this video a waiter is wrapping up a piece of duck for Heather. At the end of the meal, upon seeing the extent of our satisfaction, the waitering staff gave us a certificate informing us that we had just consumed the 565,306th duck ever served. I'm not particularly sure how accurate that could possibly be, but it certainly was a nice gesture.

After sitting for a while in Quan Ju De and reflecting on how amazing the duck was, we decided to venture out. In the nearby vicinity was a very crowded street lined with carnival-type stalls where people could play games and win prizes. I'm guessing it was so crowded because of the festive season.

Crowds in Beijing are crowds indeed. You feel like you're part of a river of humanity when you're stuck in one. Which is fine if you choose to follow the path that the river wants to follow, but if you want to stop and look at something or turn back, the river will put up some formidable resistance. I shot this video while walking in the middle of the street.

Plenty of people were playing the various games which were similar to your standard 'throw something into something and win' type affair. But there was something strange about the prizes. Those Garfield faces just didn't look quite right.

After that we turned a corner and headed into a more traditional street market. Here you could barter with the locals and pick up things like carved ornaments or pictures of Chairman Mao. In China it's still common to bargain at virtually every street stall. If the vendor knows you are from overseas, they'll typically inflate the price at least 3 times. I asked for the price of a shirt and a vendor first told me 120 yuan (about $15). As we started to walk away, he shouted lower and lower prices at us for every step we took. Eventually we turned back when he offered it for 25 yuan.

This man was rather interesting. He was blowing soft candy into different shapes like a glass blower. He could make rats, dogs and different vegetable shapes.

We turned down an alley and found this little place, appropriately named because it was tucked away where the crowds were noticeably thinner. We ventured in to find some bottled water.

This was rather curious. They offered eggs for sale at a reasonable price, but for about half that, you could buy accidentally-cracked eggs. What a bargain.

While upmarket bars and hotels have prices similar to what you find in Western cities, supermarket produce is incredibly cheap. These fruitboxes cost 1.2 CNY each. You divide that number by 8 to get the approximate US dollar conversion. Cans of Tsingtao beer were only 27 cents.

Ten US dollars will get you one of these, 5 litres of peanut oil. Heart bypass surgery may cost a little more.

When we got back to the hotel after the day's events, I took out my money to examine it. I like using strange currencies because it feels like I'm using Monopoly money. In China, the highest banknote is 100 CNY, which is about $14. Everytime you use one of these, the receiver will hold it up to the light and examine it without exception. In hotels and department stores they have special scanners to check them. What I found interesting about the other denominations was that some of them were nice and clean while others were quite the opposite. I received a 1 CNY note that looked like it had been in a homeless man's sock for a year. I used it as quickly as I could. You can enlarge the photo, if you want.

Those coins are 1 mao each, which is equivalent to 1.4 US cents. Those two candy bars I got from Quiet Mart and were also a little intriguing. Although both were sealed, if you held them it soon became apparent that one was less than half the size of the other. I guess the quality control department was a little sleepy. And that bracelet at the top I bargained for in the markets and got for less than a dollar.

This ice-skating rink was part of the shopping complex attached to our hotel. It was fairly cheap so we decided to give it a go. Some of those little children were really good .

Heather had only been skating once in her life, so she was a little awkward. She eventually got the hang of it, although it just looked like she was walking on a slippery floor. She's a little shy about being on the blog and sometimes frowns at me for putting her photos up. If only she knew how many fans she had...

Ok, I know I'm going to get in trouble for this, but I can't resist. Here's a video of Heather skating. See what I do for you guys?

We saw these in WangFuJing when we returned for a second visit. They're scorpions and seahorses on skewers that can be fried and eaten. They also had crickets on skewers. I still say peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are stranger though.

In a restaurant we ate at later that night, they had fresh seafood. I asked Heather to put out her hand to get some scale in this picture. Those big white things are giant cockles.

Fried rice in China is superb. In order to get the right flavour, the wok needs to be very hot so it can be fried quickly with a slightly smokey taste. In Korea they prefer to use cooler frying pans and short-grain rice, so it tastes different. It was nice to enjoy the traditional style again.

These somewhat humourous rules near the hotel greet you before you use the escalator to go down. You see the same rules if you use the escalator to come up. It may have been more efficient to print one larger sticker with all the rules on them instead.

Oh well.

Part III coming soon!