Thursday, October 24, 2013

Day 5 – Is that a hackey sack in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

I’m rather exhilarated as I write this.  I feel almost as though I am going on vacation all over again tomorrow!!  Is that because I just came back from a good run?  A run that I didn’t expect to fit in today?  Maaaybeee…….. More likely it’s that I am going on vacation all over again tomorrow.  I’m going to Shanghai tomorrow!! J

In some ways, today was a good day to prepare me to leave Beijing.  I don’t want to suggest I was disappointed with today – I am, after all, on vacation in Beijing! I just found today to be a little under-whelming in some ways, and I am really sick of the endless traffic jams in this sprawling, core-less city. 

Case in point: I’ve been confused by the apparent lack of nightlife in Beijing.  Not only around my hotel, but anywhere we’ve been – no bars, no clubs; not even karaoke!  As I had a few minutes this afternoon, I wandered into a Starbucks to take advantage of some free Wi-Fi, and looked up “Beijing night life” on Google.  Found it!  Multiple websites recommending I check out this one neighbourhood.  I looked on Google maps and saw this neighbourhood was 19km from my hotel.  That’s a hike, but cabs are pretty cheap here, and that’s what – a 20 minute cab ride?  Guess again, Matt.  With traffic, that’s an hour!!  Guess I won’t discover Beijing clubs on this trip.  Oh well, Shanghai is supposed to be the more fashionable city, right?

We got an early start this morning in order to fit in a Tai Chi lesson.  As lessons go….it was pretty poor.  With no introduction or explanation, the instructor led us through the series of 24(?) movements in a normal (or just her own…I’m not clear on that) Tai Chi routine.  Then Tony, our guide, showed us “fast Tai Chi”.  He seemed to be pretty good at it (and I’m glad he didn’t expect us to mimic him!), and then…that was it.  I don’t really feel that was much of a lesson.

The lesson was in the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven.  This temple is pretty spectacular!  The guidebooks tell you it was built in 1490…..though they neglect to highlight it was destroyed and rebuilt a few times…right up to 1751.  Following traditional Chinese mythology, the temple is round, representing the roundness of heaven.  The square, which represents the earth, is, well, square. (And I thought the Europeans were weird for thinking the earth is flat!) The interior of the temple is supported by 28 pillars – four representing the four seasons make up the innermost circle of supports.  The next circle consists of 12 pillars, representing the twelve months of the year.  Finally, the outermost circle of twelve pillars represents the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac.  By the way, I’m a cock.  I guess some of you already know that…..

First glimpse of heaven!

White pedestal to represent the clouds upon which heaven sits.  Blue tiles and paint to represent the sky. Gold pinnacle because gold is the colour of the gods. Red walls because red is a good luck colour for the Chinese.  Intentionally or not, the pinnacle acts as a lightning rod.  Must be pretty spectacular to see the temple of heaven making such an obvious connection with the heavens like that!

Large pyres for burning offerings at the Temple of Heaven.

Back to the park within which sits the temple. (I feel like this is that rhyme – “The House that Jack Built”.)  We weren’t the only ones doing Tai Chi. In fact, the whole park seems to be a gathering place for people doing Tai Chi, badminton, and A LOT of hackey sack.  When I write “people”, I should write “retirees”…or to further emphasize my point: “old people”!  I have never seen so many people who look to be in their sixties or over playing hackey sack with a deftness that….I was going to write “I couldn’t muster”, but I have such poor hand-eye coordination, that’s insulting to them.  They were agile, in any case!  Perhaps a ball of rice is the secret to graceful aging?

After the temple, we were off to visit Pearl Outlet.  Another sales pitch.  I’m starting to feel this trip is a bit like one of those “free” trips to learn about timeshares.  At least this is the last of these. (By the way, one of my fellow travelers explained that he had heard the Chinese government offsets the operating expenses of tour companies that include these visits in their trips.  So it’s not the direct kick-back I surmised about yesterday, but close.)  To make things worse, we spent over 45 minutes driving through traffic to get there.  Anyway, this was another lucrative excursion for the store, though I happily refrained from contributing to it.  I was more excited about our next stop: “old Beijing”.

I was psyched!  This is one of the things I had wanted to see – the old alleyways, or “hutongs”, built hundreds of years ago, many of which have been demolished in the last twenty years.  The remaining enclaves have largely been protected, and as such have begun to gentrify.  I’m thinking on my next trip to Beijing, I may spend a night or two in one of the hotels right in the hutongs to get a real feel for them.  After more time in traffic, we were off and walking down a narrow street.  We were invited in to dine with a Chinese family in their house, and had traditional family cooking.  Best meal I’ve had on this trip! (That isn’t necessarily saying much, as the food has generally been disappointing so far, but this meal was legitimately great!) Roasted garlicky eggplant was my favourite, but the other dishes – ginger bamboo, crispy dough of some sort, even potatoes with chicken and garlic beans with some meat were all really tasty!  We ate in the courtyard, which is how the family would do it in nice weather – only retreating inside from rain or cold.  It was magical – we were right in the middle of a city of twenty million people, and yet it was quiet and peaceful, the air smelled cleaner, and – looking up – I gazed through vines on a trellis, and the branches of a tree that our retired hostess’ grandparents had planted when they first got the place.  I could even lose myself to the sounds of birds singing.

Despite the repeated question from one of my Aussie counterparts on this tour, these are NOT canaries!

The rickshaw tour of the hutongs afterward was not exactly as I envisioned it.  Hard to lose oneself to the intrigue of a rickshaw ride through the old city with the endless squeaking of the grimy bike pulling the rickshaw, and a very unhealthy looking man riding said bike. Still, I got what I was looking for – a view into the traditional Beijing lifestyle.  Very cool!

Vendors flock to wherever tourists go, so it was no surprise that we were once again accosted by street vendors selling Rolex watches, Gucci handbags, scarves, etc. It’s actually a little sad to see how hard they will work for the equivalent of $4. I’m not particular good at bargaining. (I would put it this way: I am very good when I don’t really care whether I get the product for which I am bargaining.  This allows me to walk away with full confidence at any time. I’m rather poor at bargaining when I want the product.  Invariably, it’s the cheap stuff that I don’t really care about, so I’m good when I can save a dollar, but not so good when I might have saved twenty.)  However, I know that it is a game.  It’s a game to the vendor to see how much they can get out of the seller, and so it should be a game to the seller to see how good the deal can get.  Which is precisely why I don’t understand one woman on my tour who seems legitimately (and loudly) offended that the prices keep changing through bargaining.  Perplexing.  She seems to be buying more than just about anyone else on the tour, so maybe she’s feeling a pinch in her wallet?

I joined this optional tour this afternoon for the lunch and hutongs.  Unfortunately, that meant I was stuck going to two flea markets with the crowd as well.  Prior to arriving, Tony warned us that the markets were rife with pickpockets, and reminded us that this is a knock-off market.  “They will tell you they have the iPhone 8!” (For my mother and any other Luddites reading this, the newest iPhone is the iPhone 5.) The flea markets occasioned about another 2 hours overall in the bus, in traffic.  Sigh.  Lots of people bought lots of “designer” stuff.  I went and got a 30-minute foot massage for $10, including a whopping 32% tip! (For the record, it was a REAL foot massage – no knock-offs there.) Then I had a Chinese tea in Starbucks. Not exactly the same as the tea ceremony yesterday.

Dinner tonight was a product of the grocery store near my hotel.  Riddle me this: I bought a package of cookies, which has an outer wrapping, an inner tray, and individual packaging for each cookie; likewise, the bag of cashews I bought included an inner tray, as I suppose the bag isn’t enough packaging for the nuts?  However, the meat counter is just hunks of fresh or frozen meat.  No packaging.  Nothing to prevent someone from touching one and then taking another.  Nothing to prevent the spoiling of one to impact the lifespan and safety of another. Nothing to prevent flies from landing on them…. I’ll trust that the people who are preparing the meat I’m eating these days are cooking it enough to keep it safe.

Which brings me full circle: I am back in my room now, and I will shortly start packing for departure tomorrow.  5am wake-up call!  Bullet train tomorrow!  Despite the name “bullet”, it still takes 5 hours to get to Shanghai.  Maybe these trains aren’t as fast as I thought?  Maybe China really is that big…

Oh, and a couple more amusing anecdotes from today:

1.  Are Canadians really the only culture that knows about the rest of the world?
One of the Aussie couples on this trip struck up conversation with me today, asking where I live.  I told them Toronto (Charles and Vincee from Montreal actually know Ajax, but for the rest, it’s “Toronto”).

Aussies: Oh!  We’ve been to Canada.  We loved it.
Me: Where did you go?
Aussies: We were on a tour that went all over.  and the Inner Passage.  Canada’s beautiful!
Me: Yeah…I don’t really know that area very well, but I’ve spent a bit of time in Vancouver and Whistler, and they certainly are beautiful.
Aussies: We went to Whistler too.  All over Canada! I love the mountains.  Our biggest mountains would just be hills compared to yours.
Me: Well, I guess our biggest desert would be nothing compared to the Outback.
Aussies: Right!  Think about it – over three quarters of Australia is desert, and Australia is bigger than Canada!
Me: Um……………….yeah….it’s a big desert…….

2. I’m not a doctor, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night!

Actually, I didn’t.  I stayed at the Hilton Doubletree again.  However, I learned why so many people wanted to know what I thought of the TCM session yesterday.  I’ve been asked many times on this trip what I do for a living.  Each time, I reply that I’m a project manager for the Ontario Medical Association.  People remember parts of it.  (We’re on a tour together, but that doesn’t mean we care about each other.  I stopped asking people’s names by day #2, and now I don’t have a clue what the names are of one of the couples with whom I chat the most. Seems awkward to ask for their names now…)  At lunch today, someone turned to me and said: “So you’re a doctor, eh?”  Um…no.  I work for doctors.  I’m not medical.  Most of the table seemed surprised. 

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