Friday, July 13, 2012

last days in Hong Kong

We went out to a dinner theatre, a definite first for me, a recreation of the kind of show that would have been put on for the emperor in the Tang Dynasty (circa 600-900 AD). The costumes were lovely if a little garish (as Wil pointed out, things like gold thread, often a sign of cheap fabric today, would have been reserved for the very rich a thousand years ago). The music was interesting, often beautiful, except for the pan flute guy who played elevator music on speed — milking his every last second on stage. The cheesy factor was well over the top but I’m happy we went if only for Alice’s rapt face during the performance.

Our last morning in Xi’an was dampened by the pouring rain but we decided to head out all the same, exploring the narrow streets around the hotel. The girls had their nails painted by a lovely young thing who didn’t speak or understand a word of English. How do you say French manicure in Mandarin? I ended up doing a little colour-coded drawing and then watched her exchange sweet smiles with the girls.

We’d been seeing people carrying these little sandwiches in plastic bags for days and were hell-bent on finding them before leaving Xi’an. With five minutes ‘til our bus left we finally found them. Little round pucks of bread stuffed with pulled beef, hoisin sauce and spring onions. Yummy.

Back to Hong Kong and our heavenly quarters there. We took it easy and went out to dinner at Chez Patrick, a meal that put to rest any doubts about getting amazing french food in Hong Kong. We were treated like royalty. Patrick came out and chatted before wowing us in the kitchen. His wife, the pastry chef, emerged before her course and very shyly talked to us about what she’d whipped up.

At every opportunity Abby shows us a new dim sum restaurant. I think she has managed to cover the entire finger-licking range of Chinese cuisine in her ordering. There is always a great deal of shifting around as we try to find room on the lazy susan for all the amazing dishes.

Feeling like the horseshoe is very firmly planted, on wednesday we head down to the ferry piers at noon. Waiting for us is a yacht, and not just any yacht. We are joined by Abby’s good friend, Phoebe, Abby’s two sisters Ida and Cindy, Ida’s husband Kenneth, Cindy’s daughters Annabel and Gigi and their respective boyfriends Fred and Joe. What an amazing group of people. After a few bottles of wine, the Cantonese was coming fast and furious and it was strange (and wonderful) feeling so totally included without understanding a single word. We motored through the harbour, competing with container ships the size of small towns, teeny sampans swaying like teeter-totters, overpowered jetfoils and catamarans zipping by on their way to and from Macau, and ferries hauling people to one of the hundred outlying islands. We broke through the traffic and made it around to Stanley, anchoring just off the coast from a minimum-security prison that was built to house British soldiers during the Japanese occupation. There was one other boat in the inlet, filled with young Hong Kongers having a party on the South China Sea. While James good-naturedly saved the financial world from what I feel was a very poorly-timed dip, the kids had a blast banana-boating around the harbour.

We got to know Abby’s family as we listened to mellow tunes (one of the huge perks of hanging out with two djs is the always perfect soundtrack) and wandered from lounge area to lounge area wine glass in hand, with the occasional dip in the refreshing water. Every minute or two I pinched myself wondering just how I ended up so damn lucky.

In the late afternoon, we went on to Lamma and got dropped off for dinner on the island. We walked through a long strip of restaurants, each with its own little highrise of aquariums filled with bubbling water and every sea creature known to man. Ida steered us into the last one on the strip, the hilariously named “Hilton”, where we chatted and drank some more overlooking the harbour. Out came the dishes. Abby and Ida make a mean meal-ordering team. The ever-present fried rice for Alistair, langoustines, lobster split length-wise served with a cheese & onion sauce on noodles, massive steamed shrimp, scallops, garoupa, amazing mini-clams in black bean sauce, barbecued chicken, garlicky greens and lots of little dipping bowls of vinegar, oyster sauce, chili sauce. The wine continued to flow.

Back to the boat for a speedy return to Hong Kong Harbour in time for the eight o’clock laser show. All the lights of a hundred highrises controlled centrally for maximum effect. It’s a spectacular show and all the more impressive lying on one’s back on a yacht bobbing in the bay.

Our last full day in Hong Kong we were back at the terminal and jumped on a ferry to Cheung Chau full of families and teenagers on summer holiday, off to enjoy a day out of the metropolis. Less than an hour later, we pulled into the tight harbour—sampans and junks, fishing boats and dragon boats all competing for space. Some of the smaller vessels, draped with yards of sun-faded fabric, were obviously home for some of the locals.

We rented bikes, a three-wheeler with an awning and a double seat for Wil and the girls while Henri and I got our own two-wheelers (after crashing our three-wheeler into a few too many walls). 35 degrees and not a lick of shade. All the buildings no more than three stories high, which was a a welcome change from the endless skycrapers and elusive sky of Hong Kong. With no motorized vehicles on the island, save a very small ambulance, the foot and bike traffic was intense. We wheeled around and watched giggly teenagers taking turns pulling each other around, kids in uniform cycling home from school and old men transporting their wares across the island, standing astride their bikes and pushing their feet along the ground. Many of the adults’ bikes were kitted out with training wheels. We did the tour of the south part of the island and then dropped the bikes back off at the rental stand. We cross edover to the other side to find one of the island’s beaches, a rectangle of sandy shore and water roped off with buoys. Fishermen in tiny boats ply the waters just beyond the floats. Packs of kids stand knee deep in the water and pose for endless photos, couples lounge under parasols. The lifeguards strut and pose self-importantly. Three round steel rafts float a few hundred metres out. Henri, Frances and I swim out. I realize once we’re out above head level that no one else is. No one knows how to swim.

The kids ate potatoes cut in spirals which were deep fried on skewers. Other people ate ping pong fish balls or chomped on frozen chunks of colourful fruit kebabs. Every little nook of every narrow alley is a stall or a restaurant or a store. The ferry back was an eye-opener. The upper deck was full of young teenagers coming back from a fun day on the island. We shared our table with a few girls who behaved like all teenagers — alternating between looking very bored or sleepy and super animated as they flit about, chatting with their pals at other tables. A very pretty group of girls amid a gang of gangly boys. It took me half the ride to figure out why they all looked so gorgeous. Not a drop of makeup on any of them. In North America, perhaps in Europe too, they would be walking advertisements for every makeup manufacturer. Not so for teenagers in Hong Kong — no lip gloss, no mascara, no foundation, just a bunch of very naturally pretty young things. A welcome change from the kids at home who perhaps don’t realize they’re gilding the lily.

We walked back through Central, avoiding all the trams and traffic on the elevated walkways — a boon in the rainy season and also in today’s scorching sun. We hop back on the MTR out to Chai Wan to visit Abby’s Pure Art Foundation headquarters and studio. Two beautiful, raw redecorated spaces in industrial buildings overlooking what appeared to be the recycling triage centre of Hong Kong. The kids were whisked off by Marietha and Robert to visit with sister Cindy and her eleven dogs and we went on to meet James at Zuma, following Abby through a maze of malls and walkways, never setting foot into the hazy heat of Central. We emerged from an elevator into a space that is all glass and tile. Sky high walls of wine, beautiful waitstaff bring us rough ceramic platters and plates stacked with elegantly displayed sashimi and sushi and uni.

Wil and I spend our last morning like our first in Hong Kong, scaling the steep hill behind Hong Lok Yuen. The stairs go up and up the hillside, the handrails a homemade confection of vacuum piping and recycled metal. We climb and climb, the hangover and the heavy, humid air leave us gasping. Everyone we cross greets us with a very jolly “Djo san!” We huff and puff our way up the endless stairs, feeling very virtuous and even more unfit. At the top we find a foursome of retired folk who obviously don’t share our opinion that the ascent is exercise enough. They’re busily swinging their legs and doing tai chi as they chat. We admire the view and then retrace our steps, taking a nice dip to cool off before packing our bags for home.

One last dim sum feast for the road. A too big table with a too little lazy susan had us all stretching comically across the table. It brought a Chinese parable to mind for Abby (perhaps every nation has its version); the story of a guide and visitor off to see heaven and then hell. The visitor remarked that people in both places were given three-foot-long chopsticks to feed themselves. “Is there no difference then, between the two?,” the visitor asks. The guide explains “In hell, the people only try to feed themselves and end up starving. In heaven, they feed each other.”

I don’t believe in heaven but if I did I know where Abby and James would end up.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Chengde to Xi'an

The morning was spent at the Mountain Resort, a beautiful compound of buildings in a park setting, like the Forbidden City
only with mature pine trees everywhere. Pagodas set in the water, people singing and knitting and playing. When the kids get bored, they pull out the hackysack and kick it around with Eric. An older Chinese man from a tour joins in and soon his whole tour group in their matching orange caps are watching and taking pictures.

The lake is pretty, but the water is stagnant. Spaces that were grass are dry, packed earth. The potential for beauty is there but the foot traffic is just too intense. I guess this is what overpopulation looks like. You really get a sense that the natural resources are stretched beyond all coping.

We said a very sad farewell to Eric. What a host. And got on our flight to Xi’an. I am sitting beside a guy who says a warm hello when we sit down. He strikes up a conversation. His English is fantastic although he keeps informing me that it’s not, tapping on his forehead when an English word escapes him. He wants to emigrate to the US. Not to live there. He wants to stay in China but he desperately wants the freedom of movement. In an effort to build his own business, he travels 28 days of the month, never getting to see his wife and four-year-old daughter, a situation that obviously pains him a lot. When I talk to him about worker’s rights and the west’s inability to understand why factory workers are asked to work as many hours as they do never mind WHY they would want to work as many hours as they do. He answers that people are desperate to get ahead. “Your parents and your parents’ parents,’ he says, ‘they make the good choice. My parents and my parents’ parents make a wrong choice. Now we have to… catch up.” He and his wife would love to have another child but would have to pay the local government 300,000 yuan to do so. Some cities charge up to 500,000. The rich are the only ones who get to have big families. “I am anxious. I am very worried, he says, clutching at his chest, for the future. We can not trust what the government says. We need many changes.”

The flight gets in very late but Vivian, our new guide and Mr. Wang, the driver, are there to greet us. We chat with Vivian on the hour-long drive into Xi’an. We get a brief glimpse of the wall that separates what they call the “inner city” and the “outer city”, an intact wall that stands at least 30 feet high and almost 50 feet across with a six-metre moat surrounding the whole thing. It is lit up with a long line of red lanterns hanging from stylized dragons.

In the morning we go to a tiny little museum. We’re the only people there — a welcome respite from the crowds and jostling. A lovely woman walks us around, giving us a brief but fascinating history of the techniques and eras of Chinese art. We get a lesson in calligraphy, learning some basic characters and the strokes that make up the language. I hadn’t realized that there is also an order to how the strokes are made, top to bottom, left to right. On the drive to the Terracotta Warriors, I try to get a handle of some of what I learned at the museum pointing out characters I recognize and asking Vivian for confirmation of their meanings. Yes, that is the sign for door, but in this context, she explains, it means something completely different. I give up. I’ve always been able to get at least a basic handle on the language of the country I’m visiting but I just can’t seem to retain a word of Mandarin from one minute to the next.

Out to the site of the Terracotta warriors. The highway is a hairy reminder of just how scary the driving is in mainland China. One car completely stopped in the passing lane attempting to reverse (in the passing lane) to the exit he just missed. We are ferried to the site of the warriors on little electric carts.

The size of a football pitch, perhaps bigger, the trenches are 7 metres deep. The crowds are pretty thick but nothing like the Forbidden City. Dodging the tour leaders’ flags, we manage to get a good look wherever we go. There are over six thousand warriors and they stand in 11 columns guarding the tomb of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, which lies 1.5 km to the west. Except for the last infantrymen on the outside who stand with their backs to their comrades, flanking the army, every one faces east. Can you say intimidating? The scale is mindboggling. The Emperor ordered the construction when he ascended at 13 and work lasted until he died at 50 of mercury poisoning, which he was ironically taking to stave off illness. They’ve been at work here, painstakingly putting the pieces back together, since it was discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974. A large section of the back of the building is given over to the “hospital”, where warriors are assembled before being returned to their original position in formation. When we manage to get close enough, I can’t get over the detail. Creases in the palms, treads on the soles of the shoes, individual hairs. Every single one of the warriors is unique. Sadly, most of the weapons were looted but of those that survived, the blades are still razor-sharp and intact, having been surfaced with chromium oxide (something westerners didn’t figure out ‘til the 18th century).We’re talking 200 BC here! We visit two another pit and check out two bronze chariots which were buried slightly nearer the tomb which were meant as vehicles for his soul’s use in the afterlife. They are half size but exquisite. Vivan tells us there are more than 500 burial pits in a 60km circle; enough work to keep archeologists busy for a long, long time.

As we get from place to place, we chat with Vivian about life in China. She talks about the people’s mistrust of the government line, citing the high speed train crash last year. The official story is that 39 passengers died, but she says people just don’t believe it. She talks about medical care and how people sit in emergency wards untreated until the money is paid up front for care. She said that a couple of years ago the government blocked facebook and blogspot in China, requiring users logging on to use their mobile numbers as their usernames, thereby eliminating all hope of anonymity. The price of critical writing online arrests, imprisonment or worse. As we drive by the imposing city wall and the moat, it occurs to me that this era is only the latest in a long line of oppressive dynasties in China — the walls no longer physical but technological as the government parses everything before it finds (or, more tellingly, doesn’t find) a home on the internet. The lack of gathering places for the people in city planning right up until the cultural revolution a sure sign of the dynasties’ awareness of where the real power lies. Divide and conquer. Vivian’s mother was in middle school when Mao came to town. Abandon school was the message. Leave the city. Go to the countryside and grow food to feed your countrymen. It is apparent Vivian mourns the life her bright mother never got to lead.

We go out for dinner to a dumpling banquet, the dish that Xi’an is apparently famous for. In the entrance of the three-storey restaurant, we find dumplings in the shape of the Chinese flag. The restaurant is an absolute zoo. Round tables of ten on their feet doing shots of baiju (Chinese firewater). Everyone is getting totally soused. Waiters wander around with teetering towers of dumpling steamers. The kitchen is a huge production line of staff in white, hunched over worktables, carefully folding the myriad stuffings into wrappers. We order a bottle of wine (wine from grapes, we need to specify, unless we want to drink baiju). The cocktail waitress, dressed like a volleyball player in shiny t-shirt and green shorts and pushing around a little cart of booze, brings us a bottle of Great Wall. Our expectations for Chinese wine aren’t high but after a few sips James realizes that the bottle is corked and Abby attempts to return the bottle. “But it’s not past the expiration date”, the waitress contests. Abby patiently tries to explain. “But it’s brand new. I just opened it!”, the waitress retorts. In the face of explaining the ins and outs of corks and what they can do to a bottle of “grape” wine, we give up and move on to Tsingtao. We emerge from the restaurant to find a square full to bursting with people out enjoying their Saturday night. Techno music blasts from a ghettoblaster and teenagers dance around. With little else to look at, people gather around the teenagers and watch them doing their self-conscious moves. We dodge busses and mopeds and tuktuks every time we cross the road. The most common shape of traffic at an intersection in Xi’an seems to be a herringbone. Drivers feel no compunction at speeding across oncoming traffic to make their turn. Pedestrians and drivers constantly involved in an elaborate game of chicken. Close to the hotel we come across twenty or more women lined up on a wider part of the sidewalk all waving their arms and prancing around to some music. You gotta love the 10p.m. streetside exercise class.

We wander around the city in the morning, getting lost in the narrow streets of the Inner City. People stare but usually return our smiles or “ni hows”. Occasionally they hold up three fingers asking if all three kids are mine. Most storefronts are miniscule, less than 40 square feet but managing to pack in everything under the sun. People sit out on the sidewalks, workers shell shrimp or push bits of meat onto kebabs, we see roasting vats of sesame seed paste, whole chickens and ducks in windows, coal fires toasting walnuts. People hunch over bowls of noodles. The streets and sidewalks are slick with oil and dirt and rubbish. It’s no wonder people remove their shoes on the thresholds of their homes. Grandparents sit on short stools hold and feed babies while the parents run the shop. I don’t know if this exists outside of China, but until about two babies rarely wear diapers. Instead, their pants are slit from belly button to tailbone and they pee or squat at will. Must save a lot of laundry.

We wander through the Muslim neighbourhood of Xi’an. A stallholder has tiny little steamers stacked up on her counter beside a long line of colourful jars. The steamers hold little pats of sticky rice which she mounts on two skewers then slathers with chocolate or fruit jelly and then dips in sunflower seeds. The kids feast as we check out the stalls. Vendors sell lamps and Mao trinkets, t-shirts, scarves. You have to be ready to haggle and haggle hard. Wil has got the “walk away” technique mastered, getting his price on everything. The doorway to the mosque is tucked in among the stalls. We step through the door into an oasis of peace. Everything looks ancient, the woodwork is dusty, the colours are all a bit grey and there’s something a bit strange about seeing Chinese men dressed in white jalabas and taqiyahs but the quiet is wonderful.

We spend a glorious afternoon on the wall. We rent bicycles and do the nine-mile loop, refreshed by the warm, gentle rain that is falling and watching the world go by.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Temple of Heaven and on to Chengde

The Temple of Heaven was divine. Originally conceived as a place for the Emperor to make offerings at the winter solstice for an abundant harvest, it is now open to the public, a big park with covered walkways and some open spaces for people to gather. The buildings are exquisite but the people really made the atmosphere. Strolling along the walkways was fascinating — clusters of ladies in one section, colourful balls of yarn tucked into their bags. They knitted elaborate handbags and crocheted shoes as they chitchatted. There was a games section with some groups playing cards, others hunching over Chinese checker boards. The more heated the game the bigger the crowd gathered around them. Some people sat with sheet music in their laps and sang along to recordings of traditional music.

In the open spaces it’s all about exercise, women stand in loose formation and swing rackets strung with loose material. They flip and flick the racket, cupping a ball strung with ribbon, trying to keep it in constant contact with the face of the racket. Other little groups play a version of hackysack, only they’re flat-bottomed rubber doodads done up with colourful feathers. Men and women in their sixties kick their feet up in front and behind them, delivering killer shots to their partners. Other people play music — erhus, flutes, harmonicas, some accompany women singing opera.

Frances and I went back to the hotel after lunch because of an earache. On the way back we pass a restaurant where a line of waitresses in uniform stand on the sidewalk facing their manager, getting instructions for the evening in a hierarchical military style. The rest of the gang went on to the Lama Temple.

We spent the evening walking in the night market, the kids navigating the place like pros, completely unintimidated by the total language barrier. I suppose Mexico prepared them for this. They haggle with a confidence I can’t even fake.

Early morning departure to Chengde (pronounced Cheungd’uh as in d’uh!) The drive was amazing. Although Beijing is great it was a relief to see the city disappear behind us. The countryside is gorgeous. The farm buildings are low-slung affairs, long and shaped like a speed-skater’s helmet. The trees are familiar, lots of pine and birch and cedar. The government has invested a ton of money planting millions of trees in an effort to counteract the pollution problem. James confirms that the air quality of Beijing has greatly improved in the last ten years. After the farmland, the mountains start popping up alongside the road, unfriendly jagged things. If you keep your eyes on the foothills, little men in coolie hats pepper the woods, hacking away at the shrubbery. The tiniest little parcel of nominally flat land is sown in some kind of crop – mostly corn, sometimes squash and cucumber. I keep forgetting that all this land — all of this country — is owned by the state. Eric tells us you can buy a house or an apartment in the city but the land it sits on reverts to the state at the end of a seventy-year lease. Because no lease has expired as of yet no one really knows how it’s all going to go down. The countryside is leased in parcels to farmers but no one farms their own land. James says the country is exploring the possibility of small freeholds to tackle the country’s inability to supply itself with food.

It may be the rainy season but there doesn’t seem to be much water. And it can’t be new because the riverbeds are full of grass and often sown with a crop or planted with trees. The mountains around us grow taller, ringing the road in what seems an impenetrable curtain and then, along the top, a lookout post or two pop up and between them a long line of the Great Wall. Again, I can’t believe I am seeing the Wall and that it’s just “there”. The road which, like much of this country, seems brand spanking new, cuts through the mountainsides, in impressive kilometres-long tunnels.

We marvel at the lack of road manners. James points out that as a country of first generation drivers it’s no surprise that what we consider the basic rules of the road are in no way adhered to. You get the sense that many of the drivers honed their skills in a video arcade — weaving in and out of traffic, opting for the shoulder as though it were a perfectly viable alternative to the other lanes. We witnessed an interesting encounter between a bus driver and a car driver who decided he didn’t want to vacate the passing lane. Once we were out of his way the bus driver managed to finally get around him and then pulled back in front of the car, first squeezing him onto the shoulder to make his point.

We arrived in time for lunch at a little restaurant with a whole wall of aquariums filled with a variety of fish and a dozen fat frogs. A few of the fish were floating belly up so we stuck to the meat dishes. As we were wrapping up our meal, two of the waitstaff went up to the aquariums and starting netting some of the fish and putting them in plastic bags. A few managed to get loose and flopped around on the floor. One of the guys tried stomping on a fish’s head to stun it but instead sent it skidding dramatically across the tile floor toward our table.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the Putuo Zongcheng Temple, a copy of Lhasa’s Potala Palace. Endless sets of stairs going ever higher in a series of simple but beautiful wooden structures. While the Imperial palaces are all about earthly comforts, the Tibetan palace feels like it’s all about the sky. Bricked-up windows are the only decoration in the towering plasterwork walls. Buddha and his attendants sit in cool, darkened rooms, hands poised in positions that speak of calm composure. Strings of colourful prayer flags flutter in the wind. The sky, “Sledgehammer Peak”, a finger of rock that points skyward across the valley and the wall of Chengde’s nearby Mountain Resort are the backdrop. While we walk I talk to Eric who patiently answers my questions about his family’s experience of the Cultural Revolution. As a close relative of the emperor, his Manchurian dad was arrested and his house stripped of everything of value. His oldest brother, who was nine at the time, had to ride his bike several kilometres across town to bring his father lunch and dinner at the prison. He wasn’t big enough to reach the pedals and sit on the seat at the same time. His father’s sentence lasted six months — basically until he agreed to revoke his Manchurian heritage, thereafter identifying himself as Han Makes me wonder just how many of the dominant 92% Han were of another ethnicity before the revolution.

After the temple tour we walk down a ramp that could just as easily have led to an underground parking into the town market. We are almost flattened by scooters on the way down. Inside, the combined smell of exhaust and fish is overpowering. We come back up on escalators that haven’t worked in a long time, the narrow space between them transformed into a makeshift display for slippers. We go to the supermarket and poke around the aisles. The salesgirls giggle and gawk. We buy fresh doughnuts for the kids, puffy balls of dough dipped in sesame seeds, the filling a mix of linseed and sweet cream. Later, we stroll along the boardwalk by the wide river that cuts downtown in two. There is a space by the water set up with workout machines made of piping and seats set into the concrete. A dozen people of all ages pump their legs in cross-country skiing machines and stationary bikes. One old guy stands in front of a back scratcher and goes at it for twenty minutes. Another young man pulls himself up on the parallel bars and wows us with his acrobatics. Back up on the boardwalk couples wander hand in hand, moms shoo their kids away from the water, fishermen cast their lines. Whether the fish from this poopy-smelling water is at all edible is another matter. The roads and bridges all look so new. You can practically see this country transforming before your eyes. As in Mexico, the kids are our “in”. The stares and giggles they incite have calmed by the time we pass by, giving the shocked passersby time to recover enough to decide whether they’re going to scowl or smile at us.

We pop into a beer garden, a covered area on the boardwalk set up with plastic tables and chairs. Wil and James have a Tsingtao, the kids have cokes and we watch the world go by. The surly waitress delivers beer and orders of barbecued meat to the tables around us. A pair of guys sit at one table with four giant draft beers, three little bottles of baiju (local firewater) and a heap of skewered meat.

We stop for dinner at a crazy restaurant — a sterile-looking tiled white corridor with doors opening left and right onto semi-private rooms with round tables for ten. A pane of opaque glass separated the two ten-person tables. The table next door was having a great time, welcoming us with a wave as we came in. I get to sit beside Alistair, who is as charming as can be. The waitresses come through the door and giggle at the gwailos. After dinner is served I notice that the girls loitering by our door change every few minutes as everyone takes their shift staring at the weird whities. We drink “Great Wall” wine and feast. The best hot and sour ever, amazing fried dumplings. Walking home from the restaurant we go through a little square and hear chinese-style waltz music playing. When we get close, we find dozens of couples, some men and women, some pairs of women dancing their hearts out. The kids jump into the fray. The onlookers start watching them instead of the dancing. One man tries hard to engage me in conversation which leaves me feeling totally useless. I can’t even retain the most basic vocab. What I do grasp is his line of questioning which is whether the three kids are all mine. All three? he asks, amazed. Yes, they’re all mine. When I am in public with the kids and people have enough time to do more than stare, the common reaction seems to be surprise that all three are mine. I had a boy. In China it would end there but I was lucky enough to go on and have two girls. Their surprise reflects just how blessed I feel. Fortunately for me, James steps in and answers the man’s follow up questions. The man’s amazement only grows as the big white guy answers him in Mandarin.

We have a nightcap at the hotel as the kids watch chinese adventure shows and we laugh about the hourly rates and the interesting accoutrements provided (at a cost) by our Yun Shan hotel no-tell.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Wally on the Great Wall

We started early, heading off toward the Great Wall with a stop in at a Cloisonné factory. Cloisonné is the technique used for those very decorated enamel Asian vases. Starting with sheets of copper which are hammered into shape, they then glue on little shapes with metal thread, fill the enclosed shapes with enamel, fire it and polish the hell out of it. A young woman greeted us when we arrived and took us through the rooms, showing us the artisans working on their part of the elaborate process. The guide’s high speed english in a very heavy mandarin accent was difficult to understand but she was so smiley and keen it was hard to interrupt her. The pieces, although not to my taste, were definitely impressive workmanship and it was crazy to imagine a product so refined coming out of that low block of grubby, basic rooms.

Along the road, vendors sit at the stalls selling all the local fruit that’s in season — peaches, cherries, apples, pears and watermelons.

Once we shoehorned our bus into the crowd, we walked up, past a long line of vendors, all selling identical kit. Cries of “Hey Rady! Wat a hat rady?” followed us up the hill. Mao t-shirts, ugly sunhats and golden waving cats all the way up to the chairlift. A long hike with four-year-old in tow was out of the question and in this heat it was a blessed relief to not have planned anything more strenous. Although getting off the chairlift without skis was an interesting experience.

The setting was mindboggling. Rough mountains of green with pale peach rock jutting out along the crests. The chain stretched off forever and it seemed atop every peak in sight was a pale string peppered with the occasional tower. As the string got closer, the wall came into focus. Originally constructed 2200 years ago, the wall was rebuilt and lengthened a further 2000 kilometres in 1404 — all to keep out those crazy Mongolians. Hard to imagine anyone getting over the structure but apparently the Mongolians managed in the 13th century, in the first war where firearms played a role. The distant past somehow feels very present in this country.

I still can’t quite believe we are here. The steps are uneven, sometimes four inches high, sometimes over a foot. We huffed and we sweated and were awestruck by this infinitesimally small part of the whole 6000 kilometres of wall that is restored and open to the public. The Mutianyu section we were on was short but spectacular. Crazy to think that beyond the section that was open to the public lie thousands of kilometres of overgrown wall.

The way down was a total hoot. On a toboggan. We all piled up on top of one another, going far slower than most of us would’ve liked but it was a blast all the same. We stopped in at a little country restaurant. The waitresses were gorgeous — teeny-tiny, wide-open wide Mongolian faces, meek and super smiley. Abby took on the menu and we feasted again. Way too much food. I thought that I would tire of eating Chinese but the variety and depth of flavours available could keep me going a long time yet. Roasted rainbow trout, dry-rubbed lamb with onions and cumin, chicken and chestnuts, taro-filled spring rolls dipped in sesame seeds, a crazy dish of sweet corn with deep-fried batter and sugar sprinkled on top. Delish.

We rolled on, stopping in at 798 art district, a former factory emptied in the government’s efforts to clean up the city by moving industry out of the centre. The unpolished, raw feel of the factory an amazing backdrop for contemporary art. It was a lot of fun to poke around and see what artists are doing in Beijing, not to mention check out all the best haircuts in town.

The drive was a welcome opportunity to pepper Eric with questions about life in China. He told us about the one-child policy, explaining that most people felt it a good idea to control the population — competition for jobs & housing being cutthroat as it is. The thinking is long-term and I can’t help but admire his ability to see the merits of a policy that will only benefit the generations to come. He did say that people ten years his junior had a lot of difficulty finding life partners, that only the richest, best-looking men get married. As a Manchurian, one of over fifty minorities that make up less than eight percent of the population of China, he’d be allowed two children.

He “celebrated” his 40th birthday just a few days ago. Manchurian tradition dictates that one doesn’t mark one’s birthday in any way if one’s parents are still alive. He told us that his birthday treat was the extra long noodles his mother would make him to signify longevity. He also told us that he was related to the Imperial family and would be a prince had history taken another turn. He is a lovely, funny guy. If any of you are planning a trip to Beijing I will happily hook you up with the best guide in town.

We dined at Dadong, the smallest in a chain of three restaurants in Beijing specializing in Peking Duck. To put it in perspective the largest of the three seats three thousand. In the centre of the restaurant stand four tall wood ovens manned by an army of chefs wielding big hooks they use to poke into the ovens. Between the ovens sits a wrought-iron frame where the cooked ducks are hung to drain before being transferred to waiting platters. Again we feasted, managing to fill the lazy susan that was five feet across with savoury dishes. If this is communism, it bears absolutely no resemblance to the ideology I learned about it in school. Bugati, Gucci, Chanel shops line the boulevards. The plentiful malls are filled with well-dressed people shopping for all the latest name brands. I’ve no doubt that much of what we've experienced is totally inaccessible to the vast majority of Chinese but there are people getting ahead here. Our visit has totally muddled all my thoughts about China. I can’t wait to see more. We’re off to Chengde tomorrow which, by happy coincidence, is Eric’s hometown so he’s coming along. In a country with dozens of cities of over two million people, Chengde’s population of half a million makes it a village by Chinese standards. There is a good chance that facebook and blogspot are blocked as they are everywhere but in this hotel. In the meantime I’ll keep typing and see when I next get online.


We landed in a soup of smog. The land barely visible until we felt the rattle of wheels on the ground. The airport (new since the Olympic Games) is vast and shiny. The officials whizz around on their Segways and scowl. The quality of the air is appalling. You can positively taste the pollution. I’m really hopeful that our four days here won’t be like this. We meet Eric, who is going to be showing us around. Abby’s sister Ida has pulled some sort of magic trick and hooked us up with some unbelievable accommodations. Everyone around us treats us like royalty. I could get used to this!

We go down into the basement (the hotel is over a shopping mall) to the food court for supper. We wander around looking at the amazing selection of food. It all looks great and is amazingly cheap. No money changes hands at the restaurants. You pay the cashier at the front to put money on your card. When you order your food they wave it over a machine to deduct the cost and you get refunded for what you didn’t spend as you leave. Another take on Hong Kong’s Octopus card. We could definitely take lessons from the Chinese on restaurant tech.

Wake up to beautiful sunshine. The view out one window is the rooftops of the Forbidden City. Outside the bathroom window I watch a busy intersection that appears to have no traffic signals. Three cyclists almost flattened in the space of two minutes. When we get out on the street I realize the lights are working, only noone pays them any mind. The English language Beijing paper reports on the happy return of Hong Kong to China. Abby shows us a news report (that is blocked in mainland China) of 400,000 Hong Kongers protesting in the streets.

We get a ride to the People’s National Theatre, or the Bird’s Egg as it is known by Beijingers to go along with the Bird’s Nest, and then on to Tian’anmen Square which is heaving with people. As Eric pointed out, it is low season for foreign tourists, who are scared off by the heat, but high season for Chinese who are on summer holiday. We are elbow to elbow with masses of people. Most follow a little red or yellow flag and a guide who is shouting into a little microphone. It’s all photo ops as people queue to have their picture taken underneath Chairman Mao’s portrait.

The only building within the 117 acre square is Mao’s mausoleum which was erected very shortly and very quickly after his death in 1976. We read somewhere that the present powers that be now wish it had never been built but that noone has the guts to take it down. At one end of the square are the gates to the Forbidden City. Mao’s huge portrait hangs over the door with an inscription in Chinese that basically says “We’re coming in, whether you like it or not”. The portrait is a bit of a blight on the gorgeous building but when we ask Eric how long he thinks it will hang there he answers, in a tone that leaves very little room for doubt, “Always.” The other buildings surrounding the square, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People are monoliths.

The Forbidden City is a veritable warren of courtyards and buildings. The scale of the place begins to boggle the mind and then you find out that you haven’t even entered the Inner Court. The details!! The hinges, the woodcarving, the gutters, the roofing! So many hours of painstaking labour.

The names of the structures demonstrate exactly what place the Emperor and his entourage felt they occupied in the universe; the Palace of Heavenly Peace, the Palace of Preserving Harmony, Palace of Heavenly Purity. It was believed, when the place was built back in 1420, that Heaven was made up of 10,000 rooms so the Emperor (oh the humility!) made sure the City only had 9999.

The Inner Court was reserved for the Emperor, the Empress, his thousands of concubines and the eunuchs who served them. For lineage’s sake, the only testicles allowed in the City were the emperor’s — except for those hanging in a little bag on the eunuchs’ waists! The story goes that the emperor would choose from a tray of tablets containing the concubines’ names to determine who would visit him that evening. The concubine would then be delivered on a eunuch’s back (their bound feet kept them from walking long distances) dressed only in a yellow wrap (the imperial colour).

Every inch of the place has significance — the number of creatures adorning the roof to ward off evil spirits come in nines, or sevens or fives depending on who inhabits the space. Dragons and phoenixes (for the emperor and empress) adorn every space occupied by the royal couple. Images of cranes and turtles, signs of longevity, abound.The whole of it is surrounded by a moat which connects it via canal to the Summer Palace where the Emperor and company spent some time escaping hot summer in the city over twenty kilometres away.

Lunch is dreamy thanks to Abby, who takes charge of the menu at mealtimes, ordering up a dozen or so dishes, each one more delicious than the last. The food in Beijing is very different from that of Hong Kong. Lots of yummy, goopy sauces. Lots of nuts. At 25 million strong, people from all over the country settle down here and it shows in the dishes which, according to Abby’s discerning palate, have the colours of many different provinces. She has taught us a lot about eating in China. When someone pours you tea, you tap the table with your index to show your thanks. When you drop a chopstick on the floor, you throw down the other for good luck.

After lunch, we visit the Summer Palace, the country version of the Forbidden City which has long since been absorbed by an ever-growing Beijing. Huge shade trees, a man-made mountain overlooking a man-made lake (the optimal feng shui dictates having your back to the mountain facing the water — nothing a little slave labour can’t fix), more woodwork, the longest corridor in the world, more jaw-dropping beauty. The opulence is astounding.

At one point I ran ahead of our group to find a toilet (or hand-washing place as it is known in Mandarin). My progress was slowed by a barricade of security guards who surrounded a small group of foreign dignitaries by the marble boat on the lake. The guards were stone-faced and unmoving, self-important as they pushed people out of the way. As they moved along with their VIPs, the crowd fell in to fill the void. By the time everyone had caught up with me moments later it was as though it had never happened.

Eric explained that the marble boat was the emperor’s answer to an old Chinese saying. “The waters that float a boat can also swallow it”, i.e., the people are the water and the emperor the vessel. The Marble boat made during Emperor Qianlong’s reign (although perhaps not of the most buoyant material) is definitely unsinkable.

Chinese tourists (probably people from the countryside in the big city for the first time) stop the girls and ask to have their pictures taken with them. It is so strange to think of families in distant parts of China having a picture of Alice and Frances in their family photo albums.

In the evening we take a walk through the nearby night market — a wide pedestrian walkway filled with families out walking, couples holding hands, hawkers. One side of a long block is filled with food stalls selling everything from dumplings to scorpions on a stick. The gross-out award goes to the skewers of silkworms that go on the grill but the seahorses and grasshoppers on a stick take a close second. The only ones eating these things are young Americans & Australians. The hawkers loudly point out the “do-you-dare” food to the foreigners, perhaps the only ones stupid enough to try. A lot of green-faced gwailos (ghost faces) wander around holding half-eaten starfish on a stick.

p.s. i'll try to get the next blog up before we go to Chengde tomorrow morning. Apparently access to facebook and blogger will be blocked once we leave this hotel.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Disneyland and the Big Buddha

Disneyland in Hong Kong. The idea of it intrigued me and seemed like an opportunity to cave on my standing “you can go to Disneyland when you’re a grownup and can pay your own way”. We told the kids they’d be able to sleep as long as they wanted but that it would cut into their Disney time, secretly hoping they’d sleep all day. Lantau Island is home to the Hong Kong Airport, Disneyland and also the Tian Tan Buddha aka Big Buddha which we wanted to see before Disney.
We got a lift out and then stood in what seemed an endless line for the Ngong Ping Gondola. We got in a glass-bottomed “Crystal Cabin” for the astounding 5.7 km ride to the top. First across a stretch a water, then past the Hong Kong Airport and up into the spectacular mountains of Lantau.

We shared our gondola ride with a very elderly couple who chatted away to each other in Cantonese. They both bore large stickers on their sleeves bearing the number 6, representing one of a dozen tour groups on their way up. Frances and Henri compared mystery bugbites on their legs and the old woman pointed at them, mumbling away to her husband. We told the kids “she probably knows exactly what they are and exactly what to do for them but we’ll never know.” The impenetrability of the English-Chinese language barrier in one easy lesson.

The ride was like being lifted into the heavens. As Alistair had said, the treetops looked like broccoli from above. An endless staircase and stone path wove in and out of the trees far below us. We had considered taking the gondola up and hiking down but that would have spelled mutiny. When we got to the top, the couple clung to each other as they leapt on to the platform, giggling like kids. We decided to race to the top, getting cooperation from the kids despite the maze of retail opportunities we were forced through on the way. The sun was blazing. We realized that the umbrellas we’d left at home today would have been of more use in the sun than in the sudden downpours of days past.

The visitors were a hodgepodge — mainland Chinese, Euro tourist and slow-moving shaven monks in saffron robes. The climb was brief but harsh, sweating and huffing in the sun and altitude below the Buddha’s beatific gaze. At the foot of the 200+ stairs lies a large circle on the ground, tiled in stone and encircled by a set of low stone walls. Standing in the absolute centre of the circle, if you face the Buddha and speak, your voice carries back to you as though you were alone in a small room. An eerie acoustic trick as you gape at the 34 metre tall Buddha, serene on his lotus flower. Even if he weren’t so impressive to look at, in all his calm, the setting of jagged peaks is enough to strike wonder into your heart.

We hopped a cab to get to Disneyland, a visit that filled me with dread. For better or worse, it was precisely what I expected, minus the large Americans. It, in fact, brought home just how unusual it is to see anyone carrying extra weight in Hong Kong. The few portly souls were all Americans. It was the first day of uninterrupted sunshine and we definitely did our fair share of sweating. I couldn’t help feeling for the little clusters of women hustling around in black niqabs. Not much shade to be had, although most lineups had large fans overhead to at least keep the heat moving. The kids and I queued for an hour to get in to Space Mountain which was a total blast. I screamed myself hoarse. We wandered back out into the heat, daunted by the waiting times until we figured out the FastPass system. Abby and Alistair drove down to join us later in the day and we sat on the sidewalk of Main Street and waiting for the parade.
Watching the faces of the little ones across the street light up as the Disney characters floated by was a genuine treat. The four princesses — Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Belle, shared a float. They smiled perfectly and endlessly, executed faux-ballet moves with their arms. They stuck out like sore thumbs and it took forever for me to realize it was because, unlike everyone else in the parade, they were all Western girls.

We checked out the rest of the park, ending up in Alistair’s favourite section called Smallworld. The air conditioning was a blessed relief and we were more than happy to sit and float by puppet dioramas of the world — every racial stereotype on display, in miniature, with “It’s a Small World After All” playing on an endless loop. It seems Canada is teeming with wildlife but has just the two people — a mountie in full regalia and a first nations girl in feathers.

We had a quick dinner and then wrapped up the day watching a fantastic fireworks display, complete with massive fireballs over the castle with Disney theme songs blasting in our ears. A fairly painless day and Disney is now off the list!! Woohoo!