Friday, January 21, 2005

January 21, 2005

***Click here to view the latest pictures from China. 9:23 AM We had the same thing for supper and for breakfast this AM—little chocolate donuts and Coke. Breakfast of Champions. Ready for a new day in Beijing. Right now it’s clear and cold—pretty much the way it’s been every day. Right now we’re listening to Ray Charles sing “America the Beautiful” and “Georgia on My Mind.” Today we’ll do lots of souvenir shopping—to the pearl market and to the scroll shop, the one operated by a “like-minded” owner. I’m hoping to find time to walk Tiananmen Square. We’ve driven past it several times, but didn’t have time to take a look around. 9:26 AM A friend from the States writes to ask if you see people handing out tracts on the street corners. The answer is no. Nothing like that is possible here. 9:27 AM Right now Ray Charles is singing “Hit the Road, Jack.” You can tell that we’re on the downside of our trip. It’s today and tomorrow, then we fly back on Sunday. 9:33 AM Now it’s “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynryd Skynryd. 9:34 AM Tonight we’re going to see the world-famous Chinese acrobats. 10:45 AM We’re at the multistory Bank of China in downtown Beijing exchanging dollars for Chinese yuans. The bank is spacious, bright, very modern, with an enormous atrium. It would not look out of place in Chicago or New York or San Francisco. 11:04 AM Just arrived at the pearl market, which is located on the third and fourth floors of a building housing clothing stalls on the first two floors. It’s hard for Americans to get used to these shopping areas. First of all, the stalls are about the size of a space you would rent at a convention. Each one is essentially an independent business. There are dozens of stalls selling boots and shoes, others selling silk scarves and silk dresses, others selling gadgets. No electronics. We went to that marketplace a few days ago. The salespeople—girls usually—greet you with “You like? You want? We make best price?” Then they pull out a calculator and show you the price in yuans. You offer a third or a fourth or a fifth of their price (depending on your interest), they feign shock, tell you, “This no fake.” Then they grab your arm as you turn to walk away. You smile and keep walking. Yesterday Nick said he was offered an item for 240 yuan. He said nothing so the girl said, “Okay, 25 yuan.” That’s a 90% drop in price without saying anything. Everyone ended up buying a few things. We all found the noise, the lights, the clamor, the crowds, the grabbing, and the endless bargaining both fun and exhausting. . 11:25 AM We made our way to the Ru Pei Pei Pearls and Jewelry on the fourth floor. The ELIC team recommends this shop. We also saw other Americans shopping there. I saw a picture of Ru Pei Pei standing with Governor Jesse Ventura and another of her with President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia. You can buy pearl necklaces for about $15 apiece, and the prices go up the up into the thousands of dollars. Josh told Mark and Nick to buy several for “future girls.” While Marlene and I sat at a small table looking at rings, Alan, Josh, Mark and Nick sat around another table looking at strands of pearls. Lots of laughter and joking back and forth. 1:10 PM We walked down the street and had lunch at a neighborhood noodle restaurant. We were the only Americans in sight. They bring you an enormous bowl of noodles with chunks of beef in the broth plus a tiny side plate of hot cole slaw. It’s quite an adventure trying to eat noodles with chopsticks. I ended up rolling my noodles on the chopsticks the way kids roll spaghetti on their forks. 1:38 PM Stuck in yet another Beijing traffic jam. Amazing how people drive over here. You hardly ever see traffic cops so it’s every man for himself. I have seen 2 lanes become 4 and then turn to 6. At one point our driver calmly cut right in front of six lanes of traffic. He did it without even bothering to speed up. I’ve also noticed that pedestrians and bikers don’t seem to bother looking. Everyone just goes where they want, and everyone almost-but-not-quite hits everyone else. By the way, you see lots of nice cars here—Buick, Honda, BMW, Lexus, plus all the Korean and Japanese brands plus the various Chinese-made automobiles. 4:30 PM We’re back at the Mac Center now, basically exhausted. Josh took us to the Art District Beijing where you can walk down a long outdoor alley with shop after shop offering vases, paintings, carving, etchings, maps, and so forth. A very touristy spot. And there, tucked away in a tiny space, you come to a shop so small you would miss it if you weren’t looking for it. Inside you find beautiful Chinese artwork. One painting shows a shepherd looks for his sheep, another shows a harvest with not enough workers. We saw a painting of deer panting for the water. The scrolls contain famous sayings from a famous book, all in Chinese. Each one is a work of art. I cannot explain what a miracle it is to find such a store in Beijing. We were welcomed warmly and treated as brothers and sisters. The shop is narrow and the walls are covered with scrolls and paintings, dozens and dozens of them. You could bargain here but why would we? We paid full price and were very happy to do so. We walked out with an armload of scrolls and paintings. It was a little oasis of living water in the desert. 6:08 PM We’re off in a taxi—again! This time we’re heading for the Theater of Heaven and Earth to see the world-famous Chinese acrobats. It’s cold tonight, and we’re tired, but how can you come to China and not see the acrobats if you have the chance? Our driver got lost at one point and had to talk to the taxi following ours, but eventually figured out where we are going. 8:35 PM Tonight’s performance was spectacular. The acrobats (many of them young girls) seem to have bodies with infinite bendability. We saw feats of balance and strength and flexibility that would seem humanly impossible. It would be as if you took a human body, folded it over twice, then stuck the head backwards so that you are walking with your legs completely stretched over your torso and you head where your knees are supposed to be, all the while spinning four bowls with feet and your elbows—or something like that. It was 90 fast minutes of amazing routines, and they made the impossible look easy, which is the mark of the true artist. 10:15 PM After the acrobats, we came back to the Mac Center and walked to a nearby restaurant for a late supper. The Lowes came with us to the acrobats and to the dinner. This is their last night in Beijing. Tomorrow they fly back to Alabama, and Andrea flies to Thailand. They are a wonderful family and we’ve enjoyed spending the last four days with them. Josh challenged Nick to eat a “numbing pepper,” which he did to much applause and no apparent ill-effect. Nick challenged Alan to do the same, which he did, and immediately turned red and started shouting for water. Not much applause but lots of laughter. By the way, we’ve come to appreciate the Chinese way of serving broccoli with garlic. I’m not a big broccoli man, but we’ve had it several times this week, and I like it better than plain steamed broccoli. 10:45 PM The boys are planning their last day together. They’re heading for Changping on Saturday AM to get some things we need to take back with us. Marlene, Alan and I are heading for Tiananmen Square and then some exploring on our own in downtown Beijing. One more day in China, then it’s time to go home.

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