Wednesday, January 19, 2005

January 19, 2005

***Click here to view the latest pictures from China. 1 PM We just finished our visit to the Summer Palace, a 700-acre lakeside paradise the Chinese emperors used when the summer heat in Beijing became burdensome. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to imagine a national park reserved exclusively for the use of one person (and his family, court, friends, and his large staff). We enjoyed seeing the spectacular multi-story theater used for various musical and operatic performances. In the 19th century productions often took several days so there was a special building where the emperor and his mother could rest during the intermissions. The Kunming Lake covers three-quarters of the property. The lake is completely frozen so Mark and Nick and I plus Andrea and Courtney and Jeff Lowe ventured far out on the ice. Many other visitors joined us. I even saw one man on the ice flying a Chinese kite in the shape of a bird. Our guide showed us the “Hall of Benevolence and Longevity” where the emperor met visiting foreign diplomats. He told us that the Chinese consider the peach the symbol of longevity. He also showed us the “well of longevity,” which as Vicki Lowe noted, has sadly run dry. The guide told us that the bat is a symbol for good luck, though I can’t see the connection. The Chinese developed an elaborate and effective subterranean heating system using charcoal from “fine wood” that produces “long, strong heat with very little smoke.” 1:14 PM While touring one building, Alan pulled me aside and said, “You’ve got to see this. It was a picture of the Empress Cixi who had her husband’s favorite concubine put out of business by having her drowned in a well. That would definitely solve the problem. 1:20 PM We all enjoyed the Summer Palace better than the Forbidden City, perhaps because the latter is so overwhelming. With over 9900 rooms, you can never see it all. As one writer said, it is a monument to a culture that was already old when the Roman Empire started. You are struck by the lavishness of both places. The Summer Palace contains an ornate building by the lake called “Hall for Listening to the Orioles.” The palace has a long corridor that runs almost a half-mile along the lake. In the olden days, a lake or canal of some kind connected the Forbidden City in Beijing with the Summer Palace, located in what as then the rural area outside the city. 2:17 PM A wild taxi ride in which our driver took us to the wrong place. Eventually we wound up at a Chinese restaurant where all 11 of us crowded around a circular table. Among the dishes today: sizzling beef, eggs and tomatoes, eggplant and mushroom, rice, and a personal favorite, caramelized Lotus root. Plus baked chicken and something our guide called “beans,” but it tasted like a cross between barley and cactus. 2:28 PM We couldn’t find a taxi that would stop to pick us up so we boarded a bus and crossed from the west to the east side of the city. “Now we’re really getting to see Beijing,” someone said. Mostly you notice all the construction, the cars, the bikes, the constant honking, and all the “China moments” of near-collisions that never quite happen. On the way someone suggested we start singing. They said the Chinese passengers would join us if we sang “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion” or John Denver’s Almost Heaven (West Virginia). We tried the latter but no one joined in. David (our guide) said that after leaving us yesterday, he spent two hours ice skating on the moat around the Forbidden City. He promised his wife he would come home early today. “I’m going to be an obedient boy,” he said. 3:37 PM We’re sort of lost. We’re trying to find “Silk Alley,” the place where you can bargain for the best silk. When we found it, the building was empty. So we pile back in a cab and head for a multistory clothing market. Don’t think of a typical mall. Think of a multistory, high end cross between a flea market and a shopping center. Each floor contains hundreds of stalls, each one perhaps 8 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and each one an independent shop. I would estimate there were 1000 stalls (maybe more) in the “Ya Xui Clothing Market.” You could find every sort of apparel you could imagine for sale there. I met a man who said he could take my measurements and make custom suit in one day. 5:15 PM We spent a fruitful hour bargaining with the shopkeepers. David said we should start by offering no more than 20% of the advertised price. We split up and most of us ended up buying something. Earlier today Josh encountered a man at the Summer Palace who tried to sell him a “Rolex” watch for something like $30. Josh said, “No, not Rolex. I want a Timex.” It seemed to confuse him. So this afternoon Mark found a man who offered to sell him a “Rolex” for 300 Yuan (about $36). He offered 15 Yuan (about $1.30) and the man agreed. Near the end of our time, I found Alan haggling with a shopkeeper about two sets of Chinese pajamas. She wanted over 700 Yuan. Alan eventually offered 260. I grabbed him by the arm and said we had to go. She grabbed his other arm. We pulled him like a wishbone, all of us laughing at the same time. She would laugh and slap my arm, then slap Alan’s arm and say, “Make better offer.” Eventually we settled on 295 Yuan, which made us all happy. 9:49 PM Marlene and I are back at the Mac Center. After our visit to the clothing market, the rest of the group decided to have another foot massage. The Lowes weren’t with us last night, but the boys and Alan were ready to do it again. Last night was enough for me, so Marlene and I visited a fancy mall and ate at “Mr. Pizza” while the rest of the group had their feet massaged. Afterwards they went out for supper and we came back to the center. All in all, we’re pretty tuckered out. It feels like we’ve spent half the day on buses and taxis, fighting the Beijing traffic. I did have one very significant conversation during the day, which I won’t relate here but I will write about it when I get back to the US next week. It hit me tonight that President Bush will be inaugurated for his second term tomorrow. We’re completely out of touch with news from home because we don’t have a TV in the Mac Center, and being in China gives you a different view of things. I will say this: I haven’t sensed any anti-American sentiment at all on this trip. While I can’t comment about politics, I can say that you hear a ton of American music, you see McDonalds and KFC on every corner, and American movies fill the DVD stores. There are real differences between East and West, but the gap is narrowing in many ways.

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