Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Day 4 - This Tour Goes to ELEVEN! Part III - The Great Wall

        After the Clear Reminder at the Jade Factory that Communist China is still with us, we headed to the Great Wall.  This served as a Clear Reminder that as varied and complicated as China can get when you enter into the details of things, it has the ability to be a monolithic power as well.
We were heading for a mountainous part of the Great Wall, so we began driving between foothills backed by mountains.  As we were driving through these hills I could see evidence of yet another great work of the Chinese Empire.  These hills were covered with ROWS of trees.  Sure mountains covered with trees is one thing, ROWS of trees is another.  These miles and miles and miles of foothills had been hand-planted with trees.  The time, effort and resources involved in this endeavor was staggering in itself.  These hillsides were steep, and all sorts of odd little crevices had been included.  There was no way any of the planting had been in any way machine aided.  This had all been done by hand.
This planting had to have been part of the "greening-up" of Beijing in preparation for the Olympics, for these hillsides had long been bare after some of the different excesses of Mao's "Great Leap Forward," including back yard metal smelting - which denuded areas of all wood, of any sort, as it was used to stoke furnaces in schools, farm yards and anywhere else.

All these hillsides (and many many many.... more) hand planted with trees

There was no way for me to get a good picture of this, as it was not on the tour, and it was unimaginable that it might be of interest to me.  Eleven gave me some odd looks as I asked about this.  I almost felt like she must be thinking something along the lines of, "Why does this crazy American care about trees?  We were going to the Great Wall!"

And we did get to the Great Wall.  And being in our little mini-van instead of a great lumbering bus, yet having the political umph of a tour bus, they drove us right up to the gate.  As we headed up, we stopped to have our picture taken by the officially sanctioned photographer (Brrrrrr COLD job - standing around outside - and she also had an officially numbered parka - just like the photographers at Tiananmen).  This spot was clearly set up for group shots, a mini set of bleachers, a sign and everything.  We went ahead and bought our souvenir booklet too.  Why not - even if I ever end up back at the Great Wall, I'll only be there the 1st time once.

And then we commenced climbing.  Unlike some of the wide, flat stretches of the Great Wall, we were on a bit that looks like the mythical dragon back, undulating up and down, curving across hill tops.  

OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health etc...) would die just looking at it.  And forget the ADA - not at all accessible unless both legs (and in some places arms) are working well.  The steps were steep, of differing width and depth. 

 In places it would be 5 people wide, and in others, 2 people wide, if they were undernourished, good friends, or were used to a limited personal space.  The close quarters at times made me glad we were there at a low tourist season.  If it had been at all crowded, an elbow in the face would have been a real possibility.  All the same, the number of languages in which I overhead people complaining about the cold or the climb was still impressive. 

The guard towers were interesting as well, and not just for the international nature of the graffiti.  The stairs up to the roof platforms were more like ladders, and again, (as they say at Disney parks these days) certain body shapes cannot be accommodated.  

The two different sides of the wall in places made it very clear that some refurbishing has been done over time - and some of it over and over.

The really old part of the wall
Old Part - left, New Part - right.
Check out the wacky stair heights -
and the different bricks in the treads - vs. the bricks under them.
The top brick in all the stair cases was a different clay than the bricks in the refurbished walls and the bricks underneath, showing that these had been replaced at least once since that portion had been rebuilt, and I suspect these "tread" bricks are replaced pretty often.  
I was tipped off to their, mmm, general crumminess as I started to notice all sorts of odd stuff stuck in the clay.  Broken tiles, sticks, strange fibers, and an animal tooth. 

I wish I'd put down a coin for scale, but this tooth was about the size of a dime, or a bit larger.
 At a guess, it's definitely the tooth of a carnivore, and not one I'd want to be near.  But a big dog?  Any feline with a tooth that size can't have been too common in China for quite awhile.  Bear? I really was left wondering about the source of these bricks.

But we kept going, and made it to the top of the hill we could see.  Only to discover that the hills just keep going on and on, up and up.  Maybe, some day, when the Chinese government gets less tetchy about tourists wandering around unaccompanied, and in rural areas, trekking the Great Wall could definitely become a tourist attraction.  Sort of the Appalachian Trail of China.  But that's a problem/idea for the future.  And we were on a tour, and it was cold (still) and also windy. 

 It was time to head down.
On the way down we were included in a couple of pictures with Chinese tourists (Look here's my picture at the Great Wall, and here's my picture with the strangely dressed Americans).  Tavin's bright red dragon hat made him easy to find, 

but it also got him plenty of attention from the locals.  Part of the fun is he REALLY does look about 1/2 Asian.  It had come up when he was a baby and a toddler, but not in a while, and I had wondered if it was just the view of Americans.  Nope.  In both China and Japan I ended up in conversations wondering if his father was Asian (since I am obviously not).  No one wondered if he was adopted.  There seemed to be no question that he was my son.
We arrived at the bottom.  our souvenir picture was ready (no problem figuring out which photo was ours), and we got back in the warm van, and headed for lunch at yet another state run store.

Details on our lunch... next time.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Day 4 - This Tour Goes to ELEVEN! Part II - The Jade Factory

Part II - The Jade Factory

After our visit to the Ming Tombs, we gratefully ducked back inside our mini-van (mmmmm heating) and headed to the "Jade Factory."  This was our first adventure into the infamous "state run store" of the Communist sort.  In the New Chinese Economy, this was only 1/2 owned by the State now, but SO much like my memories of the Soviet ones I had seen in the '90's, I could see that "Social Realist" sculpture was not the only thing imported wholesale into China.  The fact that it was "only half owned by the state" was actually quite interesting.  Was the State admitting that maybe the government may not be the best at entrepreneurial  enterprises?  Clearly the State was still in charge of the decorating budget.  Hadn't even made it to Warehouse Chic.

Tavin standing in front of a replica of the "9 Dragon Wall" from the Forbidden City
Made up of thousands of little jade plaques.

We were treated to a rapid fire history of Jade in China, sources of jade, minerals in the jade family, difference between soft and hard jade, and how to tell jade-colored glass from jade at all.  I was able to ask a few questions, but there really wasn't much more information available from the tour people.  This spiel was usually given to a bus load full of people, not really interested in the chemical composition or geological story of jade, taking up valuable space in the hall - and they needed to be moved through to go buy things, and make space for the next bus load.  So the staff at the Jade factory seemed a bit at a loss for what to do with our tiny little group that was full of questions.  We had fun wandering around, looking at some of the HUGE stuff, and several examples of really beautiful carving.

The lucky bai tsai (this is a homophone for a phase of prosperity, so carvings of cabbage are often found in Chinese home.  Just be sure to point it the right way!)

They really wanted me to buy a jade bangle, but as they are more or less items of permanent wear, and I take off my watch just to type short letters, that wasn't going to happen.  I did have fun getting a jade (soft) rabbit to commemorate our visit being on the leading edge of the Year of the Rabbit, and FINALLY talked Alec into getting a Happiness Ball.  

These are fascinating things where a ball of Jade is carved into a series of nested hollow spheres that can be spun individually around each other.  The idea is the ball has symbols of happiness on it, and since the spheres are trapped inside, the happiness cannot escape. 

 The Imperial collections  contain a 7-layer ball.  And this of high quality hard jade.  The one Alec got as the ultimate fiddley toy is clearly a softer jade, and carved with a version of a dentist drill.  The Emperors was carved by human powered string spin drill that would basically sand the jade away.  It is almost excruciating to image the time and effort that would go into such an object.

It was fascinating to see the colors and grades of jade as we wondered about the store.  The eye-catching, flashy stuff piled in "pirate -treasure" fashion was clearly aimed at the tour-bus trade. 

  But along the walls in glass cases, wafer-thin slices, about the size of a domino tile, of a pure, bright, clear green, unmottled by any other shade lurked.  And the price of this single, polished, plain rectangle surpassed that of a lion,

 or dragon,

or shelf full of soft jade nick-nacks.  That stuff was for the connoisseurs.  I'm not one, and escaped with my bunny.

Here are a few of the giant things made out of jade and its related stones.  Please note the classy decor and flattering lighting of the state run store.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Day 4 - This Tour Goes to ELEVEN!* Part I - the Ming Tombs

 Looking back to the night before.  

At about 9pm (after we had all fallen helplessly into bed) we got the promised call from our tour guide for the next day.

"My name is Eleven.  I chose my English name to be the number 11.  I'll see you at 8am!" 
"ok.  see you then."  (I was very tired and groggy... hence the small letters)

And so the next morning after doughnuts and our morning beverages, there was Eleven, ready to escort us to the Great Wall of China, to some of the tombs of the Ming Emperors, north of Beijing, and as we were to discover later, so many other places.  
The tour we signed up for was a bus tour under the banner of Gray Line (tm),  so we were expecting a bus, a group tour,  sights on a bus.  The tour was also billed as including lunch and a visit to a jade factory.  Our one "group thing."  And since I was (and continue to be) more or less mute and illiterate in any Chinese dialect, this seemed to be the best way to visit sights so far outside the city.

When we got outside we were greeted by a minivan (Buick, by the way) and a driver, Mr Ai.  Apparently, the downhill side of winter, right before the Spring Festival (Lunar/Chinese New Year) is a very low point in the English speaking, Beijing tour bus trade.  With the Spring Festival less than a week away, less and less business is getting done, so business travel is down.  It is bloody cold everywhere you go, so going out into wide wind whipped plains or climbing the side of a mountain are not high on many people's lists that time of year.  So if you are looking for the least crowded time to see the sights around Beijing, I can say, the last week of January is a good bet.  Just pack all your warm stuff.

We climbed in the van, and headed north, working our way up one of the spokes, passing the ring roads.  We passed the statue of the "dumpling Emperor" on the way to the Ming Tombs - a peasant who lead an uprising, and claimed the throne.  His version of 'bread and circuses' was to exhort the people to eat new years dumplings every day so they would feel like it was New Years all the time.  Apparently this worked for less than two months.

We arrived at the Ming Tombs about 10 minutes before they opened.  Apparently when you only have 3 people to look after, rather than a bus load, things go much faster.  This was to be one of the day's themes.  And we enjoyed it quite a bit.

Once the site was open, we got out of the van... it was still just as cold as it had been in the city.  We went into the "museum" portion of the tomb exhibit.  The most interesting thing there was a cut-away model of the construction of the wooden pavilions and palaces used at the imperial sights (the tombs, the Forbidden City, and palaces sprinkled all over the Chinese Empire).  Though these things look monolithic, they are actually a clever three dimensional jigsaw puzzle of staggering proportions.  This pavilions are built without nails, and with the intention of shimmying and swaying with the earthquakes, rather than standing firm and crumbling. 

A cut away wooden model of the palace/pavilion construction.
Due to the lack of nails and all those wooden joints - very earthquake hardy.
         The view from the tombs - for the guards and the enormous numbers of "Imperial Laborers" was spectacular.  I suppose it was for the spirits of the various emperors, but based on what we were told of the grave goods, I'm guessing they had tons (literally) of stuff to distract them from the view, including the large selection of concubines dropped down a hole into the tomb.  
The spectacular view  (didn't get a picture of the concubine hole)
Check out the close up of the sign though.

Yes, the dead emperor and a favored/selected concubine (playing the part of the empress) entered the impressive and splendid front doors dead. 

 She "commited suicide" for the occasion.  However, there was a tiny square hole (I'd say no more than 18" on a side) several other concubines were dropped down to join the emperor in his final residence.  If I EVER saw a better reason to be large and fleshy rather than tiny and delicate, that was it.  ("Well, she can't be killed to join the Emperor, she'll never fit down the concubine hole.")

The walls were interesting for the variety of style they encompassed.  And the paving was intriguing for despite the fact they are comprised of a variety of stones, and now hundreds of years old, they are in far better repair than the sidewalks around our hotel that were less than 4 years old.

1 wall, at least 4 construction styles!

1 style - up close - I've never seen this fashion

I only wish the NEW sidewalks were half this nice.

On the way out we passed by an alter where we could submit wishes and prayers to the spirit of the emperor and/or the gods who watched over him/he joined.  

And to leave at last, we passed over, you guessed it, a massive spirit step to ensure the dead stayed on their side and the living left unaccompanied.

(* This is a reference to the movie "This is Spinal Tap" for all of you born into a different version of the world than the one I was born into.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Day 3 - Part VI Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square

So how hard do you think it would be to get to an open plaza built with no walls?  Well, in Beijing - if they don't want you to get there - almost impossible.

Tiannmen square, the lanes of traffic, the fences, the lights, the CCTV cameras, the enormous, but apparently unused buildings, the massive jumbo-jumbotron screens... the whole package.  Only a little bit smoggy.
To get to the main plaza of Tiananmen Square you had to either cross 6 - 8 lanes of traffic and jump a 3 foot fence, and somehow not look suspicious to the guards (army and police).  Or go through the underground pedestrian walkways which are guarded by police, where you must send your bags through an X-Ray and you are scanned for metal... unless you don't look Chinese.  Then they just wave you through, or check you in a bored, desultory manner.  
Yup, reverse racial profiling.  I know a bunch of people who had a little snicker at the idea of being IGNORED as a security/safety threat because they DON'T look like the majority racial group.

And once you get to the plaza it is filled with at-one-time-charming, late 19th/early 20th century style light poles.  However, now they are just scaffolding for BRIGHT lights (the rectangles) and a flock of CCTV cameras.  One in each of 4 directions, and a high, I'm guessing wide angle camera, and another 1 or 2.  On each one.  About 5m apart.  There is more video coverage of this square than the entrance to Michael Jackson's last court appearance.  (Now I wish I had counted poles to get a sense of the tins of hardware installed.  It suddenly makes the London allocation look restrained and full of holes.)

       And because there is all this scrutiny you know that the flag sellers and the picture takers are the approved, government sanctioned ones.  You really know the photographers are sanctioned ones because their parkas are labeled as such, and they are numbered.

The square has some of the best large tile paving in the city due to all the weird politics and bizarre version of history that exists.  And Mao's mausoleum is there, along with 2 other monstrous buildings dedicated to the glory of the Workers of China.  All of these buildings, in true Soviet style, have a bank of shiny doors all the way across the front.  Yet all entries and exits take place through 1 door all the way over on one end.  One of my favorite traits of this "removed from reality" style of architecture.

And they even have a couple of those unique "Heroic Socialist Realism" sculptures.  I first encountered this hot-house style in my studies of the Soviet Union.  It was nice to see the broad-shouldered, square-jawed, looking-off-into-the-distance masses, supporting each other (or in this case, the Helmsman himself) with grim-but-cheerful-and-fully-voluntary-determination, style imported with all fidelity.  (Interestingly - in the old USSR, one could go right up next to them and get you picture taken.  Here they are behind 2 fences and guarded.)

Psst, how many cameras can you spot in this photo?
These particular statues are in front of Mao's tomb, which I kind of wanted to go see - ya' know my 2nd embalmed-communist-hero-of-the-people.  (Yup, I saw Lenin in 1988).  But despite the fact the soldiers still have to walk around it, and I bet the climate control is up and running inside, the building is only open 4 hours a day, 4 days a week.  So we didn't make it inside.  Oh, and despite being in the neighborhood at least 2 more times... We didn't try to do back.  Ah well.

Mao's embalmed body is in there...

And just for fun - this is the day I became aware of what I came to call the "Chinese Tribute Brand." (yes, Brand, not band.)  Knock-off that aren't quite knock-offs.  They dodge.  The first one I notices was a print on a knitted hat that looked like the "Coach" C's, sort of.  And then it had the logo, "Co-Ka-Chee" printed in the Coach type face.  Later I saw another printed pattern, with H's.  The brand was "Er-I-Moo."  It took me longer to work out this was the re-back-transliteration of "Hermes."
And finally - the Tribute Brand that is really big business China.  TV commercials and bill-boards with large athletes (not Chinese, or not many, instead mostly large, black, American-looking athletes).  The brand symbol is a little figure dribbling a basketball, and the name is spelled "qi-er-dan."  But when said comes out "Jordan."  Man I wish I had gotten a picture of that as well.
And once your eye catches this, all of a sudden you see it all over.  There is a Chinese car brand who's shield looks like BMW's but instead of a quartered circle, it is just 2 half circles.  The initials are DBY.  And on and on, it's like a scavenger hunt.

And darn, it was still cold, and now the sun was really going down.  Time to head home, and go swimming in the pool - maybe hit the steam room and generally wallow in the splendors of a western hotel that knows how to warm you back up all the way to your frozen bone marrow.

At last we end day 3.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Day 3 - Part V Enough of the Forbidden CIty

The Emperor's personal space & Time to go

To get to the Imperial Garden, a largish area where the Emperor could walk around with out a spirit step in sight, one must pass through or around 10 different gates, halls and palaces.  And then there's just the one gate to get out the back.  It was a totally different view on security.
     There is a fabulous tile wall of 9 dragons as you head into the area where the Emperor really lived. 
Count 'em... 9!
There are a wagon load of symbols connected to the Emperor (and sometime the Empress)  The Emperor gets the number 9 (because it is the largest single digit number, the Dragon (Empress get the Phoenix), Kingfisher feathers (no idea why), the color bright yellow (I think, because that's the color of the sun), special roof tiles, special porcelain, special this, special that, and everything; dishes, candle holders, writing boxes, clothing, nicknacks were all decorated with characters for "double happiness," "long life," "multitudinous children," symbol, after symbol, after symbol, after symbol.  It seemed the Emperor's life was nearly entombed in symbols.  (And when he was entombed... well, that's another day.)  

So if the Emperor is spending all his time on symbols and ceremony - how in the world is he to deal with the events of the day.  The status quo rules the day... and any and all measures are taken to keep it going.  These trees are a perfect example of what I'm talking about. 

We WILL keep this tree
Don't mind the tree... just part of the scenery
So we had to move the bench... again.

They are found in the "private quarters" area.  A showcase of how change is disguised as keeping things the same, how any measure is taken to keep the original design going, even if the sense is lost.

And then, when the city became un-forbidden, the looting of the palace was rather epic.  Even now you can see where the walls were hacked away at.  No repair work had been done, just some sloppy disguising.
There is much that went missing that is lost forever, and there is plenty that not enough people knew about for anyone to know that it existed... and thus went missing.  A strange place the looting shows is in these special, interestingly eroded coral rocks imported from the sea shore.  Many of the fangs, prominent knobs and other interesting features of these rocks were shot, chipped or otherwise removed - so the rocks look rather plundered and sad.

At some point... the idea of the 9,999 rooms in the palace - and despite how much of the palace is closed, we just can't take any more.  This was exacerbated by the fact that it was cold.  And windy.  And we are in the shade.  We had had enough - so we went out to seek the sun.
Here's one more look at the epic scale of the place:

person size
wall size

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Day 3 - Part IV Break Time!

Time to stop for a break.  
The Forbidden City in January is cold, and no matter what time of year you are there, it is huge!  So we stopped for a snack.  

Odd thing the 1st; all hot drinks are 20RMB ($3.25) or more.  Soda - about 4RMB ($0.70), talk about your cheap calories!  I thought maybe just the western drinks (coffee, "cappuccino" and the like...) nope, even the poor quality, but hot, Chinese tea was in the 20RMB range.  I think it may have something to do with the "luxury" of the fresh, hot drink.

Odd thing the 2nd; all the cafes and stores we went into were heated like crazy, yet incredibly drafty.  So inside you'd be caught in these conflicting breezes.

Odd thing the 3rd; the Forbidden City is HUGE!, and yet the bookstore employees had to take their lunch break (about 58 seconds long from what I saw), in the tiny bookstore, sitting at a table piled high with books.  (The table had shelves under the table top where they had to precariously prop their food)

Odd thing I didn't buy, because it wasn't worth carrying home - Mao's Little Red Book... IN RUSSIAN!!!  This is funny because other than starting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Russians had little time for the CCP, and looked down on them as a rule.  So these things must be fossils!  Incredibly cheap plastic cover and bad binding.  I wonder what happened to the Chinese when their Little Red Books wore out.  Were they issued new ones?  Was it a sign of their fervor?  Or was a disintegrating LRB a sign of disrespect to Mao?  All these questions...)

Odd thing the 4th; This bookstore had some of the oldest books I had ever seen for sale as "new."  For extra fun, all books that were from before the US & China were on good terms would have several languages (French, German, Arabic, Greek, Russian and some others) but no, or minimal English.  Newer books not in Chinese are primarily in English.

Odd thing the 5th; there were only a few shops to buy "Forbidden City Souvenirs," like this book shop.  They were all tiny, and yet every single one of them contained an inventory that was about half completely unrelated to the Forbidden City.  For example, this books shop had postcards of "Famous Porcelain in the Shanghai Museum," large books on the Great Wall (this is where I saw one of the Old Books sold as new) and on and on.  While I was in China, the China Daily printed a story about how there are over 1 million objects in the possession of the Palace Museum at the Forbidden City, I bet there were photographs of less than 300 of them in all the materials I could find in that book shop.  There were certainly more items than that on display.  It was just bizarre.

Amusing thing; all over the Forbidden City there were large signs in Chinese and English explained things.  They had at one time been sponsored by American Express. Apparently AmEx is bad odor, or something... because the "Provided by American Express" was sloppily painted over with a poorly matched brown paint.

Bonus odd thing 1: According to the AmEx signs just about everything was built in the same year.  While I am suspicious of that and think maybe this was just laziness on the part of a researcher, part of me also thinks that if you have access to tens of thousands of slave laborers I suppose this is possible.

Bonus odd thing 2: A few of the pavilions were noted for "burned down 3 times due to lightening started fires" or "burned down 5 times due to lightening started fires."  As a student of history I have read more than once that palace eunuchs would burn down a building if their looting had gotten to bad.  Really - ya' had 5 lightening started fires you couldn't put out - even with all those vats of fire fighting water in all those proudly displayed giant bronze caudrons?  Really?

After the suspicious drink pricing, the odd souvenir scheme, the weird heating regimen, and plenty of odd signs, when we stopped for lunch we were in for a nice surprise.  The restaurants in the Forbidden City had tasty, well balanced, reasonably priced food that came piping hot in large servings!  Well, at least they got that right.  Having been to too many zoos, aquariums, science centers and museums in the US where the badly take advantage of you by serving the saddest flabbiest, saltiest, driest, most suspicious food ever, at ludicrously high prices,  (Yes, Baltimore Aquarium, Washington DC Zoo, and Seattle Science Center, I'm looking at you!) this was a welcome surprise.  (Strangely tasty food at the very sad Beijing Zoo as well... but that's another story).
The highlight of wackiness of all the breaks we took - the 4 Star rated toilet.
Yes... I even took a picture of the sign.  Not of the facilities... they were just ehhh.

  I later learned I had my expectations set all out of whack for 2 reasons.  After further research, I came to believe 1 star anything in China must have a (damp?) dirt floor, no heating and and no plumbing.  And the Chinese HATE or FEAR (or both) the number 4 - (apparently the word for 4 is a homophone for terrible misfortune) - thus most star systems only register on an odd number scale.  (So regard with the proper amount of wariness the highly vaunted 7 star hotel near the Olympic site.)

Enough about break time, time to get back to the tour.