Thursday, April 28, 2011

Day 6 - Beijing: Two Ways - Part I - Way 1, We have a Driver

Ooooohhhhh, Posh aren't we.  You get to have a driver.

When we let friends know we would be traveling to Beijing, it turns there were connections there.  And for the small price of transporting a few books of music, I would have a chance to get driven somewhere by somebody's personal driver.

Back here in the good ol' US of A, we all figure that if one owns a car, one would drive it.  There are a few exceptions of course, but the idea of having a driver is strange enough that we feel it deserves a movie/play as an oddity.
Elsewhere, driving is less, um, burdened with regulation.  The streets are less burdened with signs, lane markers and static configurations.  Also the variety of vehicles may be broader than we are used to.  In Beijing, all of this is true, along with a viscous dimension-tearing mix of highways we would recognize jammed in, over, through and around the above mentioned street system.

It turns out that many who live in Beijing, and other similarly (un)drivable cities feel the same.  Coincidentally there is often a raging wealth gap between those who have and thus have cars, and those that have not, so might as well get a job being a driver.  
Along with the craziness in driving, many of these cities (Beijing included) have next to nowhere to park, so a driver is essential.  He (without exception as far as I have EVER seen) stays with the car when parking it in essentially a No Parking Zone, or may take the vehicle and park it quite a distance away, showing up at a predetermined time, or at the beckoning of a phone call.  Yes, these days all drivers have cell phones.  This turned out to be good for me.
What this all means, is that while I might get behind the wheel of a car in some foreign countries (Canada, Australia or maybe outside major cities in most of Europe), I do not have what it takes to brave the mean streets - and really don't have it when it when the most common sign in the back streets is "No horn honking!"

Earlier in the trip, I had been pondering how in the world to get to MaLianDao - the Tea Market (or Tea City) in Beijing.  It was a long way from our hotel - almost diagonally across the whole sprawl, and no subway went anywhere near it.  I was leery of taking a taxi that far, since I am basically helpless in any dialect of Chinese, but when the offer of borrowing a driver for part of a day came up - this seemed my chance!  (Having done this once, I'll be braver when I don't have pneumonia)
The driver seemed to understand what I wanted (it helped having the name of MaLianDao in characters, and a bi-lingual map), but he still called someone who spoke quite excellent English to make sure everybody did understand everybody.*  So we had the Driver until 11.
I was right about the Tea Market being at the other end of the world.  And the fact that Beijing is a city of ring roads made it even further.  (Yup, no freeways through the center, where the Palace lies).  So it took us ages to get there.  Tavin took some interesting pictures of the sights, from the back seat,  along the way.

 





  But we made it!  And there was the statue of Lu Yu.  I'd run into this Sage of Tea in Bridge of Birds, and found him a fascinating idea.  But, I'd never given him much serious thought, nor wondered particularly hard if there really was a Sage of Tea.  Turns out there is, he really is Lu Yu, and I got to see his statue at the tea market.  Awesome.

Sadly I only had a tiny bit of time.  I was in the cave of wonders with a ticking clock.  Even if I'd had all the time in the world, I would have been largely faking it anyway, so I just followed my nose.  It took me to a tea shop that was a space in the hall basically outlined by the packing cases of their wares as the walls, with tables and all accoutrements to taste and enjoy the tea, and containers and vacuum packers to help you take home your tea in the best possible shape.
Mine did make it home is fabulous shape.  And thanks to a gift of a tea pot at a different point in the trip I have vessels worthy of this grand libation.

I made the most of my 20 minutes (OK it turned into a few more), and sampled a nice handful of teas.  I knew I was missing SO much, but I had a Jasmine tea that was nothing like anything I had ever had before.  An oolong that was a revelation, and a disc of the fabled Pu'Er tea.  If I'm ever in Beijing again, I'll find myself a great tea guide and do that again, over several days if I can.

Next - Are you sure you just remodeled?  The Science Museum.

* I have been told in Korea, this is actually a service offered by their taxis.  The driver will call a number on his cell phone and a three way, bilingual conversation will ensue to make sure everyone knows what is going on.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Day 5 - Part III - Do you still call it Peking Duck if you are eating it in Beijing?


Yes, you do - because you just do.

We got a taxi and went to a well known and repeatedly recommended Peking Duck restaurant.  And we got the full experience.

The plate of condiments alone was enough to convince me this would be something special.

(clockwise starting from top right:  scallions, duck sauce  [no duck, sauce to go with duck],  sugar, garlic paste, salty condiment, spicy condiment, cucumber, radish-
this was the "watermelon radish," green outside, white stripe, red inside.)
But the way the rest of the food came, well, let me just say, I've never eaten such artistic and excellent bamboo shoots.  And yes, those are ducky chop-stick rests in the background.


The whole experience was pretty darn authentic, from the live crab sitting on the table as you entered, all the way through the chef bringing out your own personal duck before carving to show that it indeed came out right.



After presenting you your duck, they take it out into the hall carving station where they carve off delicate slivers of meat attached to the delightful crispy skin.  They bring it back artfully assembled into some sort of delicious ducky puzzle.



We assembled quite a number of tasty creations using puffy sesame buns and little rice flour pancakes - and the concert of condiments - 



and then got to the most fun part of the duck; the legs and wings.  Generally, I'm not a big fan of these parts on a duck, stringy and/or greasy.  However, in the intricately inflated and fried version, they become wonderful crispy treats.



Asian cuisine has a texture element that many Americans - and many other Westerners either ignore, are repulsed by, or just don't get.  Just watch the original, Japanese episodes of Iron Chef.  Much of the critique centers around ideas of texture, mouthfeel, and my favorite, the "thick flavor."  
I'm not going to claim any superiority here and say how my 3 week trip to the Mysterious East has given me some special insight into textures, and I can now enjoy foods on a deeper level.  Despite my best efforts and wishful thinking, some of the rubbery, squishy, yielding etc. textures still leave me baffled (or just cold).  But that night I really enjoyed the crispy, crunchy, stringy fun of those fried legs and wings.

Tavin again ventured into unknown territory, and ordered corn juice.  It had potential, but it came hot.



 Unlike our idea of juicing vegetables cold or at room temp., we were to discover in China they are enjoyed warm, hot and/or mixed with soya milk.  I have to say the cucumber drink was the most disappointing to him.  He loves cucumbers.  But he was a trooper, always willing to try one more time.

We ended up giving our server a little shock as she tried to help Tavin construct a ducky pancake.  She went to pick up his chopsticks, but then dropped them in surprise - as they were connected with a chopstick boinger.



 These useful doohickees were available alongside the straws at a Colorado restaurant called Tokyo Joe's.  I'd saved a small handful when we moved because they were so handy.  And they proved to be so all through this trip.  And not just for confusing the locals.

To top it all off we got the teeniest sweet oranges I have ever encountered.  I've seen kumquats that might outweigh them.



Despite all the lovely tea,



we were ready for bed after that meal, and once again fell into bed.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Day 5 - Part II - The Zoo of Boo-Hoo

Zoo's have been a part of the government's entourage since antiquity; whether it was the leashed hunting cheetahs of the Egyptian Pharaohs, bringing the giraffes to Rome, to check out ridiculous stories of that "camel-leopard," or the royal and princely menageries of Europe.  While the Egyptian cheetah's at least got out to hunt, the rest of these zoo animals have been merely for gawking at, by people of greater and lesser fortune.
Starting in the 19th century, just about anyone could see exotic animals that had been brought to 'your city' - for a small price.  And again, these animals were mainly just to be stared at - either out of a mixture of curiosity and fear, or with a real desire to understand the animal better.  
For those reasons, the cages were designed for the viewer, to make easy to see the animal, rather than for the animal.  Thinking on this score has changed.  Zoos now have fewer cages, and now have more 'enclosures.'  Animals can be darn hard to find, and zoos are now as much about preserving populations of animals and attempting to educate the public as they are about showing of the fauna.
But what happens when you go to a zoo that is essentially unchanged from the time it was built as a way for an Emperor to go gawk at the oddities from his own land and abroad?  And what if any improvements that have been made were done so mainly to again make it easier for people to see the animals rather than to teach or preserve?  And the facility is clearly poorly funded.  And it is not thought to be scientifically important or even interesting to learn about the animals and preserve their habitat?
You get the incredibly rackety, half deserted, and saddest zoo I've ever been to, the Beijing Zoo.  

I should have had an inkling that it was going to be a different zoo experience when it turned out to be hard to find the entrance.  There were 2 sets of windows to buy tickets by the zoo gates.  I've already admitted to my total helplessness when it comes to reading Chinese, but by watching others, even the Chinese were uncertain which gate was for zoo admission.  I wasn't the only one walking up to the wrong ticket windows and being redirected.  Even if all the words were unreadable to me, a picture, painting, or even a sketch of a panda would have given us a clue.  Nope.

Well, after all the standing in the wrong line, dodging insistent, persistent toy peddlers , and finally getting out tickets, we were able to get inside.  And we headed first to the Pandas.  



        They have their own separate area that costs an extra 10RMB to enter.  We'd paid that at the gate, so no sweat.  And we entered the 1st, and oldest, Panda house.  I have no pictures of the pandas there as the cages were 1 panda at a time, small, barred, dim and we could only barely see the pandas moping in the dark corners.
The 2nd Panda house, the Olympic Games Panda House was much less "old school" zoo.  Though a mere 3 years after the Olympics all the metal work is rusting, the facing bricks are falling off, and the concrete is cracking.  



Though inside these pandas do have a big sand pit with big windows opening them to the sky, rocks to climb on, and a tumbley pile of bamboo to actually frolic in while they are eating it. I just wonder how long this panda pavilion will be this nice.



There's much of the zoo that is little, stone faced, concrete floored cages where animals huddle against the bars or walls, and look out our you forlornly, startled or ignore you completely.


























        Though being a zoo presently under much less threat of being sued if children fall and get messy or hurt there are some fun signs.

The only thing to keep you or your children from falling in is a yellow line you should not cross.
Being there in the winter also means you may see sights you never thought to see.

Yes, that is a pelican standing on the ice
At about that point we were as cold as those pelican's feet, so we looked about for lunch.  This was a point where my sense of how much food cost got all confused again.  Each of the dishes was 4 - 8 RMB.  And after 20RMB coffee, I was expecting bread plate sized serving for those prices.  So we ordered three dishes - pork and green peppers, vinegared fried potatoes (something I have never found in the US, but LOVEloveLOVE!), and celery with lily bulbs.  And tea.  These were mountains of food.  We ate until we were warm and stuffed.  
It was some of the best food I have ever eaten at a zoo that I did not bring myself.  Including tea it was about 25RMB ((no tipping in China, at least not at restaurants... lots of other places though.)  Or just over $6.  You can't even get a truly lousy hamburger at a US zoo for that.  So sad animals but tasty food?  So confusing.
I'm sure we could have overpaid for merely mediocre food.  There were retaurants selling questionable looking western style food.  But I learned long ago American style dishes spelled wrong means you are going to get something crummy.  

The fact that this was built for the enjoyment and amusement of the Emperor is evident in some of the statuary and stone animals.


The large birds of prey pavilion was fascinating - and plenty of meat for the wicked beaks on those birds to tear at.





Giraffe house painted with a giraffe pattern was good for a giggle.






I really had to wonder if they even had chimpanzees, despite having cage, sign and enclosure for them.  But considering the dodgy planning, I had to wonder if they hadn't just left.


It really looks like with a good leap they could reach that wire and  hand-over-foot-over-hand-over etc. their ways out.
Near the end of our visit we were getting chilly again.  So, of course, we went into the the penguin house. 



 I now suspect the premium of 10RMB, which is the same as what you pay to go see the pandas, was not for the pleasure of seeing the penguins but for the heated space.  For starters there were 4 people in the ticket takers' box.  Only 2 were sort of working.  Seeing as how there were also only 4 zoo sight seers in the penguin house, I suspected the ticket takers box at the penguin house was a favored heated hideaway.  There were also 3 sweeping ladies monitoring the penguin house - which is just one long hallway.  
And in grand communist style - one again there was a well to overheated building with 12 doors, 6 at each end, and, once again, all traffic in and out happened through one.
For a nice mysterious touch, there was a display of a bunch of bats hanging in the penguin house.



For our last stop we went in to the reptile house.  In many ways this reptile house was like any other.  A large assortment of turtles, an alligator pool or two, and tanks and tanks of snakes.  All with water bowl, warm rock, things to hide in, under or behind.  But here, they feed the snakes while the people are there.  They also leave the shed skins in the tanks.  I later asked one of my husband's Chinese colleagues about this.  I was told watching the snakes feed and seeing the shed skin is all part of the show.  And after all why should westerners think themselves so superior - we are perfectly willing to watch seals and dolphins get tossed dead seafood.  What is truly so terrible about watching a snake eat as it was intended?  I don't think it makes us better to only be willing to witness animals eat if we stop them from getting their own food.
Hands down though, the oddest part of the reptile house, was the gift shop.  Well at least these aren't imported.

Souvenir of the Beijing zoo reptile house?
We went by the zoo nursery and in the midst of the dim and seemingly deserted cages we could only find this lonely little monkey.

Poor lonely baby!
The Beijing zoo, I now wish had taken a few more pictures of the oddities, but dim, dark and deserted did not strike me at the time as what I wanted to bring home with me.

At least that night we had a dinner adventure ahead!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Day 5 - Breakfast, Zoo & Peking Duck - Part I

Eating outside the "Western-o-shpere" in Beijing.

Tavin and I had a good start in adventurous munching with the giant folded pancake on our first morning.  And we had scored pretty well with lunches along the way.  But breakfast was an ongoing quandary.  The buffet spread was very nice, and had lots of non-western options.  However, the $30 (US, thus 180RMB) price take was very western indeed.  The other hotel option, the coffee bar with 20RMB drinks ($3+ US) and the excellent donuts and pastries was less mind blowing price-wise, but missed the point since we were not busy executives.
So, this morning, we put on our full weather-battle gear and headed out to "Food Cube" which in atmosphere and clientele, made me think of Denny's in its original incarnation.  A place for people in need of a hot breakfast on their way to work.  The only English writing was the name, notification of opening hours ("24h" - so that was easy), and we could see the full picture menu.  Good, so illiterate, near-mutes like me could get by with hello, counting to 4, and thank-you.

We opened the door and dove in, out of the cold.  The staff looked at us like we had entered this building by accident.  But since we clearly though we were staying they seated us WAY in the back of the restaurant, where no servers ever came.
Nice try guys, you won't get rid of two bumblers like us that easily.  I realize that was supposed to be an insult, or a put off, but we are WAY to dense and hungry to notice something that subtle.  So we blundered back up to the front, and stood there, taking up space, until they seated us where someone would serve us.
Using my non-existant Chinese language skills I managed to order a shrimp and seaweed soup and a giant donut (savory - so technically fried dough).  They WOULD NOT let me order the hard-boiled egg that was stewed in broth.  I had seen them all over Beijing when poking about in the mornings.  They exist in crockpots at convenience stores and food carts all over the city.  But for what ever reason, the waiter refused to let me have one.  OK, he had that victory over me.  Not being able to understand him, he may have also been telling me that ordering the egg constituted, "too much food."  Which, again, would never go over well for wait-staff to do in the US.
Apparently, the Northern Chinese do not drink tea at breakfast.  And I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense.  With all the ceremony surrounding tea, swilling it over one's half asleep taste buds merely to infuse caffeine into the body; that's an insult to the tea, and says low things about the consumer (I assume).
Instead they drink hot soya milk.  Being allergic to the stuff myself (it burns the back of my mouth, and affects my internals in ways best not discussed in polite company) we just stuck to soup for morning liquids.

When our food did come, it contained 2 surprises.  1st, the savory donut, instead of being about the size of a maple-bar, was closer to the size of a loaf of bread.  

See - it's as long as Tavin's forearm!


And our breakfast soup had tiny shrimps. 



Thankfully the donut was light, airy and crispy, and there were 2 of us to eat it.  But this thing was huge!  And it was the best fried dough we had the whole time.   "Crispy end of the roast beef" made into a whole huge donut is the best I can do to describe the flavor.
The soup was pleasantly salty, the noodles were wonderfully wide and slippery, and the wrinkly dumplings that slightly resembled brains, had the tiniest niblet of filling.  Seaweed and those tiny, briny shrimp made up the rest.  



We paid our bill, which came to less than 1 pastry at the coffee bar in the hotel.

We were ready to head to the zoo after that.

Next - the saddest Zoo I've ever been to.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Garden has returned!

We interrupt the China & Japan diversion to momentarily get this blog back to where it usually goes.

Between the crummy weather, a bout with pneumonia, and the crummy weather, I was feeling very questionable about reviving the garden.

It's chive time again!
But as I looked out and saw the chives all ready for tonight's fried rice, I took heart.

Oh... and it was really sunny - with blue sky and low wind - high enough temperatures to make me pull off my jacket as I beat the encroaching weeds back (Back! Back I say!).  The warm spell lasted long enough for me to pull up the weed cover, and add some soil goodies.  I need to a bit more compost to the dirt to loosen it up and feed it for the new crops.

Amazing what sun can do.  And not just for the plants.
One kale that held on over the winter.  I'll keep it until new stuff comes in.

Day 4 - This Tour Goes to ELEVEN! Part VI - Tea and Home

(Yes Tavin, I mean the Hotel... not home-home.)

To end this ever elongating tour of sights north of Beijing, we were to be treated to a demonstration at a Tea House, and drink a little to help us recover from our long rambley day.  
What made the visit to the Tea House most memorable was it's situation in one of the Hutong areas.  Old Beijing - twisty streets and court yarded dwellings and businesses.  Places one goes to when you know where you are going, since you must knock on a door and be admitted.  Not places you can glance into shop windows, and browse to kill time.  There are no shop windows first of all, and you hold consultations to determine what you need to purchase, no independent viewing of wares set out to tempt you.  However, this area of Hutong was under a sort of renovation.  Work was being done on the widest lane, and an arch was being set up to attract tourists.  
The most thrilling part of this was the active welding that was going on as we walked under the arch, accompanied by showers of sparks!  Somehow I think that might violate both union rules and OSHA.  Not to mention several lines in the average industrial insurance contract.

As I said, this Tea House was in the Hutong, and street renovation or no, driving into one is close to pure madness, when it is even possible.  So we walked under the spark showering arch, twist, then turn, and on into the Tea demonstration.

When is a Tea Demonstration like a Magic Show?

When it is at the end of a long day of tours... you're tired, and the woman who's performing clearly does this all day, for days in a row.  She had a patter, hand choreography, and a few moments of humor.  She even was wearing a robe of the Mysterious Orient.  Or in this case, a padded jacket, with an outside of polyester satin tapestry.  

video


She poured heated water here and there, conjured different teas, told us their qualities in short, rehearsed bursts, and between the decorative "tea flowers" (those bound balls of tea leaves that bloom upon brewing) and the "fruit tea" (low quality leaves and small pieces of chopped dried fruit liberally dosed with sugar.  "You don't even need to brew it, you can just eat it!"), she even demonstrated the "tea baby" (an unglazed little boy figure that pees after the correct applications of cold & hot water)

video

It was all quite skillful, the tea better than the average, and I even learned (at last) one of the proper uses for my adorable tiny tea pots I've been collecting desultorily throughout my life.  (Pssst, I've also learned at long last how to pick out the duds from a useful one - not that I'd been trying hard.)

And, like so many Disney rides, it ended in a gift shop.  And a good thing too.  As I was to discover later in the trip, finding a good place to pick up little souvenirs that are not a) knock offs of designer luxury goods or b) unredeemable cheap plastic crap that has more to do with a bargain toy bin than anything else, would turn out to be harder than I thought.  
There were plenty of big expensive, heavy souvenirs, and little things that were just cheap looking and uninteresting.  But something interesting, that fits in a corner of the suitcase - that turned out to be Japan's specialty - strangely not China's.  Or at least not right now.  Maybe part of the problem was growing up and living in Seattle where many of the popular souvenirs had surrounded my childhood, always on display at Pike Place Market.  How could a wooden jointed snake be at all exotic if I'd been tripping over them for as long as I could remember?

We departed the the tea/gift shop with some pretty good tea (I was to get my paws on better in a few more days... but this gave me a decent grounding to help me get the other), some scene changing mugs, and 2 tea babies for appropriate recipients.  
At last we were driven back to the hotel where we paid our tips and lugged all our packages out of the mini van.  We said goodbye to the most jam packed of days we would experience in China. (Thank Goodness!)
Looking back - I can see this is when the pneumonia started to set in.  But at the time... "It's just a cold.  I'll just drink some more tea."
Dinner (which I don't remember at all) and Splat! into bed.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Day 4 - This Tour Goes to ELEVEN! Part V - Look! There's the Bird's Nest...

And other New Uses of the Olympic Stadiums

So, what, are you, as a government that is extremely uncomfortable with large organized gatherings of your own citizens that YOU didn't organize, to do with a couple of stadiums you built to impress foreigners?

Step 1 - make sure they are not used for any gatherings of your own citizens by not only fencing off the stadiums, but also fence off the roads as well.

Step 2 - throw up a couple of guard posts, and only allow tourists and select government officials into the areas around these stadiums.

Step 3 - in the vast caverns under these stadia that once held; athletes, their equipment, spectators going to and from events, concessions and officials, install special tourist stores, night clubs, and other shady operations sanctioned at some level by someone in the government (or by someone with power over some branch, stick, twig or leaf of it).

Step 4 - because the areas where people used to congregate and sports were actually done are no longer of use to you, as the government, and possibly an object of severe dislike, let these structures fall rapidly to rack and ruin.

Step 5 - contemptuously ignore all international censure of the international community on these matters, just like you do for everything else.  Because you can.  And you are too busy with so much else!

How does this come up?

As our tour was winding down, we still had plenty of time before we were supposed to show up at the tea house.  So why not make quick stops at a few more shops to pick up Chinese Souvenirs of (slightly) better than average quality?  First, on the way to this "tourist only complex" we made a quick stop on a half fenced off overpass where we could get a quick snap shot of the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium, 


the Water Cube (the swimming venue)
You can see tail of the hotel in the water cube picture.
And you can see the corner of the water cube in the picture below.


 and the (in)famous "Seven Star Hotel."
I can't tell you how many times we were told,
"China is the only country with a 7-star hotel."
Possibly because I stopped listening at some point.   


The Birds Nest and the Water Cube are nearly impossible to drive to.  Infrequent subways will take you there, but you get off at what feels like the end of the line (well it is).  And you walk out into a deserted ghost town.  The guide books says you can get tours and walk around the stadium, but it is apparently depressing as you can see the structure falling apart and rusting.  And apparently there is no way near or into the Water Cube.  I bet that is a weird and scary place these days.  We declined the trek later, and just stuck with these odd pictures at about the closest point to these structures a regular person can drive to.

The "Seven Star" hotel is a different matter.  You can still drive there if you want to.

Built for the Olympics, as a 7-star, they were one upping (well 2-upping) the traditional maximum of "5-star."  All this hyperbole comes into perspective as you realize that a large number of Beijingers STILL live in houses that have only a cold water tap, and must empty a chamber pot into the community toilet every morning.  One rapidly gets the feeling that their 1-star includes even fewer amenities than what a Westerner would consider 1-star.  That, and what few amenities it takes to be a 4-star toilet.  And the fact that no Chinese institution would ever WANT to be 4-star anyway due to to "unlucky" associations of the number 4.  (Our hotel had no floor 4, 14 or 24 - or 13 for that matter).  The star system in China seems to work on an odd number only scale anyway.
So 7-Star really comes out to 4-star anyway.  Whoop-de-do.  But they are apparently charging 7-star prices all the same.  We could see, driving by, that even the front building is largely an X-Ray building.  Floors were empty or in the midst of halted construction. And for a structure purportedly built for the 2008 Olympics, occupancy was WAY behind schedule.
The best rumor we heard about it, "George W. Bush has bought a whole floor."

After we snapped those pictures, we stopped at the "Silk Museum and Store."  And after what I'd seen the Chinese government passing off as museums, if this store wanted to call their collection of an old silk winding machine and a few prints of old scrolls depicting pre-industrual silk harvesting methods a museum, I felt they were perfectly justified.  Strange how quickly I fell back into the "flexible standards" that come of getting by in a communist country when travelling as just a peon tourist.

Oh... and for those of you in school in the 70's, the silk winding machine was exactly the same kind I had seen in my childhood elementary-school educational movies on the Silk Worm.  (Silly nostalgic excitement attack!) 
Dim light, small room, and they were in a hurry to get us to
the part where we were supposed to spend money.
Alas... this is the only shot I got. 
In the store portion (yes much, much larger than the museum) we saw silk everything - and this cloth was thick.  There was hardly any of the silk gauze so popular in the US now.  The silk comforter was tempting, but we had just replaced our comforter at home.  The clothes and fabric were all florals of the 1980's Laura Ashley school, or out of the Wild-Victoriana style as far as I could tell.  Just not my style.  And mostly too small anyway.  We did manage to find some nice decadent sheets.  

And on to the pearl store.  This was in the understory caverns of the stadium used for beach volleyball, among other things.  The stadium was of no interest, but all the rooms underneath had been converted into interesting things (including the above mentioned night club).  This was a freshwater pearl store.  Salt water pearls are more a specialty of the Japanese and other Pacific nations with a similar coast line/land ratio.  China with prodigious inland waters always has had more of a hand in fresh water pearls.
We were shown the freshwater oysters that are the source of the pearls, and they cut one open so we could see the pearls in situ.  Originally our hostess asked us to guess how many pearls there were, and we could keep them if we got the right number.  Well, all of us guessed far short, but since it was just the 3 of us, and she didn't have anything to do with the pearls herself, she still gave them to us.  

Fresh water oyster... check out the pearls on the counter... and more on the shell

We ended up with some nice pearls for Alec's sister, and a few cool looking HUGE irregular pearls for me.  I still need to make necklaces out of them.
On our way out a Russian group came in, and in the same way we had been greeted by our own pearl-store hostess who spoke quite good, but frantic, English limited to selling pearls, I could hear the Russian speaker (with a really decent accent) doing the same for the Russian group.  Incidentally I could understand her since her Russian was pretty elementary, much like mine :).

Almost done with showing us stuff to buy, there was 1 more stop... the Tea Shop.  But that's next.
Fun Facts:  

Unlike salt water oysters, where you use a hard particle to start the pearl, and only 1 or 2 at a time, with freshwater oysters you actually use tiny bits of oyster meat, and can put up to 40 implants.  Hence the 27 pearls in our oyster (Including the lumps on the shell.)

If you want to see if pearls are real, and really the color they are, and not colored after harvesting, rub two pearls together. They should give off a shell-dust (like grinding a clam shell) and it should be white!  Even if the pearl is grey or pink or lavender.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Day 4 - This Tour Goes to ELEVEN! Part IV - Lunch

 - with Beijing Rice Liquor & Fastest Tour of a Cloisonné Factory Ever.

Quick - What's Cloisonné? 

(It's that art form of metal items (vases, boxes, hair clips, bracelets etc., etc.) covered in  metal (copper-alloy) defined shapes of enamel.)  

         We've all seen some of it, maybe owned bits and pieces.  And in China, like jade, it is big government business for the government.  
Why do I bring this up? Because our lunch took place in the upstairs restaurant at this tourist stop.  On our way up to the restaurant we got the fastest tour ever.

Here are the vessels with the metal shapes. (Look Quick!)

Here are the women filling in the enamel. (Don't Blink... or you'll miss it)


Here are some examples drying. (No one's working here... extra dim)

Here are some of the vessels from the first firing.  (Keep moving, keep moving)

Here are vessels next to the kiln. (Wait... can I see?  Uh- )

Here are the polishers. (Zip... not even time for pictures)

We got to see these things at rapid fire speed. One wonders about the workers' eyes as the lighting was rather terrible.  Well I s'pose at lease they no longer have to work by candle/oil lamp light.  Or in freezing open air factories to get natural day light?  Now it's 50 degrees in the winter.  Not so bad if you wear your coat.  And you can see from the blurry pictures - we were rushed along, and the camera couldn't focus in the low light.
And in the end I realize I didn't even get a picture of a finished vase.  My guess is this factory wasn't really on our schedule, or Eleven didn't have a good agreement with this particular stop, and was getting nothing.  Either way, we were certainly NOT encouraged to look around or shop here.

So we were herded upstairs to a noisy but spartan restaurant.  The food was generally bland, limp and generally beige in color.  (Except for the dumplings. They were tasty)  But a definite contradiction to the ideal of the Chinese meal that is balanced and attractive in both looks and flavors.  I figure it was a nice quick and fortunately short lived glance into the flavors of Communist China.  The only unrealistic aspect there is we were not starving to begin with, and there was plenty of food for us to eat, however bland it might be.  At least the tea wasn't unforgivably bitter.
We were also given a sample of the local rice liquor, "a Beijing specialty."  It definitely fell into the category of meszcal, home brewed vodka, or certified-not-poisonous moonshine.  It was alcohol alright, and your mouth was definitely cleaner after you drank it.  And if you needed an emergency sterilizer for the life-saving amputation you might need to perform, you might have something here.  That's about all the positive things I can say about it, other than the cups it was served in were robin's egg sized so you didn't accidentally take a big mouthful and have to spit it out theatrically.
As a mildly odd/amusing note - as we were getting ready to leave, a bus tour of a large networking company, of the NetGear sort, came in for lunch.  Huh!  Interesting what happens when you concentrate all the loose Westerners in one place.
And we were done with lunch.. and off to the next destination.
Whoosh!