Friday, August 17, 2007

A busy day, Part II

After the Great Wall we went to a cloissone factory. That's a kind of enameled brass, which looks like porcelain from a distance but is far more strong. It was made popular by the Ming dynasty, members of which liked to hear a satisfying CLONG sound when they hit people over the head with the decor rather than a dull smashing sound requiring cleanup. OK, that's not what the tour guide led with, but I'm sticking to it.

The artistry involved is amazing. We toured the artisan portion of the factory and saw the various phases. Then we went to the dining room and had lunch. I was expecting an institutional meal, but it was one of the best Chinese meals I have had, rivaling Yang Chow or Yujean Kang. I think it was because the ingredients were so fresh. The Kung Pao Chicken was definitely the best I've had -- simple and not choked with sauce and stuff. Cold beer improved the meal. It's funny how much a tumbler of cold beer will improve your worldview when you've been climbing the Great Wall in 100 percent humidity all morning. That humidity is starting to get to me, by the way. Some Chinese men pull up their T-shirts to roughly breastbone level to let their middriffs air out. This works OK in a country with as low an obesity rate as China's. It is not recommended for American gentlemen who occasionally get the Pillsbury Dough Boy's mail by accident.

Anyway, after the very good meal was a trip to the gift shop. It had a lot of nice cloissone stuff. To use Wife Math, it is like SAVING money to buy this, because it would cost more elsewhere. Katrina gave China's economic miracle a boost.

Next was back to Beijing, and my favorite part. We went to a district near the Forbidden City -- starting next to the Drum Tower -- and boarded rickshaw. My rickshaw driver gazed upon me and regarded my size with the iron-jawed air of a man who has been dealt many bad hands and bluffed his way through them all. We embarked on a rickshaw tour of a maze of narrow back alleys -- a residential area of modest means in the city. The alleys were dirty but the doors were colorful and clean, leading into pleasant couryards and small rooms adjuoining them. Many men were working in the narrow side streets repainting or patching walls or foundations, repairing the annual damage wrought by the rainy season. Elderly ladies walked with bags of unidentifiable vegetables from the grocery to their courtyards, children cavorted, dogs panted in the shade, and men of a certain age played Chinese Chess on unfurled cloth boards. We wound our way through dozens of such streets, only occasionally crossing a major throughfare (with a carefully cultivated indifference by our driver and carefully hidden terror from us as cars narrowly missed us); most of the experience was within this very different world, marked as modern only by the posters in the corner shops and by the occasional internet-themed T-shirt on the younger men. I felt far more than I did at the Wall that I had seen someplace different, someplace non-Western with a culture that survived change.

Our guide took us to a "typical family home," which was a fairly modest set of rooms in a shady and sweet-smelling courtyard. The lady of the house -- who, it was clear, does this on a professional basis -- told us about Beijing urban life. There was a Potempkin Village air to it, especially the homily about how a more materialistic Beijing had become more selfish, but it still managed to be charming. I liked the tiny, intricately carved wooden cages containing grasshoppers, until someone pointed out they are often kept in order to dump them in a container together to watch them fight. Michael Vick, take note -- you'd still be perfectly popular if you acted as a fight manager for bugs rather than puppy dogs.

Back to the hotel. We decided to meet up with 3 other couples for dinner. Our guide recommended a duck restaurant (Peking is now Beijing, but Peiking duck remains Peking Duck). This would have been a prudent time to determine how many in the group would actually eat duck. We did not. We walked to the restaurant, meeting a charming con-man along the way posing as a student trying to practice his English. I walked with him for a while, having a professional interest in con men, and listened to the con emerge (You know, that restaurant is expensive. And I once had duck there that smelled funny. Let me take you to a better place.) Eventually, when it was clear that he would not detour to a different restaurant or go see his "art exhibit," he departed.

We should have followed. The restaurant told us a half hour wait. After an hour some of our group left. We finally got a table only to wait 15 minutes without a waiter, giving us plenty of time to peruse a menu that featured 90% duck and 10% dishes like "Crab Ovum." When the waiter appeared and seemed both clueless and hostile, we walked out. We made it to KFC, freaked out at the crowds and the ambiguity of the menu, and ressed on. More of our group departed. Finally four of us enjoyed a perfectly satisfactory meal at Mr. Pizza in the mall, where we were rather ostentatiously seated in the White People's Section. The mall, by the way, was called the Oriental Plaza. Really, if the Chinese can't remember to say Asian, what luck will we have at home?

To bed soon. Orientation with our group in the morning, then some exploring. More then. Good night.


Karen said...

Katrina and Ken,

WOW, what an adventure. I just finished reading, "A busy day,Part II." I will get to the first Part today. Luke and I were on vacation and got back yesterday. It sounds so interesting, what a different world, the food alone! I hope you have taken pictures. I can't wait to see you guys and meet Elaina. Take care and know you are in my thoughts. Love, Karen

-Stacy and Ted said...

oh my! I can't tell you how much FUN it is reading your updates! I LOL'd at the Michael Vick comment! :) Keep the blog entries coming and HAVE A WONDERFUL TIME! Can't wait to hear all about Elaina!

Tom and Christine said...

A little none secret is I took a cloissone class in college but never knew a factory existed anywhere. Crab ovum? It just can't be what I think it is. You should try some of the local dishes and give us some food reviews. We are enjoying your blogs. Keep them coming.