Friday, August 17, 2007

Updated Information on Elaina

This morning we had our orientation meeting in the hotel -- lots of good advice about the bureaucratic complexities of the rest of the trip, and about easing the babies' transition.

Then, to be mean, they put up new pictures on the screen and tried to get us to identify which was ours. It's harder than it sounds, as our last picture is about 3 months old, and those little faces change a lot.

I'll post the new Elaina pictures after a while. She's still a cutie, and still definitely not starving. We also got a picture of her with some of the other babies in the group, which was very cool.

Here are the pics:

Ooops. I'll try to flip the pics later.

Some pics from yesterday

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.

A Busy Day

Lots of fun today. Started off with a decent buffet breakfast in the hotel....congee is actually palatable with raisins and brown sugar. Met some of the rest of our group. Then gathered for the tour with eight other families, a few with kids.

The ride to the Great Wall took about an hour and a half, during whcih our guide taught us a few phrases and discussed Chinese history and culture. Beijing is a city exploding with construction ... the guide joked that the new national animal is the crane, and indeed cranes were plentiful, lifing steel and equipment above questionable-looking scaffolding. The traffic wasn't bad, as this was the first day of a grand traffic expiriment -- the government decreed that only people with license plates ending in an odd number could drive today. Even numbers tomorrow. Our guide was amazed at the impact. It's designed to address both Beijing's growing traffic crunch -- 1000 new cars are registered every day here -- and its pressing polution issue.

The last half-hour was through pleasant (but for the lingering smog) countryside, with a wide variety of young trees. Our guide explained that most of these were planted by volunteer groups, thousands upon thousands at a time. They are designed for beautification, pollution control, and to help reduce the terrible sandstorms Beijing experiences seveal times every year.

We arrived at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall and walked through a steep and narrow guantlet of aggressive trinket-vendors to get to the cable cars that took us up to the Wall. Mutianyu is in a mountainous area -- the mountains remind me in size and shape of the San Gabriels, only far more lush with a riot of trees and bushes. The tram ride took us to a staging area from which we climbed several flights of stone steps to a plateau with our frist grand view. From here we could see the Wall stretching in both directions, sinuously meandering up and down hills and up to distant peaks at the edge of our line of sight.

Here we committed the ultimate cultural attrocity, or if you prefer, the act of a techo-carnivore at the top of the digitial food chain -- we called home on a cell phone from the Wall. The reception was flawless. I was struck by the two kids of technical feats coming together: the first two millenia old, requiring unimaginable devotion and physical strength and engineering ingenity, and the second a few decades old, allowing me to speak with people instantansously on the other side of the planet. (For a ruinous fifty cents per minute, but still.) The kids were happy to hear from us, and we were able to wish Evan a happy family day, the sixth anniversary of the day we picked him up in Korea. They told us they news. (1. They got ice cream cones. 2. Their tongues were, as a consequence, funny colors. 3. They missed us. 4. Did they mention the ice cream cones?)

Having amused ourself with technology, we climbed the last narrow stone stair to the top of the Wall proper. It was in the 80s, I'd say, but terribly humid, and we soon felt as if we'd been in the front row at Sea World. This section of the Wall was repaired on a large scale in the 1500s, and the conditions are very good. We walked a kilometer or so in one direction (hey, it's steep and muggy -- YOU try it) and enjoyed the views from some guardhouses and promontories. The view was regrettably marred by the smog -- it must be trully breathtakng after a storm. It was still impressive, though -- mostly because of the steep drops into valleys on either side, leaving you to wonder how many man-hours it took to haul all that stone up there, let alone construct it.

After a time we joined some members of the group and headed back down the mountain, enjoyng the tram cars again (though a metal box suspended far above any shade is not necessariy where you want to be in that heat.) We navigated the guantlet of aggressive souvenier salespeople again -- somewhat less successfully this time, as Katrina twice decided to buy something and then left the negotiation for me. I got about 50% of initial asking both times, which was probably still about 200% of what I should have paid. The vendors are quite bold; they jump in front of you, shaking their wares and yelling ONE DOLLAR! ONE DOLLAR!, by which they actually mean about 100 yuan (or 13 dollars or so) as a starting point.

We made our way to a shady outdoor cafe and enjoyed just about the most satisfying semi-cold bottle of soda I have ever had.

More later. Going out to dinner with some other members of our group.