Thursday, November 20, 2008

My China adventure

In January 2008, I went on a two week trip to China, with my younger sister Ki-Ki and my good friends Alvina and Jen. It was my first time in Mainland China and we focused our travels in Beijing and Shanghai. This blog catalogues our days there. I have done a little editing from my original posts to make it easier for those reading this for the first time. For your reading convenience, I've listed the posts so my first posta are at the top and you scroll to my last, so it is in order as you read down. . I hope you enjoy this and my other blogs which I will write when I (hopefully) get more opportunities to travel!

in China

Flying with companions is much more enjoyable than flying alone. The last time I went on an international trip I went solo; this time, flying with my sister Ki-Ki and Alvina was definitely preferable. But still tiring. When we got into Beijing and met our other friend Jen (who flew in from San Francisco) the fatigue had transformed me into an unattractive life form barely able to speak coherent sentences in English, much less my non-existent Chinese.

But we hoped a good dinner would be the remedy. We went to a place called "Little Fat Lamb", a Mongolian hot pot restaurant. There, our presence fascinated the waiter. Who were these Chinese-looking girls that could not speak Chinese? And speak English so well? He was mesmerized by us, insisting that we wear the special aprons to eat (we noticed these aprons were not pushed upon any of the locals). We humored him, especially as it was quite amusing that the aprons were embroidered with cute, plaintive sheep (lamb is the specialty there) and the words "please keep me." I hear they have restaurants in San Francisco and Montreal, I wonder if the aprons there say the same thing.

However, even "Fat Little Lamb" could not help the exhaustion. So we decided on a quiet walk home and an indoor evening, adventures to begin in the morning.

But I am in China.

cold morning

The next morning we woke up early and cold. Very cold. It was barely 30 degrees out, but we weren't going to let the temperature deter us from our China adventure.So we bundled up, each wearing at least 4 layers and looking quite plump. But even though we didn't look as if we were in need of a breakfast, we were recommended to find a Chinese specialty street food:a jiang bing; so we went in search of it.

And we quickly found it. The steam called to us in the freezing air and soon found a a red cheeked vendor making the slightly-spicy-crepe-and-egg-with-a-chinese-twist.

It was just the thing to warm us up (did I mention it was cold?) and spurred us onward to go see the fairly nearby Lama Temple, the largest buddhist temple in Beijing. It was quite beautiful, the most obvious point of pride being that this building:holds the largest buddha ever to be cut from a single block of wood. It is 55 ft tall, spans all three stories and is really amazing. Since you are not allowed to take pictures and I am not one to break the rules, you will have to take my word for it.

Though I do admit to breaking the rules a little. An iconic statuary was very clearly marked with this particular decree:
which absolutely no one paid attention to:
including me:
But I had a really important thing to wish for. The cold had made me lose the feeling in my feet and I felt I needed some sort of spirtual assistance to make sure it came back.

Chinese Culture

After our cold morning, we decided temporarily ignore the Chinese culture putdoors and spend our afternoon indoors shopping(!). We went to YaShow an enormous indoor marketplace. I thought I would like to get a nice qipao (one of those Chinese silk dresses with a Mandarin collar) and YaShow we were told was a sure bet place to get one.

It was extremely intimidating. Think of a 6 floor home depot filled with hundreds upon hundreds of stalls, all manned by extremely aggressive vendors. I quickly learned some unpleasant things. First, for a standard Chinese women I am huge. Ki-Ki, my sister, who is a size 2, was forced to wear a large; and when the saleswoman looked at my waist she said, "tai da!" which I'm pretty sure means "too big." She brought me an extra large and looked doubtful.

However, I did manage to squeeze into something...and then the games began. In China, haggling is an art form like no other. And as I was obviously a non-native (if my size didn't give it away, my completely incoherent Chinese did), I was an easy target for a swindle.

Luckily, our traveling companion Jen is not only better at Chinese but no fool either. When the saleswoman gave a price 3 times a normal price, Jen told us to walk away. We were stopped by the saleswoman who than offered another price, maybe 10 dollars less. We (uh, Jen) counter offered 1/3 of the price. Offer, counteroffer, offer, and then Jen told us to walk away again. This went on for two hours. Really. It was exhausting. I don't know how Chinese people actually buy anything. Perhaps that is how they keep from being so materialistic, one has to really work at purchasing. Anyway, we finally got it to a "decent" price and won the respect of the salesperson but after I calculated the savings in my head, I realized it might've been worth it just to pay the extra money so we could leave after 5 minutes instead.

But, looking back, as an experience in real Chinese culture, I suppose it was worth it.

(the outfit Ki-Ki bought... or won, depending on how you look at it)

train travels

Due to the extensive haggling, our shopping expedition took more time than anticiapted and we found ourselves rushing to the train station. Where were we going? Why, we were going to Shanghai. We had booked a 3-day, 2 night tour for ourselves and if we wanted to keep with it we had to catch our 12 hour overnight train.

But there are few things more confusing than a Chinese train station, especially when you don't read a lick of Chinese. People don't like to be asked questions when they are in train stations, they are running to catch their train. Like we should've been..except we had no idea where to go.

I take it back, I had no idea where to go (and neither did Ki-Ki) but Alvina and Jen with their far superior language skills slowly figured it out, while Ki-Ki and I followed like sheep. And after sweating and straining with our luggage through rush hour and throngs of people to the correct gate, I realized I read the tickets wrong and we were an hour early. You know your friends are true friends when they don't get annoyed by things like that.

But maybe it was good fate, because somehow we were unable to get tickets that allowed all four of us to be in the same sleeper car and we needed some time to sort things out. We didn't realize what an issue not sharing the same car would be until we saw how close the quarters were in these sleepers...and that we were paired with strange Chinese men. We quickly put on our most pathetic, pouty faces, and Jen cajoled in Chinese until they were willing to make the switch.

And thank goodness, for riding sleeper car was quite fun. Not much of a view as we were traveling by night, but nothing beats a getting up at midnight on a train to eat brought-from-home ramen noodles and peanut butter on bread. And Ki-Ki woke us all up at 3 in the morning when she got up to eat Nerd candy.

But when the sun began to rise (or the smog lightened, little hard to tell), we knew we were close to our destination. Before long we were being pushed off the train into Shanghai station. Luckily, Kevin, our tour guide, was there waiting for us and saved us from another painful navigation through us a train station; and we soon found ourselves on the streets of Shanghai.

Hello, Shanghai!

Shanghai dumplings

We were afraid Kevin, our tour guide, would be a bit overwhelmed with the responsibility of us four giggling girls, but instead he seemed rather amused. Even when Melody, a friend of Ki-Ki's who is temporarily living in Shanghai, joined us, he was nonplussed. Instead, when we told him we were hungry and wanted a substantial meal, he calmly took us to a teahouse at the Yu Gardens Bazaar--an old-looking, but modern shopping area full of knick-knacks and tourists just like us.
There, before we went into the teahouse, we watched the chefs make the dumplings we would be about to sample. It seemed to chaotic dance, the chefs' fingers flew as dumpling after dumpling was made. But even though it seemed fast to us, Kevin told us that this was non-impressive quickness; a famous woman chef had been recorded to make 1 million dumplings in 7 hours and 20 minutes. That, he told us, was speed worthy of respect.

However, when we sat down to eat, Kevin gained a new respect for speed when he saw how fast those dumplings disapeared. They were delicious--a Chinese specialty called xiao-lan-bao. Unlike the typical potsticker, these dumplings had a flavorful soup inside of them, making the meat especially tender and tasty. The first bite of these dumplings is accompanied by a savory squirt of soup; which if you can eat without making a mess marks you as a "real Chinese."

Some of us were better eating the dumplings than others, but our pace was beyond comparison. Suprised out of his professional demeanor, Kevin had to make two more orders to satisfy his American girls because we only stopped until we were stuffed like dumplings we we ate.

Yu Yuan Garden

After lunch, we went to the Yu Yuan Garden, the largest Chinese Garden in Shanghai. Even in the gray and chilly weather, it was really lovely and it was here the Kevin really began to prove his worth as he was able to explain many of the garden's finer points.

The Yu Yuan Garden has five of these remarkable dragons, each one representing a different area of the garden. Officially, these are not real dragons (long) but are called jiao, a mystical "other" beast that looks a whole lot like a long dragon. That is because only the imperial family was allowed to use the image of the long dragon; and to escape the wrath of the emperor the garden's owner had two of the claws of all the dragons removed--claiming that since his dragons only had 3 claws and not the imperial 5, they were not dragons at all. Somehow he got away with it and the jiao beast, the 3-fingered wanna-be dragon, was born.
Perhaps the owner got away with it because he did not hesitate to use the garden as a device to flatter his superiors. For example,to get to the area that only friends or powerful officials would be allowed to enter, one passed through a round entrance way and then a rectangular one. This is because the round entrance way symbolizes heaven and the square one symbolizes earth. It is a compliment to those who pass through, that they are from heaven visiting the owners on earth.
Or perhaps it was just because imperial officials were willing to take any excuse not to harm this beautiful place, which visually balances the ying/yang elements of stone (symbolizing mountains and man) and water(symbolizing woman)with every glance...

as well as various creatures of interest. This is a dragonfish, one of the sons of the heavenly emperor whose special power is controlling water. He is placed on the roof as a protection against fire, a sort of spiritual firefighter.

This is one of the guardian lions. The unique feature of this lion is that it has a stone ball that moves around in its mouth, but cannot be taken out. Usually this is done by carving the lion and ball with one piece of stone; but the ball in this lion is made of marble--a completely different stone than what the lion is made of, which means the ball was made separately and then inserted. Apparently, the marble ball was cut in half and then placed and fused together seamlessly into the lion's mouth. The technology and skill to do this is now lost and this lion is the last one in China that exemplifies this vanished art.

But the most prized feature of the garden is this Jade Stone. It is not made of jade but it is treasured as if it were. A complete nature-made sculpture, this highly valued piece of rockery was on its way to the emperor when the boat it was on sunk and it vanished to the bottom of the river. Many years later it was found by a local fisherman and presented to the owner of the garden as a wedding gift for his daughter.

If one pours water on top of this stone, water will come out of every single one of its holes--a tribute to the interconnectedness of all things. This and its ancient age represents everlasting perpetuity, so many couples like to take their picture with it to symbolize their undying love. We, however, settled for eternal friendship. I think it wil work just as well.