Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Bewildered in Beijing

Our first taste of China was Jining, a city with only one thing of interest to any foreign tourist: the connecting train to Beijing. During our four hour layover in Jining, we introduced ourselves to China and realized just how foreign a land this is. We were immediately surrounded by Mandarin Chinese, on every sign, every menu and the lips of every resident. Our initiation to China involved obtaining dinner using an even more incomprehensible menu than the ones we'd encountered in Russia, then being stared at for a good 20 minutes by an aged local man who had evidently never seen foreigners before. We loved this Chinese 'baptism of fire'.

We were surprised to discover that donkey meat is a Chinese delicacy, advertised on this restaurant sign. We didn't order it in Jining, but we couldn't identify anything we were served, so may have unknowingly feasted on one of the gentle beasts. We did taste donkey in Beijing. It tastes like brisket.

While many tourists seem to spend three or four days in Beijing, somehow we ended up there for two weeks; long enough to form some lasting impressions of the place. Here are some of the most memorable.

White City
The first thing we noticed about Beijing is the sky. It's bright white with a permanent haze. The thick white smog refuses to give way to even a hint of blue, and the air lacks the crisp, clean quality that makes you want to inhale. Occasionally the sun can be seen, an unnaturally dark orange light cutting through the soupy air.

Just another hazy day in Beijing.

Spokes rule the road
We soon figured out that Beijing is no place for long walks, especially in the height of the steamy, smoggy summer. We tried the metro and taxis which were fine once we got through the language barrier, but we fell in love with biking in Beijing as soon as our feet touched the pedals. We rented solid urban bikes and spent hours cruising the wide cycle lanes and back alleys with the locals. Cycling round Xihai and Houhai Lakes, taking in the lakeside scenes while being brushed by the branches of weeping willows was particularly enjoyable.

Urban bikers, posing in front of the Olympic rings.

Beijing Birthday
I thought it was quite considerate of Jason to turn 31 while we were in a capital city, giving us a good excuse to have some extra fun. He opted for a decadent day enjoying the pool facilities at the Westin Beijing,
working up an appetite for a Peking Duck dinner.

After our chef carved this duck, we soon got to work dipping the meat in plum sauce and wrapping it in pancakes. It was a fabulous birthday feast.

Special thanks to the staff at the Westin for making this delightful chocolate mousse birthday cake magically appear in our room.

Mandarin Madness
Although thankfully we found some English speakers, signs and menus in Beijing, we also received plenty of blank looks from locals. With 1.3 billion fellow Chinese to converse with, it's not surprising that most Chinese people don't speak English. Having expected this would be the case, we signed up for a 'Survival Mandarin' course. We enjoyed our time in class, and did learn a few useful words and phrases. We also learned there are four 'tones' in Mandarin, which affect the pronunciation of each syllable. Being understood is contingent on pronouncing each word with the correct tone. Believe it or not, the tones are not that easy to master in a "survival" course. If our survival truly depended on these lessons, we'd be in pretty big trouble.

During our time with Snow, our Mandarin teacher, we learned how to request chopsticks and a spoon, and to ask a taxi driver to take us to our hotel via the East Third Ring road. Invaluable.

It's all happening in the hutong
Although Beijing glistens with the steel and glass of thousands of modern high rise buildings, a bit of exploring uncovers a completely different world of hutongs, or alleys. The hutongs are the old neighborhoods of Beijing, where locals have lived for centuries. Although many hutongs have been destroyed, the ones that are left are full of character and strolling or cycling down them gives a unique window into the underbelly of Beijing. You'll see children playing, men with t-shirts rolled up, gathered around Chinese checkers boards, people exercising on bright yellow contraptions, strange food on skewers being grilled outside simple eateries and old women fanning themselves while gossiping. Every few hundred meters there is a public toilet block, provided for the residents who don't have toilets in their homes, and a handy facility for visitors. Sadly, what's left of Beijing's hutong may not be around for much longer due to the city's insatiable appetite for demolition and new construction.

In every hutong there's at least one game of checkers happening at any given time. Evidently these four haven't got to the point in the game where they roll their shirts up to their chests and let their bellies hang in the smoggy air.

Jason gets a back alley workout, though we're not entirely sure if he was using the contraption correctly. Chinese ladies over the age of 60 generally seem quite proficient on the hutong exercise equipment, so we should have perhaps asked one of them for a demo.

"We are Ready"
While we were in Beijing, China released a song entitled "We are Ready" to let the world know how excited they are about the 2008 Beijing Olympics. We saw tacky merchandise everywhere, featuring the Olympic mascots, Beibei, Jingjing, Yingying, Nini and Huanhuan. China apparently opted for a reincarnation of the Spice Girls in the form of Asian cartoon characters for their Olympic mascots. Needless to say, we didn't feel compelled to purchase any "official merchandise". Unwilling to accept the release of a pop song or shelves stacked with Olympic merchandise as conclusive proof of readiness, we biked to the Olympic village to see how the stadiums were coming along.

In any other country we would probably have met some resistance to our inspection in the form of security. Fences and guard dogs, perhaps. Not in China though. We just rode in to the enormous building site and had a good nosy around. We were impressed by the Ying Tung Natatorium, the Olympic Sports Center Stadium and adjacent gymnasium which seemed close to completion. The National Stadium with its bird's nest design was also taking shape, looking suitably grand yet unique. However, the heavy smog somewhat clouded my mental picture of the athletic greatness that will take place here.

In many ways, Beijing is ready. Having said that, if you're traveling to the Olympics in '08, I'd recommend you start learning Chinese now, especially if you're planning to get around by taxi. If you'll be competing, bring your own supply of oxygen too.

Jason contemplates going for gold on his bike in front of the National Stadium.

Tiananmen Square
Cycling the perimeter of Tiananmen Square we passed the enormous Great Hall of the People and the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where the embalmed Mao lies on display. We admired the largest public square in the world side by side with throngs of Chinese tourists. By far the most imposing feature is the larger than life portrait of Mao that hangs from the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the north end of the square.

'The Chairman' keeps an eye on Tiananmen Square, assisted by scores of plain clothes police officers.

We climbed the gate and stood in the spot where Mao declared the Peoples' Republic of China to eager crowds in 1949, then perused the small museum inside, showing the history of Tiananmen Square. Unsurprisingly, no reference was made to the brutal massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators that took place here in 1989. For us, as I suppose for many, our visit to Tiananmen Square was a poignant one, although nobody is supposed to acknowledge this.

This young Chinese tourist, decked out in a US army t-shirt and fatigues, waves a Chinese Communist Party flag. Slightly ironic, perhaps.

Pop socks are 'in'
We noticed some interesting fashion trends in Beijing. Nylon pop socks of the supposedly invisible but actually extremely conspicuous variety were prevalent amongst Chinese women of all ages. The men seemed to favor shorts with beige socks and smart evening shoes - also a distinctive look. Chinese babies made the most off-the-wall fashion statement with their crotchless one piece outfits. I would have thought an enormous hole between the legs, front and back, would defeat the purpose or wearing an outfit at all, especially as the babies don't wear diapers underneath. I've dubbed it the "easy pee, easy poo" outfit. Where the babies' 'business' actually ends up remains a mystery, but we have a few more weeks in China to figure it out. I'm fearing the worst.

'Invisible' pop socks. Photographing this lady's feet somehow seemed more acceptable than attempting a shot of a baby with it's bits exposed.

Eat or be damned
Beijing is bursting with flavor to suit every palate. There are plenty of great options for Western food, including Morel's Belgian restaurant, where we washed steamed mussels down with quality Belgian ales.

Enjoying a 'digestif' with Gorden, Head Chef at Morel's.

We've certainly honed our skills with the chopsticks, opting for Chinese food most of the time. Thankfully, many Beijing restaurants do have menus in English, but we've discovered the translations are often wildly inaccurate. You never know what you're getting until it arrives, which keeps mealtimes interesting. The exception to this was dining at a hot pot restaurant where our food was cooked at our table in a pot of steaming broth. We definitely knew what we were getting as we selected it ourselves from the aquarium. The unlucky fish reappeared at our table moments later, prepared for the pot.

Jason dives into this steaming hot pot.

"Oohh! Ahh!" Amazing
We turned up at Beijing's Chaoyang Theater expecting to be wowed by an evening of acrobatic stunts and amazing contortion. After all, acrobatics is to the Chinese what ballet is to the Russians - their national 'party piece'. We were not disappointed, and neither was the mostly Chinese audience, judging by the Oohs and Ahhs rippling through the auditorium.

The 'Acrobatics Macrocosm' show at the Chaoyang Theater gets two thumbs up.

Here's an 'Acrobatics Macrocosm' highlight: three storeys of women spinning plates while standing on each others' heads. That's pretty macrocosmic (I think).

Sharing it with friends
It was great to reunite with Andy and Jane, the friends we'd made in Russia. We spent a lovely evening together in an electric pleasure boat cruising around Houhai Lake. We shared the lake with plenty of Chinese boaters, some in electric boats like ours, others in pedalos, kayaks or even fancy wooden boats complete with their own captain and a musician. We seemed to be the only ones who'd brought wine, turning our boat ride into a "happy hour" cruise.

The bottleneck on Houhai Lake. Deciding to do things the Chinese way, we joined the fray, and soon bumped the smaller boats out of the way.

Andy and Jason enjoying our last night together in Beijing.

Jane and I, bonding over our shared 'Britishness' and a couple of local beers.

After two weeks in Beijing we had begun to get a feel for the phenomenon that is China, realizing that many aspects of modern life here are somewhat ironic. Take the construction industry, for example. New buildings are taking their place in the Beijing skyline at an aggressive pace, and levels of prosperity and investment in the construction industry are clearly high. However, we saw construction workers working in flimsy Chinese slippers using antiquated, unsafe looking equipment. Many of them were housed in woefully cramped, grimy looking huts. It seemed they were working to survive rather than to prosper.

Capitalism and consumption are hard at work here, with hardly a car on the road more than three years old and a shopping mall on every street. Although you can buy just about anything, free speech remains elusive in China. We had to travel to the opposite side of Beijing to find an Internet cafe, and after providing our passport numbers to use the computers, we found access to many sites including our blog was blocked. Finally, while the Chinese exercise a great deal of freedom in their reckless driving, as well as where they smoke and spit, they do not have the freedom to reproduce more than once in their lifetime.

The ironies somehow make this country all the more intriguing, and Beijing has certainly whetted our appetite to see more of China. We are excited to embark upon a search for China's cultural and scenic gems and some cleaner air outside Beijing.

Stay tuned for our next installment, featuring the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and more. A big thank you to all our readers, especially those who have been posting comments. Since we cannot view our blog, we are unable to post individual replies to comments while we are in China. We do appreciate your comments though - keep them coming!


Blogger MidWestCowboy said...

amazing thoughts to enjoy and ponder...
those mascots would represent the 5 rings???...
i'm thinkin' american chinese checkerboards looked a little different from the ones you guys saw...
love ya's

11:53 PM  
Blogger Hot Toddy said...

Jason & Rachel,

You two should consider becoming travel writers in the next chapter of your life. I really get the feeling of the places you write about from your pictures and text. Thanks so much for all the effort you put into the travel log! Your community appreciates it.

Love Todd

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Emily said...

Hey guys!

Great post, Rachel! I honestly cannot say that I'm interested in visiting China- but you guys and your writing and photos do add the intrigue. I'm so curious about the baby clothes- I'll read on to see if you've figured that one out.

Hope you are well.



2:20 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Selma wants an easy-pee, easy-poo outfit!! Damn, too bad you're out of China already. But the shot of Jason in a white terry-cloth robe holding some chocolate mousse--yum!!

Great wrap-up at the end--good to read some analysis after all the detail.

Even after two weeks, I get the sense that you two feel like you were still observers and very much on the outside, which I suppose is how one will always feel about such a monolithic culture like China's. I wonder which culture it is that you feel that you've gotten the most inside of during this trip.

Will we get a final Donkey Crossing entry, you know, the big wrap-up essay? Hope so.

4:28 PM  

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