It's a creekmore world

A working week in Beijing: Asia – China Days 15-18

The hotel made a mistake when it gave us free breakfasts and evening appetizers.  Not only do we look like scruffy barbarians from Dunhuang, we eat  like them too.  We, the hungry wolves, scarf down fresh fruit, cereal with skim milk and brewed coffee like it’s our last meal.   And in the evening, everyone fills up on the appetizer-ish food in liu of a full dinner.

It’s not that we are trying to save money.  Food in China isn’t expensive.  But the girls have struggled to eat here.  At most Chinese restaurants Emma eats only plain rice (‘with no salt’ as she reminds us) and Lily eats a little pork dumpling and fried rice.  Finding and ordering a meal takes a fair amount of time away from other activities, which include working a lot this week.  We’d rather save the time.

We’ll rest when we get home.

This is a very different week from the last one. Our vacation time is over.    I spend the days working on the east side of Beijing and then come back to the hotel for office calls as the USA wakes up.  Trying to fit in some family time, much less sightseeing, is difficult.

I’m not complaining though.  The flexibility of my work has definitely helped us travel.  But it does make for long days on the road.  We don’t travel to relax.  We can do that at home.

For the girls, our work week in Beijing is like a luxury prison.  At first it’s great.  They could watch Discovery Channel all day (Why did the air the ‘tree man’ over and over, sigh. Get some variety.)

The pool was generally open for them as long as one of us had enough laptop power to go down there and watch them.  And the comforts of a western hotel are nice after the mid-range places we’ve been at.   But after a day or two, they got bored.

I would say though, if you are coming to Beijing with kids, the Hyatt is a great place especially if you get the food option.  It made our stay much, much easier.

The Beijing Olympics

We’ll pick up travel again on Saturday when we go hike the great wall. Until then, there are only a few activities we will do.  One, that I promised a long time ago is the Watercube Happy Magic water park in the Beijing Olympic center.

The Beijing Olympics are a source of deep pride for the Chinese.  I read an anecdote that one particularly orthodox tour guide denied that there had been any deaths at Tienanmen square in 1989 and suggested that the group think of the 2008 Olympics instead.

That might be taking it too far, but they should be proud, partly because they won the most gold medals (the US won the most medals).  And they pulled off a massive investment in construction and transportation.  Yes, the pesky French managed to douse the Olympic flames en route to Beijing, for which I am told, there were diplomatic retributions.

But it’s absolutely amazing that 40 years after the death of Mao and the end of the Great Cultural Revolution, they could do this.

The subway line  was almost completely constructed in the three years leading up to the Olympics.  That’s 150 miles of track in 36 months.  New York City can’t reroute a bus in that amount of time.  Of course, like much of Beijings ultra-rapid skyscraper construction, there are some questions about quality.   A boy was killed this week in Beijing when an escalator malfunctioned and went into reverse, causing a stampede.

The Happy Magic Watercube

Olympic parks are always sad after they are done.   Chinese tourists still go and visit because of the patriotic pride, but that won’t last forever.  The blue watercube that hosted Michel Phelps to his unprecedented 8 gold medals, has been reconditioned with an investment of $50,000,000, into a waterpark, that China claims is the biggest in Asia.

We always try to go to waterparks and amusement parks in other countries.  It’s sort of a litmus test for the culture and people.  We had hilarious experiences at one in Cairo and thought Eurodisney was cruddy.  I don’t think we will be able to make the Happy Valley Amusement park in Beijing, but we’d like to.

Getting into the park requires the usual hassle.  The cab driver drops us off completely on the wrong side of the park, forcing us to walk a mile in the heat.

The park itself requires two tickets, one for entrance to the cube itself and another for the park.  It’s not cheap either – about $120 for the four of us.

I make things more difficult by forgetting my swimsuit.  Fortunately they have some for sale for rip-off prices, but I can’t complain.  It’s my own damn fault.

The kids still remember our trip to the Paris waterpark Aquaboulevard, where the French made me wear a speedo.  Yes, ladies, I look incredibly hot in a speedo, but I still prefer the, um,  flexibility, of a pair of board shorts.  Contrary to rumor we heard, there was no clothing requirement for the water park here in Beijing.

It’s evening already because we had a long work day, so parents are tired.  But the water park is inviting.  There are several slides, a small wave pool, lazy river and other assorted activities.  For an indoor park it’s nice.  Like everything in China it’s packed with people, although I suspect it gets even more busy on weekends and daytime.  I’m glad we came now.

Trish thinks some of the construction is cheap.  I didn’t notice that as much, but there are several slides that are unused, broken or closed off with yellow tape.  Maybe she’s right.

Lily is too small to use some of the big rides and that understandibly makes her sad but she gets over it.  Trish’s review “Mostly happy, not very magic and definitely not a cube.”

Beijing architecture

Most cities develop artitecture gradually as they grow, and if there are distinct styles they are reflected and interpreted over time.  Not so with Beijing.  Architecturally, Beijing has three faces, each uniquiely representative of a distinct historical and economic period.

There is the surviving architecture of Imperial China, the borrowed designs and style of Soviet Russia and the ultra modern chic that dominates today.  Because building has been in spurts it missed any styles before or in between.

The Imperial Chinese architecture is either under government preservation rules or has been demolished.  The elaborate gables, roofs and ornamented styles are instantly recognizable to anyone.

The Soviet architecture of the 1950’s and 60’s included both classic Stalinist styles that can be seen in the Railway station, the main government buildings and the highrise apartment buildings all based on the same blueprint from the 60’s.

Last, but most eye-catching are the ultra modern designs like the CCTV ‘big underpants‘  the Beijing Opera  (called the ‘duck egg’) and the fabulous olympic stadium called the ‘birds nest.’ above)

This one on the upper left was one of the girls favorite.  It looked like the front had been crumpled in.

Food From Yunnan

On Friday we have the pleasure of having a lunch with some Chinese coworkers and friends at a Yunnan  restaurant.  Yunnan is at the center of a number of cultures; Thai, Vietnamese, Laotian, Burmese, Han and several local ethnic cultures.  Yunnan food has a very rich and diverse set of flavors and techniques that are somewhat in vogue in Beijing right now.

It especially interesting because most of the dishes are as new to our Chinese friends as they are to us.  It’s funny to watch them eat this hot grassy tofu soup and cubed goat cheese that is cut in little cubes and stir fried with peas.  It doesn’t seem that different for us compared with traditional Han chinese food but to them it’s completely new.

We have two very traditional dishes.  Bolu Fan is sweet, glutinous rice is baked in a pineapple with lots of vegetables and pineapple mixed.  And Qi guo ji, or Chicken steam pot which is chicken parts in an earthen vessel cooked with medicinal herbs and giant hunks of ginger.

Our steam pot also had a fungus that grew on bamboo, which is a little stringy but mostly tasteless.  It was once haute cuisine in China and was served to Henry Kissenger when he came in the early 70’s to reestablish diplomatic relations.

Yunnan food also emphasizes traditional fungi – mushrooms.  They served several delicious kinds.  With a large group you can really enjoy Chinese cuisine as it is meant to be eaten.  You get many different types of food which are served in an order that is selected to vary the types of flavors (hot, sour, sweet) and consistancies.  They don’t do dessert per se.  Sweet items that resemble dessert are served throughout the meal.

The girls get a beautiful little alcove in which to plan and eat plain rice. Lily sleeps in the window and attracts onlookers as we eat.

Made in China

Although Buddhism is the dominant religion, (depending on how you count Communist athiesm) it has been influenced deeply by two systems of thought Daoism and Confuscianism, both of which are unique to China.

Confucianism is the legacy of Kong Fuzi, from around 500 BC, and is a self-improvement philosophy with well articulated beliefs on ethics and social values.  It promotes an active position on making change.  There is belief that humans can and should change their actions and surroundings for the better.

By contrast Daoism is also a system that promotes self-fulfillment, but one does that through wuwei, or nonaction.  The principle here, among many others, is that human suffereing comes from trying to change things they can’t change, and that one should let things play out more.

Both systems came under attack at different times by both the Imperials and the Communists. The two, along with Buddhism make a very complicated tapesty of Chinese religious practice.

A daoist temple

Not many Daoist temples are left because of massive persecution during the great cultural revolution.  But there are two big ones in Beijing left, and on a reccomendation from Gael the driver of our sidecar adventure on Monday, we go to one of them (roof and ceiling pictured above).

In his words, ‘you can see buddhist temples everywere, but only in China can you see a daoist temple”

It’s no longer called a Daoist temple.  To survive in officially atheistic China, it has to be renamed the “Folklore Museum” and indeed some parts are museum-like.  But other parts are a functioning ancient temple.  The most unusual part of the temple is that the perimiter wall is a series of rooms with lifesize dioramas that teach about ethics and the consqeunces of immorality by showing how you will be judged in the afterlife.

But these are not like layers of demonic hell.  They are more like bureaucratic offices,( and in that sense are much more horrifying .)

The idea of getting passed back and forth from the “Department of Petty Officials” to the “Department of Supressing schemes”  is frightening.   It’s true that Daoism was a system of ethics, but some of these seem too conveniently supportive communist society to be completely believed as authentic.

But weirdest of all are the life-size dioramas.  A few of these figures are authentic, to the eye anyway, but most seem to be colorful recreations. Nonetheless, they are incredibly entertaining!

Inside some of the main areas are daoist priests with incense and offerings to the various daoist gods and deities.  Daoism is definitely pan-theistic.

The kids loved this!  What a freaking unexpected place and unexpected result.  I thought it would be ususual, but I had no idea it would be wacky and weird.  We were super glad we came here, even in the heat.


Beijing at Rush Hour

And it is hot.  After that big meal and a hot afternoon in the temple, I’m as thirsty as I’ve been in a long time.  It’s so bad that I am uncomfortable, but I know we’ll grab a cab and be back at the hotel.

For the second day this week, it’s impossible to get a cab in the afternoon in Beijing.  Wednesday, after work, I tried to get a cab at 5:30 and tried unsuccessfully for 45 minutes before trying the metro.  The advice from a friend “good luck’.

The metro at rush hour was nuts.  As a long time New Yorker, I thought nothing on a subway would shock me.  But I was so jammed into a car that I couldn’t get off at my stop.

People were ramming the crowd to get in.  I had to wait for three trains before I got a tiny space.   It took 2 hours total to go a few miles.

And again today, we wait in the heat for an hour looking for a cab.  Most go by us.  Some even wave.  WTF?

Other people looking for cabs keep moving in front of me to get an advantage. But no one gets cabs.

Instead we navigate busses.  The bus ticket takers are pretty helpful, although none spoke english.  I knew my map well-enough, took some good guesses at what they were saying, and got us within a few blocks.  Again it took 90 minutes to go a few miles.

Beijing can be dammed hard to get around.  Tomorrow: The great wall!