To wrap up the final sights and sounds of Beijing, we also went to…
A state-run Jade Factory (actually we went to this before the Great Wall but I’d forgotten about it) where they tell you about jade, how it was part of the 2008 Olympic medals, how it’s carved, etc. then take you to the gift shop to show you how to tell good from bad jade. I’m not sure that I was a very good student as the item in which I was the most interested was also way out of my price range- the lovely, traditional green jade bangle that ran about $300. Um, no. We did pick up a few things for significantly less cash but I was bangle-less, finding myself unable to justify the cost. Here’s a picture of Pi’xiu, the ninth son of the dragon who brings wealth to those who own or wear him (or the folks who sell this big, giant jade sculpture of him, actually…)
The Summer Palace
In Chinese history, one of the biggest villains in the stories we were told was about the much-hated Dragon Lady, Empress Dowager Cixi (pronounced See-See). (Insert suspenseful music here…) She invested heavily in improving the Summer Palace to better enjoy her life in the summertime and had the famous Marble Boat built. While this Marble Boat looks like a boat, it is moored permanently to its “dock”.
Here’s a view of the inside of a pagoda on the 700+M “Long Corridor”- look at the detail!
We meandered through much of the nearly three square km site and enjoyed it so much. I’m still not sure that the Empress Dowager wasn’t sort of scapegoated for improving the Palace. I will say that, with the Forbidden City, it would seem like you had enough space to make yourself happy without building or even improving another site but, then again, I’ve never been God’s personal representative on Earth, so what do I know?
In addition to her other peccadilloes, Cixi liked to keep her skin young and white by crushing up pearls and rubbing them into her skin. To that end, the Summer Palace and the surrounding area are a huge freshwater pearl farming area. Thus, we were off to another state-owned tour telling us why the Pearl Industry was important to the area, its history, how to tell real from fake pearls, the colors of pearls, and then we were offered time to shop. As a non-fan of freshwater pearls, this was the one state store at which I bought exactly nothing. Watching them show how to tell real from fake pearls was fascinating – they whip out a razor blade and scrape off part of the pearl to produce pearl dust! WHAT? Then they rub the injured pearl like a magic lamp and it is magically healed.
2008 Olympic Site
Traveling with a structural and civil engineer means that you gain a whole new appreciation for buildings. It must be said: Chinese buildings are far more varied and modern-looking than most buildings we’ve seen go up in America in quite some time. Very progressive architecture. A great example of this daring architecture is clearly the Olympics site. The “Bird’s Nest” (on the right below) and the “Water Cube” (on the left below) are two great examples.
Yaxiu Chinese Market
Clearly, I have a lot to learn about the Art of the Chinese Deal but we enjoyed our visit to the Chinese Market while learning! Even though there was not a lot of English spoken, negotiations were easily carried out via punching in offers to a calculator back and forth. We had a great time then took a taxi back to our hotel. This was the taxi that took us past our hotel several times and, not knowing the proper Chinese phrase for “Hey, buddy, we know you’re just padding the fare now take us to the dang hotel!” we were taken for a somewhat longer ride than we had intended. (The only way we knew this was that we’d explored our neighborhood the night before so knew a number of the landmarks.)
Neighborhood Park in Beijing
As it turned out, on our walk that evening, we happened into a neighborhood park in Beijing. Unlike every place that I have lived in the US, people in China really get out and enjoy their parks on the evenings and weekends. We saw a number of different activities going on in this particular park including Mah Jong games, flute practice, kids playing and blowing bubbles, people walking, and tai chi. As the only two Caucasians in the place, Samira and I were not sure how we might be received. After all, we clearly did not belong in their daily winding down rituals conducted in their neighborhood space, not a tourist attraction. As it turned out, we need not have worried. While we lacked the skills to converse with anyone, we did do a bit of communicating and were again welcomed by the folks there. They take their Mah Jong pretty seriously, though, and did not try to join into this seemingly very complex, fast game. One interesting thing to us was that people leave their table and chairs, covered with some sort of protective item, in the park while they go home, then open up their gaming set when they arrive back at the park. I doubt we’d allow people to do this and, if they did, that they’d be safe there. Again, I found the community aspect of Chinese culture very alluring- wouldn’t you like to settle down for some dominos with your neighbors for an hour at night instead of more reruns of Two and a Half Men? Just sayin’.
Our dinner at the hotel that night was decent but, most interestingly, included Chrysanthemum Tea which is as beautiful as it is tasty!
Hutong Tour of Old Beijing and Lunch in Chinese Family Home
This basically means a tour of the small alleys and streets of Old Beijing and begins at the old Drum and Bell Towers (which told people the time back in the day). This tour was really interesting as it was conducted by Rickshaw and through really old parts of the city where people still actually live. The houses are rather small, and more like apartments since they are attached to one another. While the one we visited had its own kitchen with running water, toilets and showers in this part of the city are of the shared, community variety. (And this is an aspect of my life I prefer to keep completely non-communal, thanks.) Apparently, this is one of the more expensive places to live in the city and if you happen to have a relative with a place there, inheriting it is probably the only way you’re getting an apartment in that area.
Here’s a view of our tour:
The family with whom we had lunch had, for example, inherited their apartment from their grandparents. It’s actually more appropriate to say that they made us lunch. The dad (who appeared to be about 25), his mother-in-law, and his son were all there and his wife was at work. The mother-in-law lives with them in the two-bedroom apartment and takes care of the baby full-time (we never heard of Chinese moms with childcare issues- grandmothers love doing it, apparently). The TV was on and we watched a bit of the Chinese version of Dr. Phil- you could just tell that it was a relationship rescue show in the making so we asked Penny about it and she translated a bit of the dialogue. On Chinese TV, unlike the US, they wear Zorro-esque masks to conceal their identity while pouring out their souls to the nation.
The little boy was 10 months old and Samira and I fell totally in love with this adorable little man! At ten months, he was already an incredible flirt, despite the fact that we were the first tour group to ever grace his home! He loved Samira, our guide, Penny, and I holding and playing with him even though he knew none of us. What a great little ambassador! Penny told us that he was of Manchurian descent, which means his parents can have another baby since that is a minority group in China.
Our host made us a delicious lunch and then we headed out for the airport to catch our Air China flight to Xi’an. It was a very nice flight in a very new plane. The next day, I heard that Air China had record-setting profits for the year. With the service we got, it was understandable why.
Make it a great day!