Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Other Side - Day 1

A lot of people have been asking me about my trip to China. I did so many things (5-7 things each day) that I took avid notes throughout the trip, and now I've decided to compile them here into a journal for each day. Complete with an assorted selection of the 2000 photos I took, I hope this will paint a good picture of the trip for my friends but also as a log for me to look back at later. I hope to visit China again soon and want to keep track of which places to return to. I'm also including links to Wikipedia articles about the practical information of the places I visited. I don't want to drag this out too much with information that already exists on the internet, so if you want more background on a place, click the link in its title.

I'm calling this piece "The Other Side" because it was my first trip to what I would consider the other side of the world. I flew halfway around the globe and certainly to the farthest place from home that I have ever been, both geographically and culturally.

Alright, let's begin.

On the first day, we woke up after about four hours of sleep (because our plane had been so delayed the night before), but still excited to start the journey. I was happy to see that the breakfast buffet had all sorts of Asian delicacies like congee and lotus root, so I tried by best to eat mysterious things I did not recognize. We piled onto our tour bus for the first stop of the trip - The Summer Palace. On the way, I took lots of pictures out the bus window, and we even drove through the Beijing 2008 Olympic Park. It was cool to note that our hotel was situated so close to it, even considerable walking distance. More on that later.

The observation tower (243m) above the Olympic Park. Supposedly it cost a lot of money to build and no one pays the ¥50 RMB (~$10 CAD) fee to enter it. At least it looks cool. It reminds me of mushroom stalks.

Next stop: The Summer Palace. It was a wonder to behold on a few levels. First of all, it was beautiful. The buildings and plants reminded me of the Chinese Tea Garden I visited in Portland, but on a much more extravagant and bigger level. The Palace was also on the edge of a sizeable body of water. The whole thing felt like a dream, partially because all of the Chinese tourists were grabbing at me to take pictures with them. This was communicated through body language as none of them spoke any English, but I think it's safe to say that I am all over Weibo (Chinese Facebook) now.

Some of the tourists who wanted pictures with me.

As we were leaving, street vendors crowded us with all sorts of things to sell. One item was very cool, a hat made of crepe paper that turned inside out and all around into various different shapes. I was going to buy one, I think they were only about $2 Canadian, but I was glad I didn't when I saw what happened next: one of the people on my tour was trying to offer a bill to a vendor in exchange for a hat, but he refused to accept it. The bill only had a tiny rip in it, but the vendor was insisting that the man give him another bill. So he pulled out his wallet, at which point the vendor had a full view of all the bills in his wallet. At this point the vendor asked the man if he would give the vendor one of his larger bills (about $20) in exchange for some smaller ones of the same value. The man made the exchange, and then all of a sudden several vendors were crowding around him, asking for the same thing. After he had made this exchange twice, I poked him and suggested that something seemed weird. The vendors seemed a little too eager and he put away his wallet. On the bus, the tour guide explained that this was a ploy that locals used to cheat tourists out of money – the bills this man had been exchanged were actually of various origins –Taiwan, Russia, and each worth only Canadian pennies. In the end, I think the man lost only about $40 CAD so it was more of an interesting thing that happened than a negative experience.

But the hats were really cool! Here's my friend from the trip wearing one.

We then visited a Jade factory and had lunch there as well. Not much to report on that. All of the tour-included lunches and dinners were communal and lazy-susan style, which was fine until we were served a plate of french fries. It was a little disappointing. After that, we were off to the Great Wall. I managed to climb up a good part of our section, which was equal to the accomplishment of receiving over 100 facebook likes for a Great Wall selfie I took. Success!

After the wall, we visited a Cloisonné factory and were shown a demonstration of the process. Cloisonné vases and plates look just like porcelain, but because they are made of Bronze at their base, they are extremely strong and will not break if dropped. All of the intricate detail is done by hand, and it was jaw-dropping to see the employees all working away on their pieces with tiny brushes.

We were to find dinner on our own that night, and we decided to try a local restaurant in Beijing – no white people that we could see inside. I tried to raise six fingers to the hostess to indicate that we needed a table for six, but I soon realized that the way Chinese people count on their fingers is actually very different from Canada. The woman did not understand me, and just as I was about to give up and leave the restaurant, a table for six opened and we were able to claim it. I was starting to realize that the hard part was far from over when we were brough dim-sum checkbox-style menus with no pictures or a drop of English. I looked around and saw that the table next to us was filled with lots of delicious-looking dishes, so I attempted to tell the waiter that we wanted everything they were having. When that failed, a man sitting at the table took pity on me and told me that he spoke English. He was able to tell the waiter what I wanted, and without him, we probably would not have eaten dinner that evening. That said, I think there was still a bit of mistranslation, because the amount of food that arrived at our table would probably have fed 30 people. We had to leave most of it on the table, and when we paid, the total came to around $6 CAD per person. That's China, I suppose.

This dish was AMAZING. Some kind of chopped pork ribs with medallions of corn, potatoes, and pumpkin. I want to try to make this at home.

After the dinner fiasco, we decided to go for an unplanned/unguided stroll through the Olympic Park. On the way, we got to see some excellent light displays in the shops as day turned to night on the streets of Beijing.

An ad for Uber! And yes, it had the Asia-specific pattern on the left side.

The Olympic Park was so filled with wonderful things that I can barely remember them all. Lots of public art graced the entire area, and there were lots of people out for the evening to enjoy the people-watching and light shows of the various buildings. There were even groups practicing dance routines, the best of which was some awesome fan-dancers moving to live music played by a band of old Chinese men. It was a bit surreal.

A 360 degree view of one place I was standing in.

Live music played by old Chinese men! Reminded me of the Brazilian drumming class I'm taking now.

Fan dancing (to the sounds of the instruments above).

Lots of other stuff going on in the park, like these old women practicing a choerographed dance.

A view of the Beijing National Stadium (the Bird's Nest). Apparently this body of water is shaped like a dragon, from a bird's eye view.

The Beijing National Aquatics Centre. This was a very cool building to see at night.

Suffice to say that on four hours of sleep and a twelve-hour time difference, that was enough to absorb for one day. We walked back to the hotel and went to sleep.

In the next chapter of The Other Side, I'll discuss our second day in Beijing. Tiananmen Square, The Capital Museum, The Forbidden City, and more!

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