Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Other Side - Day 2

As I mentioned in the previous (and first) post of this series, I am writing a mini-series on my trip to China. Each day was so jam-packed with activities that I decided it would be best for readers as well as myself to split the days up into posts for better digestion of information.

On our last episode, we journeyed through the wonders of Beijing. Today makes our second and final day there.

It was raining in Beijing. It wasn't a heavy rain, just a constant light sprinkle. It would have been refreshing had I not been constantly thinking about the terrible smog and air pollution problem currently plaguing China's biggest city. I kept feeling like the rain might burn a hole through my skin if I stayed outside long enough. But of course, I remained whole. Sans holes.

En route to our first stop, our local Beijing guide explained one of the systems through which the Chinese government attempts to curb air pollution. Because the city is so large and has so many inhabitants, there are a lot of cars on the road. The traffic jams are worse than I have seen in Toronto, and certainly explain the millions of street cyclists. Many more than Toronto, even per capita.

Anyway, this is the system: Each license plate in Beijing ends with a number. On Mondays, plate numbers ending in 1 or 6 are not allowed on the road from 7:00am to 8:00pm. And so on, each day restricts two numbers. I may have my numbers a bit off here, but you get the idea. The breakdown in this system is that rich people simply buy two cars, and alternate their usage. The smog was luckily not terrible while we were in Beijing, so I didn't really feel the gravity of the situation at the time.

Our first stop was the Capital Museum, which had some interesting artifacts and reminded me of a smaller version of the ROM. Photography was allowed, but without flash. This was unfortunate because while the objects were very interesting to look at, the lighting was very poorly designed. I had to use my phone flashlight just to see things properly (until I was told to put it away). I can't see it as a factor of light damage to the items, because they were brightly lit from underneath, which cast distorting shadows on them. Anyway, here are some of the things I saw there:

From there, we made a quick stop at the Egg building, otherwise known as the National Centre for the Performing Arts. It was a pretty cool piece of architecture. I was starting to see a pattern in architecture from an egg to the Bird's Nest, the Beijing Olympic Stadium. There were also some interesting hutongs across the street from the building, and I peeked in briefly.

 We walked from there to Tiananmen Square, which was at the same time a little scary and a little boring. I don't know what I expected, but it seemed to be just a bunch of tourists walking around. Our tour guide had told us that we should not ask any questions while inside the square, because there were plainclothes police officers walking around looking for dissenters and suspicious sorts of behaviour.

Excuse our happy faces beside such an evil figure. It just felt right.

I bought a weird pear juice at this food truck. It was cool!

We broke our visit to the Square into two pieces, and were treated to Peking Duck for lunch before we returned to go to the Forbidden City. The lunch was delicious – and I even squatted successfully in a hole in the bathroom there. On our walk back to the Forbidden City, we navigated through a busy street, filled with all sorts of street vendors and interesting shops. As we moved closer, our walk was lined on one side by a man-made body of water, which I realized was a portion of the moat that surrounded the Forbidden City. While it once was a prison for the concubines of emperors, it was still a wonder in and of itself. Each section of the City was larger and more grand than the last, and the side areas where the concubines dwelled were lovely little courtyards. I especially loved all of the patterns of the brick and tile in the architecture.

 We then drove through an upscale shopping area on our way to the next stop, filled with beautiful storefronts and no one inside them. Supposedly the markup on foreign brands is around 200% in China, so all the wealthy locals buy their possessions abroad. I think I counted seven luxury watch stores? It may have been a mall filled with just watch stores. Talk about needless luxury.

I didn't have high hopes for the show we were about to attend. It was called The Golden Mask, and looked like quite the tourist trap to be honest. But oh, how I was proven wrong. The stage design was phenomenal, and it even turned into a flood with real water flowing over the entire stage at one point. The show even had live peacocks! It was actually really incredible. Check out some of my videos below:

Dinner that night was somewhat nondescript. There was a soup that had fish balls in it. I tried them, but they're a bit too fishy for me. The weirdest thing about the restaurant was that the entire big entrance hall was covered in astro turf, with fake plastic life-size animals "grazing in the grass". There was also a bingo ball cage machine sitting off to the side. Very puzzling.

 We got back to the hotel around 8:30pm, which left us enough time to check out the McDonalds and supermarket across the street from our hotel before we went to sleep.

 We got some pastries at a cute little pastry shop, and checked out the weird stuff in the supermarket.

After that, we wanted to see what weird things were in the McDonalds, and ended up with two taro pies. They were quite good, actually!

As we were leaving the McDonalds, a man popped his car trunk in front of us to show us a wide array of fake shoes. I had seen an old man the day before at the Summer Palace wearing Kanye West's Yeezy shoes, which I found surprising considering the only way to get them is to pay $1000 to an eBay reseller, but I realized at that moment that those shoes had been fake fake fake and I was going to buy a pair. This car boot vendor wanted ¥380 RMB (~$80 CAD), which was a bit too steep for me, so we went back to the hotel. But now I had a mission.

 That night, I was able to break through the Great Firewall of China to get on Social Media. Sweet, sweet connection. The next day, we would wake up early to get on a plane to Shanghai, and leave Beijing (and our local guide Andy) behind. I will always remember Andy because of his personalized sign to help us identify which of the many tour buses was ours. While all of the other buses had signs with numbers, this is what his sign looked like:

In the next chapter of The Other Side: Suzhou, the water canals and the lovely tour guide Jessica.

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