Monday, April 10, 2006

Episode II: The Wrath of Mahm

Leaving ShenYang gave a great feeling, for not did it mark the true beginning of an independent journey (I could rely on my Chinese friend in ShenYang, but from here on out only my own ability would keep me going), not only would it bring reunion with the loving parental units, but it was departure from the frigid cold of El DongBei! (Spanish/Chinese for "The DongBei [Northeast])

So another train ride, this one marked by a friendly seatmate informing me of the atrocities the Japanese had ravaged upon his Chinese countrymen in WW2, aka The War Against the Japanese. Hours later, I was once again in BeiJing, soon checked in to a cool boutique hotel behind the Forbidden City, and before sleep came feasting on meats and treats on sticks.

They arrived the next day. Spending the morning wandering around, searching for some good travel reading more than anything else, I eventually got to the airport to greet the Venerable Honkeys that are Bill Sr. & Mary Alice ("Mahm," get it? Phoenetics!). Hugs and handshakes exchanged, gasps over lost weight gasped, and all other pleasantries aside; it didn't take long for the culture shock to set in. "Oh my gods" and "Why do theys" and "I can't understands" began as soon as the cab ride set out from the airport. I was proud of my parents and looking forward to an educational and eye-opening experience over the next ten or so days.

Now, BeiJing is BeiJing and I've spent more time there than I have in New York City, but as I was guiding some noobs around we hit the required spots. That first evening we played it easy, strolling up and down WangFuJing and dining at QuanJuDe Roast Peking Duck Palace. Day 2 started a little rough: turns out some major credit card companies hold minor caveats with their issuing banks that might make your account unaccessable in Mainland China. On top of that, turns out some major credit card companies like to assign you passwords for your credit card without telling you making it difficult to obtain a cash advance from an ATM. Luckily, as an experienced China traveler, I was able to fix this problem (took longer than it should, however, though we were exhausting each possible solution down the ladder in order of ease and logic) and we struck out for the Summer Palace. No commentary necessary on that. Afterwards we had planned on visiting the Forbidden City but couldn't (more in a second) so we hit the Temple of Heaven and concluded with the Pearl Market.

First, about the Forbidden City: turns out the National People's Congress was in session while we in BeiJing. This is the once-every five years meeting of representatives from all over the Middle Kingdom, and as it draws a good bit of media attention the city was swept clean of dirt and beggars. I was a bit disappointed, as this kept my parents from seeing the "real" BeiJing, also because they were randomly (as far as I knew) closing certain points of interest so the delegates might tour unhindered. For their convenience the Forbidden City was closing early every day that week, so we had to delay our own visit from that afternoon to our final morning. No biggie.

Next, the Temple of Heaven: 2008 will be one of the biggest deals for modern China, that goes without saying. In preparation for the international focus and in effort to impress the world most eveything is being cleaned and renovated around BeiJing. I might have mentioned how during the summer, when I was visiting the week before the International olympics Committee, paddywagons cruised the streets of the capital rounding up beggars and undesirables, supposedly dumping them off a hundred miles outside the city walls. We weren't exiled, but we did find some of the places we visited would charge us admission then bar us from seeing the most interesting sections, as they were under repair. The Temple of Heaven stood as the best example of this inconvenience. Luckily its picture is all over BeiJing, so the loss was not too great.

Finally, the Pearl Market: I am not a shopper. My mother is. God bless her, she can sniff out a bargain from a strip mall's distance away. But this serves as one of those environment in life where two people will never comes to agreement. Across the Temple of Heaven you'll find a large emporium of crap, but the top floors have got heavily discounted pearls of all color and size. I knew we wouldn't escape a visit, but I hoped it'd be painless. In reality, our time there was not too bad, and certainly not the worst (that would be the Silk Market on of final day in BeiJing), but the combined strain of 1. shopping 2. translating between English and Chinese 3. translating between cultures 4. working out exchange rates and 5. being hungry truly tested everyone's patience. We'll leave it at that.

Whatever frustration reared during the shopping quickly dissipated that evening as we took in an acrobat show. I had been trying to get to one of these during each of the past two trips to BeiJing but kept striking out: first due to lack of cabs and traffic, then due to overzealous shopping (not on my behalf). But we took the necessary precautions and got front row seats to almost two hours worth of jaw dropping spectacle. It opened up with a man riding a unicycle on top of an umbrella being carried by another man on a unicycle and just got more insance from that. Sure, I was exhausted, but I couldn't stop smiling no matter how tired I was. If you, dear reader, ever get to BeiJing, see the acrobats. You'll be happy you did.

The next day was our Great Wall adventure. With the three of us traveling together, combined with my Chinese savvy, turned out to be only marginally more expensive to hire a minivan and driver for a personal ride out and back than taking public transport. Scrambling in for a 2.5 hour ride we headed to SiMaTai, an older section of the Wall that might be a bit more grueling of a trek than BaDaLing, but certainly less touristy and more authentic of an experience. My parents strove up as far as they could, but I bounded on to the highest reasonable point. The surrounded terrain was a combination of sharp brown mountain and flat plain. Having recently read "The Art of War," this sight gave better understanding to SunZi's knowledge; certainly much more than the endless plain of my Manchurian home. I also ran into some Georgetown MBA students I had met the day before at the Summer Palace. Turns out they paid more than twice what we paid for their minivan, and they had less people. And they are earning their MBAs. Ha. Business.

Our last day in BeiJing gave us the Forbidden City (lots of new exhibits have opened in side galleries since my prior visit a year before), carpet hunting (no luck) and a few hours in the Silk Market that will go unmentioned. That evening we climbed into VIP bunks on a sleeper train to HangZhou. My mother went from giddy to disgusted as she strolled from berth to bathroom, I just settled in and attempted to zone out as I prefer to do on trains.

BeiJing was behind us, we were carpetbagging.

The Bill will return in
Episode III: Die HangZhou Die (German for "The HangZhou, The")


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