Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lukey has decided he really wants to use my old sunglasses. I guess he really likes the aviator look....without ever having seen Top Gun.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

It feels like Spring

With Les and Andrew McTaggert on the first sunny afternoon of the year sitting out in Point Roberts.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Beijing Day 4: Summer Palace in Spring

Looking on Trip Advisor, we noticed lots of enthusiasm for the Summer Palace as a Beijing highlight. We figured we had to check it out. We made the trek out to the northwest of the city, thrilled to find a ton of sunshine greet us as we climbed out of the underground. 

One thing we noticed about the way Beijing was measuring up against our expectations: the immense size of everything is very hard to convey in pictures. The scale of the city's attractions is insane. And now I look at the pictures WE took and I see the same problem. The pictures just don't do the size justice. You have to stand in these places to understand their sheer enormity. 

The Summer Palace is huge. 

After paying (the incredibly reasonable 50 yuan) admission, we found outselves on Suzhou Street. 

The Summer Palace was full of eunuchs and concubines. Unlike the armies of servants, who were no doubt run off their feet with work, the eunuchs and concubines had nothing to do. So, what do you do with a bunch of idle people to keep them occupied, un-bored and less gossipy...? Why, make them a pretend town, of course.

Suzhou Street was created to allow the palace idle to play pretend. They would take turns manning stores and pretending to be customers. It was a taste of common life, enjoyed in small, clean doses.

Today, the stores are filled with touristy crap. The merchants aren't pretending. And they don't take fake money.

In fact, this little spot took our 30 yuan in exchange for three beers, which we enjoyed in the sunshine on a bench overlooking the little frozen river. That's less than $2 each.

We left Suzhou Street and headed up the hill to the main part of the palace. It was tough for us to know what all the buildings were for...some were locked up, some were temples. None of it looked very livable.

Hilariously, they had a picture studio set up with old-time costumes, just like the sepia pictures you can get taken at country fairs.

Beijing was laid out below us. I suppose the emperors enjoyed gazing down on their people. Here's Eric, also gazing down on...very imperial, huh?

The level of detail in every square inch of this place is enough to make your head spin. Every tiny thing, handcrafted and unique.

There was an entire building covered in these figures below. Each one was different. But only slightly.

There was beauty in every nook and cranny.

Natural and man-made beauty.

We reached the top of the hill. I am not sure what I expected, but, wow. Everything you see below, right to the other side of the lake, is part of the Summer Palace. There are pathways and buildings, temples and gardens the whole way around.

And this giant temple building, right at the crest of the hill (which apparently is man-made in an effort to elevate the emperor, quite literally).

We were like the bears who went over the mountain, to see what we could see.

The view to the lake

There was a covered walkway the entire way down. Each piece of wood was painted. By hand. Individually.

Some were family scenes, some pastoral, some imperial.

The view down
The view up

The view down to the lake

And at the bottom, this little guy greet you:

I loved the details. Apparently, before the start of the 20th century, everything gold coloured was actual gold. And all the symmetry was auspicious. The number nine is the highest single digit odd number and therefore, the most powerful. There were a lot of rows of nine things. And since odd numbers are associated with men, the most powerful number of all is all the single digit odd numbers added: 25.

Everything has meaning.

The bottom of the hill looking up
There was another long, long covered walkway at the bottom. More paintings.

They obviously can't protect and preserve them all. Some looked like this one:

Even the stone work, so many kilometres of pathway edging, looked like art.

The thought, manpower and artistry contained in the grounds is...astonishing. I can't even make our 1000 square feet thoughtful and artistic...or all clean at the same time.

My Dad and Eric walking ahead to the island

There were bronze things in the museum area that were thousands of years old. Things made by human hands.

Down at the bottom of the hill, we bought more beer (cheaper this time...5 yuan each). We found a sunny spot by Kunming Lake and gave our legs a rest. There was a pocket incident. With my Dad. And a beer. I promised him I wouldn't write any more than that...but trust me, it was funny. And I don't want to forget it.

There were about a half dozen people flying kites from the bridge. It was beautiful.

We visited the catchily named temple below:

Eric had his picture taken many times on this trip. I only caught it on camera once.

View from the bridge towards the palace
After a spectacular day on the palace grounds, we had a lengthy walk back to the subway station. Along the way, we freaked out a local fire department by poking our heads into the hall and asking for a picture. They didn't speak any English and we felt fairly certain the photograph request made them very uncomfortable. Of course, we took it anyway.

Eric headed home for a workout and swim. Dad and I carried on to a restaurant we'd both read about online. It was a bit of a hike to Dali Courtyard. And the address we had listed in our book was wrong. We wandered down a section of a hutong that more or less landed us into someone's small kitchen. Even when we found the real place, it was a sketchy entrance. It was worth the hunt, though. Seven courses of delicious, including the best two chicken wings I have ever eaten.

And this lemongrass chilli tilapia.

It was a very good day.

Beijing Day 3: Duck, duck, Ducks

We slept like babies after our multi-course meal with William and his family the night before. Maybe it was the baiju or the ancient well water or the jet lag. Whatever it was, we were tuckered right out.

No rest for the wicked. We had an early meeting with another of our new Beijing friends. Lei and her husband Ke picked us up at the bottom of our building to take us out on the town for the day. 

Our first stop was Qian Men, or the Emperor's Street. Just south of Tiannamen Square, it looks like the Epcot version of China. I suspect a lot of money was poured into these few blocks around the 2008 Olympics. 

Guard at the north end of the street
It was a beautiful day and we had a really nice stroll up and down the street. There were lots of plaques on buildings that described their history...and they were in English. So, as touristy as it may have been, I actually enjoyed the stories on the plaques.

Gate to the North
I was surprised by how many Starbucks we saw in Beijing. Tons. And they didn't seem to be catering exclusively to Westerners, either. Strangely, they were more expensive than home. A latte was more than $6. Kind of crazy, considering a Big Mac meal at McDonald's is about $2.75 (not that we ever ate at McDonald'

Beijing Starbucks
Doesn't it look like a Hollywood set?

Sunshine through the clouds/pollution

I don't know what these braid-y things are...but they look tasty, don't they? And three for only $1.75? Yum. Or, maybe not. I never found out. In my imagination, they are warm, twisty donuts. In my nightmares, they are glazed, coiled intestines. I took a pass.

Seriously, can't you picture this at Main Street U.S.A in Disneyland?

Even the manhole covers are fancy. Although, it looks like they had a tiny issue on the left side, there.

Fancy benches.

Here's the plaque for the restaurant where we ate lunch:

These four caped ladies spend all day greeting at the door. They are Super Ducklings, protectors of the roasting realm (get it? Because they are like superheroes...? Too much? I thought so...).

Beijing is not a great place to be a duck...unless you like a deep tan and you aren't a fan of your feathers
All the ducks are prepared traditionally, roasted individually on hooks over a wood fire. When you order a whole duck, you get a card with all the specific details of that particular bird, including where it was raised, how old it was and what number it was in restaurant's history.

Our new friends Lei and Ke ordered for us. Good thing, since we would have been mystified. If you are adventurous with food (as I think I am somewhat), it is great to have someone else choose items for you. You get to try things you would never otherwise order. If you are a little less exotic in your tastes (like my picky husband), these scenarios are slightly stressful. Good thing I can take the puck in the head and try the duck neck in gelatine for the both of us.

The drink below is a good example. It was described as "warm date and sweet potato". Um, okay...there's something I would NEVER order off a menu. Then I tried it. And I loved it. I drank three glasses. I am pretty sure I won't be trying this at home, though.

Let the duck feast begin. This little lettuce cup was divine.

I developed a love affair with the Chinese broccoli on the left. My feeling about the foie gras in the back right corner was less amorous. Ditto with the duck neck in gelatine in the front right.

Then, the main event. The table side duck carving. This was professional. Like, really, really slick. And in case you were wondering, that IS the duck head at the bottom there. That got whacked off right away. Then it lies in the metal tray with a front row seat as the rest of its body gets sliced.

The duck guy carves off identical, thin slices and stacks them on a cutting board before transferring them to the table.

It was delicious. Served with thin pancakes for wrapping with hoisin sauce, scallions and cucumber. Yum.

The shot below is my dad, gamely picking at...the head. That's right. It also comes to the table, cleaved into two halves. Dad bravely pulled out a piece and ate it before quickly passing the rest of it off to Ke. He said later he thought he might have had brain. So, that pretty much says it all.

Back out, with full tummies. Once again, we tried hard to pay for lunch, but ultimately we had to accept defeat and instead offer our hosts our thanks for a memorable and delicious lunch.

Lei and me

Our next stop was a busy outdoor market. The afternoon was warm and it was incredible to see the vast number of stalls and the wide array of merchandise available.

Lion guarding the market gate
I took a picture of all these gorgeous little figurines. Looking at them now, I can't believe I didn't buy that plump, silver buddha. I wish I had. He's great.

I bought the girls pencil cases from this stall. They were all made by the vendor's elderly mother. Lei bargained for me. I am sure she got a better deal than I could have.

I also picked up a half dozen little bracelets. They were all made with natural items scavenged for free outdoors. Things like nuts and seeds. I liked them a lot.

Eric's interest in browsing the market didn't quite meet my own. At least he was easy to spot as he wandered away through the aisles.

We then took a long walk along a circuitous route, ostensibly on our way to get Eric a foot massage (which didn't end up happening). We walked through many neighbourhoods and got to see the true Beijing on a sunny Sunday.

I particularly enjoyed this graffiti I spotted. There were lots like this one.

We finally made it back to our place, just in time for Ke to arrive back after an epic battle through traffic to get us two tickets to see the Beijing Ducks basketball team play in the quarter-finals that night. Ke was extremely apologetic that he could only get us two. It was incredibly thoughtful and generous, so we just hoped he knew how much we appreciated the tickets we got. We left Dad behind to enjoy the beautiful Spa Oasis workout facility and pool, while we hoped onto the subway and headed off to see Stephon Marbury and his fellow Ducks.

The subways simply weren't built for Eric's size
By the time we got there two subway lines later, I was feeling some fatigue. We'd had a busy few days and even though we knew we'd gotten off lightly with our jet lag, I was feeling it. The blurry picture below more or less sums up my state of mind. It's like the lens was reading my mind.

I just noticed this picture of Eric is taken in front of the sign that says "no standing". Oops. The game felt really professional and certainly inspired by the NBA. There was lots going on: cheerleaders, contests, merchandise fired into the crowd. It was a great presentation.

Even the stadium food was mimicking a North American experience. The only food I saw available was Papa John's pizza. So strange.

The game experience was great. The game level, however, was pretty mediocre. Neither Eric nor I were very impressed with the amount of effort put out by the four Americans on the floor. It was low intensity and slow speed.

I might have been my sleepiness, but I was underwhelmed by the game, especially considering it was playoffs. I was tempted to crawl under my chair and curl up for a nap. I might have, except Eric was tired enough himself that he might just have left without me. I didn't take the risk.

So, we didn't love the game, but I was really happy we had the chance to see a professional game in China. The crowd was entertaining and the chanting every time the home team scored (they won, by the way) was interesting.

Home for a rest.