Monday, June 18, 2012

My Travels in China: Beijing Day 2 (Part 2)

My Travels in China: Beijing Day 2 (Part 2)

Dr. Arnold Plotnick of Manhattan Cat Specialists, loves to travel and loves cats.  So off he went... East... way way East... to China.  Over the course of the next few weeks, we will share the cultural and kitty cat highlights of Dr. Plotnick's trip.

(Continued from Day 2 Part 1)

Getting to our next stop, Tiananmen Square, turned out to be quite a fiasco.  We hopped on a bus and we were cruising down the highway, when we noticed some sort of commotion toward the front of the bus.  A teenage girl was raising some kind of fuss about something, yelling loudly.  Suddenly the bus pulled over and stopped, and the girl continued her loud, angry tirade.  I asked Vivie what was going on.  Apparently, the girl entered the bus with her mobile phone, and suddenly it was gone, and she remembered distinctly being bumped by someone, and since the bus hadn’t stopped during the time this happened, she was convinced that the person who swiped her phone must still be on the bus. She reported this to the bus driver, who then called the police, and we had to wait in the bus while the police were en route. En route very slowly.  Vivie looked distraught.  She tried to explain to the bus driver that she was a tour guide and she had a schedule to keep, and would it be okay for us to leave the bus, but to no avail. No one was leaving until the police arrived.  It was quite a scene. After the police came (and apparently did nothing, really), we all got off the bus and grabbed another one at the next bus stop, which was nearby, fortunately.  We soon arrived at Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen Square is the largest (and most surveilled) public square in the world.  It can hold up to 1,000,000 people.  We entered close to the site where Mao’s body is interred, past the Great Hall of the People and the Monument to the People’s Heroes,

and then the main entry gate of the Forbidden City, which is at the very north end of the square, 

above which looms a huge portrait (a painting, not a photo) of Mao himself. Apparently, there is an artist whose sole job is to paint that same portrait, painting every day, so that a new, identical painting can replace the existing one every year.

I mentioned to Vivie that in America, the name Tiananmen Square evokes one thought only, and she nodded knowingly and said, yes, the student uprising.  She grew a little quiet and said that in China, they are not allowed to speak of such things.  I told her that the anniversary, June 4th, was coming up soon, and she was very surprised that I knew it. She herself didn’t know the exact date.  I asked if there was an increased police presence in the square around that time, and she was shocked that I would realize this.  I told her that one particular, iconic image comes to mind when we speak of Tiananmen, and she nodded again, saying that I must be referring to the man who stood in front of the tanks.  I guess this is common knowledge in China, despite the censorship.  We didn’t talk about it much more.  She said that according to the official reports in China, no one died during the uprising.  Of course, we all know that hundreds of students died, but I didn’t pursue the topic further, not wanting to force her to discuss anything that was expressly forbidden in China, especially if I’m going to blog about it afterward.

We walked under Mao’s huge portrait and into the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City used to be the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty through the end of the Qing dynasty.  Only the emperors and their families and servants were allowed inside. Construction started in 1406, lasted 15 years, and required more than a million workers!  The complex consists of a whopping 980 buildings. It’s huge!

This is the main tourist attraction in Beijing, and not surprisingly, it’s crawling with people.  Obviously, we could only visit a small portion of the complex, so I let Vivie decide which might be the most interesting.  We decided to check out the palaces and halls on the Western side.  I took a trillion photos of the palaces, the statues outside each palace, and the architecture. One could devote an entire blog to the Forbidden City alone.  Here’s a photos of some of the halls, with their distinctive yellow roofs. 

After the Forbidden City, we were supposed to take a tour of some of the hutongs in the north of the city, but I had expressed an interest in visiting a real tea house.  Vivie explained that there were no “real” tea houses, that they were now all pretty much geared toward tourists.  Instead, she took us to a mall in a neighborhood that was devoted solely to selling tea, wholesale, to restaurants, stores, vendors, etc.  The entire area – the mall and surrounding stores on all the nearby streets – was entirely dedicated to tea. Vivie, like most Chinese, is an avid tea drinker, so she took us to her personal favorite shop, where she buys her own tea.  Oolong is her favorite, and Vivie drinks it every day.  We were treated to a very professional tea tasting, where we sampled at least seven different teas, including Iron Buddha (a “new” oolong tea), standard oolong tea, green tea, very fragrant jasmine tea, red tea, white tea, and pu er (black tea). I ended up drinking glass after glass.  There was no obligation to buy any tea, because the server was a friend of Vivie’s, and they kept stressing that we can just drink it, and not feel obligated to buy. This was very refreshing, considering how all the guidebooks warn of scams where your tour guide takes you to shops and stores that you’re not really interested in, so that they can get a commission if you end up purchasing something.  We learned a lot about tea – how they pour the water over the cups to keep them warm, how they rinse the cups with tea first, then spill it out, then serve the next glass to be drunk.

Different teas require different temperature water.  Some require 100 degree water, while others should not be served with water that’s too hot (it should not be over 85 degrees).  Some leaves can be reused up to 4 times, etc.  Every tea was different; I really liked them all.

After the tea lesson, it was bye to Vivie, and back to the hotel for a little recharging of our camera (and our own) batteries.  A shower, a brief nap, and then…

Off to Wangfujing Street – the main shopping drag – and the infamous night market again.

Last night, we breezed through the night market as it was closing, but I could see (and smell) that this wasn’t your typical food court.  The market does sell “normal” food, but the feature for which it is famous is the sale of all types of truly disgusting foodstuffs. Let me recant that.  I wouldn’t call these things foodstuffs. There were small sharks, lizards, centipedes, scorpions (large and small), starfish, seahorses, silkworm cocoons, cicadas, snakes, kidneys…  just think of something gross and vile, and there it was, on a skewer, for sale.

 There was one guy who spent the evening just yelling “testicles!” at every passerby who looked at his little stall.  As someone who neuters professionally, I could see, indeed, skewers with three testicles speared on each one.  The stenches that emanated from the flames were too horrible to fathom.  If you think seeing three testicles on a stick is disturbing, try imagining the smell of them roasting.

Just when I thought I had seen enough… we took a detour down an alley off of Wanfujing Street.  Wangfujing had a lot of the big stores – The Gap, Uniqlo, Zara’s – as well as some small tea shops and gift shops.  This small alley off of Wangfujing looked more like a real Asian market, with many small stalls crammed together, selling all sorts of foods and trinkets.  We entered the eastern end of the market, which contained more food stalls.  At the first stall, many people were gawking at something.  I moved in for a look.  There were lots of skewers.  These skewers had scorpions on them.  These didn’t look like adult scorpions.  They looked more like little baby scorpions.

They were alive, however.  On the skewer, everything would be still, and then suddenly, all of the legs on all of the scorpions on all of the skewers would start moving simultaneously.  I had the misfortune of being a little close to the proprietor of the stall, who grabbed my arm and demonstrated to the crowd that these scorpions were babies and they did not bite.  This demonstration involved him placing these live scorpions on my very own forearm.  I tried to pull my arm away, but he held it pretty tight, while exclaiming to the crowd in broken English “see… babies… no bite!”  There is a video of this, which I have chosen not to share, as I’m afraid it will rekindle the nightmares I had later that evening.

Further down the runway, away from the vile food stalls, they had merchandise. Most of it was cheap garbage, but they were selling pretty neat Chinese army hats  - khaki caps with a red star embroidered on the front – and I thought that would make a nice gift for my buddy Brad.

 I had read in my tour books, and saw in travel videos, that bargaining is encouraged in these markets.  It’s expected, in fact.  So, I asked the price, and the guy said 68 RMB.  This is pretty cheap to begin with.  But I dutifully bargained, offering 20.  He rolled his eyes and said 50.  I said 25.  He said 45.  I said 30.  He stuck with his 45.  I remembered what the book said: if you want to seal the deal quickly, just walk away.  Odds are, they’ll give in.  So I said no, and started walking away.  Sure enough, he yells out “okay, 30”.  I was feeling pretty accomplished. Until the next night, when I decided to get another hat for myself.  Same stall, different vendor. This time, I tried walking away after offering 25.  “Okay, 25”, she said.  Damn.

After the insanity of that night flea market, we headed over to a dumpling place recommended by Vivie, close to our hotel.  The English interpretations on the menu were hilarious, as you can see. 

The dumplings, though, were fantastic.  We ordered minced pork dumplings, and minced seafood dumplings.  Each portion contained about ten dumplings.  After 20 of the little suckers, we were stuffed.  Total bill, including two sodas:  $9.60.  Still freaked out at how cheaply one can eat here.

I know what you’re probably thinking by now.  Isn’t this a blog about cats?  So where are the cats?  Sadly, there have been no cats yet on the trip, save for a fleeting glimpse of a stray who bolted the moment I showed the slightest interest in her existence.  Tomorrow, however, may be a breakthrough.  I had mentioned to Vivie that I was a cat veterinarian and that I like to take photos of cats of different countries, and she told me that she did some sleuthing, and she found out that there is a population of friendly strays that come out in the morning around the Great Wall, to get fed by the vendors and workers there.  When it gets crowded around noon, they’re all gone.  So tomorrow, we’re heading to the wall EARLY, like at 7:30, to check them out, hopefully.  I plan on sneaking a couple of pieces of luscious bacon in a Ziploc at breakfast tomorrow as incentive for the cats to stick around when I get there.  Besides the Great Well, we also have the Ming Tombs and the Olympic Stadium on the agenda. I’m expecting a fantastic day. Stay tuned!

CHECK BACK SOON for much more of Dr. Plotnick's China Travelog.
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Previous Posts - Day 1, Day 2 Part 1

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