A Travellerspoint blog

Why Travel to a Country That is so Different from Ours?

Making Friends Around the World

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Our impressions of China have changed dramatically since we've been here. We knew China was gradually opening to the world and developing but we didn't know how much. For example, after a slow start in the 1980s, private businesses are now booming. Also, we've been learning about the traditional Chinese cultures which are different in each part of the country. If you only listen to the news and political pundits you'll only be getting a filtered picture of any part of the world. Traveling opens the mind to the realities that are there in full living color. We share our photographs with friends and family on this blog, but it is the memories of the tactile experience and the real friendships we are making that makes traveling worthwhile.

Annemarie took us to a large Christian church called Beijing International Christian Fellowship. They were having a service led by the youth that morning and the spiritual energy was way up. The church was recently allowed to use "Christian" in its name and it is not allowed to evangelize. The church is not open to Chinese citizens and a foreign passport has to be shown before entry.

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BICF church

We were able to see our friend Dong only twice this trip. When she picked us up at the airport and on our last day when she and her son met us at the Summer Palace near her home. Her husband is a pilot with China Air flying the airbus plane and that leaves Dong to take care of all household things plus her job as an attorney with the government. Nonetheless, the last day was a great one. The Summer Palace was built by the infamous Empress Cixi. She used funds that were suppose to go to the Chinese Navy for modernization. That act is often credited with the decline of the Chinese dynasties. The place is full of history, Cixi also imprisoned her nephew the Emperor in the Summer Palace when she didn't like the reforms he wanted to undertake.

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With Dong at the Summer Palace lake.

The place is opulent, as places where Emperors live tend to be. The large grounds were too much to cover in one day, but having Dong with us made it much easier because she knew all the highlights. There's Kunming lake, a man made lake containing a stone ship (the money to build this expensive ship was reportedly taken by Empress Cixi as a tribute to the Navy since she used their money to build it); the longest corridor in of any Chinese garden (2,238 feet) running along the lake; and a temple high above the lake with a spectacular view of the city just to name a few highlights.

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The Stone Boat.

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The Long Corridor.

After touring the Summer Palace we went to Dong's apartment to meet her husband who had just flown in from Munich. We visited for a while and and she prepared a sumptuous traditional Chinese meal for us of shrimp, vegetables, mushrooms, and fish dumplings. We were stuffed by the time we headed home.

At Annemarie's we stayed up to chat for a little while and traded information to keep up in the future. This was a great couch surfing experience .

The next morning we headed out to the airport to fly to Xi'an and relax at the airport. Our flight was pleasant and we had the best vegetarian lunch on an airline we've ever had. Rice and stewed potatoes and veggies in a really nice sauce.

Posted by Aeren 20:07 Archived in China Comments (2)

Making the Most of Sunny Days

Visiting Parks and Eating More Food

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The sun was out and sky was bright blue for the second day in a row. Annemarie tells us that they used ionizing cannons to make it rain and clean up the air for the 60th anniversary. We had seen constantly hazy weather for several days before the Oct 1 celebration. I began to worry that we'd be stuck with nasty weather the rest of our trip, but as predicted by all the ex-pats here, the cannons were fired off in the evening of Sep 30 and the weather began to clear the morning of Oct 1. The second day was just as beautiful and we went out to enjoy it. We found a book store called Bookworm where ex-pats frequent. It turned out to be located very close to the Village shopping center. This was one of the few stores selling books in English. It also served food and had a cute rooftop terrace that, because of the very sunny day, was too bright to really enjoy. We holed up there for a few hours reading and using the free WI-FI. Yes I found a spot with WI-FI!

The city is still rather empty since most Chinese are on holiday. We are enjoying the extra space. We did our first adventure on a bus and were very pleased that it worked out. Had we known on the first day going to the Village shopping area that the 416 bus took us from Annemarie's straight to the Village for 1 RMB ($0.14) each we would have done that instead of taxi there and back which cost 48 RMB round trip ($7). In the evening we headed out to see a show of Chinese Acrobats. It was a great show with lots of amazing performances including one girl balancing 14 other girls from her head and shoulders while riding a bike. We left there quite exhilarated and impressed. We didn't bring cameras since most performers don't want photography at their shows. After the performance Annemarie suggested we eat at the Pure Lotus Restaurant at the top floor of the Lido Plaza near her apartment.

Upon arrival at this Thai vegetarian restaurant we were greeted by a server with a container that looked like a silver pitcher filled with rose water to refresh our hands. The space was tastefully decorated with ample space between tables to ensure privacy in conversation. Servers were attentive, but not overly bothersome. Everything from the lotus leaf place setting, seashell plate (that's real seashell, not a plate looking like one) and the incredible 24 inch bound menu books were impeccably thought out. The chef has a sense of humor naming dishes things like "I Love You, No Discussion" (Crispy eggplant served with a sweet sauce in a jade serving dish with a lotus blossom). We of course had to order that one followed by apple salad, vegetable dumplings, and chestnuts in a clay pot. We were in veggie heaven! After eating all this healthy food we didn't feel like having desert, but they provided a complimentary one of hawthorn apples (mini apples) served in a dish with dry ice for dramatic impact. As we left they asked us to spin the prayer wheel and take a flower home.

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Perfect Place Setting

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You've never had eggplant like this!

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The hawthorns were quite tasty.

The next day we set out to find the Purple Bamboo Park near the Beijing Zoo. When we got there the name in English was Black Bamboo Park and we were wondering why the name changed, but as tends to happen, it's just a bad translation on some signs. The park is a large inner-city park with a several lakes. One contained lotus blossoms, another was stocked with fish, another for paddlers to enjoy and there were many canals where larger boats took passengers for a ride. We enjoyed walking through the park and sitting at the edge of the lake. We eventually got in a small boat with some other tourists and a strong fellow took the oars in the back and pushed us through the lotus plants. It's said that Empress Dowager Cixi used to ride her boat through these same canals.

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Topiary in front of Purple Bamboo Park

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This is the kind of boat we took to ride around the canal.

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Our oarsman as he delivers a powerful stoke to glide us through the water. (Jeannine's shoulder is visible on the top left.)

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This was a popular place for locals to have their photo taken. Actually, every place is a popular place. You'll see them posing at every rock, gate, temple, cute object, or ancient looking sculpture. They love photographs!

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You've seen a version of this arched pedestrian bridge before, but I just love the design so I had to photograph it again.

Compared to last week's activities, this week has felt very relaxing - almost lazy, but it's given us the time to enjoy the city in a more intimate and slow pace.

Things that have surprised us...

One thing we've noticed is that everyone seems to exercise. From young men to old women. People don't just walk, they do windmills as they walk, clap their hands and slap their legs for increased circulation, they do deep knee bends while waiting for the bus, and tai chi and dance in the parks! Unlike the chubby Americans and Europeans, the Chinese that I've seen tend to be thinner and more fit. Although more and more cars are on the roads, bikes are still a big form of transportation here adding the burning of calories. But I see lots and lots of fattening things around the corner -- Cold Stone Creamery, Häagen-Daz Ice Cream, KFC, McDonalds, and yes even other countries fast food too -- and I've got to wonder how long with they be able to keep the weight off? One other thing that I was pleasantly surprised to see was the No Smoking signs in the parks and public buildings. Restaurants have not yet caught up to the no smoking trend, but the government is making a big effort to try to curb smoking. As a result, subways, buses and generally parks have been very pleasant.

Posted by Aeren 16:38 Archived in China Comments (2)

There Is Life Outside Beijing

Movies, Food, and Art in the 4th Ring

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We have now started our first week of "couchsurfing" (www.couchsurfing.org). For those who don't know about couchsurfing, it's an online community of people who offer a space in their homes for visitors to stay on their travels. The neat thing about couchsurfing is you don't pay for the couch (or bed) and you get to meet local people. We had planned on spending the entire time in Beijing with couchsufers, but our first week's hosts had to go out of town for an emergency so we ended up at a hotel last week near the Forbidden City. As it turned out that was really a great way to see the center city. Our second week is now at Annemarie's apartment which is located out in the Lido Area.

Until recently all foreigners were restricted to living in one part of the city - the Lido area, so this area has lots of ex-patriots living here. Annemarie is from the Netherlands and works at the Canadian Embassy. A gregarious fun-loving and very musically talented young lady she studied Chinese in college got a scholarship to study in China and eventually was able to find a job here. She's made her spare bedroom available to us for this week. It is an interesting switch from the hotel to an apartment in a high-rise building and from a touristy area to a very international area of town. The bathroom and kitchen seem like afterthoughts, with the bathroom being more like a closet and the refrigerator out in the hall, but the place has been made comfortable by Annemarie who recently purchased a large sectional couch to lounge on in the livingroom. She also has a cute kitty that also make the apartment homey.

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Sammi the ham

The city of Beijing has six rings surrounding it. These are roads that make a complete circle around the city. When we stayed in the Forbidden City area we were inside ring 1, now we're inside ring 4 so we're pretty far out of the city. We didn't know anything about this area so Annemarie has been an invaluable source of information. She told us about a shopping area called "The Village" which caters to foreigners. It is a multiple-story, multiple-building, open air mall. It has some really nice shops and restaurants that we'd never heard of. For example, we ate at "Element Fresh" which was an organic and very western place to eat.

The whole time we've been in China we've seen ads for movies that looked really interesting and The Village was the first place with a theater that had English subtitles. Most of the Chinese movies that were showing were either dramas about the revolution or period pieces about different times in China. These are far from the cheesy Chinese movies of the past; they are big-budget and well written. We chose a movie called "Wheat" which was set in China around 300 BCE during the "warring states" period. It was beautifully filmed and had an anti-war message which we were really impressed with. It was a nice way to spend a hazy, blah day.

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Video screen at The Village.

The next day Annemarie recommended we check out an artsy area called "798". (http://www.798space.com/index_en.asp) It was close enough to walk to so we strolled over there. Evidently the area was originally designed by East Germans in the 1950s as a factory area. It had been closed down and now has been taken over by some artist communities who started putting up their sculptures and spray-painting the old buildings. Gradually many galleries and restaurants opened surrounded by the wonderfully grungy factories and smoke stacks. Some of the stand-out art pieces we saw was a giant bull sculpture smashing a man against a wall. It represented the bull on Wall Street goring Bernie Madoff to the wall.

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Scenes from 798.

We also loved a sculptor who made his sculptures out of Chinese characters. The most impressive was a Buddah built totally out of small stainless steel Chinese characters. Finally, the many sculptures scattered around the area with heavy Communist references were interesting. This was a great find that wasn't in our guidebooks.

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We've met a couple of ex-pats through Annemarie and been to a few of their hang-outs. We're enjoying this different view of Beijing. Check out our travel pictures for more scenes.

Posted by Aeren 21:25 Archived in China Comments (0)

A Sunday of Meditation and Music

Making the most of a lazy Sunday

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There are two major Catholic churches in Beijing —St. Joseph’s Cathedral known as Dong Tang or East Church and Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and St Mary's locally known as Nan Tang or South Church. Although the south church was further away, we planned to visit it for Sunday mass because it is the only one with a mass in English. But by the time we got organized it was too late to go to the South Church, so we trekked over to the East Church. Unfortunately mass was over and they had already locked all the doors. We ended up sitting outside and meditating in the shadow of the gray Gothic cathedral. We should note that although the churches were founded originally by Jesuit priests, the Chinese Catholic church is not recognized by the Catholic Church in Rome.

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St. Joseph's Cathedral

The East Church happens to be located on Wanfujing Street which is full of high-end, multi-story malls. Think Rolex, Armani, etc. We’re not sure why people would shop here except for the prestige of it. We appreciated the big, clean bathrooms because the public bathrooms on the street are stinky and are really just holes in the ground with a spot for each foot. Yes, that means no toilet seat. We also noted that unlike some of the hutong areas that have pedestrians avoiding cars and bicycles, the mall section of Wangfujing Street is a pedestrian only area.

Just off Wangfuijing Street we wandered into a back street full of little food stables and street restaurants. The weirdest thing we saw was live scorpions on a skewer. Presumably they flame broil them before you eat them. I may have tried chapulines (grasshoppers) in Oaxaca, Mexico, but we passed on the scorpions. We didn't take pictures when we realized the scorpions were still alive. It seemed cruel.

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Alley market.

From there we took the subway to a teahouse Jeannine was interested in visiting called the Laoshe Teahouse. The second floor of the teahouse had pictures of visiting dignitaries from Mao to Nixon, Kissinger, Bush Sr., and numerous rock stars. It not only served tea and food but offered folk music and shadow puppet shows. We arrived in time for the folk music show which was made up 2 stringed instruments (a zither and a vertical fiddle) and a dulcimer. After they performed about 8 tunes the stage was quickly set up for the shadow puppets. We decided to stay, drinking our tea, while the show got started. A river scene was set up and a crane puppet was shown flying around and fishing in the water. Eventually a fisherman came along and sat near the water. An oyster floated to the shore and a beautiful woman came out of the oyster and danced around. The crane tried to capture her but she went back the oyster. The puppets were in full color and beautifully acted.

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Video of first part of Shadow Puppet Show

After such a full week as this one we headed back to the hotel relax and pack for our move to a couch surfing accommodations tomorrow and plan out the next week.

Posted by Aeren 19:57 Archived in China Comments (3)

On a Slow Boat to North Gate

Dragon boats in Bei Hai Park

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Today we’d planned a stroll through Bei Hai Park to the Mansion and Garden of Prince Gong, afternoon tea and a performance at the famous Laoshe Tea House. As plans go we had to adjust. Our guide book (which has been a life saver so far) didn’t do justice to Bei Hai Park. The entrance fee to the park was a hefty 20 yuan ($2.93) each. That doesn’t sound like much in US standards but most parks we’ve been to here are only 2 yuan so this was 10 times our normal entry fee. It turned out Bei Hai Park is one of the oldest, largest, and best-preserved imperial parks in China. The park’s construction dates back to 938 the 1st year under the reign of Emperor Huitong in the Liao Dynasty. We entered through the eastern gate and crossed a bridge over the large lake filled with the biggest lotus plants we’d ever seen, stretching up to the feeble amount of sunlight coming through the hazy sky. We ran into steps leading to the highest point of the park which was topped with the Bai Ta (a white stupa) containing Buddhist Scriptures and other relics.

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The white supta at Bei Hai Park.

We came down the hill following stone steps which led to a landing where Chinese boats were docking to take people across the lake to the northern part of the park. We jumped on the boat and cruised across to see the Five-Dragon Pavilions built during the Ming Dynasty and still in use today by families enjoying the lake view. As we followed signs for the north gate to continue our planned itinerary we saw signs for the “Nine-Dragon screen” and made a detour to find it instead. The signs were cleverly placed to make the searcher pass though a courtyard, another temple, and a souvenir shop full of excited salespeople before making it to the screen (which was really a wall). It was well worth it as you can see:

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Nine-dragon screen.

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Dragon boat at the park.

This trek through the park took much longer than we expected so we were late getting to Prince Gong’s mansion. When we arrived there were many tourist groups and tuk tuk drivers shouting and milling around trying to get our attention. Undeterred, we bought our tickets for the mansion and garden. We read the mansion was built in 1777 and given to a minister in the late Qing Dynasty. He was later accused of corruption and the palace was given to a prince who later passed it to Prince Gong. During the Cultural Revolution it was used as a factory and became a cultural heritage site in the 1980s. This was a rare example of a classic Chinese mansion with main houses, side houses and decorative rocks with an amazing garden in back. Several of the buildings were closed, but one was a museum with exquisite artifacts dating back to 550 BCE. The garden included rocks, flowers, a large pond and even an opera house where we could hear people singing.

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Scenes from Prince Gong's mansion.

We ended the day with a stop at Nan Lugou hutong to try out the Drum and Gong restaurant which came highly recommended. The food was in infusion of Sichuan spices with a fusion of local flavors. We ordered spicy
noodles, pumpkin cakes and an amazing desert of sesame dumplings in rice wine. Delicious!

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An otherwise perfect end to the day was marred by a screeching sound from the street. It was an old man we had seen before who sells newspapers by calling out the name in a voice that sounds like a cat in heat or some poor animal caught in a trap. I think people buy his papers just to get him to move further down the street.

Throughout our trip we’ve been photographing signs that are Engrish (an aberration of the English language). We rather enjoyed this sign on a trash can… “Protect Circumstance begin with me!”

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Posted by Aeren 05:49 Archived in China Comments (0)

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