Beijing 3: The Great Wall at Badaling and The Ming Tombs

Mr. Xian picked us up early to take us to the Ming Tombs, a necropolis where 13 of the 16 emporers from the dynasty are buried. My father talked about these huge animal statues and how elaborate all the temples were…which led to my extreme disappointment. Jack told us there were two tombs – one was bigger and more interesting, he said. We were still technically in Beijing because the city buses were running to the periphery parts of the city. we were in the middle of a big valley and all of the sudden pulled into a parking lot. It had snowed again, so we were once more greeted by the sweepers and a snowy park. The park was dominated by an enormous red tower and flanked by trees. Yeah, that was about it. we had to descend About 150 feet into the tombs where we were pushed like cattle through five rooms. We saw replicas of the small red coffins and thrones, which were littered with money. Like many cultures, Chinese believe that ancestors must be given things like food and money to take with them to the next life. We left in about 25 minutes.
From there, Jack took us to a jade factory. Once again we were told, don´t buy here! But that didn´t stop Nancy and Linder for bargaining the shit out of it. Jack bought us lunch in the dining hall of the store – spicy chicken with peanuts, vegetables, fried pork, egg drop soup. By now, it was starting to warm up so the weather was getting hazy. As we drove on the outskirts of town to Badaling, the touristy part of the Great Wall, we could barely see the tops of the mountains and the remains of the wall looked just like the wall between two farms, despite the Wall rising to 25 feet in some sections. Originally built over centuries to keep out the Mongols from the north, the wall has been reduced in some areas to mere feet because of erosion, sandstorms and vandalism. Badaling is among one of the preserved spots, bringing in a lot of tourists and jsut as many people seeling postcards, stamps and other souvenirs.

There were stalls and ropes like an amusement park leading to the main gate. The wall has been around for eons, so many of the steps were slick and the snow added an extra danger. The kilometer or so we walked was full of people, and even though the views of the surrounding mountains were pretty, the fog or contamination made taking good pictures of the landscape nearly impossible. Square watchtowers rise every couple hundred yards. My dad and I climbed to a high watchtower, slipping a few times and me taking a spill halfway up. It was impressive to imagine the sheer manpower that it took to build something 4,000 miles long with limited technology.

Nancy wanted to see how silk was made, so we spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find her some silk stores. At each, we learned the life cycle of the silk worm, how silk is stretched and dried and how a silk duvet is made before the sales pith came. I would have liked to buy one. I was getting really sick of shopping by that point, so I sat near the escalator and waited while contemplating buying Kike a silk robe.

Beijing 2: Summer Palace and the Silk Market

Day Three: The Summer Palace and endless shopping

The ever-so-talked-about fog finally hazed over the city, making it impossible to see past a few blocks from our 10th-floor rooms. The city had received it´s first dose of snow for the year, and there were seemingly thousands of road-cleaners brushing the dust off of sidewalks and streets. They had all donned bright orange reflective gear and facemasks (used for the pollution, NOT bird flu!) and had brooms made from straw.We met our guide and driver for the next three days, Jack and Mr. Xian. Because of the difficulty with the Chinese language, which is heavily inflected (English has hardly any), many Chinese people working in tourism choose Western names. You get the basics like John and Karen, but we also met Sunshine, River and Leon! Jack is from the southern part of China and moved to Beijing three years ago and work in tourism. Linder has friends from Canada who used him as a guide last year, so my dad hired him and a driver for about 20$/person per day. He´s one of those tall, lanky Chinese with really sharp features, the kinds you see at public places. He introduced us to our driver, short and stout, and assured us he was a good driver.We started out at 8am for the Summer Palace, located at the northwest edge of the city. We hit rush hour traffic, making the trip long (then again, Beijing is about 100 km north to south and about the size of the entire country of Belgium!). We passed more traditional areas of Beijing that haven´t been bulldozed due to rapid growth and saw the Drum and Bell Towers through dirty windows. The whole city looked dreary through the sludge that had accumulated in the early morning commute.Because of that, the tranquility and beauty of the Summer Palace stood out. Upon entering an ornate, two-tiered gate, you encounter and enormous, man-made lake spreads out in front of you. this is the second summer palace, as the first now lays in ruins, and was established for royalty to escape the city´s summer heat. It was also a birthday gift built over three years with the help of tens of thousands of laborers for an empress´s 60th birthday. Kunming Lake is ringed with temples and pavilions, long, covered corridors and bridges. The 17-Arch bridge, immediately opposite Longevity Hill and the tiered temple above it, is stunning. It leads to a small island with a temple and is protected by stone lions at each crest.

Jack walked us around the southeast edge of the lake, which was half-frozen, and through various pavilions. The corridor at the bottom of Longevity Hill is connected by a series of wooden corridors, all decorated with paintings and imperial designs. even the stones next to the lake have designs in them, like flowers and ying yangs. We climbed the steep stairs from one temple to the next, until we had finally reached a octoganal temple with a giant golden buddha. From here, we could see that the front side of the hill was full of small temples, whose pagoda style roofs barely poked out of the trees, as well as the bridges across the lake.

Jack herded us into a pearl factory next store, telling us not to buy anything. A woman explained to us how the pearls are harvested and how to tell a real from a fake pearl before leading us into a showroom (freshwater pearls can come in pearl, coral, pink, lavender or even amber depending on their exposure to certain chemicals in the sea). There were five of us and two dozen attendants, all pulling out strand after strand to show us. we were followed around and poked at until we finally gave in to buying something – me a pair of purplish stud earrings and Linder a gorgeous single pearl on a chain. We bargained our way down, feeling more comfortable with asking for discounts. I read several times that you shouldn´t touch a Chinese person, because their culture dictates that strangers should have distance, but these people had no problems touching our arms and wrists to pull us to another table. Jack led us to a buffet of foreigners next door, where we ate fried potatoes, fried noodles with vegetables, chicken wings, pork and vegetables and pizza. Everything is fried and served with endless amounts of tea!

On the way back into the city through supposedly slower midday traffic, we entered a series of roundabouts and switchbacks before finally parking near the Olympic Greens. The Birds Nest dominates the complex, but all I really noticed was the smog from the nearby factories. From the outside, the colossal stadium doesn’t look so big. But inside, after a frisking, the stadium opens up and round red lanterns hang from the overhang. It’s like being in a different building! We walked onto the artificial grass and I got flashbacks to marching in the RCA Dome in Indy in high school. Two of the five inflated mascots stood in the center, but they later joined us, their bouncing bodies announced by obnoxious music and all of the Japanese tourists running over to take pictures. I got that weird feeling I used to get before competing, a kind of weepy, engulfing feeling. Amazing to actually see the place in person, as it’s much more impressive than other stadiums I’ve seen.My mom asked Jack to take us to another pearl factory, where my mom picked out to beautiful strands of pearls for my sister and me. Because of a breakdown in communications, Jack took us to a silk market, which wasn´t a silk factory. Instead, it was a multi-level maze of fake bags, shoes and scarves where shop attendants bombarded you with shouts of, “LADY you want bag/shoes/sunglasses/jewelry/etc? Good price! Name of knockoff brand!” Jack told us to bargain as best we could, as the price for foreigners can be up to 15 times more than for Chinese, though not many natives shop there. Not only did we find the foreigners, but I walked away with a pair of sunglasses, a bag and two pairs of shoes for about 60$. I felt exasperated from all of the people and my bargaining (I got a pair of puma sneakers that I hunted in the States all summer down from 500RMB to 120, just under 20$!). I found my dad near the souvenirs and we took the escalator to the top floor. From the balcony, we could see the Temple of Heaven and surrounding parks, lit up in the twilight.We were exhausted from all the walking, so my dad and I found a fast food takeout down the street from our hotel. We ordered spicy noodles with pork and curry chicken with rice, and while we waited I noticed a big sandwich board in the doorway that gave the restaurant a B sanitation level. From that point on, I saw a similar poster in every restaurant or shop, proclaiming the safety of the food.

Beijing part 1: Ni hao, Asia!

Day One: Travel and Wafujing Jie
I arrived to a snow-covered mountain framed Madrid after hoping a high-speed AVE train from sunny, 65+ degree Sevilla. I’d been anticipating going to China for six months – reading non-fiction memoirs and historical novels, mapping out Beijing and Harbin and mentally preparing myself for eating something with four legs and a tail that has the same name as my nickname for my boyfriend (puppy).Madrid was clear and about the same temperature as Sevilla, the sun glinting off of the agricultural ministry across from Atocha and a churros stand churning out fried rounds of dough. I stopped by an outdoor book fair, running my hands along the spines of dusty old volumes of comic books before picking up a 2 euro copy of Tales of the Alhambra. I hopped in a taxi to the airport, only to realize that the taxista’s meter wasn’t working when we arrived to the front gate. He probably over-charged me, but whatever. After meeting La Cris and Alfonso, I boarded my plane bound for Paris. A few hours, a mad dash to get through security and to another terminal to hop my flight to Air France, and a nine-hour trip to Beijing.After using gestures and grunts and caveman language to speak to the Chinese man sitting next to me for the entire flight, I expected to have a lot of difficulty communicating in Beijing. I’d been warned that English outside big tourist hotels was hard to come by. When I arrived to the airport, everything was subtitled in English (thanks to the 2008 Olympics!) and there were not big crowds. My dad met me in the terminal and we hitched a ride to the center of town. I expected to not see the sky the whole time I was in Beijing, but the day was clear and bright and traffic wasn´t horrible.

My mom and one of Margaret´s teammates´moms, Linda slash Linder, and I fought off jetlag and our extreme desires to nap to explore Wafujing Jie, the shopping drag on which our hotel was located. A beautiful western-style church stood on the east side of the street, across from an entire block of candy shops. My mother was continually hounded for money from the homeless, who tapped her on the shoulder and said Xié Xié (thank you) about a dozen times before giving up. We stopped by a huge department store and had ice cream before braving a bazaar-type shop – four floors of fake jades and pearls, tiny buddhas and painted combs. There were just as many employees in the shop, and shoving jewelry and stupid toys in my face trying to make a sale. I reasoned that the Communist government had to employee two employees for every customer to keep unemployment rates low and this was confirmed with every jade factory and silk store we went to.

One of the things I was really looking forward to was the Snack Street, a big tourist trap that I had seen on numerous travel specials during the Olympics. I remember the Travel Channel´s samantha Brown eating a fried starfish and resolved to eat as many weird things as my stomach could handle (considering the water is poison and health standards aren´t really that great). The snack street is a city blocked lined on the northern end with lantern-lit food stalls. everything from insects to baby birds to dumplings were sold for prices between 5 to 50 RMBs (0.75-7 USD). My dad and I, being the adventurous eaters, tried snake, cabbage dumplings, beef kebabs, grasshopper and scorpion, while mom and Linder blamed their tiredness for lack of appetite. The shopkeepers screamed the names of the fare at us, trying to make a sale: BACK CHOYYYYYYYYYY! GINGER ROOOOOOOT! SHEEP KIDNEYSSSSS! Giant pots of miso and boiled corn warmed our hands and the sugared fruit kebabs looked good enough (oops, probably not sanitary!). Dad and I opted for a giant bean-curd donut before heading to bed at about 8:30 pm.

Day Two: The Forbidden City
My parents’ two bags never arrived to Beijing, thanks to a glitch in LAX´s gate changes. They ended up being at the wrong gate after a delay from Chicago and only made their plane thanks to Linder refusing to board until they arrived. While my parents sorted things out with Air China, I watched English-language news and movies (something I greatly miss in Spain) and ate granola bars.

We had the Forbidden city on the agenda for the day, but got a late start. Skipping breakfast and heading straight towards the massive palace complex, we got our first lesson in Chinese traffic: cars always have the right of way. Even when the little green man for pedestrians comes up, a car or taxi or bus can slam into you without remorse. I always had to be on alert, like a life-sized frogger, so my guts didn´t get splattered all over the street. That said, driving can be scary, too, even when you´re in the back seat of a seatbelt-less taxi.

Located at the northern edge of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City was once the Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties, two of the more famous and important ruling families in Chinese history. Made up of nearly 1000 wooden temples and buildings, this complex held the Imperial families in the prohibited heart, encased by several gates and the Imperial city. The first gate, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, is protected by scores of cameras and green-clad guards. All of them have uniforms on that were used under Mao´s three or four-decade dictatorship that look two sizes too big. It´s technically illegal to take pictures of them, but I did. An enormous portrait of Mao hangs directly over the main gate, marking the place from which he watched military parades in the largest public square in the world.

The gate of Heavenly Peace is of particular interest to my family because one of my grandma´s ancestors, Jim reilley (the man for which her little brother is named), was killed during the Boxer Rebellion in August 1900, trying to enter the city. Legend says that the Dragon Empress fled from the Forbidden City from the rear gates, which is interesting because the Chinese emperors believed attacks would come from the Mongols in the north (which is why the Great Wall is built north of the capital). We were able to climb the tower and see the massive expanse of Tiananmen Square before passing through another series of gates before entering the palace.

The themes of red, yellow and the number nine are repeated all throughout the palaces and temples. The ceramic roofs bear intricate carvings and each building is rated on its importance. On the edges of many buildings throughout China, you see there is a man riding a creature with up to ten dragons behind him. the mroe dragons, the more important the building. The colors of the temples shone in the sun in reds and green and blues. Small paintings on the undersides of the roofs were all different, depicting different patterns of dragons and flowers. Once past all the temples, there are several smaller living quarters for different royalty and purposes, as well as a garden with small pagodas. Surprisingly, we hardly saw any Westerners.

By the time we finished exploring, it was already 4:30 and we hadn´t really had a meal. Our hotel suggested a place on Wafujing Jie called Quanjude for Peking Duck. This place is famous throughout the city, as it is a former palace and four floors of dining rooms and kitchens. Ducks hand by their webbed little feet in the windows of the kitchen, waiting to be lacquered and roasted! We ordered enormous beers and watched a chef sliced practically every part of the duck and threw it on plates – the feet, served with spicy sauce, the sweet, crispy skin, thin slices of meat, sliced liver and the heart. Eaten with thin pancakes and sweet molasses sauce, all rolled up into the pancake, it´s actually quite nice. We were also served briney vegetables and cabbage. I don´t think Linder and mom were really keen on all of the different parts, but it was interesting. At the end of the meal, we received a card with the history of the establishment and a certified number of the duck. This place has served over 150 billion ducks since it started counted in the 1860s!!!

Discipline, Spanish Style

Last year, Nancy Bielski came to visit me. Since she’s in school to be an English teacher, I brought her along one day so that she could see what Spanish schools are like. Her reaction went something like this: “OH. MY. GODDDD.” Followed by, “I have never seen such poorly behaved kids in my whole life.”

While I wouldn’t liken teaching in a Spanish village to teaching in inner-city Chicago, we definitely have our share of discipline problems. Kids hit each other in the hallways, destroy our new computers and mouth off to teachers. I’ve had to yell quite a few times, and often end up tuckered out after a four-hour day. Teachers blame the lax education system and the reverence that Spanish kids receive. “Well, if my son/daughter doesn’t want to learn, I won’t force them” and “Well, if my son/daughter doesn’t want to learn, you should be a better teacher” are as common as teachers handing out partes, which are like demerits. I’ve given out just two in the 12 months I’ve taught at IES Heliche. In fact, students get partes just for not turning in homework! Most of them rack up several in a term and could care less if a teacher has to call home once or twice. To me, it’s totally unuseful.

Every other Wednesday, I’d like to jump off the highest building in Olivares (which is maybe 2 floors, unless you count a church) because I not only have five hours of class, but I also have 1D. For some reason, this class is always cursed. Year after year, teachers tell me, the students in 1D have the worst behavioral problems and the most partes, almost like being in the lead for the school food drive or something. When I came into class a little late (actually on time since the teacher has to go there immediately to prevent the kids from throwing the desks out the windows or something), the teacher was screaming at everyone to sit down and demanding to know what happened to the eraser for the chalkboard. Clearly, none of the kids fessed up, and my attempts to get them to behave and focus on the language village were futile. The teacher, a very calm woman, finally went to the equivalent of the dean for help. Fernando is tall and unnerving and in charge of all of the discipline in the school. He’s pretty good for the job, in my opinion, because he’s scary.

I tried my best to at least correct the worksheet we’d done last week before Fernando came. The whole room got SILENT and I thought some of the kids would have liked to crawl under their desks from the looks on their faces. “It’s been called to my attention that someone has spit gum onto the blackboard (oops, missed that one!) and a second person has hidden the eraser. Who would like to confess to doing it?” No one, clearly. He asked a second time. And a third, adding that now the crime had gone from bad but excusable to bad and not-so-excuseable. Finally, he asked the kids to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of the students who had committed the acts. After counting them, he announced the names of two kids – both huge troublemakers and smartasses. He interrupted me twice more to call out two other students before giving the students more partes and threatening expulsion. The whole class was quiet and not even one of them asked what kind of punishments they’d be getting.

That lasted a whole two minutes until I was back to, “CAAAAALLLLLAAAARRRROOOOSSSS!”

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