Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Great Wall, Take II

Today we went to the Great Wall. We went to the Mutianyu section (there are three sections in Beijing), the same one that I went to with my host family a few weeks ago. This time, however, I went with the Americans and the kids from Newton North who are here on a chorus trip. The North kids got here on Friday afternoon, and are staying with host families for the week, at which point they'll go back to America. Barely enough time to get over jet lag.

We met at Jingshan at 9am, hopped on a tour bus and were on our way. At one point our guide started talking about the history of the Great Wall and such, but I didn't pay much attention. I love history, I really do, but I'm getting kind of sick of ancient Chinese history. It's so far away that it doesn't really mean anything to me anyways, but I'm also currently living modern Chinese history. It just seems irrelevant to me to learn about Emperor Qin Shihuangdi for the 1000th time.

Anyways, when we got there we took the stairs up, the same as last time. It didn't take long to reach the Wall, but I've come to despise stairs since I've been to China. I think I was traumatized when we were on Huangshan.

I took some pictures, although it was so cloudy you couldn't see very far. We did go further than I did when I came with my host family, to a section that hasn't been restored. It was overgrown with small trees and grass, and the tower was crumbling. According to Gao laoshi, it was built during the Ming Dynasty, so about 500 years old give or take a century or two. Carolyn, Rebecca, Becky, and I took a "let's defeat the huns" (Mulan reference) picture. It was pretty cool. We went down on the slide like I did last time. It's literally a metal slide that winds down the mountain and you ride a little plastic thing with a handle on it to control your speed. It's really fun.

When we got down, we shopped. At the parking lot area, there are tons of little shops where tourists can buy souvenirs. I bought several things, but the fun part of it was bargaining. In many of the places I've been shopping, you can't really bargain. I'll try, and they tell me I can't. Here, however, you could bargain to your heart's content. I got a set of really pretty chopsticks in a nice box with a village scene on the front. The lady's starting price was 385 yuan. That's about $55, for something that is probably worth only a few dollars. I told her I'd pay 10 yuan for it. She didn't like that, but she lowered the price by 20 yuan. I raised my price to 20 yuan. She lowered again, but I insisted on 20. She kept lowering and lowering, while I stayed at 20 yuan. Eventually she agreed to 20, and that's what I paid. I lowered the price 365 yuan, or from $55 to about $3. It felt cool to have lowered it by that much, even though I knew that she didn't expect me to actually pay 385 yuan. I also got two magnets, an "I heart 北京" shirt, and a PLA hat. All in all, I spent about 20 US dollars. Bargaining for the magnets was funny. They guy said 25 yuan, to which I said 5. He lowered and lowered, and when he got down to 10 yuan he went "10. 9. 8. 7. 6. Ok, 5." So I paid $.73 for each magnet, which I think is a reasonable price.

The way home was interesting. The bus ride was nothing special, but the journey home was. When we were back in the city, I noticed that the surroundings looked familiar. I realized that we were passing by what I see everyday on my way to school, which meant that we were near my house. I told Gao laoshi, and she proceeded to ask the bus driver to stop and let me off. Before I knew it, I was off the bus walking on some random street. I knew generally where I was, and which direction was home, just not really how to get there without getting hit by cars. Luckily, I soon found a subway stop and took that to my house. All in all, an eventful day.

A classmate of mine tells me there will be a flea market at school tomorrow during lunch, so that should be an interesting experience...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mao's Body, The Science Museum, and Hutongs

This weekend I went to go see Mao Zedong's body and the Beijing Museum of Science. Today we went to the Hutongs.

Mao's body is housed in a building in Tiananmen Square, south of the Forbidden City. When Mao died in 1976, his body was immediately preserved (although he wanted to be cremated). When they preserved the body, they didn't really know what they were doing, so they pumped him too full of formaldehyde. They soon corrected their mistake, but not before they made a wax copy just in case. To house it, the leaders tore down a gate in Tiananmen Square and built a building to house his body*. 

The building itself isn't anything unusual, and the architecture is standard Chinese. There was a long line to get in, but it went quickly because you're not allowed to loiter when you see the body. The building has two rooms: an entrance room and the body room. The former was really big. There were flowers everywhere (which you could purchase outside in the line), and flanking the back wall was a mural of mountains shrouded in clouds. In the centre of the mural was a stone statue of Mao, sitting with his legs crossed. Then we entered the body room. The best way I can describe it was creepy. It was much smaller and darker than the first room. In the centre was a glassed in section where the body was, with two guards standing watch. Mao was laying in his box, wearing a Mao suit, and on the lower half of his body was a green blanket that had a big red square patch with a yellow hammer and sickle on it. I don't know if it was the real body or the wax copy, but it looked shiny. As we exited the room, we came upon the exit, but not before we went through the ultra-ironic capitalist souvenir shop. It cracked me up that literally right outside the tomb of the founder of Communist China was a shop selling souvenirs. But heck, that's China! (as a side note, there was even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City up until a few years ago) By the way, I'm sorry but I don't have any pictures of this experience. I didn't have my camera anyways, but no taking pictures of Mao's body. Also no hats and no noise.

The Science Museum was slightly less interesting. Carolyn and I were bored on a Saturday, so we decided to go here. I'd wanted to go for a little while, and it seemed like a good thing to do. It was mildly interesting, and at least it wasn't a showcase of how amazingly awesome and superior Chinese technology is, which I have to say I was kind of expecting. There were sections that felt like commercials for Lenovo and BMW, but what are you going to do? It turned out to be okay. There was a section on how we need to ween ourselves off fossil fuels, which was cool. There was a thing on the Olympics and the Olympic torch, which of course left out the part about the protests in London, Paris and San Francisco. Other than that, it was basically your standard science museum, although I think I like the one in Boston better.

The Hutongs were really interesting. If you didn't know, the Hutongs (literally "alley") are one of the last remnants of Old Beijing. They're low lying buildings with courtyards that people live in. A better description of them can be found here. The controversy surrounds the fact that the government of Beijing has become infamous for tearing down these historic alleyways in favor of high rises or shopping centers, often while giving residents little to no advance notice or without adequate compensation. This is what we went to today, and it was pretty sad. The word "demolish" was spray painted everywhere, and you could see that the process was already underway. Several walls had whole sections that were on the floor, and by that I mean the bricks they were made of were on the ground instead of in the wall. It's sad because these dilapidated buildings are peoples' homes, not just cultural relics (the favorite word in China for anything and everything ancient and historic). I wish the government would treat the Hutongs with as much respect and admiration as they do the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, hopefully before it's too late.

*I find it a common theme in the history of Communist China that they really love to tear down old buildings in favor of new things. The city walls, that building, the Hutongs, all were/are being torn down to build more modern things. Even the Forbidden City was at risk of being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Le Shan Giant Buddha (le shan da fu/乐山大副

This week I accompanied my host mom on a business trip to Chengdu. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, and is known for its spicy food. I had a great time there, even if internet access was spotty.

While there, I went to see pandas, hiked up a mountain to visit Buddhist temples, and saw the Le Shan Giant Buddha.

The pandas were really cool. I saw toddlers and teeenagers, and both were huge. The toddlers were eating, and they basically just shove a bunch of bamboo in their mouths and chew on it.

I hiked up Qingcheng Mountain, which had a number of Buddhist temples on it. The temples didn't really interest me much, since I've seen so many since I've been here and they all basically look the same. It was really cool to look down the mountain and see all the green scenery. 

The Le Shan Giant Buddha was amazing. It was carved out of a mountain in I think the Tang Dynasty because the monks thought it would help stop the river from flooding (apparently it worked). It's gigantic, and it looks out onto the convergent point of three different rivers, with the city off in the distance. It was really cool.

The Earthquake: As you know, next month is the one year anniversary of the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. The epicenter was only about 30 or 40 miles from Chengdu. I saw some buildings that had damaged sections, and even an entire street where all the buildings were empty. In the countryside, there were some buildings whose bricks were laying in disarray on the ground, but I'm not sure if that was from the earthquake. The point is, almost a year later there's still a lot of work to do. Many people who lost their homes and/or businesses still have not regained their losses. It kind of reminded me of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I've been down there several times since the Hurricane because my brother goes to Tulane, and there are still a lot of damaged houses and many people sleeping in tents under overpasses. I guess China and America have that in common.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Beijing Huanying Ni!

Here's a video of our performance. I'm the one to the right of the kid in the red shirt, the one who's short standing between two tall kids.

Last Tuesday was the opening ceremony of the cultural festival at Jingshan. Every year around this time, they host a festival where people from all over the city can come to see culture. Usually this ceremony is held in the auditorium at the school, but apparently there's a big anniversary coming up, so this year it was held in the Forbidden City music hall.

There were several amazing performances. Our kungfu/tai chi teacher led a group of students in taichi, a group of girls did what I'll call an interpretive dance inspired by the Sichuan earthquake last year, and then there were the Austrians. They came last Monday specifically to participate in this festival, and boy could they sing. They sang a bunch of songs in what I think was German, mostly because I couldn't decipher anything they were saying. One song was about Macbeth, and they had three people put on witch masks and act out some scenes. They went into the crowd and scared all the little kids. It was cool, but it lasted about 45 minutes, and my attention didn't. 

Becky and Elias MC'd, and to their credit they memorized a bunch of Chinese. Assisting them were a few Chinese kids, including one guy who's going to St Mary's in the fall. He speaks English with an Australian accent, and it was funny to listen to. 

Then comes our singing. The school wanted us to participate, only none of us has any musical talent whatsoever. We can't sing, dance, act, nothing. Nevertheless, we sang "Beijing huanying ni." It means Beijing welcomes you, and it's a song that was made in the runup to the Olympics. 100 days before the opening ceremonies, they came out with this song, which is sung by 100 famous Chinese stars (including Jackie Chan). The real version is on youtube, but youtube's blocked at the moment, so I can't give you the link. Just put 北京欢迎你 in the search engine and you can find it easily. Then you can see how it's supposed to sound.