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April 13, 2006  |  China -- Wednesday  |  5876 hit(s)

The agenda today was to visit the Summer Palace. This is about 7 miles from Beijing, set on a lake that, we read, provided some relief from the summer heat of Beijing. (I've mentioned, I believe, that Beijing is semi-arid? Like, not far from the Gobi Desert, and a question I keep asking myself is why people would site a capital here.) We took a taxi there, thereby surely making some cabbie's lucky day.

I loved the Summer Palace because, let's face it, who wouldn't want a nice lakeside place that covers 700 acres? It's a seemingly endless series of lawns and pavilions and bridges and temples artfully arranged around a lake and a series of inlets. To my surprise, the grounds are in somewhat better shape -- that is, better restored shape -- than the Forbidden City. But perhaps not surprising. It was built for the first time only in the 1700s and has suffered some razing since then at the hands of foreign troops, thus obliging the Chinese to rebuild it. Even so, some of the more popular attractions are, what else, undergoing restoration in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. One such attraction is the Long Corridor, a lengthy covered walkway that runs along the lake connecting various pavilions, which we saw but one or two courtyards of before seeing, well, a lot of scaffolding.

Story has it that a lot of improvements were made to the Summer Palace under the Empress Dowager Cixi, who was regent for the last emperor. Specifically, she diverted funds from the navy to her pet project, a move that pissed off her contemporaries but that the Chinese recognize today as having been a better expenditure. Deriving a lesson from this is left as an exercise for the reader.

The taxi thing is working out pretty well. The guidebook has many dire warnings about taxis -- don't use unmetered taxis, don't let people guide you to specific taxis, etc., etc. But it's not problem to just flag down a taxi pretty much anywhere. It's basically like, say, New York, where taxis are the de facto transportation for people who are above (haha) the subway. (Bob said that most of the cars we see have been on the road only in the last couple of years. As with New York, having a car has a lot to do with prestige, because surely can't be convenient to own one in Beijing.) And taxis here are actually pretty cheap -- 10 yuan ($1.25 US) for the first 2 kilometers, and not so much per additional km. The most expensive taxi ride we've had has been $8 US for a 25-minute ride to the Summer Palace.

Our long ride to the Summer Palace also clued us in to one reason why there might not be so many accidents -- traffic just doesn't move fast. In congestion, of course, it hardly moves at all, but even on the highway (the ring roads, in our case), our taxi driver was barely pushing 60 km/hour (~35 mph). Another difference is that people don't seem to get so territorial --drivers cut each other off, they nudge their way in front of each other, they stop and let passengers on or off, and oh well, that's just how it is, and except for the occasional annoyed toot on the horn, no one seems to suffer a lot of road rage. Unless we just haven't seen it.

After the Summer Palace we had plans to head back into town for an evening. Our map situation is not so good; we actually had a large, detailed Beijing map (in English), but oops, that stayed in Seattle. So we're working off the little half-page maps in the guidebook, which show landmarks and major streets, but in eye-achingly tiny print. But we've managed by orienting ourselves around the landmarks (such as pointing at them in the taxi until the driver makes the internationally recognized sound of "Aha! Got it!"). Now and again, though, we feel the lack of details. This evening, for example, we wandered around a bit looking for a particular theater, which was just a little mask symbol on our guidebook map. In the end, we called Bob, who called the theater and asked their address, who then called us back with directions. So it all works out, somehow.

While wandering around, we were looking for some dinner. Something I learned last year in Japan was that if you're really stuck without a native speaker, you have to find restaurants with pictures on the menu. So we found a place that looked like Chinese fast food -- girls in uniforms at the counter, big menu behind them. Using gestures and the counter girls' unexpected knowledge of numbers in English, we were able to order. But fast food is fast food, and this was about the least interesting (to put it kindly) meal we've had in Beijing.

We met up with Bob and a couple of his friends to see a show of the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe. This seems to be mostly a thing that tourists do -- neither Bob nor his friends, both Beijing natives, had ever been to the show. Probably most people know the general theme -- tumbling, twirling plates on sticks, contortionsts who do handstands and tap themselves on the nose with their feet, a very traditional high-wire act (complete with umbrella), etc. The acts are all structured so that they start off doing something incredible -- twirling eight plates at a time, say -- then they add increasing difficulties, such as, oh, doing a back roll while twirling eight plates, all to somewhat cheesy background music.

So here's a typical act. Six girls come out in the kind of spangly costumes that moms might have sewed for a fifth-grade dance recital. The girls put a stack of metal bowls on their head. Then they each take a bowl, toss it, and catch it on their head. Neat! Repeat with variations. Then they take bowls and toss them on top of the next girl's head! Cool! Only ... they're doing the tossing with their right foot. Only ... they're on 6-foot unicycles while they're doing this. Or in another act, the girl was on a unicycle and dismounted by doing a backflip. Only ... she was on the high wire at the time. You can imagine the training sessions -- "Ok, good job on balancing a guy upside-down on your head. Now we want you to do that while standing on a unicycle! ... Excellent job on that. Now use one foot to stand on the unicycle! ... Ok, great. Now we're going to put you on the high wire!" You can imagine them getting a bit wary about mastering any particular trick.

Anyway, it's impressive, but it's also somewhat frightening, because you spend most of the show in different levels of suspense, interspersed with occasional heart attacks as bodies go flying through the air.

Although the trappings are kind of second-tier Vegas, nothing detracts from the incredible skills on display -- balance, strength, limberness, grace. It's just phenomenal what people can do. And many (most) of the acrobats are just kids -- in some case literally, perhaps no more than 8 or 9 years old, but certainly no older than maybe 17.

This had been a pretty full day already, but Bob conferred with his friends, and then turned around and asked "How about some duck?" Well, ok! So we transported to a restaurant where we experienced what we're beginning to understand is a common scenario -- dish after dish after dish appeared, not a single one of which we recognized. And there's the don't-ask aspect to these dinners. In this case, we had some little morsels of meat on a platter, which tasted ... interesting. I asked what they were and got a don't-ask reply from Bob. Duck hearts, I found out later. We did in fact have duck, which appeared after several meals' worth of courses had already appeared. We had the variation (perhaps the classic one) wherein the duck is served with pancakes and plum sauce. We eventually left the restaurant, all the food having stunned us into stupor.

We did inquire about this, and got the following. It's usual for one person to do all the ordering, and it would be very bad, face wise, not to have ordered enough for everyone. So there's a strong incentive to over-order, which is apparently officially discouraged, but which people do anyway. Man, I do my best to do my part, but there are limits to how much a body can eat. Especially of things like duck hearts, haha.

So that was enough for one night.