Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Are these your children? You have THREE?!"

At least that's what people kept saying to me for the last two weeks, while our family was visiting China. And then they'd all say "I like girls. Boys are naughty!" Heh. Was there some campaign to make people prefer girls, to counteract all that with the disproportionate number of boys to girls surviving? At any rate, if you ask people now, they say that only "old-fashioned people", out in the countryside, might still be biased towards boys.

So yeah! It's been months since I wrote anything. I thought maybe a blog post on "what I did for my vacation" would help me get back into things. Anyway, it's traditional for the start of the school year (on Monday! Argh!)

China. I told them it was crowded, I told them it would be hot in August, I told them that KFCs were weirdly popular, I told them about the squat toilets, I told them about the traffic, I told them it was smoggy, and I told them about carrying around cash and toilet paper... the whole lowering-expectations bit. Eh. We still had lots of moaning, but nothing too serious.

First came the airplane trip. That in itself was a novelty, as it was the longest the kids had ever been on an airplane before. About thirteen and a half hours of being cooped up in a seat, but each passenger had their personal TV and frequent servings of food. (Ok, so the cups of instant noodles were the worst ever, what with the water not being hot enough and the noodles not soaking long enough, but it was otherwise reasonable.) It was cool to basically fly over the north pole, and have sunlight all the way there.

First city: Beijing. We were all dead tired by the time we got off the plane. Marveled at an airport big enough to have its own subway system! Tried out the foreign currency exchange machine (convenient!) and eventually managed to find the airport express train and figured out how to buy tickets. Whee. A pleasant ride, giving us our first ground level view of China. So, city and stuffs. Superficially similar to cities everywhere. Then we hit the regular subway system. Crowds! Crowds, crowds, crowds! But Beijing has a great subway system. The fare machines are nice, as are the easy to understand flat rates (2 Y per trip) and the maps everywhere, especially the ones with the lights that show you your current position on the line and highlights the next stop. Also helpful: English and pinyin everywhere. English announcements. This made it very easy to navigate.

Getting from the subway station to the hotel was trickier, as the hotel wasn't visible from the exit. But it wasn't hard to ask for directions. No shortage of random people on the street, ha ha! Thank the gods we didn't have to cross any streets on our first day there.

Traffic in China: very, very scary. Possibly the scariest thing we encountered there. The drivers are crazy. The cyclists are crazy. Red lights are optional. What "stop before turning right on red"!? Honk and pass at every opportunity! (The most egregious case was when we were riding one of those little golf cart/trolleys that carry people around inside a park, and one trolley driver felt the need to zoom up and overtake the trolley in front, to arrive a full 5 seconds earlier!) Mostly as we were being driven around China, I tried not to look too hard at what our driver was up to. We always put on our seatbelts. (We're Americans! They can't take that as some kind of insult! But it was funny when one driver told me that he had driven extra slowly and carefully as we had kids along, meaning he had probably only passed about 90% of the other vehicles on the road rather than 99%.)

So anyway, we managed to find our hotel in Beijing, albeit by the back door. The kids were impressed at how fancy it was. (I had booked a bunch of fancy-schmancy hotels for our trip, probably wasting more money than necessary: the one time we stayed in a hostel that cost 1/10 as much, it was actually very nice, though my son kept complaining that "this hostel is inferior!" until we figured out the air conditioning.) We were too tired to eat anywhere except the hotel restaurant. Despite being a fancy-schmancy place, the hotel restaurant still sucked (IMNSHO) as hotel restaurants everywhere tend to suck. So much for my ambitions to try the local food. Ah well. Everyone collapsed into bed soon after. Next morning: hotel restaurant breakfast buffet! Now those I like, despite them being ridiculously overpriced. It's easy and everyone can find something to eat, usually. In China, the fancy hotels tend to have "Western", "Chinese", and "Japanese" style foods. So, a gentle introduction to new stuff: weird white fruit in the fruit bowl! The kids declared that it tasted kinda like kiwi fruit. There, that wasn't so bad! And the pear were Asian pears, but they liked them, as well as the usual apples, watermelon, and cantaloupes.

Day 1: TOUR TIME! I ran off to see the concierge after breakfast. She was very nice and was able to book us on an English-speaking tour to leave in the next twenty minutes or so. Well, that was lucky. These were small tours with about 10-12 people. We went to see the "Sacred Way" part of the Ming Tombs. (Probably the most fun part, what with all the stone statues and animals and not having to go through some evil crowded hole in the ground.) Then to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Of course, everyone was still so tired that as soon as we took the cable car up to the wall, there were cries of "can we go back now?" and "I'm tired!", "I'm thirsty!", "I don't want to walk!". So our "hike" along the wall was very short. Went to the next tower section and came back again. First taste of souvenirs. It took me awhile to get a feel for how much things should cost in China, and how to haggle. The first vendor I bought something from gave me a pitying look as I paid way too much. But on the bright side, neither place we visited was crowded at all. Sure, there were people, but we had plenty of space to ourselves.

Shopping trips: yes, there were two shopping trips included in each day's tour. As long as you go with the same company, you go to different ones. It's really not the worst thing in the world. You get to go to a nice air-conditioned building, where they introduce you to jade, silk, pearls, tea, etc. in Chinese culture and history, and then you can buy some stuff if you want. The first day we went to the jade-carving factory and the silk factory. I got some trinkets and a cute vest for my younger daughter, which turned out to be one of her favorite things from the trip, so hooray for tour-shopping stops!

Lunch: the tour-arranged food was pretty "meh", Chinese style cafeteria food, basically, at the jade factory. Rice, a soup, green leafy veggie, some egg dish (I think), a couple of meat+veggie stirfry, nothing too exotic or memorable.

Day 2: TOUR #2! Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) in one lightning tour. ("I hate tours!" "Not another tour!" "Ugh! Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh." "Mommy, can I buy those earrings?" "Well, maybe, lemme see...maybe on the way back. Oops, too late, the guide just went out the other exit...") We misplaced one member of the tour group (the guide managed to find her eventually) and then another family in the group objected to having to buy extra tickets for the boat ride through the Summer Palace grounds. So we had to walk... our first taste of a really crowded tourist attraction! Partly it's because of the narrow walkways and corridors in the palace that everyone has to go through. Bottlenecks. Not terrible. And we ended up only going on one shopping trip: pearls. (We didn't buy any, but it was neat when they opened up a real oyster and we got to see/touch the tiny pearls it had.) The tour guide took pity on us and skipped the second stop (tea), but made us sign waivers (or at least papers saying what a good guide she was) so she wouldn't get in trouble with management.

Laundry time! This is what I really hate about travel in China. No laundromats. Just as you hire a driver along with a car, you hire a washer along with the washing machine. Or something. But it was something like USD$10 to get a shirt washed! What with our raggle-taggle tourist clothes, we could have bought new outfits for less. Besides, it would be embarrassing to have someone see my holey underwear. So, into the bathtub with our dirty clothes. Bah. (Yeah, I had brought along packets of detergent, having expected this. But I forgot to bring a clothes line! D'oh! I never did find one, so I ended up ripping my all-purpose-wipe/ex-cloth-diaper into a long strip and twisted it up to use a makeshift clothes line.)

Day 3: No tour! I think we all needed some downtime from tours. I don't know what we would have done if we'd gone with one of those 14-day (or whatever) tour packages. Been really miserable, I expect. Wandered around the Wangfujing shopping area of Beijing. Nice bookstore. Useless malls full of clothes. Then for lunch, we went to one of the branches of the famous Peking Duck chain: Quanjude. The waitress talked me into ordering the full banquet. Ha ha ha. We thought the flow of dishes would never end. At least we could sit there and pretend to be emperors or whatever. Yes, this included the duck livers and duck hearts and gizzards (I actually like those) and random things like the "Quanjude Duck Delicacies Nestles". It was pretty expensive, but hey, it's an experience.

In the afternoon (the laundry still isn't quite dry!) we went to wander around the giant flea market at Panjiayuan. It was a bit of a walk, and along the way we passed people on the street with... turtles?! Are they selling turtles? Not tiny little ones, either. These must have been nearly a foot long. WTF? The flea market itself was huge. Bought some random stuff (my older daughter likes wall scrolls and little bags). Got tired of aisles and aisles full of jade bracelets and pretty rocks. Repetitive place. Then there were the people with random statuary, random magazines (in English!), random books (Chinese and English), random cameras (non-digital), random binoculars and telescopes, random chests and furniture, etc.

Day 4: Anime floor of the mall! Whoa! My older daughter is an anime fan, and she found out about this place somehow (the power of Google?) and made me take her there. It was impressive. "Cartoon town" or something. A bunch of little shops (I mean, each one was probably the size of my bedroom or smaller) selling manga, figurines, posters, etc., etc. I guess there's so many malls in Beijing there's bound to be one specializing in anything you want.

Then it was time to check out of the hotel. Made the mistake of dragging everyone and their luggage around the city looking for somewhere to eat lunch. We ended up at a Subway, which has much the same food there as it does in the U.S. And then more misery as we dragged through the streets to Tiananmen Square, mainly just to say we'd been there. Not really that interesting a place. So then it was down into the subway station and off to the airport! We ended up there three hours early, so they rebooked us onto an earlier flight. This was a good thing, as the flight turned out to be about three hours late anyway, and if we had been on our original flight, would have arrived in the next city at about midnight!

To be continued next post: Xi'an...

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