Monday, March 31, 2008

Cursing a Green Streak

We're learning lots of new stuff every day. For example, yesterday we learned that most Chinese would prefer to have a daughter to a son (regardless of whether or not this is now true, the fact that they're still missing the point on so grand a level still leaves me scratching my head). We were also taught that the government here is doing many, many things to help protect the environment.

Most of the people in our group have commented on how delicious the myriad vegetable dishes have been at our meals. They have been - delicious. It's small wonder, as historically, the Chinese diet has been mainly vegetable based, since meat was too expensive to eat for anything other than special occasions and holidays. However, as the expression goes, "there are two sides of the coin": With China's economic boom, the growth in income and opportunity has created an increased demand for meat. Now, with that increased demand, China is experiencing what the US went through after WWII; farmland is disappearing, cities are growing, and there is new reliance on petro-chemical fertilizers to grow more crops in less space. All of this in a country already facing a clean water crisis.

I know how I am, dear ones, so I'll be good and rein in the ranting. I'll try to skirt around my soap box. Especially since, being a meat-eater myself, I can't really frown disapprovingly on an entire people who are only following in our footsteps and trying to vary the (add more?) protein to their meals. I'm just sayin'...

I'm writing this update from our Yangtze River cruise ship. Talk about welcoming in a new era! This cruise is the reason we took this trip. By 2009 the Three Gorges Dam will be completed and this valley, where people have lived for 5000 years, will be gone forever. Along with two species of fish [probably - due to almost-certain extinction]. This is the largest engineering project ever undertaken. I'm not certain what the financial cost is, but the government insists that it is worth it in both lives saved from flooding and the amount of "clean" energy produced. Both of these points are scientifically refutable.

As mentioned, there are two sides to a coin. I could launch into a philosophical argument about preserving culture and history and species, or - on the flip side - it's not hard to tow the party line and see that some of what they say is valid. You can probably guess which side I tend to favor...

But then again, yesterday I had a shot of some sort of medicinal wine made out of starfish and seahorses and lizards. Probably endangered. So there we go with that coin thing again.

Yesterday (in addition to drinking spirits culled from scaly creatures), we visited the Terracotta Warriors Museum. I should note that these were, in fact, "Terracotta Warriors" and not "fine terriers" as Zach kept calling them. Zach the celebrity - or didn't we tell you? I've never seen an episode of "Entourage" in my life, but I have to imagine that traveling with this curly-haired blonde boy is pretty much the same, minus the quality parties and free blow (wait, what? Hi Dad!). In many places (Xian and the museum, in particular) we haven't been able to walk 5 feet without people wanting to touch him, hold him or photograph him (often all three). We're trying to be as polite as possible, but for Zach's next tour, we're charging Eagles prices...

(The Warriors, by-the-way, are absolutely unbelievable. But this hour of internet is running me about $10 (US), and after 6 hours of travel, the gentle rocking of the cruise ship, and my little worried rant about the terrible international fallout we're going to face because 1 billion people are eating more "Babe," I'm beat.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Skiing The Great Wall of China

Chairman Mao once said, "If you haven't climbed the Great Wall, you haven't been a good Chinese." Well, I am happy to report that not only are we good Chinese, we are - in fact - great Chinese, since we climbed the Great Wall in the snow.

Northern Beijing City hovers somewhere in the mid-60's at this time of year. In the mountains where we climbed the Wall, it tends to be a little colder and less predictable. Now, I admit to knowing nothing about "Centigrade," but I'm fairly certain that today it was approximately 200 degrees below zero. Centrigrade. A natural fluke that can probably be described as less unpredictable and more global warming (or cooling, as the case may be).

We woke up at 6am (anyone who knows me well should note this, as of course it's unlikely to be repeated anytime soon...and only for love or jetlag). The air was crisp and cool but there was no indication we should've packed parkas. We boarded our bus at 7:30, sat in traffic for well over an hour (you think rush hour in LA is bad??), and were treated to what was surely a singularly rare opportunity to purchase jade from a government factory/store (hrmph. Zach spent the whole time repeating, "I want to goooooooo now. I want to goooooooo now" until Dan bought him a lollypop). After that we finally started the climb up the mountains. And then it began to snow.

I am pretty sure that time stopped when I finally saw the Great Wall peeking out over the mountain ridges - certainly, I stopped breathing. It's such a familiar site from movies, books and television I almost felt like I was having deja vu. Even after all of these centuries, it is still regal and formidable and huge (like all the rest of the Chinese dynastic architecture). Seeing it surrounded by soft snowfall was...unbelievable.

And really flipping cold. The vendors, no doubt, were thanking their lucky stars, as everyone on the bus loaded up on gloves and ponchos and winter hats - although we even noticed locals wearing new sweatshirts proclaiming, "I Climbed the Great Wall of China!" Poor Zach. We left the hotel with a fleece scarf and hat, a sweatshirt, a jacket and a windbreaker for him, and that child was still freezing. We bought him an extra pair of socks that we pulled over his shoes and pants, and a pair of child-sized gloves, but he just didn't get into the spirit of adventure... He made Dan carry him the entire time. (Thank goodness he's a Daddy's boy!). Trying to explain that we were visiting one of the 7 Wonders of the World, and that this 6000 km structure is the only man-made object visible from outer space didn't seem to placate him much. He was just "COOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLDDDDDD!" I'm sure he'll appreciate the photos when he's older.

By the time we left, the entire area was covered in white. Our guides told us that in the winter (when it's supposed to snow), the snow is much harder and thicker and it makes the roads impossible to drive. This snow was delicate and wasn't going to ice over, but it certainly made us feel like we were in the center of an ancient Asian snowglobe.

After lunch, still wet and freezing, we got to take a dragon the rain...across a lake. Then we toured the Summer Palace - so named because it's where the Imperial Family would go to escape the stifling summer heat. It was absolutely gorgeous, no question, but we wrapped Zach in plastic and headed back to the bus. I'm happy to announce that my Mandarin is now good enough that I was able to order a roasted sweet potato from a street vendor (!). This was the perfect thing to warm grown-up hands and baby feet. And it was delicious!

As a special excursion, we took Zach to "Kungfu Show" tonight. Zach's Kungfu is strong, but those guys were pretty badass. He didn't take his eyes off the action until he finally passed out during the final scene.

It's been a whirlwind, for sure. Yesterday we toured Tian'Amen Square, the Forbidden City, Hutong province and a local kindergarten. Speaking as someone who has visited Red Square - what this sister square was designed after - I have to say I was disappointed. Red Square was also cold (they got that part right), but aside from that... I dunno. Many of us agreed that it was very difficult to separate ourselves from prior associations of the square, and that made it a little hard to enjoy the experience. The famous portrait of Mao is, however, larger than life and pretty amazing in person.

As for The Forbidden City, well, one of my friends told me in advance that the thing to note is the scale of these buildings. Yes. Said to have 9,999 rooms, the palace is massive and extraordinary and unlike anything I have ever experienced. Everything is beautiful. All of China's ancient buildings are made out of wood, so the people were terrified of fire. As such, the buildings are topped with carved "water animals" (such as camels), to guard against their most dangerous enemy - symbolically, anyway. But in addition to the animal carvings, there are carvings for the Emperor, carvings for his wives, for the family as a whole, for the gods, and extra carvings for good luck and great aesthetics. The colors are so vibrant they look like candy.

Speaking of food! This is a foodie's Heaven or Hell, depending. I haven't gotten too crazy yet, but this morning I did try congee (watery rice pudding-ish), and a Hundred Day Egg. Remember the movie The Dark Crystal? That is what Hundred Day Eggs look like. The Dark Crystal, from The Dark Crystal. They're sort of a translucent, dark greenish-black color. And they taste like yucky fish. Good times!

I'm getting kicked off the computer now.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Nee-how, Ya’ll!

After 18 hours of traveling, I think I can say with some certainty that I have the Best Little Boy in the Whole Wide World. Zach handled the airport and the flight like a champ, finding a friend to play with and then sleeping for at least 6 of the 12 1/2 hours on the ride over. The rest of the time he played with the friend, watched cartoons on Dan's iPod (thank you, Apple and Kennedy-Marshall!), and played with his new "China toys." Zach even took customs in stride. By the time of our 45-minute van ride to the hotel, he finally lost it - but at that point no one could really blame him...

Landing in China was actually pretty cool as we were on, perhaps, the very first Air China flight to arrive at Terminal 3 - the new, dragon-shaped terminal built for the Beijing Olympics, which opened just 10 days before we got here. My first impression, upon entering the huge and immaculate building was, "My God, it's full of stars..." The lighting is designed in such a way that the ceiling appears to be a concave swath of stars across a bright sky. Pretty gorgeous. Everyone was taking pictures - even the pilots.

We got to our hotel at around 6:30 - 7 am. Zach was asleep and Dan was knackered, so the tour guide and I decided to go get breakfast together (the "tour" is currently just Peggy from LA and us. Everyone else will meet up at 21:00). When Melissa pointed to the 60 yuan Western breakfast being served in the hotel, I smiled as sweetly as possible and insisted that I had no interest in "white food for white people," so she happily marched me across the street, where a couple were cooking food over ramshackle stoves set up on the sidewalk in front of a small restaurant. Melissa ordered us huge, steaming bowls of wonton soup and what can best be described as savory bengeits or sugarless churros, and we went inside to devour our meal. YUM. I am very disappointed to admit that I cannot remember a single Mandarin word for any part of that meal.

Later in the day, showered and napped, we set off to figure out this city of 15 million people. Zach had been insisting we get him lemon cake since I so ungraciously offered his 3-hours-old treat to the stewardess in preparation for landing, so we stumbled our way through a pretty fun bakery experience and on to lunch (yes, Zach got cake before lunch. We're traveling. Whatever). Editor's note: When traveling to a country where the locals do not speak anything you have every studied, and cannot fall back on Latin derivatives or previous experience, do not leave your phrasebook in the hotel. I'm pretty sure we had lamb, but there are no guarantees. At one point I feebly tried to make a "baa" sound and then wrinkled my forehead, obviously asking, "Does the animal we're eating make this sound?" but no one in the crowd of 6+ servers that immediately gathered around our table had any idea what the clearly crazy American was on about. But the garlic-scallion dumplings, (crisp and hot, brought steaming to the table), were out of this world. The best part? One of the tables was actually a fish tank! There were two dozen or so goldfish happily swimming around underneath someone's lunch of, likely, fish. Kinda cool. Zach, of course, LOVED it. Meals have averaged about $2.50 per person.

We spent the rest of the day at the Lama Temple (as in "Dalai Lama" which, considering China/Tibet relations such as they are, continues to perplex me). So beautiful, with reds and turquoise and golds that I've never seen on buildings before. Everything is ornamented and carved, and the air is thick with several different kinds of incense. I probably could've spent the entire day there. As much as I marveled at the statues and the architecture, the locals seemed to be equally transfixed with the golden-haired boy who bowed to the Buddhas and gleefully shouted "Nee-how" to the smiling people. He has stood up quite well to being petted and photographed by strangers. Rock on, Little Camper.

I still can't believe we're here. Everything is covered in dust, the drivers are all on a mission to run over us, and the weather is pretty cold. But I absolutely cannot get enough.

The rest of the night continues to be on our own, and then we begin the tour in earnest, starting at 8:30am (5pm? LA time).

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Write Here. Write Now.

Welcome to my blog! Some of my posts will be professional, some will be personal stories. I hope they all will be entertaining...