Wednesday, May 21, 2003

China Unmasked 8

Hello My Friends,

Well I truly feel like a diplomat now.

Monday, I went to the Forbidden City. Opted not to get a tourguide and used my guidebook and the signs to get around. Again, there were not very many people and I had lots of time to marvel, take photos, sit down and wander aimlessly wishing I had a guide to tell me what was what. The place is huge (so huge it has a Starbucks inside - seriously - and yes, I think that should be forbidden) and, if you had to be the Emperor of China and holed up somewhere, it was not a bad place to be holed up.

Same for the Summer Palace. Went Tuesday sans guide and wandered around in temples and gardens and along the lake. Saw a boat made of marble and the grand stage where Emperess Dowager Cixi used to hang out and watch the opera. I'd tell you more about her if I could but...

Tried to go to one last temple but it was closed. Turned out to be good as I then went to arrange a tour to the Great Wall and spent an hour walking up and down Jianguomen Beidajie like a Macau hooker, trying to get a cash advance on the visa to pay for the tour and the hotel. Lordy.

Only one section of the Great Wall is open (Badaling) and police or local people prevent you from getting to the others. So I went today with the only option available to me - a private driver and private tour guide! It was really too much. But the guide was really friendly. She was the agent who set up the trip and usually she doesn't lead tours but she called some guides in their early 20s and their parents wouldn't let them do it. She is in her 50s and said even her mother-in-law asked her, "Aren't you scared of the girl who has been traveling all over China?", to which she replied, "Well, she's not scared of me and I'm from Beijing." And thus, an aliance was born.

We were two of very few tourists on the Wall. It was great, indeed. We spent 3 hours and were able to walk along two different sections. I took far too many pictures which I will have to edit then share. The wall follows the mountain like a spine or a snake laying across the top. It is pretty amazing to see.

After that we went to the Ming Tombs and even though they were only open for 10 more minutes, the ding dong people sold us a ticket then started closing everything. Sigh. I had told the guide while we were on the wall that I felt like a diplomat but the only thing I was missing was the secret service. Ask and ye shall receive. At the tombs... because we were supposed to be heading to the exit, not wandering around, two uniformed security guards started following us. The guide told me, "here are the guards just for you". It was funny.

Oh and the other day, I visited the Lionbridge office in Beijing (close to where I'm staying). The site manager was not there but everyone was really nice and they showed me around and I stayed there almost an hour talking with people. Very cool.

I will meet the Germans again for dinner tonight and then run home to pack as I found out my flight time changed and now I must leave tomorrow morning at 9:00. I guess this means no pickled corpse of Chairman Mao for me. ;(

Should be home Thursday afternoon and will start downloading all the pictures. After laundry. Because, lordy lordy, laundry really needs to be the first thing on my list.

See you soon!


Sunday, May 18, 2003

China Unmasked 7

Well, I am in Beijing on the last leg of my journey... hard to believe it's almost over.

I spent the last two days in Xi'an. "In defense of SARS" many things were closed and there were no organized tours (to help you see the spread out sites) so I had to take a bus to the Terracotta Warriors and get myself another private tourguide (a tourguide for money, do what you want me to do).

While there are usually 20,000 visitors to the site per day during this time of year, I counted 6 plus myself. Now I know what it must be like to be a foreign dignitary and have sites closed down so you can tour them alone. Anyway, there are 3 pits of warriors with the first one being most impressive. 6000 warriors in total, though only 2000 are uncovered right now. They are mostly destroyed and a team of 20 archeologists puts them together by site... taking 6 months for each one. Should be finished up in the next 40 years. They are very detailed with different facial expressions, uniforms and fingernails (well they have fingernails that is). Wild.

Oooh, plus, the poor dudes who put the warriors in the pit. Because the emperor wanted it to be a secret, they had to get shut in with the statues when it was all closed up. As did the concubines that didn't bear any children, which is I'm not sure how many out of the 3000 concubines homie had. 3000! Lordy.

Later, I putzed around in Xi'an proper, which has an excessive number of clothing stores and an absolutely unacceptable number of young girls wearing blue eyeshadow.

While there I went to Dayan Ta (Big Goose Pagoda). It was cool and I climbed to the top but I think I'm getting templed out. I also stumbled into this I don't know what but ended up walking down two long, dark, cold hallways which at times were guarded by statues of men with multiple arms, holding snakes and grimacing (and of course sort of in the dark so I started freaking out... too many horror movies). At the end was I think the crypt of Xuan Zang, this monk who translated all these scriptures he brought from India, but I could be makin' it up. I just know there was money and cigarettes thrown in front of it, it was guarded by lions and I was convinced the gates would close and no one would hear me scream (and cue music). It was spooky so I left but I still have no idea what it was.

In the evening I went into the Muslim quarter to walk around and get dinner. I was feeling like a dork because I ate breakfast at McDonalds and lunch at KFC (all sad but true) and stopped chosing food at a Chinese restaurant the day before because I saw "nutritious beef penis" on the menu and was afraid I might point to it by accident. Moving on.

Outside the restaurant, people were grilling up, what I beleive was lamb and possibly beef. I looked at the menu, which had English on it, and pointed to "sweet smelling and crispy chicken" thinking I would get some kabob-like thing. As it was hard enough to explain that "yes I wanted the chicken" and "yes I wanted rice, but only one, yes both but one of each" I didn't think I could ask how the chicken was prepared. Too bad. Crispy = dry, almost to the point of being unrecognizable if it wasn't for the head which remained on the plate. This is why I should only eat at places where you can point at a picture. I will never mock Denny's again.

This morning I flew into Beijing, went to an antique market and then wandered over to Tiananmen Square and watched people fly kites for awhile. I am getting good and lollygagging around. This way I will be able to leap into action when I am home.

Tomorrow night, I will meet the Germans from Yangshuo for dinner and try to figure out if the Great Wall is closed, which is what I hear but that makes no sense. Though, that doesn't mean it isn't true.

Since the internet is in the hotel, I should be able to check in once again before I head for home in a few days.

See most of you soon!


Tuesday, May 6, 2003

China Unmasked 6: Breakin' the Law

Hello My Friends!

I am back here in the bubble that is the Clifford Estates in Panyu and I am fine.

The last week... the shortened May holiday... I've been with Mary Kay in Yangshuo, just south of Guilin and the place that is always painted by artists. I can certainly see why.

There are a few rivers which intersect and cross through fields of mostly rice. Surrounding them are mountains that don't stick together so much in a range but seem to pop out of the ground individually like fingers reaching towards the sky. I named one, "Kristian flips off the Chinese government".

The 'Mountain Retreat' where we were staying was absolutely fantastic. Tucked away from the tourist area of Yangshou, we could sit out in front of the building alongside the river and watch the bamboo rafts float by. Most excellent.

So, we arrived Tuesday night and spent Wednesday hiking around the area then running into town for some shopping and food. Rumor had it that the town would soon be closed. Hmmm... I sense a trend.

The next day we took a bus to the town of Fuli (said 3 times like Fubu... and which we decided stood for 'for us lucky individuals') which was having a market. Lots of chickens in baskets, piles of medicinal twigs and berries and plastic shoes. Mary Kay bought a basket used for catching fish which made everyone think she was crazy. Could have also been the matching hat she bought.

Friday morning, we had made arrangements with a guide named George to go kayaking on the Lijiang river. He recommended we meet at 8:00 before people from the government were around. We thought he was kidding.

We take a bus into Fuli (okay once was nice but...) and go sit in someone's shop while he goes running by with the kayaks. He whistles to us and then tells us to put on the life vests as quickly as possible and paddle to the middle of the river... the government is here but temporarily distracted. Ah! Once we were on our way, it was great. There was hardly any traffic on the river (being that it was illegal to be there) and we half paddled and half floated for about 3 hours. It rained on us near the end of the trip but it was a warm rain. The worst part about it was that it made the streets of Puyi (our destination) quite muddy and since I was wearing flip flops, I flicked so much mud on the back of my legs it was nasty. I don't think it was good Calistoga type mud.

Feeling victorious, we take a bus, then cab back to the Mt. Retreat. At the turnoff, there are police in face masks and they prevent us from making the turn. It seems that all tourists are being kicked out of their hotels (after they've donated their money to the failing airline industry by flying into town...oh in Guilin, they look at you with some crazy camera to try and measure you body temperature I guess to see if you have a fever). We are not allowed to go and collect our things, we are told that someone from the hotel will pack them up and drive them out to us. Muddy. At the side of the road. With nowhere else to go. We begin minor flipping out. We try to convince one cop to escort us in, watch us pack, then escort us out. No go.

While we wait at the side of the road and try to stay calm and consider our options, two of the staff come down on the backs of motorcycles and the owner comes riding down on his bike. He is an American guy who has been in China for the last 8 or 10 years. This is very good. He talks to each cop. Government regulations, what can you do... they will lose face if they let us in. He explains, he will lose face if his guests can't come back, plus we haven't paid. Fine. We can go in, but must be out by 3:00. It is almost 2.

As we walk back with him, he explains that we will think of something else. Maybe we can stay in the villages with the staff from the retreat. Maybe we can start leaving when they arrive and then arrive when they leave. Also, he mentions, there are about 40 striking farmers at the retreat because they built a watershed on what the farmer's claim in their land. The gov't told the retreat to pay 5000 yuan (about $600) which they did but the farmers aren't satisfied.

We get back, there are yelling farmers everywhere, health people inside negotiating whether or not we have to leave. While we are taking showers, half packing just in case and talking to the other guests, the farmers go up to the watershed and start to throw tiles off the roof and take it apart and a man comes in wearing a lab coat, mask and surgical hat with full on Ghostbusters gear to spray the retreat. The farmers leave, the Ghostbuster leaves and we are allowed to stay... however, we can not leave the area because we are supposed to be gone and once outside, will not be able to come back in.

The next few days we go hiking up a mountain but miss the correct path and when it starts raining must turn around again so we don't slip slide to our doom. We meet a German couple living in Beijing and decide to go hiking with them on Monday.

On that 4 hour hike, we cross a bridge and realize that if we continue up this road we will run into a police blockade which is no good since we shouldn't even be in here and technically are breakin' the law, breakin' the law (duh da). We turn back and there are now people at the bridge who weren't there before. They don't know that we are going back to were we came from, they think we are entering for the first time.

A man in a yellow shirt starts yelling hello, waving that we can't go across and standing in front of us to block us. We say out loud (mighty convinient to be able to make your plans out loud) pretend like you don't understand and keep walking. He follows us for a bit and since we are not sure who he is or who he may call... we get off the main road and walk back through the rice fields, jumping over streams and going on a path up and over another mountain. Lordy.

The night before we leave, we find out our flight has been cancelled. We reschedule to a 3:00 flight with the airline, which we find out when we arrive at the airport, does not exist. The only flight to Guangzhou that day has left and Mary Kay needed to be back at school this morning.

We consider our options (train 13 hours arrives next morning, bus 9 hours arrives next morning, flight to Hong Kong arrives that night but no more ferry service to Guangzhou). In the end, we pay $200 US for a taxi to drive us from Gulin to Guangzhou (kind of like SF to LA). We will be refunded our flight money so it will only be $25 more each and certainly cheaper than a night in Hong Kong.

And here we are. Back at the Clifford Estates for a few days of laying low. So, I'm off to buy some food and do some laundry.

Sorry to have been out of touch for so long but it's hard to email when you're runnin' from the man.