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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Beijing, May 2011

After a two hour drive from Mutianyu, we arrived at The Opposite House in an area of Beijing called Sanlitun. The Opposite House is Building #1 in the Village. First, the checked into the hotel (no front desk, just couches where they greeted us and signed us in) then were escorted to an incredible room of wood and glass. We were in room 623, known as Studio 95, one of the larger rooms. 

The Opposite House

In addition to the free wireless, we also had free snacks, beer, and sodas in the mini-fridge. The tub was also wooden and huge. The shower was also wooden, with a wooden floor that the water just fell though the cracks. The water came down from the ceiling like rain. All in all, it was a very spa-like feel. 



We had welcome gifts of cupcakes (one green tea, the other carrot cake (I think). After showers, we dressed in light cotton bathrobes and had tea and espresso from the espresso machine when there came a knock on the door. Someone was there with a bottle of champagne and a card that said “Happy Birthday Smita.” It turns out that the manager of the hotel was a friend of a Habitat employee we met in Shanghai, and she had emailed him that it was Smita's birthday after she realized we would be staying at his hotel.

We got into real clothes and walked down the street to check out the neighborhood. There was bar after bar after bar, along with a huge mall called 3.3. The largest Adidas store in the world was also down the street. The atmosphere was very party like, and the streets were full. 
Packed street with food market behind the hotel
Food vendors

We had fried noodles and pork, beef noodles, and dumplings and turnip cakes for dinner. I found the variety of foods to be much better in Beijing than Shanghai, with many more flavors here. 

After dinner, we looked at the menus of a few more restaurants then found that the street behind our hotel had a huge night market with all kinds of foods. People were eating and drinking everywhere in the street. Most interesting was a bowl of live larvae of some kind that the vendor would throw over the fire, cooking them alive. We found out later these were silkworms. Or at least that's what a sign said... 

One of the foods being vended. Silkworms? 
Beijing Day 2

After a very very hectic week where we rushed from place to place, it was really good to have a relaxing morning. We drank our teas and espressos, and had a leisurely pace before going down to breakfast. I had a Vietnamese pork omelet with mint, some dumplings, and fruit.

After breakfast, we took a cab to Tian'an Men Square. I didn't realize before that Chairman Mao proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China at one end of the square (the Ming Dynasty gate) and that the focal point of it on the other side of the open expanse is his mausoleum. On one side is the Great Hall of the People, where the legislature meets, and on the other is the China National Museum.

Tian'an Men Square
Great Hall of the People

Chairman Mao's Mausoleum

After leaving the square, we walked along side the Ming dynasty gate into one of the alleyways known as hutongs, first heading north on Nan Chizi Dajie. We stopped to by a candied apple snack from a street vendor to taste. It was basically a stick with candied crab apples on it.  We walked to the Forbidden Cities' east gate and took a cart to the south gate so Smita could get a feel for the Forbidden City.
At the Forbidden City

We didn't go in this time, but took the cart back to the east gate where we continued our walk through the hutongs, through the narrow Pudu Si Xi Xiang where we saw the Mahakala Temple (Pudu Si).

Mahakala Temple (Pudu Si)

Then, we headed back south to Changhe Pu park, which was very beautiful.

We stopped for snacks in another little park by Da Tian Shui Jing Hutong. This hutong had been one of our major destinations because it used to feature tiny restaurants and noodles. Evidently, these are now all gone and have been replaced with cheap souvenir shops. We did find great food eventually, however, on the large pedestrian street Wanfujing Dajie.
Wanfujing Dajie

We had been looking for Mongolian Hotpots, and found one there which is part of a chain that was over 100 years old which catered to Muslims. Basically, the hot pot was boiling water and ginger kept very hot by coals in the center (see picture below). They brought us thinly sliced lamb, beef, and chicken as well as mushrooms, tofu, greens, and vermicelli to cook. You then dipped it in a peanut sauce in which we added scallions and cilantro, as well as a hot sauce. It was extremely good.

Hotpot ingredients we ordered


Near Wangfujing Dajie

Eating snake
I didn't try the pigeon

We got back to the room for some relaxation time before meeting a colleague who lives in Beijing for dinner. While I really could have skipped dinner after the late lunch, it was an amazing meal-- YunNan cuisine at a place called Middle 8th near our hotel. I had never had YunNan, but it was one of the best meals I had enjoyed in China: Tilapia with lemongrass, bamboo shoots with red chili, roasted eggplant with cheese, YunNan fried rice, a traditional pancake, and spicy beef with bitter melon. After dinner, we rode around to see the city at night.

Beijing Day 3

The next morning, Smita left for the airport. I had another day. After breakfast, I spoke with the hotel manager who had sent us the champagne to thank him. I told him that I planned to go to the “Temple of Heaven” that day, and he recommended going to the Lama Temple as well. I took a cab to Yonghe Gong, the Lama Temple  a “working lamasery.”  This was a beautiful Tibetan temple complex constructed in the 1700s. There were many stunning Buddhas and other statues. Many worshippers were burning incense and kneeling and praying in each Hall, and occasionally a monk would be chanting prayers. The most memorable Buddha was a 55 foot tall one carved from a single block of sandalwood. Scenes from Yonghe Gong:

Here I was chanting whatever it is you are supposed to chant as you make the scroll turn

When I left Lama Temple, I walked through one of side streets to buy the “plump Buddha” Milefo (an incarnation of Maitreya, the “future Buddha”) to add to my collection of religious imagery. This Buddha was in the first hall of Lama Temple. 

From Yonghe Gong, I took the subway to “The Temple of Heaven” (line 5 south to Tian Tan Dong Men). I found the subway easy to navigate. The signs were clear, and there were even English voice overs.

The Temple of Heaven is actually not a Temple at all, but rather an altar complex used by the ancient Emperors to pray and make sacrifices. It's Chinese name is Tian Tan, which is better translated as “Altar of Heaven.” The main building that dominates the complex is Qinian Dian, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The building is made of wood, and was constructed without a single nail. It has become a symbol of Beijing. In one exhibit, there were pictures of it with historical figures and political leaders such as Richard Nixon, Ho Chi Min, and even the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, or Qinian Dian
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests sets atop a three-tiered marble platform, featuring carvings of clouds, phoenixes, and dragons.





The entire complex is huge, with many different buildings that each played a role in the elaborate ceremony surrounding the Emperor's visit to intervene with the gods. There are many, many cypresses on the grounds, as well as gardens. So in addition to being a place for tourists, Tian Tan is now a place for old and young to exercise and play. It's a popular place for Tai Chi. Also, what I thought was a playground for kids was like a giant exercise ground for adults, with men using bars for pull-ups and gymnastic-like moves.

Gathering in the park to play cards

Heading back to Sanlitun, I took the subway line 5 to line 2, getting off at Dong Si Shi Tiao station, where I walked the rest of the way to the hotel. It was a nice walk, adding to the many miles I had walked all day. As I passed the Workers Stadium, they were opening the gates for the Beijing team's soccer game. There were hundreds of people in green jerseys for the team, so I decided that I needed one as well.

 That night, after freshening up and resting in the awesome room for a bit, I explored Sanlitun, walking around the neighborhood. For dinner, I decided to have Hunan cuisine at Karaiya Spice House as I had not had it before. It was definitely spicy, but very tasty. I had mushrooms, a chicken appetizer, and beef. There was enough food for two, and I wished Smita was still there to have some. It was a great meal to end the trip. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Great Wall -- Mutianyu

As I had been to the Great Wall at Badaling the last time I was in Beijing, this time I wanted to check out another part. Mutianyu is further away and more complicated to get to, so there are not nearly as many tourists. As the airport was somewhat on the way, we decided we would go straight from the airport to Mutianyu. The problem, however, was that I remembered that the cab drivers spoke no English whatsoever and we needed to communicate that we wanted him to drive us an hour from the airport to Mutianyu, wait for us until we were done, then drive us a couple of hours back to Beijing. On  the plane, I had the idea of writing down exactly what I wanted to tell him, and I had the flight attendants on China Eastern write it in Chinese.

When we showed him the instructions, he still seemed a little confused, but when he gave me the price, which was about what we thought that would cost, I figured he understood what we wanted to do. We drove off uncertain, however, but we got into the cab on blind faith. I was relieved to see signs for Mutianyu, and when we got there, he gave us his cell phone number so we could call him when we were done. I guess he figured since he had all of our luggage, we wouldn't desert him. And since he didn't have the 800 Yuan from us, he didn't desert us either.

We were on the wall for several hours. We took a chairlift up the mountain and walked 2.5 kilometers to take another ski lift down. The weather was nice, and the scenery was amazing. The wall seems to accentuate nature rather than detract from it. There were not that many people out. At points, we were the only ones. It was very peaceful and calm.

Click on the title of this post to see all my my Great Wall--Mutianyu pictures. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Shanghai, May 2011

I left Atlanta on Friday, May 20, for the Habitat For Humanity Build in Pinghu, China—about an hour and a half out of Shanghai. The last time, I went on a direct from Detroit to Shanghai, but this time, I was taking the slow boat to China-- Atlanta to Portland, OR to  Narita, Japan, to Shanhai. It was over 24 hours of travel, but finally we arrived.

Once again, I was at the Marriott Changfeng Park. Somehow, I missed the bar on the top floor the last time. Of course, this crowd found it right away, so the first night found me drinking a glass of wine that cost 101 Yuan on the top of the hotel. Smita and I found that we outlasted everyone else and we, of course, were not surprised.

The view from my room - 2020 

The next morning I got up early for breakfast. Afterwards, I met with a tailor to pick out fabrics and get measured for new clothes. I ended up ordering a new tuxedo, a new suit, a new winter overcoat, and two shirts. I was very excited about my custom made purchases. 

Afterwards, I went on a little walk from the hotel with Mae and Cheryl to find some Absolut. We were successful! 

After a big lunch and Habitat Orientation, we left to explore Shanghai a bit. We went to the Shanghai Museum, where I visited exhibits featuring jades, coins, pottery, ceramics and furniture. Some of the pottery was over 5000 years old. 

Our tour guide, Grace, promised to show us a "Salmon Suit" in the museum. She seemed very excited about it:

Suite made from salmon skin

The evening consisted of a dinner cruise down the river where we got to see the old West Bank and the Bund and the very modern, new East Bank as we sailed down the Huangpu River. It was a spectacular skyline.

Dinner cruise on the Pu Jiang You Lan

Skyline from the Bund, before the dinner cruise
Shanghai Skyline from the Boat
Oriental Pearl Tower in the Pudong District

The build in Pinghu was great. The first day was rainy, but really just an occasional mist. It was actually good weather to build in, as it didn't get too hot. Mostly, I laid brick each day, with the walls going up slowly but surely. 

Road we walked everyday to our build site
Me at work

I spent a lot of time on the left wall, across from a building housing a huge, smelly pig

The 'home partner' on the house I was building, sporting his Delta wings
Neighbors and kids in the Pinghu at the build

Each day, we would have lunch brought to us in the neighbor's house. Lunches weren't often the best, though I liked the veggies typically and the meatball we had one day. Our team was “Team 3” aka “The Flying Dragons.” 

Outside the neighbor's house where we ate; everyone was drying their wheat

"Flying Dragson" at lunch
Our typical lunch on the build site. 

Monday and Tuesday nights we ate at restaurants I had visited the previous time. The Tuesday night restaurant, South Beauty, was my favorite of the Shanghai restaurants. It was Sichuan style. A lot of the other meals in Shanghai seemed to be very similar, with the same kinds of food. It was good, but it didn't bowl me over.  

Outside South Beauty

South Beauty's Lazy Susan -- cold course
One of the really tasty South Beauty entrees

Over the course of the week, there were many many many “Lazy Susans” spinning around. Typically, the servers would bring out several 'cold course' dishes. Later, hot entrees would come out. Food basically just kept coming until finally, rice would show up. Rice was typically served last as it was seen as a cheap filler, and to serve it earlier would seem as if they wanted to fill the guest with something cheap. Some of the foods did stand out just because they were different. I had abalone for the first time (and had it several times.) My new friends on the build started calling it “Flan Fish.” 

The oft served abalone, or as we dubbed it "flan fish."

On the last day of the build, we had a ceremony with the homeowners and neighbors at the local kindergarten. Afterwards, the kids came out and presented us with pictures they had drawn. We said “Hello Little Friends” in Chinese which delighted them. 

Children at the school
Our home partner receiving his gifts

The home partners were all men who had never married as they were to poor and had been living in substandard conditions. They were very grateful for our work and were touched by the closing ceremony. 

Each night of the build, I would find myself at the 33rd floor at Panorama, where three Filipino girls sang and played every evening – The Panorama Angels. The best part is that they would open up the floor to us to sing or even play. One night, I was on keyboard singing while two others in our group were on bongos and guitar. We kind of took over the band. It was fun to 'perform' each night. 

Panorama Angels
Taking over the show...
After the build, we traveled to Suzhou, a city not far from Shanghai. It is known for its gardens and its canals. In the morning, we visited one of the gardens, known as "The Humble Administrators Garden."

After the gardens, boarded boats to roam through the canals of this city known as "The Venice of the East."

After the canals, we visited the "Suzhou No. 1 Silk Factory" where we could either shop or see the factory-run museum. I opted for the museum. It was quite educational:

Here, silkworms feed on mulberry leaves before spinning their cocoons:

Cocoons, with the silkworm larvae inside
After the cocoons are spun, some of them are harvested with the larvae killed and the cocoon is used for silk. The ones not killed are used to reproduce to keep the industry sustainable. Those used for silk are sorted to make sure there is only one larvae inside and that it is of good quality. If there are more than one, the silk cannot be unspooled into a thread. However, it can still be used for other things, such as inside duvets. 

The cocoons are "unspun" into silk thread
That night, we had dinner at Chao Fu restaurant before going to the acrobatic show, ERA. 

The next day, I had free time in the morning to have my third fitting of my tailored clothes. (The second fitting had been after dinner at Kakadu (an Australian barbecue) two nights before.) We had lunch at the awesome dim sum place I had eaten at in March before having the entire afternoon to shop at Yuyuan Market. I bought yet another tea set.

Me in Yuyuan with Chris Pate

That night we had our closing dinner before we all departed the next day, but not without another rousing night at Panorama.

"Flying Dragons" at the Closing Dinner
Smita and I left Shanghai on Saturday morning heading to Beijing. We left the Marriott Changfeng Park with the rest of the large group heading back to the States. We got off with them at the international terminal at Shanghai-Pudong airport, grabbed our bags, and said our goodbyes as they went in and we were on our own for the first time in a week. We easily our way to the domestic terminal, and were soon off to Beijing.

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