2008년 2월 19일 화요일

Beijing Part II - Sights, Sounds and Food

We declined to take a full tour-guided package because we wanted to do things in our own time. Heather lived in China before and speaks fluent Chinese, so we were free to make our own choices for the whole time we were there. If you get to travel with someone who knows the local language, it's infinitely more convenient.

We woke up early to head out to the Great Wall, but got a bit confused at the bus station. A strange man told us in Chinese that he could take us there and back for about $40 each. He said he'd wait at the bottom of the mountain until we'd finished sightseeing and then take us home. After Heather told me that, we decided that on a scale of 1 to 10 for trustworthiness, he was about a 2. So we decided to leave it for the time being and investigate further. Because we had freedom to choose what to do, we left and decided to see the Forbidden City instead. This photo is of Tiananmen Square, which is directly opposite. The square itself is large, but not as large as I had previously imagined.

In front of the Forbidden City, security is a little tighter. These soldiers were marching up and down the sidewalk. Others were standing and looking ahead sternly. I would have had a photo taken with them if I was game enough.

And here is the quintessential tourist's Beijing photo. Upon arriving in front of the Forbidden City I felt like I had made a small pilgrimage to a noteworthy corner of the globe.
Crowds constantly poured in through the gates.

The Forbidden City itself is huge. Heather told me there were once 999 rooms. Once upon a time the emperor of China was confined to living here and unable to leave. It was named the Forbidden City because no one was allowed to enter without the emperor's permission. The name Beijing means 'Northern Capital'.

The grounds consist of many temple-like structures and courtyards that lead into each other. The entire construction itself was rebuilt and extended over hundreds of years by the various dynastic kings and tyrants. If you walk at a reasonable pace, it takes you over an hour to walk from one side to the other.

This is the largest stone carving in the palace and consisted of water and dragons. It was carved in another city a long time ago and was incredibly heavy. The workers waited until the roads became icy in winter and transported it to Beijing by sliding it with ropes.

At the end of the Forbidden City you are greeted with the sight of a temple off in the distance. A lot of the architecture in the area emphasises harmony and symmetry. The grounds themselves were very spaced out and large. I admit that we did get a little bored after walking for a couple of hours.

This defensive moat runs around the whole palace. It's 52 metres wide and 6 metres deep. Because we visited in the middle of winter, the entire thing was frozen over. I'm still not used to seeing so much ice outdoors.

After a long walk around the palace grounds we decided to track down this famous Peking duck restaurant. It's name is Quan Ju De and it's one of the most well known restaurants in Beijing. During Kim Jong Il's last state visit to Beijing in 2006 he wanted to eat at this restaurant. Apparently he requested to the management that they close the restaurant to the public on that particular day. The restaurant management refused, saying they had other customers to attend to. Mildly disappointed, but without his normal dictatorial powers, he came anyway. After that incident the restaurant's popularity soared.

The restaurant is quite large and on multiple floors. I'd estimate there were around 100 staff working on the lunch shift. The restaurant has been running continuously since its opening in 1864 during the Qing dynasty. I was eager to find out why.

In China they don't translate the menus as frequently as they do in Korea and Japan. But at this restaurant they did have some basic translations. I decided to let Heather order and she wisely chose the Peking duck.

There are no real words to describe how good this duck is. The skin is light and slightly crispy. The oil is flavoured with tea and herbs making it heavy yet somehow light in texture. The meat itself is full of flavours that are incredibly balanced and difficult to describe. It's like eating the finest wine that happens to be a piece of duck. I couldn't help but chew each bite slowly. You must try it for yourself.

The normal way to eat it is to wrap it up in special pastry with sauce and spring onion. The sauce is amazing too. It's slightly tangy and sweet, not overpowering, but with enough kick to complement the duck perfectly. I give this dish a 9.5 out of 10 (I've never given a 10 before).

The service was also excellent. Staff were always available and friendly. In the toilets there was a waiter whose job it was to welcome you to the toilet and after you'd washed your hands, to hand you a piece of paper towel using a pair of tongs.

In this video a waiter is wrapping up a piece of duck for Heather. At the end of the meal, upon seeing the extent of our satisfaction, the waitering staff gave us a certificate informing us that we had just consumed the 565,306th duck ever served. I'm not particularly sure how accurate that could possibly be, but it certainly was a nice gesture.

After sitting for a while in Quan Ju De and reflecting on how amazing the duck was, we decided to venture out. In the nearby vicinity was a very crowded street lined with carnival-type stalls where people could play games and win prizes. I'm guessing it was so crowded because of the festive season.

Crowds in Beijing are crowds indeed. You feel like you're part of a river of humanity when you're stuck in one. Which is fine if you choose to follow the path that the river wants to follow, but if you want to stop and look at something or turn back, the river will put up some formidable resistance. I shot this video while walking in the middle of the street.

Plenty of people were playing the various games which were similar to your standard 'throw something into something and win' type affair. But there was something strange about the prizes. Those Garfield faces just didn't look quite right.

After that we turned a corner and headed into a more traditional street market. Here you could barter with the locals and pick up things like carved ornaments or pictures of Chairman Mao. In China it's still common to bargain at virtually every street stall. If the vendor knows you are from overseas, they'll typically inflate the price at least 3 times. I asked for the price of a shirt and a vendor first told me 120 yuan (about $15). As we started to walk away, he shouted lower and lower prices at us for every step we took. Eventually we turned back when he offered it for 25 yuan.

This man was rather interesting. He was blowing soft candy into different shapes like a glass blower. He could make rats, dogs and different vegetable shapes.

We turned down an alley and found this little place, appropriately named because it was tucked away where the crowds were noticeably thinner. We ventured in to find some bottled water.

This was rather curious. They offered eggs for sale at a reasonable price, but for about half that, you could buy accidentally-cracked eggs. What a bargain.

While upmarket bars and hotels have prices similar to what you find in Western cities, supermarket produce is incredibly cheap. These fruitboxes cost 1.2 CNY each. You divide that number by 8 to get the approximate US dollar conversion. Cans of Tsingtao beer were only 27 cents.

Ten US dollars will get you one of these, 5 litres of peanut oil. Heart bypass surgery may cost a little more.

When we got back to the hotel after the day's events, I took out my money to examine it. I like using strange currencies because it feels like I'm using Monopoly money. In China, the highest banknote is 100 CNY, which is about $14. Everytime you use one of these, the receiver will hold it up to the light and examine it without exception. In hotels and department stores they have special scanners to check them. What I found interesting about the other denominations was that some of them were nice and clean while others were quite the opposite. I received a 1 CNY note that looked like it had been in a homeless man's sock for a year. I used it as quickly as I could. You can enlarge the photo, if you want.

Those coins are 1 mao each, which is equivalent to 1.4 US cents. Those two candy bars I got from Quiet Mart and were also a little intriguing. Although both were sealed, if you held them it soon became apparent that one was less than half the size of the other. I guess the quality control department was a little sleepy. And that bracelet at the top I bargained for in the markets and got for less than a dollar.

This ice-skating rink was part of the shopping complex attached to our hotel. It was fairly cheap so we decided to give it a go. Some of those little children were really good .

Heather had only been skating once in her life, so she was a little awkward. She eventually got the hang of it, although it just looked like she was walking on a slippery floor. She's a little shy about being on the blog and sometimes frowns at me for putting her photos up. If only she knew how many fans she had...

Ok, I know I'm going to get in trouble for this, but I can't resist. Here's a video of Heather skating. See what I do for you guys?

We saw these in WangFuJing when we returned for a second visit. They're scorpions and seahorses on skewers that can be fried and eaten. They also had crickets on skewers. I still say peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are stranger though.

In a restaurant we ate at later that night, they had fresh seafood. I asked Heather to put out her hand to get some scale in this picture. Those big white things are giant cockles.

Fried rice in China is superb. In order to get the right flavour, the wok needs to be very hot so it can be fried quickly with a slightly smokey taste. In Korea they prefer to use cooler frying pans and short-grain rice, so it tastes different. It was nice to enjoy the traditional style again.

These somewhat humourous rules near the hotel greet you before you use the escalator to go down. You see the same rules if you use the escalator to come up. It may have been more efficient to print one larger sticker with all the rules on them instead.

Oh well.

Part III coming soon!

2008년 2월 14일 목요일

Beijing Part I - A City of Skyscrapers

Beijing Part I - A City of Skyscrapers

I had been wanting to visit China for a long time and the chance finally arrived when we had a long weekend last week. We toured at our own pace and enjoyed it a lot. Although we were only there for 3 nights, we fit a lot of things in and came back feeling very good about it.

Gimhae Airport, Busan's international airport, recently constructed a brand new international terminal which we hadn't seen. It's a lot bigger and nicer looking than the last one. We took off from the airport in the afternoon and Heather was nice as always and let me sit next to the window. I like looking at clouds.

Although it's become fashionable to complain about aeroplane food these days, I always look forward to receiving my tray. This is the lunch provided by Asiana Airlines, bulgogi and rice with sides. I like how everything always comes in a packet and take pleasure in finishing every piece of food and then folding up the wrappers neatly. The air hostess seemed particularly delighted that I had left my tray so clean. Heather was noticeably less amazed.

Touching down at Beijing Airport I squinted out of the windows to get my first look at the capital. A Samsung billboard greeted us on the tarmac, which was an interesting reminder that we weren't too far from home. It was about a 2 hour journey.

We caught the airport limousine bus to our hotel after a short while. Some of the expressways in the city are very wide and the first things I noticed were the size and differing architecture in the buildings. That and the number of large birdnests I could see in the trees. I counted more than twenty on the way in.

The apartment blocks are similar to the ones in Korea, just a lot taller. When I see buildings like this I think back to the tallest building in Adelaide, the Santos building, which has only 27 floors. Many of the apartment blocks in China are more than double that.

This mysterious building near our hotel was still under construction. I'm no engineering expert but it looks like they need another column or something. I guess someone knows what they're doing.

This is the China World Trade Center Tower 3, which is also still under construction. It's due to be completed before the Olympics and will be the tallest building in Beijing at 330 metres. Inside there are going to be 30 elevators and a hotel lobby on the 71st floor. Right now it looks like a giant dalek.

This is the view from our hotel window, which was within the surrounds of the WTC complex. There were quite a few hotels in the area and most seemed to have been built within the past decade.

Our hotel was the Traders Hotel in Guomao which was very nice. We took a package to Beijing that included airfares and accommodation for three nights for $700 each. Originally the price was $500 but then the travel agent mysteriously inflated the price. It was still a good deal though. I'd recommend this hotel to anyone who can get a decent price because it was very comfortable and centrally located.

Our room, which was cosy enough. Flicking through the channels of Beijing TV, I found it surprisingly similar to that in Korea. What I like most about staying in hotels is how you leave the room messy and come back later in the day with everything neat and tidy. If I lived that way for a while I'd turn into a brat.

I also like taking little bottles of shampoo and soap home with me. When I was young I used to collect 'packeted things', which were defined as anything small that was packaged and unopened. I had a couple of hundred items from various places.

After we freshened up a little, we headed for the Beijing subway to have a look around the city. All around Beijing now, signs of the upcoming Olympics are very obvious. The city feels like it's undergoing change and it would really be exciting to come back when the games start.

A view of Guomao subway station. Although Beijing is so large, it has about the same number of subway stations as Busan, which made things simpler. Seoul's subway line map is grotesquely complex and looks like a colourful flying spaghetti monster.

The subway cars themselves weren't too bad either, just a little creakier and the brakes whistle when the train stops.

The first area we went out to was WangFuJing. It's best described as a very western influenced part of the city with a lot of recent constructions. The street layout has been carefully planned and it felt more like a European city than a Chinese one. Heather said it reminded her of Paris.

Throughout WangFuJing are plenty of shops selling exorbitantly priced imported products, like Rolex watches and Calvin Klein. The area is quite nice to walk around in and I ended up buying a hat. In comparison with Seoul, WangFuJing would be the Beijing equivalent of Gangnam.

If you ever make it to WangFuJing someday, which you definitely should if you go to Beijing, take the alley right in front of the huge Nikon billboard. It's surprising how drastic the scenery changes. Within 100 metres the bulildings change from large pristine monoliths to the kinds of shops you'd see in Chinatown back home. Actually it really did feel just like Chinatown. Funny that.

These two actors were performing a traditional Chinese play with high-pitched dialogue. Below were pedestrians busily finding a good place to eat.

Slightly famished, we sought a regular restaurant to grab a bite to eat. When travelling overseas I always enjoy eating at cheap local places. The waiters in the red coats at this restaurant were busy seating customers who were flowing in and out like baitfish. We were seated on the same table as a Chinese family which was interesting.

This is what we ordered. On the left is a regular noodle soup, which wasn't too bad and closer to the photo is a coriander and dumpling soup. Coriander is completely absent from Korea and Heather hates the taste of it. I originally disliked the taste, but after getting used to it I can now eat it with just about anything. We also had two skewers of barbecued lamb which were really good. The entire meal cost us $4.

After that we headed out to the Sanlitun district, which we had heard was famous for its bars. We asked some friendly German tourists for their recommendation of a good watering-hole and they suggested this place, Bar Blu. It was a nice enough place and we enjoyed a Caipirinha, the same cocktail we enjoyed in Osaka. Here's Heather, posing for one of my experimental camera shots on 'twilight mode'.

Within the Sanlitun area are some bars with employees who stand on the street. It seems that their sole job is to 'coax' people into entering their particular bar. In Beijing, coaxing means dragging you by the arm despite your efforts to continue walking down the street. If you continue to resist, for approximately 30-45 seconds, they let you continue on your way. We humourously fought our way past the first batch but were quickly swept into the second bar. We were looking for a drink anyway.

This bar was quite nice, pricey by Chinese standards, but average when compared to Korea. The good thing about it was that it had continuous live entertainment, including belly dancers and this band which was quite good. The guy on the left sang 'One Night in Beijing'. How very appropriate.

After a couple of drinks we wandered out onto the streets where the crowds had died down a little. Up the road was this long line of street vendors selling all kinds of food for as far as the eye could see. Street food in Beijing is more varied than that in Korea.

Then we caught a taxi home. From my experiences, crime in Korea is so low that it's something I barely think about. People will steal things of course, but I've never felt threatened late at night. Beijing has a slightly different feel to it, which was very evident in this taxi. The driver was encased in a virtual prison to prevent people from robbing him. Not all of the taxis we caught had this kind of fortification though.

The next day we woke up early to head to the Great Wall. While we were trying to figure out the bus route, we bought some meat-filled buns for breakfast from this place. They were fairly average, but were filling and only cost us 45 cents each. I love travelling cheaply.

Check out the wad of cash in the street vendors right hand. I saw this a lot in Beijing, huge wads of cash being pulled out whenever change was needed. I'm not sure if they did it out of necessity or to show off, but I was certainly impressed. I added it up in my head and realised that a handful of money like that only works out to be about $50. But that can still buy you a lot of stuff if you shop at the right places. I'll show you some bargains in the next post.

Well this is the first of three Beijing posts that I have coming along. Stay tuned.

See you soon!