Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Prohibited zones, or, The Imperial Palace

There are two things I've associated with Chinese history for many years. The first, of course, is the Great Wall. The second is the Forbidden City.

But I didn't realize just how big this thing was. I thought, really, that it was just a humongous courtyard surrounded by about four buildings, each connected to its neighbor by a high wall.

I didn't know it would be this high.

I didn't know that it would have a moat around it.

And I didn't know that the outer wall surrounded several courtyards.

The Meridian Gate (see picture) was impressive enough, bigger than I'd imagined. It also looked more Chinese than I ever thought authentic Chinese architecture would really look.

See, I've seen examples of Mexican restaurants that are pretty well overdone. Think "Cinco de Mayo" (which is in fact a pretty minor Mexican holiday, on the order of Flag Day here). So I figured the most, what I'd call garish, Chinese restaurants I've seen in the U.S. were similarly exaggerated.

Nope. To wit:

The different rooflines really fascinated my friend. I was struck by the ubiquity of bright reds, blues, yellows and greens. The traditional Chinese aesthetic is so different from what I'm used to. So is the modern Chinese aesthetic of architecture, but that fascinated me to no end. (More on that later.)

And the distinct Chinese aesthetic extended even to the names of the buildings. The Gate of Supreme Harmony. The Hall of Preserving Harmony. The Gate of Divine Powers. The Hall of Earthly Tranquility.
The Hill of Accumulated Elegance.

The Forbidden City was the oldest thing I'd ever seen to that point. I never realized before how weird old things are, and how much the passage of time and the descent of generations can change things and at the same time leave some aspects untouched. And it's a little strange to think that some emperor had lived in these palaces years and years and years before I was walking around, snapping pictures of his house.

Monday, July 14, 2014

On hostels in China

Consider me sheltered. I'd neither seen the movie "Hostel" nor spent much time in said lodgings (with the exception of a couple of nights in a Costa Rican hostel). Come to think of it, I still haven't seen the movie. All I know is that it freaks everyone out when I tell them I stayed at hostels.

Our first Chinese hostel was a few subway stops away. Subways, for the record, are not like New York subways. They're clean, like Washington subways, and new, like no other subway I've ever been in -- there are light-up displays of the train's route above every exit in a subway car, with the stops on the map in red lights and turning green as you pass them. (The coloring choices threw me off every time.)

Beijing Saga front hostel entrance
Once off the subway, we walked to the street our hostel was supposed to be on. If you could call it a street. It was narrow, the road just barely wide enough for a car and a half, maybe. Sidewalks were for all intents and purposes nonexistent, whether because people were sitting there (mostly in daytime) or cars were parked up on them.

My friend had stayed at this hostel once before so she was sure of its quality. The room was spare and the beds mere mattresses on slabs of wood, but everything was sturdy and clean. As is apparently custom in China, no toilet paper or hand soap was provided (let alone little bottles of shampoo), but two pairs of shower slippers awaited us as well as sheets, a pillow and a light blanket on each bed.

The windows wouldn't open -- which was comforting to my friend, she said. And interestingly, you had to put your room key (an electronic card) into a special plastic pocket in order to enable the room's electricity. I'd seen that once before in a hotel room, I think, but I sure didn't expect it in a low-budget place like a hostel.

That wasn't the end of the hostel surprises.

Hostel room in Xi'an
Our second hostel, one in Xi'an, was a place my friend had never stayed at in a city she'd never even been to, so she relied on Internet reviews. They said it was a stellar place to stay. And they were right.

There was artwork hanging in the hallways and beautiful woodwork and lighting throughout. The rooms felt more like decent hotel rooms (not even like motel rooms) than they did hostel rooms. The furniture all matched and was a gorgeous dark wood texture in kind of a Mission style (I'm not entirely sure what this style was actually called, but this furniture would have looked at home in a U.S. home.) There was even a TV with cable on it, and we found CNN. Which means we watched a couple hours of a forensics show while we rested one day.

My friend said watching English-language TV was a huge treat for her. It's something I took for granted and honestly I usually consider TV an annoyance. (I don't have cable at home and tune out the cable at work when the sports guys are monitoring some game.) I had never given it a second thought before.

Like at our first hostel, there was no hand soap provided, and we still got a pair of shower slippers.

Breaking the silence, or, How to travel without language

Yes, I realize the most recent post on this blog is now more than a month old.

I've kept you in suspense long enough about my China trip.

It's the first time I've ever been wandering around a country whose language I couldn't at least make out a few words of. When I got there, I also realized that I'm not very good at reading the faces of people in Asian cultures. In other words, I'm not sure I could have even pantomimed my way through ordering a meal at a restaurant. Even with a pictorial menu.

My friend met me at the airport. She'd given me detailed instructions on what to do once touching down on Chinese tarmac (which is the same as American tarmac) -- follow the crowd to the customs kiosks, hand over your documents and basically just wait there. I wouldn't have to say anything, she said, and she was right. The signs were even in English in addition to Chinese.

Past the "Foreigners" sign at "Immigration," I just followed the hallways (and even a shuttle-train! the things you see at a huge airport!) to the exit. She and I found each other as soon as all of us airplane passengers emerged into the big waiting area -- for which I was grateful.

She helped me get some Chinese cash from an ATM and I got my first glimpe of "kwai" -- in 100-kwai bills, bright red and worth about $16 each. I kid you not, these looked like the money I used to play with as a child when I pretended to be an expert spy.

After a bus ride and a walk outside the Beijing West train/rail station (I think), we bopped into a restaurant that served pretty typical Chinese fare, as my friend described it. She wanted to get me her favorite dish -- green beans and red pepper things all tossed together and fried in some sort of vegetable oil, called gan bian dou jiao. Thank goodness she did the ordering. I sat there with a silly grin on my face, just glad to be alive and at my destination, while she handled the menu -- yes, with big, clear photographs of the dishes, like a paper Pinterest board -- pointing to what we wanted and saying "this" in Chinese (which to me sounded like "jigga.")

I don't have pictures from my first meal, but this is a later family-style one.
We ate family style, with little plates for us, seated opposite each other in a booth that felt like it could be at home in a Burger King or McDonald's, and the three big platters of food in the middle of the table. I was glad I'd already had some practice with chopsticks -- it's just not Chinese if you eat it with a fork, and some places probably wouldn't have had forks to give poor un-chopstick-coordinated foreigners anyway.

Germophobes beware. Family style means you pick your food off the platters with your chopsticks, sometimes including the rice, and when you finish the little bit you started with on your tiny personal plate, you pick up some more food. With the same chopsticks you bit from moments before. It's not quite as gross as it sounds but I do know friends who might not have been able to bring themselves to do so. From the first day on, nearly every meal out was family-style.

She paid for the meal with one of those 100-kwai bills, even though it totaled to only about 43 kwai, or roughly $7.