Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What a birthday

When the alarm went off at 6:00 AM, Ted and I could barely roll out of bed. We have been on local time for a while now, waking up at 9:00 to leisurely stroll outside for some hutong breakfast and morning tea. While the early wake-up call wasn't the funnest thing to do on my 24th birthday, it was well worth it, as we were going to see the Great Wall.

And we weren't just going to Badaling, where every tourist bus goes. At this section of the wall, much of it is reconstructed, and part of the tour is also being forced into shopping at silk and vase factories. Ted and I had decided early on that when it was time to visit the wall, we were going to go to a much more remote area so we would not have to deal with a constant sales pitch while trying to enjoy the experience.

So there we were, on our way to the Jin Shan Lin section of the wall at 7:30 in the morning. While we were ripe with anticipation, we soon found that the drive was much longer than expected, and before we knew it, had been in the car for over four hours. While this wouldn't have been that bad if we were able to do our intended trip, which was a hike from the Jin Shan Lin section over to the Simatai section (a 10k hike), we soon found ourselves in the worst traffic jam I had ever witnessed.

While we don't have any pictures to prove the chaos, the scene was one I don't want to remember. Just imagine, in an idyllic fall landscape in the outer reaches of Beijing, pasenger cars, tourist buses, semi-trucks, and huge trucks full of pigs, logs, cattle, grain, tractors, and whatever else you can think of creating four lanes of traffic on a two-lane country highway. We were stuck in this traffic for at least two and a half hours, as congestion got so bad in one area that we finally had to change our planned trip. With all of the time sitting in this traffic going absolutely nowhere, we didn't have enough time to complete the hike on time, so we took another half an hour to turn around and settle on going to Simatai, which would have been our hiking destination.

But as soon as we arrived, we knew that sitting through all of the traffic and the long drive was well worth the wait. I have to say that this went from being one of the worst birthdays ever (sitting and breathing in truck fumes is not my idea of a good time) to one of the best. The views were stunning , and the day was beautiful.

This was truly a birthday experience I will never forget.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

...And we're back!

So you may have noticed that I haven't posted in a while, but Ted and I have been busy dealing with this:

In short, pests.

This weekend we were busy attending the 7th World Conference on Sport and the Environment, a meeting of the Sport and Environment Commission of the International Olympic Committee. While I am glad that we took the time to attend this conference, I went thinking that I would get to meet other sustainability researchers and experts to talk about the role of culture in sustainability. What I got was a bunch of cronies from national olympic committees (NOCs) and their paid sustainability hacks.

This conference did start with an interesting site visit to the olympic "green", where the infamous Bird Nest and Watercube reside. I have to say, the stadium is quite impressive up close, but seems out of place surrounded by dirt, smog, and cranes. Ted and I got a good laugh out of the fact that this conference coincided with some of the worst air quality we had witnessed since arriving in Beijing a month ago. As you can see to the left from this view atop a hill in the Forest Park (just north of the Olympic Green), visibility was about a mile. If it was a clear day, we should have been able to see the construction site of the Bird Nest, but as it was, we could barely see the edge of the lake.

This in no way stopped conference delegates and press from sticking to the positive message that Beijing had done nothing but champion air quality and the environment, and the big news after the event on CCTV was the decision by the IOC not to move any sporting events out of Beijing due to poor air quality. While I would have to agree the that Beijing has made a great number of improvements in order to host the games, I was greatly disappointed that they only addressed the green technologies they had used to reduce CO2 emissions. So dedicated to not speaking about any other topic, one BOCOG official, before giving a presentation on all of the positive sustainability measures they have taken, specifically noted that they would not be talking about urban development.

At that moment, I knew that the site visit was the only valuable information I was going to glean from the conference, other than the knowledge that the IOC is so stuck on being carbon neutral that they have blinded themselves to other sustainability issues. For instance, at the site visit, one of the lead builders in charge of the construction for the National Indoor Stadium bragged that we were looking at the largest steel roof in the world. Ted and I were the only people to even bat an eye at this bit of information, which is quite disturbing considering that steel production facilities are such notorious polluters in China that they are shutting down production for three months during the games to help clear the air for outdoor competitions.

Yes, all of these "experts" had no idea what the hell they were talking about, as they were office dwellers of national olympic committees, there to learn how they could best Beijing and other host cities to take the crown for the "Green Games". While Sydney was the first city to bid in earnest for a green Olympics, since then it has become chic to attempt to outdo the last city in green technology. But what this has created is situation where everyone focuses on the newest green technology, but has no intent to actually shrink their footprint, or leave a lasting environmental legacy for their community.

Meanwhile, Ted and I couldn't even come back home and relax after infuriating sections on carbon offsets and the environmental vulnerability of Oceania (and they didn't even play the bjork song) because we had dirty, filthy bugs all over our hotel room. I had booked the place because it was only a few blocks away from the conference center and it cost less than $100.00 a night. Because we have been staying in hostels our entire time in China (and never had a bad experience), we thought we would be living in the lap of luxury, doling out about twice the amount we have been paying for hostels. No such luck. Here's a tip: never stay at Beijing Century Longdu International Apartments. We were killing bugs of various shapes and sizes every ten minutes or so upon our arrival. The shower was a nice choice of either freezing cold or scalding hot water, there was no internet, and the bed, while relatively comfortable, was louder than the deck of an old-timey sailing ship. So much for life in the high rise.

But, things are looking up. For our last four nights here in Beijing we are staying back at Templeside, which has been our home away from home in China. It feels great being back in Old Beijing, as it seemed to welcome us back with a beautiful but brisk autumn day. Since we hadn't really had the opportunity to explore the white pagoda in Beihai park, we decided to climb up and take in the view of Beijing. The reward was absolutely gorgeous, as the sky was clear and blue and the views were amazing. Wouldn't you know, as soon as the environmentalists leave town, we had one of the most beautiful days we had seen in weeks.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Doin' it like the locals do

Ted and I would like to think that we have had a fairly authentic experience while in China. We've lived in the hutongs, had porridge and dumplings for breakfast in restaurants with four tables, and we ride the subway around town like nobody's business. But there were a few pieces missing to the puzzle that would really allow us to see and understand the local experience: taking in some of the nightlife in a trendy area, and eating American fast food.

While we have always passed trendy little bars all around town, we never wanted to be those laowais, traveling in China only to be caught indulging in creature comforts from back home. Why would we want to spend 20 Yuan on a small drink in a gaudy bar when we could get like five breakfasts for the same amount of money? But after a while, reality sets in. Not all of China lives in the hutong, and part of experiencing the local culture is also partaking in some of the trendier spots which are highly influenced by western night-life, but nonetheless have their place in this vibrant city.

Bravely adventuring into a new world, we first met up with one of Ted's former co-workers who has been in China for two months as part of a U of O study abroad program. Bringing along a friend of his from the program, the four of us had a double date at a posh little Indian restaurant called the Raj, where Ted and I used a fork for the first time in a month. I never knew I could be so conflicted by proper placement and use of silverware, as I desperately wished I had my handy chopsticks in hand to munch down the yummy rice and curry.

On the way to the restaurant Ted and I had spotted a little bar which advertised their drink special of the night: Mojitos. Lured in by the small courtyard and the fact that no one else was there, we put the hookah to use and talked politics over some delicious Mojitos, made with fresh mint picked from the courtyard. We then continued down a small hutong we had traversed earlier, having a drink at "The smallest bar in Beijing: 12 sq. meters", and drank at another cute place with loft seating decked out with pillows low tables - a perfect place to keep the conversation alive.

With only a 20 yuan cab ride back to our hostel in Qianmen to finish off the night, I have to say that we had a great time and enjoyed every single one of the bars we visited. It is so easy to be overwhelmed in a place like Beijing where there is such a diverse daily reality, making it easy to go overboard on attempting to get a "real" experience. For us, getting this experience (up until recently) had been braving restaurants with no English menus and eating in the street with everyone else.

But the reality is that many Beijingers love to indulge in a good drink here and there at a trendy spot, and live to eat at KFC, McDonalds, and Pizza Hut. So when Ted and I were finished signing in for the IOC's Sport and the Environment conference (which starts tomorrow!), we decided to sit down for a nice date at the nearest Pizza Hut to try this local favorite.

Now, Pizza Hut is not the same in China as it is in the US. In China, they are sit-down restaurants, and have a full menu. Not only did they have American-style pizza as well as more Asian themed pizzas with seafood (shrimp pizza, anyone?), but they also had espresso, spaghetti, fried meatballs, garlic bread, escargot, milkshakes, ice cream cake, and beer. No joke. Although the choices were abundant, Ted and I decided on the 12 inch Hawaiian, which went for 83 yuan ( little over 10 US dollars). I only wish I had a camera to capture this momentous event, if only to prove that yes, there was actually escargot on the menu.

While the pizza was dull and the service wasn't the best we've had, the company was fantastic, and the absurdity of sitting down at a Pizza Hut for a nice, expensive meal was priceless.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ah, to be back in Beijing

Even though our train pulled in at a very early hour, Ted and I were both relieved to be back in the city where this trip all started for us.

Don't get me wrong, we had a great time in Qingdao and Shanghai, and I think seeing other areas in this huge country not only gave us the opportunity to get a small break from being in Beijing, but also made us appreciate some aspects of the city more than ever. For example, it became clear as soon as we stepped of the train in Qingdao how far Beijing had come in using English and pinyin to aid international travelers in exploring the city. In Shanghai, where we thought food would be everywhere, we were surprised not only by the lack of street food but also the lack of the good quality, middle-of-the-road dining establishments that offer big plates of tasty food at very reasonable prices. We had become dependent on these kinds of places to have a large midday meal that could sustain our daily walk-a-thons, and in Shanghai we found ourselves wandering for blocks looking for a place that had an English menu (or even pictures on the wall) which wasn't a Coldstone Creamery or Pizza Hut.

So, weighted down with fashionable duds that we had picked up in Shanghai, we happily drug ourselves onto the subway this morning on our way to our new hostel in Qianmen. Ted and I had two reasons to be thankful: it was only a few short blocks away from the Qianmen subway station, and our room was shockingly ready when we arrived at 8:00 AM. So after a quick spot of tea and breakfast, armed with notepad and camera we got started on our quest to document the Qianmen area.

As you can see from the picture at left, this was no easy feat. To begin with, I had to take this picture, which is facing due south on what is Qianmen Dajie, through a hole in the gate while no guards were looking. This is the main street which will run through the Qianmen street development, and everything to the left of that construction worker is a protected area under the Beijing conservation plan for its 25 historic areas. The gate I shot this through was due south of Qianmen Gate, which in on the axis which runs directly through Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Needless to say, after snapping a few shots through this little peep hole, I turned to snap a shot of Ted in front of the gate, turned back, and saw that an attentive guard from the other side had used his spidey sense to sniff out suspicious photographers. I don't think he saw me taking pictures, but he was definitely giving me a look as he peeked his head out to see what flim-flammery was afoot.

From here, we walked around the entirety of the site, which runs south to Zhushikou Dajie, and is bordered by Qianmen Donglu on the east and Liangshidian hutong (which runs between Qianmen Dajie and Meishi Jie) on the west side. This west side is where Ted snapped some great photos for me of the site over some simple barriers, showing me how it was done while climbing onto piles of bricks to get a better view. What is most telling in these photos is how exposed this side of the site is, as it is not in the conservation area. As you can see in the picture to the left, the east and protected end of the site is entirely blocked from view from the street, complete with informational panels which detail the history of the Qianmen area back to the Qing dynasty. If there are any gates they are guarded, and at the first sight of laowais like Ted and I, they jump to attention and make sure we get nowhere near the door (we tried to walk into one gate, and immediately got thrown out, while locals came and went without trouble). We even spotted an extra security measure; one billboard like those blocking the exterior was located inside the construction site, blocking even more from peekers like Ted and I from really knowing what is going on behind those walls.

While the experience was infuriating, it was not as maddening as going back to the hostel and finding out that SOHO, a Chinese development firm that was founded by a former Goldman Sachs broker (which will over double their profit this year and just floated a $1.6 billion Hong Kong IPO) is behind this development. Nothing crushes a girl's soul more than the thought that the center of her research is thoroughly protected by hordes of (Saudi) money and political dreams, but I'll just have to keep doing my best to find more information everyday as my time in Beijing will end sooner than I realize.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A "relaxing" day in the garden

So Ted and I have been shopping our little hearts out in Shanghai, hence the lack of pictures and blog posts. We've been waking up fairly early, grabbing some Jiang Bing for breakfast (the Shanghai version has less onion and cilantro, but is crispier and just as yummy), and have been hitting the subway to whatever shopping mecca calls our name that particular day.

But as the magic of retail therapy begins to wane and one mall begins to melt into another, one has to find something else to do in Shanghai. Today, we thought we would pay a visit to the most famous garden in Shanghai, Yu Yuan. It took us a while to drag ourselves out of bed, as all of the walking in Shanghai has begun to wear us down, and the day previous most of our calories had come from the best fried rice we had ever tasted, which was washed down with our first taste of Suntory Beer. While we swigged down four big bottles at dinner (don't worry Grandma, it's a lite beer), we still managed to keep dinner at 60 yuan, which was the best bargain for quality yet at a single meal service. Let's just say beef seared with hot red peppers, onions, cilantro and other greens, stir-fried lentils (Chinese green beans) and peppers, fried rice complete with smoked meat, hot peppers, and a ton of onions and soy sauce, and Suntory, a smooth lite blend of wheaty goodness. Even in all of our American gluttony, we still managed to be outdone by the young men across the room, who immediately struck up a conversation which started with "hey joe!" to the tune of "Hey Jude". They were drunk and very friendly as they kept cracking jokes about Yao Ming ("I believe I can fly"), President Bush, and placed bets as to whether we were from the UK or US. Now that's what I call a cross cultural exchange.

Needless to say, the morning started a little like this blog post: slow. So when we finally and forcefully dragged ourselves to Yu Yuan gardens, we were overwhelmed by what we saw before us. No, it wasn't that sense of wonder that fills one upon taking in such a wonder as the Forbidden City, it was the "Oh my God, why did we ever decide to do this, and today of all days?" sense of dread.

It was that immediate acknowledgment that you have just stepped into the biggest and saddest tourist trap within a 100 mile radius. Complete with Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Haagen-Dazs, and a KFC, this Disneyland/fantasyland complete with authentic-looking architecture filled with crappy goods of all sorts, forcibly overwhelmed the senses in the worst way. I couldn't help but be reminded of the Qianmen area which Ted and I will be documenting once we return to Beijing, as authentic (and protected) historic neighborhoods have been demolished to make way for a reconstruction similar to the one you see here. Complete with a trolley-traversed pedestrian area and "authentic" reproductions of the architecture that stood on the site just a few years ago, I couldn't stop thinking about all of the poor people that have been forced out of their homes in Qianmen, and for this.

But as horrifying of an experience as this was, it is also a good reminder that the work that I am doing on my thesis is worthwhile. While I can't do anything about the development that is already underway in Beijing, maybe I can do something about a similar situation in the future. The Yu Yuan gardens was first-hand proof that when few cultural relics remain from a certain time-period, they will more than likely be stripped of all of their authentic historic value in order to bolster their commercial value. While this sometimes comes in the form of total destruction so that some tower can be built in its place, this can also come in the form of romantic reconstruction purely for tourism purposes. This has happened here in Shanghai, and it continues at this very moment in Beijing.

Monday, October 15, 2007

An introduction to Shanghai

I was very excited to board the train to Shanghai on Saturday afternoon from Qingdao. While it was fun to be on the beach for a few days, Qingdao was just too sleepy for my taste. After being in the metropolis of Beijing, which already had a slow pace of its own, this off-season resort town didn't seam to offer much beyond the sea and the food it provides, the latter which this valley girl has never really embraced. Call me crazy, but my idea of a good meal does not involve picking the thing out while it is still squirming in a small plastic tub sitting out on the sidewalk, but to each his own, as demonstrated by Ted's exuberance in finally having his choice of creepy crawlies from the ocean deep to dine upon.

While our taste in food shall eternally divide us, we did both enjoy the European architecture seen throughout the city, which are remnants from Qingdao's time as a German concession. I was disappointed that all the trains coming and going from this beach community had been diverted away from the old town through the Sifang station, as the original train station is a beautiful 100+ year old building which is being renovated in anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics sailing regatta to be held in Qingdao. Even through the rusty scaffolding and standard green construction screens blocked the work from view, its beauty still showed through, half timbers and all.

After a pleasant 19 hour train ride (which gave me plenty of time to knit on my new hand-made needles from Beijing), Ted and I crawled out of our soft sleepers and onto the streets of Shanghai. To our great relief, our very cute hostel was only four subway stops from the train station, so we dropped off of our bags and ran out to see more of the city. Because we hadn't really done much research into the best places to go, we both decided to head for the most popular spots for tourists: People's Square, Nanjing Road, and the Bund.

This, needless to say, was overwhelming. Being a beautiful and mild Sunday afternoon, these areas were absolutely crawling with tourists. Ted and I, who had become accustomed to being some of the only laowais around, were taken aback by the sheer number of western tourists, as white people were everywhere. We quickly became judgmental and competitive, making fun of those sporting hiking boots, safari vests, backpacks, and Asain girls that looked like they were not enjoying being paid company.

Yeah, Shanghai is just that kind of town. After leaving the very conservative Beijing where you see families and couples everywhere, Shanghai sports lots of singles, partial nudity in subway ads, and at least two cathouses within a two block radius of our hostel. If it means anything, the girls look largely bored, as they are usually dolled up with nowhere to go, resulting in the funny sight of scantily-clad women zoning out on a torn up couch watching TV in a small, nondescript office.

But don't let this fool you; Shanghai is a great town. Even though we got taken to the cleaners today for a very mediocre lunch (the guy tried to charge us 40 yuan each for some Tsingtao beers when they cost 5 yuan at any corner store - we laughed at him and still offered to overpay at 20 when he looked at us pathetically), there seems to be something to do on every type of budget.

And, of course, there is all of the shopping. This town has everything from Gucci to bargain basement deals, and they are usually on the same block. One could say that there is too much, but all of the selection just makes for a fun scavenger hunt, and gives you a great reason to explore all the different areas of the city.

Finally, just like in Beijing, there are some great parks here in Shanghai. While they are not incredibly extensive or elaborate, they are relaxing in their simplicity and stillness in a city that is always moving forward. While we have only been here for two days, I can tell that we are going to have a great time in this town, and will hopefully return to Beijing a little better dressed than we came.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Saying goodbye (for now) to the hutong

We both knew the moment would have to come sometime, but Ted and I both left our hutong last night knowing we would miss our little corner of Beijing. This hutong has been a home away from home for us, as we went from the strange laowais who must be lost in the eyes of the neighbors, to the local patrons who couldn't live without their morning sweets and evening snacks.

Living in the hutong, we got a first-hand experience of the state of development in Beijing's hutongs, and just like many things in Beijing, things may not always be what they seem. The scene to the right shows a house that we saw being torn down, brick by brick, with a pick ax. Everyday we would walk by and see a little more of the building had been knocked down and carried away, and we couldn't help but feel disappointed at the sight of this destruction.

But as we explored deeper in the hutong, we also found this example of traditional craftsmanship being used to build new siheyuans where older ones had been torn down. While it is not pleasant seeing the historic fabric being torn down by two men at a time, it is still reassuring that in some areas of Beijing measures are being taken to ensure that new structures will be as authentic as possible, and will blend in with the existing landscape, which is a far cry from the disney-fication of the hutongs of Qianmen and Chongwen. These two men are working in a tandem to prepare beams, with the man in the foreground shaving the log, after which the other man uses an adz to square the log.

Beyond the mounds of information that Ted and I were able to gather from our experience here, I think we will remember the people and the food the most. So used to our faces at all times of day asking for two thick slices of Tamarind bread, the woman working the sweets stand to the left gave us one of those tasty looking muffins as goodbye gift when we stopped by on our way to catch the overnight train. Even though we only speak about 10 words of Mandarin and she speaks no English, I could tell by her smile and kind gesture that she got a kick out of our frequenting her stand, and knew that we were thoroughly addicted to her bread.

Now that we are in Qingdao (which Ted is going to write all about), it has made me realize how unique the hutong experience is. Before I could only read about how people valued or devalued the hutong, but seeing it myself, I know I will miss the community there.

But all is not lost: Ted and I loved the neighborhood so much that we are going to stay there again at the very end of our time in China, at which time we will be going on a tour of the great wall with the great staff at Templeside.

For now though, we are bumming on the beaches of Qingdao, where fitness is a way of life, and the architecture is a strange mix of dilapidated European sophistication and Asian modernism. I can tell you already that while the beach is nice, I would kill for some of that Tamarind bread right now ...