Sunday, November 30, 2008

A day of Chinese mascots - pandas and acrobats

Day 4 (Sat, 22 Nov 2008)

After three consecutive days of ancient history and culture, it was time for a little warm and fuzzy... pandas! None of us had ever seen a panda in real life, so we thought we'd take a little trip to the Beijing zoo, home to the largest, umm, collection? group? den? *checking wikipedia*... guess what, it's a pandemonium of pandas!

Andre prepared for the trip by watching Kung Fu Panda four times in two days on dvd at my cousin's place.

It was sunny and warm, a nice change. The zoo was rather crowded, maybe because it was a Saturday. Entry to the panda enclosure costed an additional RMB 5 (S$1.10), probably since 90% of visitors are only interested in this attraction.

It did not disappoint, there are three different enclosures just for pandas - an outdoor one, an Olympics one and another for the Asian Games. There is also an extensive exhibition and display area. Each enclosure had a few pandas although seeing them at close range could be a bit of a challenge. Anytime a panda waddled near the glass, a tornado of excited visitors would instantly swarm towards that area, armed with flashing cameras. Pandemonium is right!

Can't blame them though, those creatures are just so darn adorable. Everything about them, from their lazy, lumbering gait to their tear drop black eye patches, screams "cute". Their unelegant-ness has an uncanny human quality - check out these poses.

And here's the money shot. All together now, "awwwwwwww"!

We didn't visit the rest of the zoo. We passed by a couple of other enclosures and it was pretty awful. Only the pandas have landscaping in their luxuriously spacious enclosures, due to their esteemed status. All other animals are caged in cold, tiny spaces. We saw a few monkeys in a bare, cemented cage clinging on pitifully to a radiator for warmth. Pretty upsetting, especially for animal lovers.

By the way, we came across more funny signs (the left one was above a toilet roll dispenser).

Some left us scratching our heads, especially the last line of the left sign below.

We took a cab to Shin Kong Place 新光天地, on the recommendation of Kenneth's friend. It turned out to be a super luxury shopping mall, fronted by Prada, Gucci, Bvlgari, blah blah. Not her fault, she wouldn't have known that this is so not our gig. Pearls to swine. Swine without cash to burn. We didn't really feel like eating at a posh restaurant, so we walked around a bit and came across a familiar sign - KFC. I usually deride Andre if he asks to eat fast food in a foreign land, as I think it's a wasted opportunity for a culinary adventure, but for some strange reason that day, we gave in pretty quickly, much to his delight. Maybe it was a subconscious rebellion against the snootiness of that mall.

Our one lapse and we paid for it. It was by far the worst KFC fare I've ever had. The chicken was soggy, very greasy and very salty. The mashed potato didn't even taste like potato, it was like watered down cardboard with some tasteless, starchy gravy. But obviously this opinion is not shared by the Chinese because KFC opens one new outlet EVERYDAY in China. So it's more likely just another case of differences in tastes.

Anyway, lesson learnt. DON'T EAT FAST FOOD IN CHINA! After a short rest and dinner back at my cousin's place, we headed back out to catch an acrobatic show at Chaoyang Theatre. The tickets were rather pricey but we thought since we were here, we should at least catch what is an iconic activity in China. We called beforehand and asked for the cheapest tickets, which were RMB 180 (S$40) each. Interestingly, when we collected our tickets at the door and entered the theatre, we were ushered right in front to the centre portion of the theatre with seats marked "VIP".

Looking around the theatre, they appeared to be best seats in the house. Eh? But we bought the cheapest tickets! Then we noticed that the section where we were sitting was all occupied by foreigners - groups of Chinese tourists were relegated to the side and back seats. We suspect that foreigners are automatically given the best seats so they would leave with a good impression, regardless of how much they paid. Either that or we didn't actually buy the cheapest tickets. Whatever. I'm confused.

The show itself is quite nice. I'm sure you would have seen many of these feats on tv, acrobatics have been televised for the longest time. But just as with concerts, there's always something special about seeing it live - the atmosphere just makes it more enjoyable and exciting.

You're actually not allowed to take pictures during the show, but this being China, nobody obeyed the rule. So here are some shots Kenneth took.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Romancing the Summer Palace

Day 3 (Fri, 21 Nov 2008)

Today, we're visiting the Summer Palace. First built in 1750, the Summer Palace has somewhat of a dubious reputation as Empress Dowager Cixi supposedly embezzled funds from the Imperial Navy to reconstruct and expand this opulent garden and grounds for her own pleasure.

But you know, if she hadn't done that, we wouldn't have this beautiful World Heritage site to gawk at today. Because beautiful would be an understatement - the Summer Palace is stunning on a magnitude of 10/10. There are so many picture book spots in this garden that sprawls around a large, shimmering lake, like these scenes from the Garden of Harmonious Interests which features a group of pavilions around a small lake that had partially frozen over.

You can basically spend the entire day just strolling around the Summer Palace. Weeping willows bloom throughout the gardens, providing natural soft focus and romantic frames for photos. On the right is a pic of the two-storey marble boat (yes, it's made from marble!) where Empress Cixi used to enjoy her breakfast while admiring the scenery. Talk about decadence.

Aside: we saw a couple of funny signs. These are less common since the Chinese spruced up their English for the Olympics but you still occasionally find them (the second one was in the gents).

Anyway, we spent just over two hours at the Summer Palace as it was another cold day. The kids were also hungry as it was already after 2pm (we'd had a late start). But when our driver drove us to look for a restaurant for lunch, we found many of them closed, as restaurants in China commonly close at 2pm and reopen for dinner.

We finally found one open - Little Sheep 小肥羊. This is part of a popular chain of Mongolian hotpot restaurants. We ordered a giant tray of mixed vegetables and tofu, as well as a large platter of beef and mutton. You cook the food in a pot of boiling soup (this comes in a variety of flavours, we chose the non-spicy tonic soup which was a concoction of herbs.)

Dig the meat platter!

On the way to the Summer Palace, we had passed by the Olympic Village, so we thought we'd take the opportunity to visit the vicinity on our way back, since we had the luxury of a driver that day. On the right is the Olympic Tower.

We took a stroll down the Bird's Nest Stadium - it really is as impressive as it seems on tv.

Even the lamps were designed to match! Way cute.

And the Water Cube. Very cool exterior, it looks like it's made up of iridescent water bubbles.

To top off that great day, Kenneth's friend who works in Beijing took us out for dinner at a Yunnan restaurant. I can't really tell you what his friend ordered but the spread was substantial - there was a soup, black fungus, smoked meat, fried potato pancake (that tasted like Swiss rosti), some kind of soup noodle, chicken, stir-fried mushrooms.

These are some of the pictures, but we didn't take photos of everything. I'm honestly glad we got to try a different type of cuisine as I'm usually game for a gastronomic adventure, but I'm not sure if we'll eat that again anytime soon. Not because it was bad - more because considering it's Chinese and all the ingredients were familiar, it all tasted strangely foreign! Goes to show how diverse and disparate the different Chinese communities are.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Up the truly great, Great Wall

Day 2 (Thurs, 20 Nov 2008)

Today, I'm going up the wall, literally. Of course I'm talking about the Great Wall (forgive bad pun). During my last visit, I went to Badaling which is the most visited portion of the Great Wall. One of Kenneth's friends who works in Beijing suggested we go to Mutianyu instead as it's less crowded and commercial.

My cousin helped procure a car and driver for the day and off we went. It took about an hour's drive to the Huairou town and another half hour drive up the mountains to Mutianyu. Not bad at all, considering it takes about the same amount of time to drive to Badaling. The drive was scenic although the trees were all bare. But there is a very stark and rugged sort of beauty that we city folk don't get to see very often.

At the foot of Mutianyu is a row of shops selling a multitude of souvenirs (Mao figurines next to panda t-shirts behind rows of woolly mufflers and hats, for the unprepared). There were a few of your usual touts but nothing like the rabble you'll find at Badaling.

Following Kenneth's friend's recommendation, we bought tickets for a cable car ride up and toboggan down. Or so we thought (we always seem to encounter problems at the ticket counters). The ticket said "Ropeway up, toboggan down". Ropeway should mean cable car, right? Apparently not. The cable car was run by another operator and the ticket booth was God knows where. Ropeway actually meant this chair lift (left). I went with Andre and it was terrifying because there was only a rail in front and I was so aware that he could easily slide under it. Call me paranoid but that ride took forever and it was a long way down.

But once we were up there, the view that greeted us was just mind-blowingly spectacular. The best part was that Mutianyu is not indundated by tourists, at many sections, we were the only people on the Wall. When you look at the expanse of the Wall, you just have to marvel at how it could possibly be built thousands of years ago before the advent of modern machinery (I know, I know, at the expense of thousands of lives buried beneath the stone).

Here are some shots.

We went up one of the watch towers where we had a gorgeous panoramic view of the Wall. On the left is a pic of the kids, showing how you climb up and down the watch tower. Imagine the soldiers used to stand here in the freezing cold guarding against the barbarians. I bet Emperor Qin Shi Huang is turning in his grave to know that the barbarians are trampling all over his precious Wall.

Some parts were very, very steep and only Kenneth dared to venture down for a photo (right). But for the most part, it was a pleasant walk. I think we walked about three sections before retracing our steps (as that's where the toboggan station is).

You know, of all the historical sights in Beijing, the Great Wall is one where I think I'll never get tired of visiting - it truly is a world wonder.

After we've taken in our fill of the Great Wall, it was time for Andre's favourite part of the visit - the toboggan ride. Ride up the Wall, slide down the Wall. The toboggan ride is like a luge - you sit on a sled-like apparatus and maneouver down a track. There's a lever where you can control your speed (if you're a real chicken, you just keep braking in which case you'll inch down the chute, although the people behind you probably won't be very pleased).

Andre LOVED it. He was too young to go alone so I had to sit with him. When we're approaching bends, I'd screech "Slow down!" but he'd feign deafness just to experience the whoosh! It's quite a long way down, more than five minutes and I have to admit, it's great fun. It's a clever way of introducing a little modern day thrill at an otherwise historical site.

After that wonderful experience, we stopped at Huairou for lunch. Huairou is basically a fishing town, trout being their specialty. Many restaurants line the main road, all serving trout and country fare. We stopped at one recommended by our driver.

We decided to try trout which was fished on the spot from the catchment area and whacked to death *shudder*. We could have our trout done in several ways so we chose barbecued and sashimi. Ever tried trout sashimi? It's superly sweet and oh so good. I don't want to think of the possible parasites in fresh water sashimi though... ah well, you only live once.

We also ordered a braised tofu, stir-fried veg and braised pork. The pork dish was called 紅燒肉 - it tastes like gong bao sauce without the chili, it's delicious. Everything was delicious. And cheap! I think the entire meal set us back less than S$30.

Satiated, we went back to my cousin's place to rest. We decided to call it a day. I think you know that in a cold climate, once you're nice and toasty indoors, it's such a chore to wrap up like mummies and wander out in the cold again. Furthermore, dinner was already prepared for us. You see, my cousin has an 阿姨 who comes in to clean, cook and look after her two cats when she's away (more about the cats later). A housekeeper of sorts, quite a common practice in Beijing.

Originally from Sichuan, the 阿姨 had quite taken to Andre and took it upon herself to cook up a storm for him. When she found out that he loves fried rice and fried chicken, she prepared these practically EVERYDAY. She heard him cough (he tends to have a persistent allergic cough) and the very next day, she prepared a pear tonic soup specially for him. (My cousin was a little miffed at this as she had been nursing a cough for three weeks and there never was any pear soup waiting for her!)

I noticed that when he was watching tv, the 阿姨 would often sit next to him and just watch him in fascination even though she couldn't understand his English. Aiyah, I don't know what is it about this boy, he just attracts all these aunties and grandmas like a magnet. But since we're all beneficiaries of his charm, I'm not complaining.