Thursday, September 08, 2005

Beijing, Tombs & The Wall...

My most sincere apologies about the delay... I’ve been busier than a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest.

Since returning from China, I was sick for a week, did a week on the LPGA tour in Dublin, Ohio. I’ve been in NYC at the US Open, and am trying to get ready for another trip to Beijing on Sunday (the 4th).

So... Here we go...


The first thing I have to say is to watch out for the concierge(s) at the hotel.
They all have agendas.

I always thought the Concierge was someone who would help you with your wants, needs & desires (within reason). At the Courtyard Marriott in Beijing the service from the front desk and the concierge desk is pretty poor. Don’t get me wrong, the hotel room was ok, and they tried to be helpful, but in the end the overall impression was pretty poor.

I wanted to go see the Great Wall... I had heard there were some areas near Beijing that were a little off the beaten path, and the experience was preferred to the normal Great Wall tours. So I took my notepad to the Concierge to ask about hiring a car to drive me to this location...
“Oh- Great wall. We have good tour. 340 yuan.” says the smiling concierge.
“To Simitai?” I ask.
“No... Badaling. Also to Ming Tombs! Same day!”
“But... I want to go to Simitai.”
“We don’t have a tour there. Only Badaling.”
“Well... Can I hire a car and driver?”
“Not a good place. Take tour to Badaling and Chengling.”
“340 yuan.”
“So... there is no way to go to Simitai.” I ask.
“No. Only Badaling.” He said.
So... I fork over my $40...
“Bus leaves at 7:30, come back at 4:00. Be here at 7:30 in the morning.”
So… I’m thinking... Wow. 8 and a half hours- It’s 70km to Badaling... I guess we get to spend a lot of time at the tombs and the Great Wall...
The tour consisted of 4 people- Yours Truly, Angie, an ESL teacher from Kentucky by way of Osaka, and 2 girls from Philly, Agnes and Andrea, who are CSRs for a Major Airline…
So… We load into the minivan and 7:30 and we were off to the Ming Tombs…
Our tour Guide explained the itinerary...
“Today is holiday. Many visitors at Great Wall... Students from schools, visitors to China. We go to Chengling first, that way when we get to Great Wall, it not so crowded.”
So-We are off to the Chengling.

But first...a word from out sponsor.
As we drove north out of Beijing, the Guide started talking about jade: how it is an important part of the culture of China, how it is and was used by the people of China…
And lo and behold- we pull into a prison-looking building and are herded inside for a little show and tell about jade... Grading, the carving process, care and feeding, etc.
So… the four of us crowded into a little showroom and head the first spiel about grades and colors of jade, then we are herded into a area where they are carving figurines. (I have to admit is was very interesting... especially all the partially finished pieces that were on display where they had fractured during the carving process.)
Then- just like Universal Studios, when you get off the ride, you end up in the gift shop. The display area was huge, fully 80 yards long and 40 yards wide... Probably 30 sales people in this huge room filled with display cases full of beautiful jewelry, shelves loaded with carved figurines, from huge elaborate carvings of sailing vessels to tiny beads...
Wonderful stuff... And every time you stopped to look at an item, a salesperson was there to show it to you, and give you the hard sell...
“Oh… Very nice for you. You like. 100 yuan. You want see more?”
Ours was not a very profitable group... I don’t think they got us for more than 50 yuan total… about 6 bucks... Then we were off again...

The Ming Tombs at Chengling.

The Ming Tombs- or rather, the one we visited was interesting, if you are into the funeral trapping of old dead Asian people, or the traditions of the old Dynasties of China before the 1600s. By all means, take the tour. It does have its moments. We pulled in to Chengling in a small parking lot- only 4 or 5 cars in it…
I was thinking- this will be good- looks like the place will be empty.
The Guide led us up a stone stairway- Holy Crap! There were about 30 large tour buses... and hundreds of tourists milling about everywhere.

If you really want the info on the Ming Tombs at Chengling, go here... (Link to be inserted later)

Meanwhile- I will continue with the list of things that I found interesting...

After we visited Zhoudi, we hit the road again. The Guide was evasive on when we would arrive at the Great Wall. I had a feeling we were in for another detour... and we were.
Our Guide started talking about Chinese medicine, and how sometimes how the old ways are better than the new medicines. As she finished her spiel, we pulled into a complex of buildings and were herded inside and into a small classroom. Our Guide said a Chinese doctor was coming to talk to us about Chinese medicines and give us all a non-invasive checkup and make some recommendations for our general health.
Well... Once again, we were not the most profitable group... The girls all sat for the doctor to feel their pulses and look in their eyes and mouths... He suggested some nuts and berries and herbs (and deer antlers and bear penis) that would cure them of all their ills, which were promptly dismissed as BS and we were on our way.
Me? I try to avoid doctors in the US, let alone going to a medicine man in rural Beijing. I politely declined the invitation to be examined.
(By politely, I mean I only suggested heavy physical violence if they didn’t let us go immediately when it was my turn to be examined. Heh.)
Onward through the fog...
We finally arrived at the Badaling section of the Great Wall around 11:30… The Guide turned us loose and we scampered off through the crowds and kiosks selling all manner of tacky souvenirs and nonesuch and headed up the steepest part of the wall.
Your eyes tell you, yes, you can do it. But listen to your Uncle Jay... It is too damn steep, narrow and crowded to be safe. In this area it is a very picturesque location, but it is a tough row to hoe. Go the other way- head east. An easier climb, less crowded and much more enjoyable.
After hiking along that section of the wall, I was very surprised that many people aren’t hurt every day… It was scary in some places. The Wall is very steep in many sections, and the steps have a very long rise, sometimes over 12” in height. Going up is arduous, and coming down is treacherous.
We went up several sections, I think I made it up through 4 of the guard towers, almost to the top of the ridge, but I have to say, I did not have the stamina or (more importantly) the hydration to go further. I shot some pics, turned back and headed down.
I think the only thing that made going down safer for me was the fact my legs are long… I was able to negotiate the steps better on the way down… I hit the bottom and hunted up a vendor that had (no kidding) Pocari Sweat. (Japanese Gatorade) I drank two bottles and sat in the shade and waited for the girls to make it back down... When they made it, I treated them all to a bottle of Sweat and we went looking for the Guide...
The Guide, the driver, and some other unnamed gentleman were all asleep in our tour bus, taking a little midday siesta. We woke them up and we piled in and headed off to our next gift shop.
(One good thing about the Guide and etc napping in the van- they had the motor running and the AC on, so the van was nice and cool inside.
So... we were off.
We waited for the Guide to start on some kind of spiel on something intrinsically Chinese, and we weren’t disappointed... She started talking about Chinese cloisonné, porcelain inlaid with copper… and voila- here we were at the Friendship Store... We went through a short tour on the making of cloisonné and then were hustled upstairs to a large dining room for lunch.
Lunch was rather tasty... Some tasty appetizers, 4 different entrees that we shared, and some other goodies. All in all, it was very nice.
The cloisonné showroom was very nice... I got a huge kick out of the place.
Once again- we were not the most profitable group... We made minimal purchases and got out with our wallets intact.
Heading back into Beijing proper, it was about 2:30- Since we were due back between 4:30 and 5:00, I had a feeling we were in for one or two more gift shops... but- alas, it was not to be. We held a bloodless coup- Andrea and Agnes wanted to go to the Lama Temple (Yonghe Gong) in the north part of the city. I just wanted to go back to the hotel. I was tired tired tired.
Agnes and Andrea had to pay an extra 20 RMB…Why? Hellifino... I guess for the privilege of getting off before the next gift shop. They were ejected and we were off again. I prevailed (minimal threats) on the Guide to take us back to the Hotel.
Forget fatigue... It was 3:30- enough time to get over to the Beijing Tennis Center over in Fengtai. I hopped a taxi (a GREEN taxi) for Guangcai street...
A side note first-
Taking taxis in Beijing...
Listen to your Uncle Jay: Avoid the Red Taxis.
Let me say that again for emphasis- AVOID THE RED TAXIS.
The red taxis are old old old… they are all about 10 years old.
Think about that.
Take a poorly manufactured car, put it on badly paved streets, drive it like a maniac for 12 hours a day, perform minimum maintenance, and do it for 10 years.
Most of the red taxis have shot suspensions, broken air conditioners, worn-out seats, minimal exhaust suppression... overall it is a horrible ride.
Get a green taxi if at all possible. Or a blue.
Black taxis are also available, but you pay a premium for them...
And make sure they use the meter.
One more note on taxis- they are dirt cheap, overall.
Don’t let the meter scare you- Just remember the exchange rate. 8.11 to 1.
So that long 140RMB Cab ride from the airport is only $17.00...
(Know what 17 bucks gets you in NYC? Diddly and/or squat. $35.00 from LaGuardia to Manhattan is redicking fuckulous.)
Ok- enuffa bout taxis.

Onward to Beijing National Tennis Center...
We are about a month and a half out from one of the premier event in Asian tennis, the China Open... Takes place in mid-September, right after the US Open. Six weeks form now.
The BNTC is all but abandoned.
There is a guard at the open gate who looked at me as I walked through the gate, but didn’t even get out of his chair.
There is a Quonset-looking structure that I assume that is in use since there was a myriad of bicycles and a couple cars parked nearby, but the main stadium is unoccupied.
Not a soul.
I walked in the open doors- dusty but otherwise unremarkable. Went right out on to the main court...
It had recently (in the last month?) been repainted that lovely PMS 540…
OK… there has to be someone around here...
I heard voice somewhere in the sub concourse but I never found the source. A meeting going on behind closed doors, no doubt.
I sniffed around the corners of the court looking for power- lots of outlets... Looks pretty easy to cable for radar, clocks or other services. I poked around outside a bit more- couldn’t find a location that screamed “Truck Pad” but I have my suspicions where they will park the trucks... I shot a passel of pictures and did a quick sketch of the grounds and then headed back out to Guangcai Street to find a taxi.
Plenty of reds... no greens.
I walked a bit and finally found a greenie... and I was off to the Hotel- dinner at the local conveyer-belt sushi joint, and I hit the sack by 9:00 pm.

The Workers Stadium and Tian’anmen Square.

I wanted to see if they had fixed the venerable Workers Indoor Stadium, a 60's vintage arena that looked more like a prison than a indoor sports arena... We did a basketball game there last year in October and they were “working” on renovating the stadium. Big gaping holes in the exterior walls, whole areas in the sub concourse that were gutted and unusable...
Guess what? No change. The construction crew headed out the door on October 18, 2004 and hasn’t been back since.
Still a 60’s vintage shithole.

I hopped a green and headed for the center of town and, for all intents and purposes, the center of the Chinese universe. Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City.

If you want to know all about the Forbidden City, look here: (Link to be inserted later)

As for my skewed observations...
They have too many guards, too many souvenir hawkers and many many people who will offer to guide you to see the sights inside the walls...for a price.
I did the “do it yourself” thing- I saw a lot, but maybe having a knowledgeable guide is worthwhile... time will tell.
All I can say- the royal families were decadent... they spent a lot of money, brains and time, (well... SOMEONE spent money brains and time) building this pile of red, yellow and gold crap... and it was interesting as far as overindulgent royalty goes, and if you throw in their propensity for appeasing various and sundry deities and spirits, well... I have to say it is probably more interesting than, say, Versailles, but only because it is about 1000 years older...
If you cross the street from the Forbidden City, you are in Tian’anmen Square... One big open empty space. Them’s Who Would Know say that a half a million people could gather in Tian’anmen Square... It is huge... If you remember the unpleasantness a few years back- a peaceful demonstration that lasted several weeks and then the PRC big wigs got tired of the student’s demands for political reform and called in the heavy artillery, in the form of army tanks.
Everyone remembers the moving pictures of the dude with the white flag in front of the column of armor. You probably didn’t see him get squashed like a bug...
It didn’t actually happen in the square- it happened out on the street near the square… the big demonstrations were going on in the square, the dude with the flag was trying to stop the tanks from getting there.
Yo. Dude. Do the math. 98 lb student with a white flag vs. a 8600lb tank with 50cal guns and a 60mm cannon... The tank wins every time.

I shot some pics in Tian’anmen Square, aroused the wrath of the guards by taking pics of the various statuary... Hell if I know why... there was probably 30 more people shooting pictures too...
Oh well...
I walked back to the hotel... It was a hike, and I was a tired camper when I got back there... I had a flight the next day- CO88 leaves Beijing at 3:45pm and gets in to Newark at 5:30pm... Ooowee- that is one fast aero-plane!

They have a dim sum breakfast at the hotel- which was passable. I also went to the flea market for an hour, but that was pointless. You need about 5 hours to do Panjiayuan justice… Next trip.

One thing I noticed on the way to the dirt market was that we went down Embassy Row... all the different embassies all along one road... It brought a tear to my eye as we passed the US embassy with the Marine Guards outside the gate and the Stars and Stripes overhead...
Right next to the Greek embassy there was a place that looked abandoned... Weed choked driveway, overgrown bushes, and general disrepair...
Has some small country recently gone out of business recently? I didn’t hear anything about one...
Oh well...

The flight home was mostly uneventful... Clearing customs at EWR was the only adventure... For the first time in a long time they did a full search on my stuff... Went through the carnet item by item. A very thorough inspection... and one that made me nearly miss my connection... I had about 3 minutes to spare before they closed the door of the plane... I made it back ok, but just barely... 23 hours of travel... and it was still only 8:45 in the evening.
Go back a message or three where I thought I had come down with SARS...
That will keep you from traveling in 3rd world countries.

-TBG Out.

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