Friday, April 29, 2011

Beijing, April 9

We start with Tiananmen square. Turns out you have to go through security just to get there, and it's not a very efficient security check.

The square is huge.

The Forbidden city is also huge, and, unlike the square, quite beautiful. In general all the traditional Chinese palaces and temples look very beautiful to my eye, and very similar to each other, and it occurs to me that if I can't tell 14-century architecture from 18-century architecture, it probably means that somebody has been honoring the traditions too seriously.

After the Forbidden city we go on to the so-called hutongs. "So-called" because, as far as I can say, "hutong" just means some kind of a small street in Chinese, but the hutongs that tourist books talk about are not just any small streets but streets full of traditional courtyard houses, that are actually called siheyuan.

The traditonal courtyard house hutongs mostly consist of gray fences around the courtyard. Usually you can't see the actual houses. Interesting, though.

Some of the hutong areas that tourists don't get taken to, but come upon while walking around the city, have a public toilet in every block, because some of the houses don't have toilets.

Near the touristy hutong area there is a lovely lake, Qianhai, with lots of reastaurants around it, and we decide to visit it later.

After the hutongs we go to the Temple of Heaven, which is somewhat different from the rest of Chinese architecture due to its main hall being round. Lovely temple, lovely long corridor leading to it, lovely park around it. You are not allowed to bring guns there.

In the evening we decide to go to a famous Peking duck restaurant, but at 8:30 we find out that it closes at 9. No duck for us, and we go to some restaurant in a mall.

The mall's basement floor, where we go to buy pastry, is unreal. We are the only customers, but the place is full of counters, mostly selling candy, cookies and suchlike, and staffed by many people who all bow to us as we walk through.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Beijing, April 8

"You are gonna be OK," says Weijing. "Just don't go to any drinking places with strangers, don't ride homemade taxis, and don't eat any scorpions."

These are probably sensible instructions for life in general, not just in Beijing.

"What's wrong with the scorpions?"
"Nothing really, it's just that you Westerners are not accustommed to them. In fact don't eat any kind of meat that you wouldn't eat in the West. Snakes, frogs..."
"I've eaten frogs. Tastes like chicken."

Weijing is appalled: "Then you have eaten entirely wrong kind of frogs! They are much better than chicken!"

The hotel room is fine, and internet works. They ask for 1000 yuan (about 110€) deposit for the minibar contents. This is a practice that I'd heard about, but never seen before, and I wonder what they have in their minibar for that money.

Evian bottle, 40 yuan. Gotta be fucking kidding. I drink a bit from the tap (unadvisable unless you are me) and head outside.

These are the taxis that Weijing warned me about, a metal box on a three-wheel motorcycle.

The hotel is in Dongcheng, right off Wangfujing st., the main touristy shopping street or whatever. There are very few people, considering that this is the main shopping street at noon. Everything looks a bit faded, and the air smells weird and is not quite transparent.

The street is full of stores calling itself "supermarket" or "local food supermarket" and selling unidentifiable stuff.

A little further down is a fairly large pedestrian area, guarded by a lot of police for no obvious reason.

One really nice thing about the street is lots of benches.

The stroll down the street reveals no obvious convenience stores, supremarkets with real food, or restaurants, and I figure they must be inside the big department stores, like in many other places in Asia. Exploration of the stores, which are eerily empty of people, reveals restaurants, food courts and some grocery stores not quite deserving of the name "supermarket". I buy a huge water bottle, some black tea and beer, and bring it to the hotel.

For a late lunch or early dinner I choose Xiabu-Xiabu, the only place in a certain food court that has customers. I assume that this is a Chinese version of shabu shabu, a concept I am familiar with but never actually tried.

The thing consists of a big soup saucepan and meats/vegetables/noodles one buys and puts in the kettle to cook. Turns out I am not good at catching things with chopsticks while they try to escape from me around the saucepan, but I had ordered so much food that I am quite full with the half of it. All for 41 yuan, including beer.

Later I explore the area, the side alleys, the courtyard with a lot of food stands where they sell, among other things, scorpions, and go to the Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen square turns out to be closed for the night, but the Tiananmen gate is there, and well-lit for the viewing public.

My parents arrive in the hotel at midnight, and with two sausages.

China: the general impressions

First of all, let's start with the fact that the reason I was not in FB, Blogger or Picasa lately is that all of the above are blocked in China. I am not sure what's the deal with Gmail: it kind of works but is impossibly slow.

Skype works fine, though, and so does IRC, and ssh connections.

Another thing is that I am not sure to which extent I can quote people I came in contact with. I'll try not to quote anyone specific on anything other than neutral.

Many people have told us we need native guides everywhere in China, and we had them in every city at least for some attractions, and they were good, but not strictly necessary. I'd recommend them for visiting places where the major attractions are out of town and/or the transportation is not very good. Major cities can certainly be visited on your own.

For some reason almost everyone was concerned about us getting physically lost. In the noble art of reading a map somehow rare over there? They sure make maps.

The people speak English almost as badly as the Japanese, but seem to be a lot less stressed out about it. In general people are friendly but not very considerate.

You can't drive in China with a foreign driving license (or even a Hong Kong one), and it's for the best. The traffic is enough to drive anyone postal. The drivers, especially those of scooters and motorcyles, don't seem to be able to tell right from wrong, right from left, or red from green. Turning right on red appears to be legal; turning left on red, illegal but just as popular. This is not as terrifying as it sounds: Chinese drivers, unlike those of southern Italy, tend to do stupid things at reasonable speeds, and seem to be keenly aware that all the other drivers are likely to do similarly stupid things.

In general respect for the rules and the law is not high.

All the places where we went to appeared perfectly safe at any time of day.

For all the talk about the fake money, there was only one occasion when I felt any doubt about a bill. It was replaced by the salesperson without any trouble. Locals do check their bills though, so we did, too.

All the restaurant bills were ok, nobody tried to cheat even once.

The Chinese seem to have the same idea of private space as us (or at least as me). Every time I felt someone was entering my private space, they were doing it on purpose.

Public places have a lot of benches and other sitting space, very nice. Also toilets are widely available, and not nearly as bad as people say. Some of them have only holes, but most have at least one western-style bowl. Bring your own paper.

There are a lot of people employed as a decoration, just to stand there and smile at people or greet them or whatever.

Lots of police everywhere. They don't appear to be hunting dissidents or people who run red lights, but just stand there and guard inanimate objects that are IMO unlikely to be targeted by the enemies of PRC, such as benches, lightpoles, public toilets, etc.

The tourist information centers look, well, Soviet.

I am sure that people who know what they are doing can find whatever they are looking for, but for the first-time visitor: supermarkets are hard to find, and be sure to eat before 10 p.m., because after that it's hard to find an open restaurant. The Chinese usually have their dinner at about 6.

Shopping malls usually have some food stores, restaurants and food courts in the basement and on the top floor. Bottled water is widely available from many kinds of stores.

Decent coffee and black tea are not widely available in the cafes, but not hard to find, either.

There are many ATMs, and they work.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I am back

I am back from China, and still alive.

China is big and beautiful and full of Chinese people. More details later.