Friday, 25 January 2008

I had to wake the kids up for an early morning flight this morning. Benji popped out of bed first, and with his hair poofing into the air he chanted “We get to see Mamaw and Papa today!” This woke up the other two, who quickly got over their early wake-up call when they remembered where we were going and who they were seeing.

On the way to the airport, we passed a group of high schoolers practicing marching under a highway bridge, staying out of the drizzle. Some were wearing military hats or jackets. Lan explained that this was a class they could take at their school. They stood in small units, practicing drills. It reminded me of marching band when I was in high school, practicing formations on the parking lot. They seemed to be a having a good time, and I could pick out the stereotypes, even in that brief moment. The boy who didn’t really want to be there, the girl out front with a confident smile on her face, the two boys in the rear snickering, probably about some girl.

We said goodbye to Lan and hello to another security and passport check. We have regressed to only wearing our passports on days when we fly. Ever since we got to Africa, all the hotel rooms have had a safe in the room, so we leave them behind. It is a big relief to not wear that big bundle, we wore them almost every day while in Europe, paranoid we’d lose them after going through so much to get them and the visas they contained.

I sat next to a man on the plane who slurped his food. He smacked and slurped things I didn’t know you could smack and slurp when they served us lunch, and once his lunch had been removed he smacked and slurped some more with the little bits that were still in his teeth. It got so bad I had to put on headphones. He seemed like a nice man. He just had bad eating habits. I hoped it wasn’t a “Chinese” thing.

We got to the airport where Benji noticed that all the letters in his name are also in “Beijing”. We met our guide, Marco. The word “polo” immediately flashed through my head. He had a big smile and was excited to see us, he had picked up my parents the day before and knew how excited we all were to see each other. He called them on his cell as we drove to the hotel and just grinned as he listened to me talk to Dad.

My first impressions of Beijing as we drove through the city were that it was so different from Hanoi. No honking, cars stayed in their own lanes, no motorcycles. That was a huge change. In Hanoi at least sixty percent of the people wore surgical masks. It was strange, seeing so many eyes and so few faces. Here, we saw very few face masks as we made our way to the hotel. Big buildings were everywhere, and I saw no laundry lines with colorful bras flapping in the breeze. The most welcome change: we saw sunshine! The lyrics “I’ve got sunshine, on a cloudy day . . .” repeated themselves in my head, it was beautiful.

When we arrived at the hotel, Mamaw and Papa ran out to greet us. My mom had Nate’s replacement fleece all ready for him, she flung it around his shoulders as he got out of the van, all her grandmothering instincts have been pent up and couldn’t wait to release themselves all over her little grandchicks. We hugged and talked all at once and Nate immediately launched into long stories of our adventures in Vietnam. We found our rooms, told Marco we’d see him in the morning, and got caught up with each other. I did a little wash, found some great places to hang our clothes, and the kids found the little gifts Mom and Dad had laid out on their beds for them. Benji got some peanut butter and honey and did a peanut butter dance, Alayna got an origami kit and immediately began folding, and Nate asked if he could have one of the sour gummy worms. He had to wait until I had one, first. Aw, the sweet taste of gummy worms.

We had dumplings for dinner that night. Doesn’t that sound like a great name for a picture book, Dumplings for Dinner? They were terrific, we gobbled all sixty of them up, and ordered another ten for good measure. When we sat at the table, there was a small cup for tea, a small plate, and a pair of chopsticks. All the different foods we ate were eaten off these tiny plates. As a kid who wanted all things separate this would have been highly upsetting to me, but luckily our kids have progressed beyond where their mom was at those ages. The days when I tore strips of napkins to sop up the juice between my foods are long gone, and our foods mix all over the place. The kids are just fine with this. We poured a little soy sauce and vinegar on the plates and sopped it up with the dumplings, I’m going to add soy sauce and vinegar on our table next to the salt and pepper back home. Salt and pepper is not something you find in restaurant here, you have to ask for them.

We rolled back to the hotel, full of dumplings and good stories and laughter and satisfaction at being with family again. Our hotel is interesting, the rooms all face a courtyard which I’m sure is beautiful in the summertime. During the winter, it is interesting, with bare tree branches twisting and turning, casting shadows on the walks. Strange-shaped rocks and little ponds dot the space, and the paths wind in and out of the landscaping. Red Chinese lanterns hang along the walkways, gold dragons crawl across a blue background on the walls in our room, and stenciled on the ceilings are Chinese designs. It is bright and cheery and warm and dry. After a short walk back home in the freezing cold, it felt so good to walk through the doors into warmth.

I picked a designated shelf in the kids’ room where they could deposit their gloves, hats, and buffs. I’m giving it a fifty/fifty chance that we’ll leave Beijing with all these items. We recited the first part of Psalm 139, we started memorizing it after we finished Luke 2 for Christmas. Those words, “you are familiar with all my ways” are such wonderful words to hang on to when so many things change each day. Different beds, different guides, different cities, different toothpaste.

Clay and I discovered, as we brushed out teeth with the toothpaste we’d picked up at a convenience store on the way back to the hotel after dinner, that our new flavor was “green tea”. How very, very Chinese. We were told by a fellow customer that we wouldn’t find any deodorant, and sure enough, when Clay googled it, we read that deodorant can’t be bought in China to save your life. So, we’ll have green tea breath and possibly stinky bodies for the next few weeks. None of that seemed to matter, as we told my parents goodnight and went to our rooms. It’s still an adventure, and for now we get to share our adventure with some family who loves us. Even with green tea breath.


Saturday, 26 January 2008

The first thing we did when we woke up this morning was check the clothes, and lo and behold, they were dry! The air here is really dry, especially with the heavy duty heaters. Reason to celebrate, I started calculating how many things I could wash with our new and improved dry time.

Today was our day to explore the sights in Beijing, starting with the Forbidden City. It was our first taste of getting out in the frigid weather for extended periods of time, it was cold. Really, really cold. We pulled up our buffs over our faces and ears, and our hats down low over our foreheads until all you could see were our eyes. I have decided I resemble a turtle with my boxy green hat and green buff wrinkling up my neck. Fashion is no longer an issue, just staying warm. Our family each had four layers, with long underwear, long sleeve shirts, fleeces and rain jackets, plus the gloves and hats and buffs.

Only the emperor and his family could live in the Forbidden City. Of course he needed his servants, in total about 10,000 people. We admired the architecture as our teeth chattered and our toes froze and it felt awfully good when we got back in the van and thawed out. We did learn some things, the number of animals on the eaves of the buildings signified its importance, and fire was a real danger. Protection from fires were all around, from mythical creatures who could fight fires to the giant pots full of water all around the perimeters of the buildings. Buckets were used to sling the water onto fires in a giant assembly line of servants.

Red and yellow were imperial colors, used on all the buildings. These are also the colors of the Chinese flag. Red is for revolution, and yellow is for the color of the people’s skin. The Communist flag for China has one big star, to stand for Communist party, and four little stars that stand for workers, farmers, soldiers and students. Our kids loved the quizzes Marco came up with and he made Chinese history interesting for them, they listened and asked questions and remembered things they never would have remembered if they read it in a textbook.

After the Imperial Palace, we took a rickshaw ride through the Hutong neighborhood. The rickshaw consisted of a bench seat, pulled by a bicycle. Our driver spread a thick blanket up over our legs, and we were snug as a bug as he pedaled along. The Hutong is a very old neighborhood, homes built around courtyards, skinny streets that remind me of alleys back home, and communal bathrooms. The homes have no bathrooms and the residents have to run across the street when they needed to go. I prayed the kids could hold it until later that afternoon. The houses and walls were all painted gray, I don’t know how they could tell them apart. Apparently, it isn’t easy, even for the locals.

Our destination in the Hutong was a private home where we would eat lunch, but we showed up at the wrong house, confusion ensued accompanied by lots of rapid unhappy Mandarin, wild hand gestures, and our quick departure. We decided to hang out near a frozen river while we waited for things to get sorted out. Clay and the kids climbed over the low wall and slid all over the place, kicking around pieces of ice and chasing each other around. The frozen area was huge, we could see kids far away sliding just like we were. It was a different experience, I’ve never been on such a big expanse of frozen water.

The directions were eventually sorted out and we set out on foot, with only Mamaw and Papa following behind in their own rickshaw, in imperial style. I asked Marco how the home was chosen, how they found an individual who would be willing to serve strangers lunch. Of course they are paid, a big incentive in this now poor neighborhood, but Marco said they actually have to try out, and are chosen for the quality of their food. I wondered how that would work in our neighborhood back in Texas, bringing in tourists for lunch, what would I serve them? Black bean dip and grilled, marinated chicken, maybe some brownies for dessert . . . it’s been a long time since I’ve cooked.

The home we entered had a table set for us in a small dining room. We were invited by the “auntie” to learn how to make our own dumplings. She led us across a small courtyard into her bedroom, where we sat on her bed and observed how she patted bits of dough into small circles. It felt strange to be so familiar, sitting on this woman’s bed with her books on the night table and her reading glasses sitting to the side, making dumplings. We first flattened balls of dough into circles and then filled them with a mixture of diced pork and vegetables. Finally, we folded them over into half moons. After making the dumplings, we went back to the dining table, passing a small room where a brightly dressed woman tended a boiling pot and sizzling skillet. Our lunch. We piled our coats and hats and gloves on the couch behind our chairs. Four little cats lurked around the perimeter, trying to bury themselves in our coats or jump into our laps. Alayna got the sniffles, her cat allergy kicking in. In the next room, an older man and young boy sat on the couch, watching TV.

We had one of the best meals we’ve had on our trip, they started bringing out food and they just wouldn’t stop. Marco said the biggest meal of the day in a typical Chinese family is lunch, and dinner is the smallest. We had the same small plates and chopsticks we’d seen previously at the restaurant, plus a small bowl for rice, and the foods mixed together on our plates and our palates. Dumplings and snow peas in garlic and pork in sweet and sour sauce and broccoli and rice and beef with mushrooms and chicken with carrots and peppers and mushrooms and chicken and . . . we ate until we were all stuffed.

After lunch the auntie introduced herself as the grandmother of the family, her husband the grandfather was the older man in the next room and the young boy was her grandson. The brightly dressed woman who was helping cook our food was the grandmother’s daughter, she was a Tibetan Buddhist and their home where they all lived together was filled with artwork she’d brought from Tibet. The boy offered us each a cookie from a box, and when they were gone before he got to me, he gave me the box to keep. The kids wanted to give the boy something in return, they gave him the lego magazine we had brought along in Clay’s backpack. He looked a little confused, I don’t know if he really knew what legos were, but he opened it up and studied it carefully.

This family had just one boy, Marco’s wife had their first son just four months ago, and when we encountered families as we walked around, there was never more than one child per pair of parents. The one child policy is real life here. I can’t imagine having the government tell me how many children I could have, I wonder if the Chinese mourn the loss of choice, the loss of opportunity, the loss of a bigger family. Marco talked about the problems their country encounters with such a huge population, 1.3 billion people, they have more people than any other country in the world. Not enough jobs, not enough food, in schools the classes can be overcrowded, and there aren’t enough homes for them all. Real problems.

Marco’s parents are members of the Communist party. I didn’t realize you had to apply to be a member, that it was a difficult process involving tests and interviews. Only fifteen percent of the population are actually members of the Communist party. He said it is helpful to be a member if you want a political career, his parents were both in the military. He traveled a lot as a kid and said he thought our kids were getting a great education just being on the road. He said when his parents woke up each morning the first thing they wondered was if they would eat that day. Today, he says people wake up and wonder what will I eat. He says things are getting better under communism, there are not so many hungry people anymore. He explained that today, while China is Communist politically, it is capitalist economically. Marco said his god is money, the Chinese god is money. In 2007, China was just behind Germany, in fourth place, for highest GNP. But if the GNP was per person, China would rank 130th.

After thanking auntie for our delicious lunch, we took our rickshaws back to the van and headed to the Temple of Heaven. As we entered the gates we saw some older woman waving sticks with ribbons tied on, making patterns all around them with rippling colors. Figure eights and giant circles, they seemed totally uninhibited by anyone around them, just enjoying themselves. Marco bought the boys a toy, some plastic rings with colorful feathers, they kicked it around like a hacky sack. The boys, Clay and Marco included, kicked the feather toy back and forth as we walked onward.

Under a long, covered walkway older people gathered in large and small groups. Some played cards or games with their own feather balls, others gathered around and sang songs in lusty voices, accompanied by a guitar or foreign Chinese instruments. Marco explained that retired people like to hang out at this Temple of Heaven, and it was so fun to watch them all enjoying themselves, at ease in their retired world. There was no planned activity, they sang the songs they felt like singing, mostly popular songs they remembered from their youth. “Like Love Me Tender,” said Marco. I tried to imagine Clay’s parents and my parents and all their friends belting out Love Me Tender in a public park, totally uninhibited. Perhaps strength comes in numbers, and they would be just as at ease.

The temple itself is no longer used as a temple but as a public park. It was once used by the emperor, just twice a year, to pray for a good harvest, a good year. It was quite the spectacle, he would come to enter the temple and worship, then he would sit on his royal chair in an outdoor square, and dancers would perform at the four corners. Kind of like a half time celebration. Then he would leave, and this huge, beautiful temple, would remain unused and uninhabited until six months later.

The Chinese believed that the earth was square and the heavens were a circle, so they built many of their temples as circles. In one part, we entered a wall that was a perfect circle. Half of us went to one side, half to the other. Marco called, into the wall, “Can you hear me?” and we could, standing on the opposite side. His voice sounded as if it were coming from somewhere over the wall, to our left. The acoustics were fun, we had a good time yelling at the wall, back and forth to each other.

That night we went to a kung fu show, it was a busy day. We arrived back at the hotel with just an hour to rest, no one was very hungry for dinner. Marco was back at the theater, holding our seats so we’d have a good spot for the show. He is really a peach of a guide, one of the best we’ve had. We can tell he loves what he does, and loves people. We opted for peanut butter and honey sandwiches for dinner, supplemented with some nuts and yogurt from the convenience store around the corner. I forgot to get different toothpaste, we’d have to suffer another day of green tea breath. It wasn’t growing on us.

Marco explained earlier, in the car, what kung fu was. All I knew before that night was that kung fu was some sort of martial art with a lot of kicking. It actually originated with monks. It takes ten years to become a Kung Fu Master, and that’s not ten years of taking your kids to a one hour class after school. That’s ten years of living as a monk and fine-tuning your body every day. Toughening it up. It is quite a discipline. One way they use to toughen their hands is to plunge them into burning hot sand, over and over, until they aren’t bothered by the heat anymore. They carry water buckets with arms straight out, or stir giant pots of food while suspending themselves over the bubbling pot,  hanging from a pole above the pot by their knees.

These exercises eventually enable the monk to balance himself with his neck on a spear point, or lay down on nails and have a man, another tablet of nails, a heavy marble slab, and a sledgehammer applied to him, and survive unharmed, unmarked. It was quite a show. Marco brought the kids ice cream before the show started, a big treat. In addition to the cool stunts, a story was told of a boy brought to a monastery at a young age by his mom. This boy eventually became a master at kung fu. There was lots of kicking and groups of monks with strong, lean bodies jumping around. The kids watched the show wide-eyed and open-mouthed, I know there will be kung fu related accidents in the weeks to come as the boys practice their moves.


Sunday, 27 January 2008

In the morning we visited the Ming tombs, situated outside the city where it was cold, cold, cold. While I don’t remember much from the tombs, I do remember the giant orange Marco appeared with when we got back on the bus. At least it looked like a giant orange, about the size of a cantaloupe. He handed it to the kids, told them to go to the back of the van, and figure out a way to open it. I immediately went into mother mode, “Be careful guys, don’t get all sticky, anyone have any napkins?” Marco appeared with wet wipes and the kids went to work. They tore at the flesh with their fingernails, Nate was the first to sample the thick white stuff they came to before they hit the actual fruit, and declared it bitter and inedible.  They finally got down to the orange fruit, which we found similar in taste to a grapefruit. The kids enjoyed the opening more than the actual fruit.

We visited the Great Wall in the afternoon, going to a section that is less frequented by tourists. A cable car zipped us to the top, where we were able to walk along the top of the wall. It didn’t seem very high, it seemed much harder to get over the surrounding mountains than the wall, but it gave Chinese the advantage of seeing the enemy approach and being able to signal each other along the wall. The enemy was the Huns, entering from Mongolia to the north. The Chinese lit fires to alert of an approaching enemy, one fire meant 1000 soldiers, two fires meant 3000, and 3 fires meant more than 5000.

Mom and Dad were troopers, climbing along the wall for quite awhile, even the steep parts. They eventually decided to stop, encouraging us to carry on as far as we wanted to go. I had my sights set on a high watch tower, about half way up the closest hill. The kids said they didn’t want to go, so at the base they stopped and I started walking up the stairs. It was much higher than it looked from below, I had to stop several times to catch my breath, and by the time I got to the top I was ready to take off my hat and gloves and buff and jacket. I looked back down to wave, but couldn’t see the kids or Clay. They had decided to climb after all, and I cheered them all the way up to join me.

We climbed 454 steps to get to the top, Alayna counted. We were rewarded with amazing views, and we had it almost all to ourselves. The only other person was a Chinese man, who offered to take our picture. Sweating, and proud, Nate said “if you’re going to go to the Great Wall, you have to climb to the top, who knows if you’ll come back! The entire wall stretches 3,000 miles, Marco said one man hiked the entire thing, and it took three and a half years.

Between our trips to the Ming tombs and the Great Wall, we did a lot of driving. We got through a math lesson with the kids, did their journals, and got a great history lesson from Marco. He told about the different dynasties, and what was important about each one. The Chinese have offered the world four important inventions: the compass, printing press, rice paper, and gun powder. We heard about the different emperors, and how nasty they could be. The tricks they played, the lies they lied to stay in power, I wouldn’t have wanted to be an emperor. I wouldn’t have wanted to get near the emperor. Things were dangerous in his presence.

By the time we got home again it was dark outside. It was a long day, but we had walked on the Great Wall of China, dissected a giant orange, and got up to date on our journals. A day well spent.


Monday, 28 January 2008

This morning we started at the Summer Palace, outside the city. I would love to see what this place looks like in the spring and summer, it lies on the banks of a giant lake and would be just beautiful. When we arrived, the lake was frozen. Despite the sign that warned visitors not to get on the ice, there were plenty of people sliding around on the slippery surface.

We marveled at the excesses of the royal family who used this palace. In the winter they had servants chip up the ice from the lake and bury it in the hills, so in the summer it could be dug up and used to cool the house. Huge mosquito nets were draped over entire structures so they could open the window and keep the pesky critters at bay, and a long walkway was erected so the royalty could walk along the edge of the lake without holding a parasol to keep the sun off their delicate skin. Along this walkway were a thousand paintings, each one different.  One path was bordered with smooth, round rocks, set in interesting patterns. Marco explained these were used for reflexology. Immediately, despite the freezing cold, Clay and the kids took off their shoes to give it a try. I preferred to just admire the pretty patterns. Any sort of relief those rocks could give would be offset by the frostbite.

We’ve learned more than we ever wanted to know about pearls, and jade, and cloisonné, the ever-present “buying opportunities” have not been escaped, even with our awesome guide. He told us part of his job is showing us the local “culture”, the handicrafts they are known for. After all, money is god, and the government would be remiss if they didn’t try and get the tourist dollar any way they can.

We can now tell real jade from fake, real pearls from fake, and real cloisonné from fake. It is interesting, so often I assume things are made by machines, and to see how they are created, crafted by hand by real people, painstakingly painting tiny designs or carving the tiniest of designs on a piece of jade, it makes them that much more interesting. At the Summer Palace, Marco told us about the empress who used the pearls taken from oysters in her lake to crush into powder for her skin or drink in her tea. They gave her longevity and good fortune. So guess what we visited after we left the palace? A pearl place! Nate fished a giant freshwater oyster out of a tank, a man split it open with his knife, and inside were nestled over twenty tiny pink pearls. Each of the kids got to keep a few of these pearls, they weren’t anything special, only one or two years old. The older the oyster, the better the pearl. Want to know the different between fresh and salt water pearls?

We had lunch at an ancient restaurant where the emperor once dined, women dressed as concubines led us to our table. We were served quite a feast. When they served abalone, Clay googled it on his to find out exactly what it was. We discovered they are a type of sea snail. There was plenty of abalone left on the plate, though Clay ate one and Alayna tried it. Alayna also ate a carrot that was magnificently carved into a prawn complete with eyes and claws. The waitress was disturbed when she saw Alayna bite its head off, she mimicked that it wasn’t to be eaten and hurried out of the room. We wondered about the reason. What if they saved this delicate creation to be used for the next table as well, how many tourists had seen this little shellfish, how many had taken pictures with its head in their mouth?

After lunch the kids had their picture taken with a concubine (how many kids can say that?), and then visited a temple with many small temples, each with a Buddha inside. We learned a lot more about Buddhism, and ended up in a temple with a 50 foot Buddha, carved from a single trunk of a sandalwood tree. Sandalwood is a very strong wood, which is very rare these days, found only deep in the forests. Marco showed us the correct way to kowtow, kneeling in front of a Buddha and touching his forehead to the ground three times. He showed us how to put your hands together the right way, with air in between. He told us that the Tibetan worshippers kowtow a different way, throwing their entire body on the ground. As much of their body as possible needs to touch the ground. As we walked among the temples, we noticed large stacks of food and drinks. Cartons of orange juice containers, beer, yogurt, dried fruit and eggs. This particular temple gives their employees these as a gift at New Year’s each year (next week). As we left we passed a line of monks tossing each other the boxes, to be loaded in a van and delivered.

We finished off our last day in Beijing by going ice skating, or rather “chair” skating. Marco, Clay and the kids paid for some chairs with sled runners on the bottom and took off across a crowded frozen pond. They pushed each other, or propelled themselves with little poles that were screw drivers with metal spikes welded to them. They made long chains, linking their chair together in a line and scooting around. They slid in their tennis shoes, and Clay practiced his Olympic moves. Think Clay doing Tai Chi on ice. Oh, how he loves to embarrass Alayna.

While they frolicked in the cold, my mom, dad and I sat in a warm tea house, looking on while we sipped hot, hot tea. We weren’t really sure how to drink it, a quarter of the glass was filled with the tea leaves which floated in the tea, making it difficult to sip. We decided we were just supposed to spit any errant leaves out on a napkin, and fold it daintily next to our plate. It reminded me of when my Papa would take us to the ice cream store. I always got bubble gum ice cream, and each time I encountered a round piece of bubble gum in my scoop, I would spit it out on a napkin. When I finished I would count how many pieces I had gotten.  While we sipped, a cricket chirped loudly nearby. I never did find out if it was a real cricket or just being broadcast through speaker, simulating that good luck sound.

The skaters eventually tired and they all trooped in for some warmth. The kids had hot chocolate, Nate managed to cough half of his up when an air bubble got stuck in his throat. This was a very non-teahouse thing to do, I was glad they had concrete floors. They could easily be cleaned! After getting warm we headed back to the hotel. We did a dumpling dinner one more time for old time’s sake, then headed back to the rooms to pack and get ready for our early morning departure. We would miss Marco, he was a wonderful guide. Tomorrow a new city, a new guide, a new day. Psalm 139.