Tuesday, January 27

Beijing--Chinese New Year 2009

The Year of the Cow. It is now officially 2009 everywhere in the world.

I have just returned to my lovely apartment, where my refrigerator smelled of rotten eggs and the metal of my computer was probably the same ten degrees Celsius as my thermostat registered when I turned it on. But! I have been to Beijing. (What a word, fairly crowned in English with three little dots).

I intend to give a brief description here, and upload more photos to Flickr for those of you who are really into it, and for Daniel whom I promised artsy, non-touristy photos.

This was my travel buddy Emily:

Emily and I left early on Saturday morning, arriving in Beijing to sample dozens of Chinese dishes from a rotating glass sheet atop our table. This worked well for our tour group of twenty-two, unless we were tired and cranky and wary of not getting our couple bites of chicken or bok choy.

We went right off to the Temple of Heaven:

Then to a tea house, where the adorable woman in green informed us of the "wery unique flawors" of hand rolled/fifty-year-old/flower-unfolding tea. We learned to transfer our tea from our tall smelling cups to our flatter drinking cups by putting one atop the other, flipping, and lifting slowly to release the tea. We also learned to finish in three sips, each representing something like health, happiness, and longevity... then she demonstrated the best way to make sure your tea is at eighty degrees--you pour the water over a "pee pee boy" whose three-foot spray only sputters if the water is sufficiently warm.

Afterward was the Flying Acrobatics show (this and the silk being what lured me to China in the first place). We couldn't take pictures, but I wish you could have seen the twelve girls on one bicycle; the men catapulting other men off boards and onto chairs on twelve-foot poles; the men leaping and diving through tiny hoops; the two men balanced in rotating cages who threw their weight to either side to get them to spin; the eight little girls who holding themselves in inverted pyramids upon only the hands of two members; and the man who could stand balanced on a board atop a cylinder, while holding on his shoulders another man balanced on another board and cylinder who proceeded to flick bowls, one into another, onto the rigging atop his head.

Yeah. That.

Next day, visit to a jade factory, where we learned the feng shui of where to point our cabbage leaves in order to draw money into the house, and to turn our neighbors cabbages the wrong way round in order to send their money our direction.

On our way to the Great Wall, we passed the unfinished and abandoned Disney Land. Lying in an expanse of brown grass, colors muted and palace a mere skeleton, the park seemed a supercilious extravagance, especially so close to something so truly incredible as the Great Wall.

Something with so, so many steps...

I made it up enough steps that I was sweating under my coat, sweater, sweater, and undershirt, while my toes froze under their boots, wool socks, and cotton socks. And the view was incredible.

On the stones, visitors had scratched and painted evidence of the truly global appeal of the wall. In the corner of the watchtower I inspected, I found graffiti in Chinese, English, and Korean.

The control necessary in making a slow descent on seriously uneven stairs had my legs trembling. By the time I hit the ramp section toward the bottom, I was fairly certain my legs would give out and I was prepared to crumple gently and without protest to the stone.

After the wall, we visited a lovely tourist trap where we watched how they make cloisonne pots before they let us eat lunch--another selection of Chinese food, rather similar to American Chinese food, except that we plucked it from the rotating glass with our chopsticks.

Off to the Ming Tombs! (See blog title photo and following.)

Then, we saw how they make silk, pulling the cocoon from a silk worm and stretching the fibers. A silk quilt can go twenty years and not need anything but spot cleaning. Silk doesn't hold dust, and it doesn't bunch, so you don't have to tie the quilt. It also doesn't absorb water. In the corner of the silk store were hefty bolts of silk with shiny red blossoms, shimmering gold dragons, and silver-plumed phoenix. The salesgirl nearly convinced me that I should buy enough to have a local tailor make me a dress (twenty-four hour turn-around, some of these places!) Anyway, anything resembling a fabric store holds a sweet nostalgia for me as the daughter of a seamstress.

Back at the hotel, Emily and I collapsed. In the birthplace of fireworks, every family puts on their own show, in the middle of any and every street, up to, during, and after the new year. We fell asleep to the off-tempo percussion of fireworks. And we awoke, at midnight precisely, to what might have been the entire 17 million people of Beijing stomping miles of bubble wrap in a thunderstorm. Emily and I, faces to the cold glass, watched the fireworks from our window.

The next day, we visited Tienanmen Square. Our tour guide quoted someone saying that maybe only seventy percent of what Chairman Mao did was good, but that without him, there would be no New China. In the vast, paved square, all I could think of was the gatherings Orwell wrote into 1984. I couldn't imagine, I suppose due to the technology present since the time of my consciousness, the necessity for such a massive gathering place. Now, we have the television and Internet. A long time ago, they had forums, piazzas, squares. Anyway, our tour guide says he doesn't know what happened that day twenty years ago, whether students were killed, or military. But the thought of scraping any bodies up off the pavement, right in the middle of the city, settled between four major streets, is horrifying.

Next, we took a rickshaw on a Hutong tour, led by one aptly named "Robin" to whose moniker I desperately wanted to add "Goodfellow," as he wore a pallet of earthy greens and grinned about the matchmakers who tricked families into undesirable matches. "She would tell a boy with a limp, ride a horse to the girl's house and don't get off." He also showed us the tools with which they like to train fighting crickets. "This one is for angering the cricket," he said, holding one of a set of what might have been miniature fire pokers.


On to the Summer Palace, where the Empress and her son, the youngest emperor would spend their summers. Here, vendors hawked bird whistles, that actually made it sound like it was summer. There was a beautiful walkway, and this large lake from which they pull oysters and pearls. In the summer, you can even take boats out on the lake.

Of course, it was winter, so these people didn't need boats...

And then, off to the Forbidden City and its 9,999 rooms where the Emperor kept all his concubines and, of course, his wife. He had his concubines bathed and carried to him nude in a sheet by four eunuchs, so as to be sure she wasn't concealing any weapons.

Mostly I liked that he had places like his "Hall of Literary Brilliance" and "Hall of Mental Cultivation," and "Hall of Preserving Harmony."

And I liked that, outside the Forbidden City, people bought pink spinning flowers...

And that inside the City, they played rousing games of HackMintonBadSack--like hackey sack with a feathered ball. Fun for all ages. See below.

That night, we visited snack street, where our tour guide encouraged us not to eat anything.

I was tempted, though, by the sticks of candied fruit, and the boys behind the counter telling me, "Hello? Hello, I love you!" Emily and I made our way through more of a snack alley, buying anything that looked interesting (palatable) and trying a bite -- fried squid balls, bean sprout wraps, kebab, and candied fruit.

This morning, we left Beijing in a taxi.

I wondered if it would be lonely coming home, but not home. It was and it wasn't. I'm glad to be back in my Korean office tel, listening to familiar sounds of "-imnida" and seeing the entirely un-intimidating Hangeul script on the storefronts, and finding e-mails from family and friends.

More observations to come, and Flickr information to follow.

Thursday, January 1

Daniel Comes to Korea

After a delayed flight and a sleepless night in LAX, Daniel arrived in Seoul Christmas night. The cold stung our cheeks and turned our ears and noses a red to rival Rudolph's, so he promptly donned the hat and scarf I gave him as a gift. As soon as we walked in my apartment, I heard the zip of his large red suitcase and he began pulling out presents from our mom and my friends. Thank you everyone! I felt so spoiled.

I taught him to say "hello," "thank you," and "nice to meet you," in Korean. When I woke up coughing in the night, he rolled over and said, "gamsamnida." He knew more Korean in the first two days than I did.

The next day, Daniel was happy to see that Koreans also drink Pepsi.

Friday I got pretty sick again, so Saturday, I psyched him up to venture into Seoul by himself and meet up with Kyoung Tae. She took him to see a war museum, and a park in the Han River, and a tea house in Hongdae.

Early Sunday morning, I took myself to the emergency room by taxi for another ear infection, and we spent the rest of the day hanging out. He was really very sweet about it, sharing a twin bed with a person so sick.
He tried many new foods, including bibimbap, kimchi, kimbap, bulgogi, hodo guaja and sashimi. Mmm, yum!

Thursday, we met my darling friend Ji Hyun for what we thought would be lunch, but turned out to be a day packed with sight seeing. She took us to lunch, to a palace

to Myeongdong

to Insadong

and to Seoul Tower observatory before taking us to dinner.

Thursday we met up with Kyoung Tae again, and, since it was a holiday (세헤 복 많이 받으세요 ~ Many blessings and luck for the new year!), got to see this lovely girl in the traditional hanbock at the sushi buffet.

Happy New Year, everybody!