Sunday, November 15

Telecommunications in China

I was afraid to write about this while in China because I wasn't sure how legal my telecommunications setup would have been perceived by the Chinese authorities. While Internet is widely available in Cafes and hotels, the chinese government keeps a tight leash on what sites its citizens can visit. While I had heard about this before, I had no idea how tight their control was. China restricts access to most of the sites I planned to use to keep in touch with family and friends. Blogger, Blogspot, Twitter, Youtube and parts of Facebook are blocked. You still were able to read my blog while I was in China, so it means I found a way around the firewall :) Indeed, after a bit of investigation (kind of difficult since most sites dealing with the subject are blocked), I found a solution: Skydur. Their small fee was more than worth the freedom to visit any site I wanted and the installation was pretty easy, even on my Linux powered netbook.

The story is the complete opposite for cell phone communications. I knew that I could use my unlocked phone in China and simply get a SIM card, which are plentiful and available everywhere in China from cell phone stores to newspaper stands. While plans are varied and quite hard to understand for a foreigner, rates are really cheap compared to Canada. I was able to find a SIM card for about $10 that was loaded with a bit less than $5 of prepaid airtime. I found later that if I went to the market instead of the official provider, I could have gotten the same card for about $6. The $5 of prepaid airtime was more than enough to last me through the entire trip and make and receive many calls from friends and relatives as well as make internal to China long distances to arrange hotels, tours, etc. Everytime I made a call, I would think it was my last, expecting the $5 to have run out but when I left there was still gas in the tank. Amazing! For overseas called, I used a callback service that allowed me to talk as much as I wanted with rates at about 11 cents per minute, charged to my credit card once a month. This worked really well with my prepaid plan which as far as I understood, included unlimited incoming calls.

Thursday, November 12

Last day in Beijing

For our last day in Beijing, we decided to visit a park near our hotel: Beihai Park. It's a pretty old park and features a beautiful lake and a small hill where a white dagoba rests.
This tree is really old and has a famous history of having provided shade to an emperor. Mildly cool.
This temple contains a -no photographs allowed- jade buddha of 1.5m that was a gift to the emperor. Apparently the buddha has no flaws whatsoever.
Beautiful scenery all around
This cool turtle lion is guarding the templeThe way to the dagoba has all kinds of interesting caves
And they all seemed to contain a different sculpture. I liked this one
The view from the top was interesting
Even if it doesn't look like you can get inside the dagoba.
The way down features some nice rock formations that are really interesting to walk through
And the lake side is a beautiful walk on its own
For dinner, we found a Thai/Indonesia place where we had a really delicious mixed grill. Look at this platter. Delicious.
And after dinner, we caught an acrobatics show. No cameras allowed, sorry. Here's a picture of the pamphlet to wet your appetite.
These gymnasts/dancers were really talented. One of the stand out performance involved about a dozen girls riding on a single bike in an inverted pyramid. Wow! Some juggling, tap dancing, contortionists, loose rope jumping and playing with props like lights at the ends of a rope rounded the show into a really good night out.

Tomorrow is travelling back to Canada. While I will miss China, I am ready to go back. I may do a few more pieces of debriefing / thoughts after the trip but it most likely won't be until at least Saturday.

Tuesday, November 10

Summer Palace, Peking Duck & Home sickness

Today when we woke up in Beijing, we knew something had happened overnight, having been woken up twice by thunder. I wasn't prepared for this sight when I left the room!
I'm not sure what will happen to all these bicycles over the Beijing winter
The rain and snow definitively cleaned the air up with the air being pretty breathable today, yay!

Even with all that snow, we decided to visit the summer palace. It definitively looked more like a winter palace today!
It features beautiful buildings and a rewarding view once we climbed the main hill.
Some of the areas were closed, probably because of the weather. These boats seemed stuck in ice at the moment.
I must admit the traditional chinese style has lost a bit of its appeal after more than 4 weeks here. Still, with the snow, it gave the traditional style a renewed twist
The emperor really knew how to live in style with beautiful buildings and twisty paths everywhere
One could easily get lost with all these paths, but I can think of worse fate than being lost in such beautiful surroundings
The palace also features a man made lake with an island in the middle
Simply beautiful!

For dinner tonight, we decided to try the famous Peking Duck. After asking around at the hotel, we settled on a place nearby called Da Dong that both the concierge and travel book both spoke highly of.
We had some trouble actually getting to the place. With the snow, the Beijing taxi fleet was obviously overstretched and our hotel couldn't even reach the switch board. They suggested hailing one from the main road about a block away. When we got to the main street, we quickly realised that all the taxis were either occupied or not even interested in stopping despite our obvious call signs. Even after they would stop, once they would learn of our destination, they would say it is too close and drive away! What kind of city is this when taxis are refusing fares? With a flag fall of 10 yuan for the first 4km, you'd think they love short distances to get more money for less mileage? The restaurant being somewhat close by, we decided to walk it after too many frustration dealing with the cabs. We relied on strangers for directions every now and then (good thing we had the Chinese address on a piece of paper provided by the friendly concierge)!

When we got there, we noticed that this was quite the high class dining establishment. I loved the setup with a fish pond surrounding the 4 ovens used to cook the birds!
From our table, we could see the working chefs and guess at which bird would end up in our belly :)
Once the duck was ready, a server side chef carved it up for us
At which point our soup arrived. You gotta love the Chinese style service. Try as they might and be friendly and smiling, they should take a lesson from the French and learn to stagger the dishes into appetizers, main dishes, desserts, etc. When eating in China, they bring whatever is ready whenever it is ready. Sometimes the soup comes last. Sometimes the sweet tarts are the first thing brought to the table. They have no sense of timing for food. The sweet and sour soup was delicious even if ill timed.
There is surprinsingly little meat in a Peking duck. I was under the impression that ducks were birds bigger than chicken and that one ought to feed a family of four comfortably. All we got once our table side carver was finished were two small plates likes the one in the picture
The proper way to eat a Peking duck according to the waitress and what everyone around us was doing is to make little sandwiches with the pancakes (think shawarma or fajita) and add the condiments that you like from a provided selection of cucumbers, onions, thick soy sauce, garlic paste, etc
This seemed completely wrong to me. The duck was absolutely delicious. The crisp skin was tasty and melted in your mouth. The little meat we were given was moist and absolutely deliciously flavored. To mix it in with the pancakes and condiments that way would deny our taste buds of the various levels of flavors from the duck and drown it amongst too many tastes. Not to say that the exquisite texture would be completely lost. I had mine as is, eating the pancakes and condiments on their own as well.

Once we were done with the main dish, I kept thinking where's the rest of my duck? Alex explained that this was most probably it, but there may be hope in that the Hong Kong style 3 piece meal includes a duck stir fry at the end with the left overs from the carving. We were not so lucky and I quickly realised this was it when we received this beautiful and smoking fruit platter
My Peking Duck experience was almost a total disaster. I had heard great things about the bird and the way it is prepared, but did not expect such a tease of a meal, especially at such a relatively high price tag for China. Maybe I need a whole bird to myself next time or find somewhere that does Peking Turkeys.

What I did have was delicious but not filling at all and I went to KFC after to fill up the hole left in my stomach.

With only one full day left in Beijing, I'm wondering where all my home sickness is... There are a lot of things I miss about home (family, friends, clean water and air, salads and the pets for starters) and there are some things I can't wait to be without (playing charades with everyone, cutting in line, spitting in the street, YUCK!). Yet, I am not feeling an overruling desire to be home. I think having this blog and receiving your comments (THANK YOU!) has helped feel connected. Plus the phone calls at odd hours to my family on a semi-regular basis (sorry!) has helped me stay current on local news. While I do not miss TV, I know my PVR will have a pile of programs for me to work through.

Going back to a routine will be difficult but also welcomed. I can't wait to be able to chit chat with the girl on the bus and understand what the intercoms are saying at shopping centers. It's funny that sometimes the little things makes the biggest difference.

Monday, November 9

The Wall

In China, there is a saying that you haven't seen China until you have seen the Great Wall of China. And today, I have seen China (and the Great Wall). Let me tease you with this one picture before I tell my tale ;)
The day started with another visit to a silk factory. Apparently that helps defray the gas costs of the journey.
We then drove by the business district where we saw the tallest building in Beijing
And these cute towers
As well as the new CCTV building with a very daring architecture, right beside the old one that burned down during a fireworks celebration
We then drove to a restaurant beside a ming vase factory (sorry, forgot to take pictures) and then reached our destination: Mutianyu
That's me at the base of the mountain
Can I spread the moment a bit further before showing you the actual wall? We took a cable car on the way up. Travel in style or don't travel at all!
And then we were on the wall!
Wow. What a feeling. What a beautiful sight. What clean air! I don't know if it's my oxygen starved brain after too many days in dusty Beijing but I felt terrific. I was running up and down the stairs like a maniac, breathing relief and taking in the sights. WOW! Words cannot describe it.

There are watchouses every 100m or so where groups of soldiers would stand guard and warn other outpost with smoke signals if enemies were approaching

These watchouses are pretty small, here's a view from the inside
And here's another view
And me standing around looking happy
The wall itself is beautiful. The area we visited is fairly recent by wall standard, having being erected only 500 or so year ago and renovated about 20-30 years ago if I understood the guide correctly.
Here's an attempt at an artistic shot
We climbed pretty high up, probably because I am the EndorphinBuzzer and will not turn down a reasonable challenge. The guide never went that high up before and Alex didn't really have a choice to follow if he didn't want to look like a coward. I'm really happy we chose to get our own private guide for the day, we may not have had the opportunity to spend so much time there otherwise.
I will never forget how beautiful the wall is, snaking across the wilderness. How could they build such a long and beautiful thing before the invention of machines?
You can see here in the distance that the wall splits or forks into two children. The guide said that Mutianyu is particular for that.
Look at all those steps. All those bricks had to be carried by workers and their mules. Wow.
And the wall just doesn't stop. I think I heard that it is over 5000 km long. Do I sound amazed already? I am!
As if the wall itself wasn't enough to amaze me, there was wonderful sights everywhere I looked! Look at this lonely tree on the mountain top!
Then I looked at the wall again, snaking away from me, wanting me to climb it some more!
I took some breaks while I waited for the rest of the party to catch up to me ;)
And once I reached the highest point accessible to the public, I was rewarded with beautiful views. I still can't believe they built this gigantic structure so remote in the mountains so long ago. I am losing my vocabulary. Sorry.
Unfortunately for me (fortunately for the rest of my party) this was the highest point accessible.
So it made a good picture opportunity for the rest of the wall being restored (too wild to walk on the guide told us)
Here is a really bad picture of me, but I like it because you can see the wall snaking away in the background!
It was snowing on our way down. Cute.
Another shot of the wall snaking away before we part?
On the way home, we visited a tea house. We tasted some yummy tea but unfortunately the price were crazy ever for tourist standards so I didn't get any. Hopefully I can find the same leaves on the street for more reasonable prices.
The saying is true. You haven't seen China until you have seen the great walls. Of all the sites around Beijing, I think Mutianyu was the best for us. The EndorphinBuzzer on his own would have chosen a more adventurous path like Simatai to JingShanLing but with Alex in tow, the cable car accessibility and the low number of tourists of Mutianyu turned out to be just perfect!

I am now fully re-oxygenized with clean mountain air and ready for another 2.5 days of exploring Beijing before coming home where I will face the difficult task of returning to a routine life after 5 weeks on holidays. How will I ever be able to go back to cooking for myself, getting up in the morning and working to earn my keep?