Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Winter Break 2011-2012: Beijing

Winter Break 2011-2012: Beijing

On Wednesday, January 18th, 2012, the commendable David Emmert and I stumbled back into Beijing from Singapore via Hong Kong. David was cloaked in a beard, a t-shirt, and shorts; I wore my flannel and sweatshirt and had my scarf and stocking cap ready for the northern capital, since I’d been lugging my warmer clothes all around Southeast Asia with us. The city appeared not to have changed since we’d left (read: it was still frighteningly smoggy).

There were two days of down time for me before the next tidal wave of activity hit. Thursday I only left my home to go eat and sing at 노래방 in Wudaokou with Dawna. Super relaxing, just what I needed after spending upwards of three weeks in a different bed or train every night. Friday and Saturday, however, immediately plunged me back into the gauntlet of hustle and bustle because on Friday night, Kara flew in from Seoul, and on Saturday morning, Jeff flew in from Seoul.

In South Korea Kara had been good friends with Dawna, and Kara had been good friends with me. Some of the activities that we partook in together included: Lunar New Year ski trip, swan boats, Suwon Folk Village, Namhansan, lots of Frisbee throwing, Eurwangni Beach, church, and habitation of Huam-dong Jongjeom. Kara had offered up her home to me when I was in need; she had put together an incredible good-bye package from our group of friends for me; she had been one of the last people I saw in South Korea before I left. Thus, I was dang pumped to see her.

Jeff was a different but perhaps more interesting story. Two years ago, I was in Jindo attending the Parting of the Sea Festival, as was he. People in my group knew people in his group, and we met and broke bread as a large group together. I added him on Facebook but didn’t imagine I’d ever see him again. Then one bleak night in Niagara Falls, I was checking my e-mail in the kitchen at the Potter’s House and got a Facebook message from him about $80 tickets to Taiwan over Chuseok; did I want to go? Nevermind that we didn’t know each other. I said I would love to go (although given how tired and preoccupied with YouthWorks! I probably was, I imagine sort of laughing and replying without much thought). When the time came, however, Jeff’s health took a turn for the worst – he actually ended up going back to America for a year as a consequence – and we didn’t go. Bummer! We went screen golfing once and also attended Asia Song Festival, but, those were about it. Thus, while I knew he was cool*, he'd never broken into my home and stolen my inordinately large supply of Pringles cans like Kara had.

At any rate! Kara arrived Friday night, and to celebrate, Dawna and I took her to the same noraebang we’d owned the night before, even though Kara absolutely hates karaoke. Then Jeff arrived Saturday morning, and to celebrate, the four of us got together to knock as many items off the Beijing Tourist Checklist as possible.

First agenda on the list that Saturday: Olympic village. To be absolutely honest, it was absolutely freezing, and not all of us had coats. Still fun. Stuff we saw:

#1: The outside of “The Cube,” although – and I’m sure this joke has been made two million times in two million languages – it would better have been named “The Ice Cube” that day. Or that month.

#2: Some Olympic rings. I wasn't prepared for this.

#3: The Bird's Nest. We saw no foul, however.

#4: Scalped tickets to a snowy event that we weren't certain about.

#5: Snow Festival: a winter wonderland within the walls of the so-called Bird's Nest. There might not be a flake of snow anywhere else in the city, but in the BN they've got enough of it to restock all the melted polar ice caps.

#6: Speaking of restocked polar ice caps, if those mothers ever re-blossom, and we all need hand warmers in the winter again like we did back before global warming, the Bird's Nest could again help an unruly amount. The gift shop was amply supplied with these buggers.

#7: The Successive Chairmen of the ICC' Waxen Images, which has been putting other wax museums literally out of business since it was created in 2008.

#8: The Love Elevator. Check out my double chin.

#9: The self-proclaimed "best view of the Bird's Nest structural design."

#10: Drinking water under intense observation.

#11: These guys. Distance cousins-in-law of Gwar, I think.

#12: The innards of The Cube, i.e., where Michael Phelps mopped up other world-class Olympians eight times over without even breaking a sweat.

#13: A water park within The Cube, complete with wave pool, complete with TV screen the size of the Macau Special Administrative Region.

Then, after returning to Dawna’s warm apartment and realizing it’d be stupid to go back outside, we headed back over to the other side of the city, to Wangfujing, where locals were known to have sold scorpion to foreigners. Strangely enough, this was the seoul reason why we traveled an hour by public transport to reach Wangfujing. And fortunately, though most of the market was closed for New Year’s, scorpions (and seahorses, and starfish) were still for sale.

Then we ate hot pot and went back to our warm homes.

Oh! You're wondering why I was too much of a sally to eat a scorpion that cold night? I will tell you why: 1) One scorpion cost 25 RMB. 2) The scorpion, while not disgusting, is not anything particularly delicious. 3) The scorpions were on sticks of three. 4) I had already eaten a scorpion in that very alley. Many, many moons ago.

The next day, Sunday, saw Kara and Jeff meeting at 9:00 somewhere and knocking Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Beihai Park off the BTC. Dawna and I – and Dave and Luke – went to church like normal people, and then had lunch – ordered by arbitrarily and confidently pointing at Chinese characters on the menu - like normal people. When we were finished, Dawna and I reunited with Jeffrey and Karapoo, who, surprisingly, weren’t frozen solid but had had an excellent afternoon. And I would say that it was at this point that we noticed our surroundings becoming unglued.

Months ago, wizened Beijing ex-pats had warned green rookies like me about Chinese New Year. They’d said I wouldn’t sleep for weeks because Beijing would be like a war zone; fireworks would be exploding day and night, night and day. I smiled politely, thinking, “How bad could it be?” What I didn’t realize that those veterans were talking about the biggest celebration in a country with the largest population; thus, the answer to that question turned out to be “pretty bad.” Which was awesome.

As night fell, the four of us were in a coffee shop, and we watched the shop's owner light a huge string of firecrackers on the steps of the coffee shop with a cigarette and then walk away. Later we left, and the city was on fire. Every ten seconds, the night was filled with exploding sounds and violent concussions that you could honestly feel hitting you. We walked through the crescendo of fire to meet some of Dawna’s coworkers and to enjoy another item on the Beijing Tourist Checklist: Peking duck.

In a word, it was delicious. I ate a whole plate of fried duck skin by myself. Eventually the proprietors of the restaurant told us they were going to leave to go shoot of fireworks themselves, but they left us there for a spell. Later we relocated to the Bell and Drum Tower area, and that was where midnight on Chinese New Year found us.

It was insane. More and more people starting blowing things up as 12:00 drew nearer. I wandered off about 100 meters from the group at one point, and then I found that I could not get back without getting lit up. There were strings of firecrackers, there were missiles that went up and erupted into flowery brilliance, there were Roman candles, there were sparklers, and there just pieces of gunpowder that exploded. And everyone everywhere was lighting them.

This went on for about an hour. We couldn’t talk to each other because it was too loud, but when we tried, the only thing that anyone had to say was, “Holy crap, this is nuts.”

Around 1 a.m. things settled down enough that we felt justified in taking our cold selves home. Jeff and I were lucky and only had to walk about a mile before grossly overpaying a taxi driver to turn around and take us home. Some might laugh that we paid 100 RMB to get back to Wangjing, but Dawna and Kara did not get back to Dawna’s apartment until 6:30 a.m. the next morning. Clearly, we are not gentlemen.

Anyway, thus entered the Year of the Dragon. Fiery. I wondered what the Year of the Ox is like.

So! The next day Jeffrey and I cruised out to Chaoyang Park to take in the temple fair there. Ramon texted me about it the day before, and that was how we knew about the carnival-esque event, but we never even saw Ramon and his crew. Dang.

There were rides and food* and games and bands and circus freaks (not just us) and many, many, many people. Some highlights:

#1: Lamb meat on a sword. 羊肉串...羊肉串, I mean. Get down, girl, go 'head, get down.

#2: A big furry hat the size of of a breadbox. The guy is behind Jeff and to his left in the first picture; then, the second shot is a closer look at this wild man. I was overcome with jealousy.

#3: Chinese zombies. Later someone told me that these fine fellows were actually from some computer or video game, which made more sense. Until I became informed, I thought these young men had simply dressed up as zombies and then infested the Chaoyang Park Temple Fair 2012 for the fun of it.

To be honest, when we took pictures with them, I didn't even realize that they were zombies. To be really honest, I didn't put a single thought toward figuring out what they were dressed up as.

#4: A real live version of Angry Birds. This, too, is a popular computer game, one that I actually knew about but had never played. Until that day. Consequently, going in, I was not even sure how Angry Birds was played. But, now I know: use a slingshot to launch birds of an irate temperament into the stratosphere. In the game the birds are flung at pigs (I'm told)(by Wikipedia), but at Chaoyang Park they headed toward a wall with holes in it; if the bird entered a hole, you win!

I can in no way confirm this, but I like to think we made this dude's day. When Jeff and I walked on by, no one was playing, and he looked pretty bored. But he brightened up when we started firing, especially when my first shot went in. Oh, yeah!

#5: Jeff and I were walking along and some woman violently grabbed us and made her embarrassed daughter take a picture of the three of us. Then she forced the embarrassed daughter stand by us and be in a picture, also. Jeff: we're famous somewhere. She's got the pictures, not us, so instead I will post a "Where's Waldo?" picture, except instead of looking for Waldo, look for me.

#6: These four dudes in matching dinosaur costumes marching along singing some weird kid song...four white dudes, at that. We'd been thinking about leaving the park, and when they walked by, we knew that this was a divine confirmation, almost.

Obviously, greener pastures called us onward! Another must-do item from the BTC, the Temple of Heaven, was where Jeff and I met Kara and Dawna. It, too, was congested, but that is more often than not the case with the heavenly edifice. At first we wandered around and tried to watch some ancient changing of the guard re-enactment, but after a while we moved away.

I still had the angry bird, and so we took some pictures with that. I felt pretty stupid, which doesn’t explain why I posed and posed and posed with that thing.

You know what? There are a lot of interesting things worth seeing in the Beijing area - the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Tienanmen Square - and those are all great, but the Temple of Heaven is my favorite, I think. I refuse to go through the Forbidden City again, and the other stuff...this is going to sound super pretentious, I'm so sorry...but I have seen it a couple times. The Temple of Heaven somehow retains my interest, though.

Eventually the temple complex tired of us, and we of it, so out we went. A map from Borch Maps got us lost for a spell, but logic won the day, and we spent the rest of the day eating at the best restaurant in Beijing, playing Bananograms in my warm apartment, and watching Youtube videos on my red couch. Happy New Year!

Tuesday morning Jeff went to the Great Wall. Dawna and Kara and I ate some dumplings and then went to W*l M*rt before Kara headed back to Beijing Capitol Airport. Sadly, her visit did not entail a trip to the Great Wall. Maybe she’ll come back! At any rate, I was super glad to see Kara again; inner turmoil about whether leaving Seoul was the right decision or not was kept at a low boil due to her presence. Kara! Can’t wait to see you again!

I was able to see Jeff a couple hours later in Yong'anli, where we met to check out CCTV Headquarters. The thing is located in the central business district, so there were many other large towers hangin’ round as well.

The CCTV building is a strange one. Some have taken to calling it “big boxer shorts” because that’s sort of what it looks like. An even more interesting tidbit of trivia about it is that in 2009, fireworks debris from the Lantern Festival celebration fell onto the building next to the CCTV building, the Television Cultural Center, which caught on fire. How wicked is that?

All was calm, however, when Jeff and I were there. After circling the perimeter, we re-entered the subway system and rode back to Chaoyang, to Sanlitun and the Bookworm, and then to the aforementioned best restaurant in Beijing. There we camped for two and a half hours, ordered way too much food, and then ate way too much of it**. I’m not sorry, though.

Wednesday, January 25, was the day Jeff was scheduled to leave. We didn’t let the day go to waste, however; to an antiques market in Panjiayuan, on a quest for souvenirs we headed! This place was allegedly one of the hugest markets in Beijing on the weekends, and it had an impressive spread even on a Wednesday during Lunar New Year. Lots to see, lots to check out. There was even more meat on more sticks. Mmm, mmm, mmm.

There was a park – Longtan Park - that lay between us and the subway, and I figured we might as well cruise through it on our way. It turned out to be another carnival thing, just like there’d been at Chaoyang on Monday, except this one was less interesting and way more congested. We laughed at stuff and didn’t stop until we reached the subway.

At which point Jeff bounced out to the airport, and the post-holiday blues started to creep up. Finally, after literally years of e-mailing and speculating, we actually did some exploring together! We almost got killed by a wide variety of pretty explosives, we ate inordinate amounts of dead sheep, we played Angry Birds. And we said the word "douche" a lot. Jeff, thanks for coming, and if you think we will never have another adventure together, you've got another thing comin'. Another thing comin'!

And thus the New Year passed. As it and the Seoulites approached, my expectations were that I'd get some quality hang out time with Kara and Jeff - which I did - but that the actual Chinese New Year celebration would be something similar to the 4th of July in 'Merica. Could I have been more wrong? Not likely. Not only were the festivities endlessly entertaining (by "endlessly" I mean the fireworks went on for another sixteen or seventeen days), but the excursions throughout the city with Kara, Jeff, and Dawna to places both familiar and strange were a blast. Good times had by all.

Looking ahead, of course: what to do next year during this time? Lunar New Year in Beijing is not likely to be topped by some other Lunar New Year celebration, is it? Are the fireworks louder and brighter somewhere else in China? Is any place as lucrative a destination as Beijing, such that countless friends will flock there for a reunion? Will there even be a next year, what with the impending 2012 crisis looming*** in the distance? Who knows.

The next few days flew by like ash in a shock wave, and soon the winter break was over. It was a full time, those thirty-nine days. A good variety of activities, both old and new friends, some relaxing moments, some heart attack-inducing times, quite a few scrumptious meals, intriguing conversation, and a new tattoo that covers 65.3% of my body. Thirty-nine days. Good enough. Good e-nough.

*Yang rou chuar that remains the prime suspect in the case that left my bowels alarmingly loose for days after Jeff left, perhaps due to being sold and cooked in a huge quantity, perhaps from being left outside instead of in a freezer.

**This also may have been a factor in my bowels being left alarmingly loose for days after Jeff left. Meh.

***There are Doomsday 2012 t-shirts for sale on the linked website in this sentence. Deal with it.