Monday, August 29, 2011

Beijing part 3

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By day four, brushing my teeth with bottled water seems almost natural, and the breakfast buffet looks very familiar. Today we're headed out to the fourth ring of a city divided by concentric circles falling along the lines of the ancient city walls. First the Summer Palace, once the destination for emperors seeking to escape the sweltering heat of the city, and now the same for a large portion of Being's locals.
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The lake with its stone bridges, surrounding hills and cascading tiled roofs of the temples seemed like something out of a storybook. Low-lying mist/haze heightens the scenery as we begin our long walk around the lake. Families picnic and carry chubby babies, wearing the aforementioned split pants. We walk and walk under sweltering heat. A headdress is purchased, pictures are taken, but time is running short so we have to turn back before making it to the main palace structure.

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In a desperate attempt to cool down, we peruse the Chinese popsicle flavor offerings. Something that looks like green peas, sugar water, apple and my selection; corn. Fearing that inside the wrapper I will find an actual corn cob- I'm pleasantly surprised when it appears to be a strange ice cream cone type of pastry filled with corn-flavored ice cream. While everyone else finds my choice a little suspect, I find it delicious.

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More motor pool, more Beijing traffic and we are at the site of the 2008 Olympics, The Bird's Nest and adjacent Cube - aquatic center home to Michael Phelp's many wins. Aside from a handful of tourists, eager vendors hawking strings of paper kites and a strangely misplaced Mickey Mouse posing for photos, the Olympic compound is desolate, an empty shell. Inside the intricate stadium, segways race around the track while more vendors offer tourist photos in Chinese athletic gear.

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Dumplings from Ding Tai Fung make a delicious lunch as we slurp our way through several dozen. Pea shoots sautéed in butter and garlic along with cold sliced cucumbers in chili oil are the perfect accompaniments.

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For dessert; a monstrous-looking mountain of shaved ice topped with red beans, green beans, sweetened condensed milk, mochi and tapioca. Oddly satisfying. We eat ourselves silly and head back to our regular evening meeting and free hotel bar happy hour.

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Over-eating continues at dinner - a visit to Da Dong duck palace for the famous local dish - Beijing or Peking Duck. Before dinner is served we have our first experience with Chinese taxis. Many drivers can't read, don't know their way around the city and, as half of our team discovered, throw you out at random intersections. Finally reunited we enjoyed plate after plate of crispy duck wrapped in paper-thin pancakes and doused with a sweet hoisin sauce. The taxi situation did not improve as the evening went on and we tried to hail a cab back to the hotel. A walk through the Sanlitun bar area provided plenty of distractions - more tsingtao and a Filipino guitar player. Eventually we made our way back via racing rickshaws - one of the favorite trip experiences of all.

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If you come down to breakfast too late, the wonton soup gets a little oily. This alone makes it worth getting up a little earlier.

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This is a lazy day, we return to Yashow for more bargains and more Wendy clothes- then walk around the adjacent mall where we eat Vietnamese food for lunch while exchanging every Pho joke we can think of. Back at the hotel we probably get another massage or pedicures in matching Dim Sum Plum, before departing for the cultural event of the evening - Chinese Acrobats. An odd theater with a mid century space-age exterior and a high school auditorium interior fills up as tour bus after tour bus unloads out front. A projection on the curtain declares this production "Treasure," which in some ways it certainly was - at least as fodder for one-liners for the rest of our trip. A miserable clown with his trampy clown lady-friend stroll the theater, her with go go boots, a backpack and some sort of braided weave; him with a whistle, his only method of communication. Incessant whistling, some mediocre balloon animals and the show finally begins. One could surmise that the narrative is something along the lines of our inherently intolerable clown searching for the treasure while being confronted by a series of contortionists, jugglers and acrobats. The conclusion involves over a dozen girls riding one bicycle. At the same time.

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After this grand finale - we head out to Wang Fu Jing - sort of the Times Square of Beijing, if Times Square was made up of low rises split by a wide slate pedestrian walkway/street. Off to one side is "snack alley" where lanterns hang low across the narrow passageway filled with vendors selling a little bit of everything, often on a stick.

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Scorpions and millipedes squirm on skewers, baby pigeons roasted red are lined up on a tray. Other oddities from land and sea are out on display alongside dumplings, pancakes and boiling pots of who knows what- all adding to the smells of the street. We buy Tsingtao in big green bottles and drink as we walk along. A group of Chinese teenagers ask for a picture with us. Back in cabs we head to Mississippi for some safer food options. I successfully say "excuse me" in Chinese.

The days are blurring together, our chopstick skills are improving.

A different market the next day - home to the pearl vendor who makes several visits to the hotel. Called "Sharon's Store" we find "Sharon Stone" a more humorous alternative. This is a dangerous stop. Sharon's stones are very pretty and we each walk away with several necklaces and some bonus earrings.

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Motor pool continues on to the Beijing arts district - sort of the Brooklyn of Beijing, converted factories and warehouses are home to trendy contemporary galleries, studio spaces and shops. We walk around, I eat another corn popsicle and T predicts a massive rainstorm five minutes before the first drop falls. A little soggy we board our vehicles back to the hotel before our dinner out.

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Tonight it's a much more swish duck joint - Duck de Chine. I wear my Sharon stones for the occasion. The duck here is dark, crispy and fatty - its arrival announced by a gong. Too many hungry people and not enough duck results in the giant lazy susan that graces every Chinese table constantly spinning. Some sort of duck roulette.

Post- duck, Wendy the tailor meets us at the hotel for our first fitting. The suits look sharp, and we enjoy beers purchased at the 7-11 across the street while performing our own version of the acrobatics show from the night before.

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