Saturday, September 29, 2007

Back On-Line--Hooray!

After much hand-wringing and talking to myself about being so silly (I mean, how pathetic is it, to become completely and totally dependent upon my email??) I can say that it was all for naught, as somehow, quite inexplicably, my email connection has been restored.

The Five-Pagoda Temple

We visited the Five-Pagoda Temple this morning, near Da Zhao Lamasery and ever so much better. Da Zhao is big and impressive but filled with touristy shops and big tour groups. Five-Pagoda, on the other hand, is small, quiet, and unbelievably beautiful. The Five-Pagoda part is all that is left of the Cideng Lamasery dating back to the mid-1500s. It isn’t too big in itself, but it is covered in small tiles, each with a carving of Buddha. No two Buddhas are alike. Between the levels of tiles you can see script in Mongolian, Tibetan, and Sanskrit, as well as reliefs of animals, people, and vegetation. On a wall behind the Five-Pagoda Temple are three circular carvings, the most important of which, (but not very well-known, since it is tucked behind) is a cosmological map. I won’t post a picture of it, as it is behind glass and it just doesn’t come out well. We know a Hungarian student here, Oliver, who is studying Mongolian and gathering material to write a book on the Five-Pagoda Temple, with particular emphasis on the cosmological map. Apparently no one knows what all that writing on the pagodas means, but he is determined to work it out.

I will let the pictures just speak for themselves. Dave took a video of five monks chanting but it takes a lot of space to put it in here so I'll just have to show any who are interested when we get back home. It's really an amazing sound.

The Five-Pagoda Temple

Looking at the animals. The cosmological map is just behind us.

The little tiles are part of the "10,000" Buddhas adorning the Five-Pagoda Temple.

Notice the food offerings--all of the statues have food and water placed before them.

This lucky bodhisattva (Guan Yin) gets Washington Red Delicious apples!

p.s. I still don’t have email access. A friend in Shanghai was able to access the two sites we’re most interested in, so I guess the problem is with Inner Mongolia. Hopefully it will resolve itself soon.

Temporarily Blocked

I have been blocked from my email for the past day. I don't think there is anything too politically subversive about either Verizon email or, for that matter, our online banking, but both are temporarily inaccessible and we are just hoping that soon the Powers That Be will release those sites from jail. Until then, I can't access my blog comments or my email.

The British Invasion Part 2; Trouble in Threes

Dave’s mom arrived in China late on Wednesday night. After a delayed flight out of Vancouver, BC made her miss her connection in Hohhot we feared she was either lost in the Beijing airport or stranded in some other city, since she had no way of contacting us. She, however, did not experience the total chaos that greeted us on our way over. Rather, two very sweet Air China stewardesses escorted her through the entire customs process, helped her find where she would eventually catch her repeatedly delayed connection, and she even found time to have a cappuccino.

And so Grandma arrived in Hohhot bearing gifts, one of which was an iPod shuffle for Samuel. Not that the shuffle has completely transformed my sweet little eight-year old, definitely not, but it coincides with him suddenly deciding that he is quite happy to call Hohhot his home for now, and not only that, he has actually told Dave “thanks for bringing me to China”. I have been trying to find where my “I hate China” boy is, and who in the world this kid is, the one who thinks China isn’t so bad after all. And here is where the shuffle comes in. He has one album on it: The Beatles 1, which has all of their number one hits.

He listens to this whenever he can, plays air guitar, and sings along with all the songs. He says (and my apologies to Marie, his fiddle teacher, if she is reading this, because I don’t think this is a permanent decision on his part) that he no longer wants to take fiddle because he wants to take drum lessons. Because you can’t play rock with a fiddle. Um…. I don’t even know what to say to that. It’s kind of funny. So we don’t say anything, just nod and go “uh huh”. Last week the kids and Dave watched some of the Beatles Anthology on DVD and now Dave and I are thinking that he has fallen in love with the whole rock star thing. It’s those screaming girls and the Ed Sullivan show and the limos. Oh, and the two youngest of the English teachers here, Jed and Kenneth, have told Samuel they’ll teach him how to play football (Dave says, “I want to teach him football!” Yes, Dave, but you aren’t his new “playmates”.) so now Samuel wants to check out NFL stuff on-line. Yup, come to China to become an American teenager… Not so much, really. As you can see from the picture, he’s just as happy to play air guitar in a Buddhist temple as at home.

Grace received an American Girl doll from Grandma, this one is Elizabeth, the best friend of her doll Felicity. She loves the doll, so why does she look so miserable in the picture?

This is a long story, bear with me, because it makes for an interesting contrast to the crazy transformation of my son. About a year ago (I told you it’d be long…) Grace had an infection in her eye, maybe from a sty or something. I took her to our doctor and he prescribed eye drops and a cream, both of which eventually made the infection go away. Last week, I noticed the beginning stages of a similar infection. I showed it to Athena, whose uncle is a doctor, and asked her if she thought I should take Grace to a doctor, or just find something at the pharmacy. After a telephone consultation with her uncle, we went to a pharmacy where the pharmacist handed over eye drops and cream. Oh, I thought, just like at home, how convenient and wonderful! Of course, I forgot to have the pharmacist take a look at the weird dry round itchy spot behind her ear, but I figured that wasn’t as important as the eye infection.

After four doses of eye drops—which seemed to work really well—over the course of a 24-hour period Grace started breaking out in a huge rash. Big red splotches all over her body. Itchy and welty and not very comfortable. Finally it occurred to me that I should have looked up the medicine. I had looked at the boxes, noted that the cream was Erythromycin which is familiar to me, but didn’t give the drops much notice. So I googled the drops only to find that they are a steroid antibiotic and a common side effect is, you guessed it, a great big rash that can last up to 5 days. Gah! I will spare you the long drawn-out details but say that this has been an amazing rash, starting on her torso, spreading to arms, legs, neck, face, in alternating patterns and following no apparent logic other than the need to travel around from one part of her body to another. Poor thing—and despite all of it she’s been so good about not scratching, doesn’t complain, keeps up a positive attitude. I’ve been plying her with benadryl and coating her body with calamine lotion (the latter one purchase from the pharmacy that hasn’t back-fired on me) and although it had only been 36 hours, by last night Dave and I were starting to freak out a bit.

Wouldn't you freak out?

It hit her at bedtime with a vengeance and we both started to feel very far away from home and our trusted doctor. Grace finally fell asleep and we stayed up till 11:00 p.m. to catch the doctor’s office at home just at opening time. I will tell you this, I have never been patched through to a nurse so quickly as last night, when I said in a terribly pathetic and woebegone voice, “I’m calling from Inner Mongolia, China, and I want to ask about my daughter.” Yes, this is a long story, sorry. To make it a little shorter--the nurse I spoke to was wonderful and I found out the following: the rash is no big deal (other than extreme discomfort) and it will pass, just keep up with the benadryl; keep up with the eye cream for the infection; the spot behind her ear is ringworm, which I suspected, and she told me the name of the medicine used at home for that. Flush with confidence one can only get from having a reassuring conversation with a nurse thousands of miles away, but still, a nurse from home, I called the pharmacy at the Western hospital in Beijing, where a very kind pharmacist gave me the name in Chinese of the ringworm medicine. And so here we are, the day after, Grace woke up feeling much better (and the rash was just on her hands and feet, perhaps the last step before finally ending its travels in Graceland—ha ha), we have medicine for her ear, medicine for her eye, and throughout all of it she has been true to form, a super trooper that all of us Arnolds could stand to emulate.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Mid-Autumn Moon Festival

Yummy moon cakes

Tomorrow, September 25th, is the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in China. You can find moon cakes on every street corner and in all the large grocery stores, sold in elaborate box sets and individually. Naturally, we have been sampling them for the last week, since they come in all kinds of flavors. On the way up to the apartment this afternoon--armed with the four moon cakes in the picture--we ran into Mr. Song (Clyde) and Mrs. He (the "manageress" of the building). They spied our bag and were surprised to see that we had moon cakes. Not because we aren't Chinese, I suppose, but because we're a day early. I didn't admit to the many cakes we've already consumed.

From lower left going clockwise: candied fruit and nuts; sesame (?) paste; strawberry jelly bean (I'm sure that's not what it's called but it tastes like that); bean paste. There are also savory cakes but I haven't come across any yet.

The only thing I have around that tells me about the Moon Festival is in a kid's book of Chinese holidays and accompanying activities that I brought with me from home. I'm sure I could find lots of information on the web, and I did look, but after the many viruses Dave keeps bringing home from the campus computers, not to mention Lynette-next-door's experience of having her entire computer temporarily shut down due to visiting a Chinese web site, I decided to just give you the undoubtedly watered-down kid's version of the holiday. So here goes:

When the days grow shorter and the balmy breezes of summer are replaced by the brisk chill of fall, it is time to prepare for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, which is also called the Harvest Moon Festival. On the evening of the fifteenth day of the eighth month, the moon appears at its brightest, and for one night only it is said to be perfectly round.

Because the moon festival honors the female goddess of the moon, the women in the family prepare for the holiday. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom, and "moon papers," or bright posters, are hung near the door. [...] Candles are set out, and apples, persimmons, grapes, and melons--all round, like the moon--are arranged on platters. Everything is readied for the moon ceremony, which takes place at night.

When the moon is nearing its total roundness, candles are lit and incense is burned. Women and girls bow to the moon, and they honor the moon rabbit [who is said to live in the moon]. The moon papers are folded and burned, and tea is served with a variety of moon cakes.

from Moonbeams, Dumplings and Dragon Boats (by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz, & The Children's Museum, Boston)

I forgot to mention that on every other street corner you can find vendors selling big boxes of apples, grapes, peaches, and pomegranates. Judging by the number of people I see on the streets carrying fruit and moon cakes, I'm sure the above description is at least partly accurate.

So on Tuesday night, look out your windows and see the same beautifully full and round moon that I will see tomorrow night, look for the rabbit in the moon, and enjoy the last days of summer and the coming of autumn.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Saturday Night Movies

Wondering what to do for family movie night... We went to a movie and music store we heard about and went on a shopping spree. Most DVDs are 6 yuan (less than a dollar).

We spent about $23, including a case that holds 52 DVDs. Next trip I'm buying all the Mozart operas I can find.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Shopping in the Muslim Quarter

We have found the Muslim Quarter in Hohhot and it is an amazing place. Today we visited the gigantic market next to the Great Mosque. You can buy anything and everything; bargaining is expected but I'm not too good at that yet. I'm sure when I find something I really want (like that leather coat??) I'll figure it out. Here are some pictures:

The Great Mosque (minaret in the background)

Baked goods

Blankets, wicker store next door (think Pier 1 Imports, but infinitely cheaper)--too bad most of it won't fit in my suitcase.

The green things are dried kiwis!

Awash in everything you ever thought you'd need or didn't--Samuel playing the goof ball.

Kitchen stuff--it's overwhelming trying to find anything. And of course, the pie pan or 8 x 8 pan that I can live without, but wouldn't mind stumbling across, don't exist here.

After a long afternoon of shopping, time to find the bikes and take our pumpkin buns and wicker coasters home.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Happy Birthday Dave!

Yup, Dave turned 41 today. We borrowed a pizza maker from Vanetta upstairs (which made quite good pizza, especially with the pepperoni she gave us, mailed from the U.S.--who would have thought it could travel that far and still be good?) and bought this cake at the pseudo-European bakery, Einan's. All in all, a good birthday, even without a homemade cake by yours truly. By the way, that's the brand-spanking-new table that the college bought the apartment, along with four lovely chairs. No more moldy fold-up chairs and crotchety fold-up table (which already bit Samuel once). We feel terribly civilized now.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

There Are No Crocodiles in Inner Mongolia

Since I found myself feeling homesick last week and generally not up to the challenge of living in China—maybe just a momentary lapse, but real enough to feel crummy—I decided to pick up Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa, first published in 1897. Mary spent the first thirty years of her life living a secluded life in England and eventually caring for her invalid mother. She also avidly consumed the voluminous library of her mostly absent doctor father. When both parents died shortly before she turned thirty, Mary quickly arranged to leave the comforts and safety of England for West Africa. She made three trips, each time decked out in the dress of her times (i.e. full length dresses, high collars), eager to catalogue flora and fauna up the various rivers of West Africa. In many places she was not only the first European woman to venture into the interior parts of West Africa, she was also quite the first European. It was on her last trip in 1900, as a volunteer nurse in South Africa during the Boer War, that she succumbed to enteric fever and died. Her writings are really clever, funny, and insightful; I brought this huge book with me from home knowing that I would revert at some point to my homebody self and need to be perked up, so to speak.

This brings me to a passage I am going to thrust upon you, whether you want it or not (of course you can just stop reading), because it made me laugh and feel better and once again feel complete and total admiration for Mary. She is talking about the ways to explore mangrove swamps and I think the description is wonderful.

This is a fascinating pursuit. But it is a pleasure to be indulged in with caution; for one thing, you are certain to come across crocodiles. Now a crocodile drifting down in deep water, or lying asleep with its jaws open on a sand-bank in the sun, is a picturesque adornment to the landscape when you are on the deck of a steamer, and you can write home about it and frighten your relations on your behalf; but when you are away among the swamps in a small dug-out canoe, and that crocodile and his relations are awake—a thing he makes a point of being at flood tide because of fish coming along—and when he has got his foot upon his native heath—that is to say, his tail within holding reach of his native mud—he is highly interesting, and you may not be able to write home about him—and you get frightened on your own behalf; for crocodiles can, and often do, in such places, grab at people in small canoes. I have known of several natives losing their lives in this way; some native villages are approachable from the main river by a short cut, as it were, through the mangrove swamps, and the inhabitants of such villages will now and then go across this way with small canoes instead of by the constant channel to the village, which is almost always winding. In addition to this unpleasantness you are liable—until you realize the danger from experience, or have native advice on the point—to get tide-trapped away in the swamps, the water falling round you when you are away in some deep pool or lagoon, and you find you cannot get back to the main river. Of course if you really want a truly safe investment in Fame, and really care about Posterity, and Posterity’s Science, you will jump over into the black batter-like, stinking slime, cheered by the thought of the terrific sensation you will produce 20,000 years hence, and the care you will be taken of then by your fellow-creatures, in a museum. But if you are a mere ordinary person of a retiring nature, like me, you stop in your lagoon until the tide rises again; most of your attention is directed to dealing with an “at home” to crocodiles and mangrove flies, and with the fearful stench of the slime round you. What little time you have over you will employ in wondering why you came to West Africa, and why, after having reached this point of folly, you need have gone and painted the lily and adorned the rose, by being such a colossal ass as to come fooling about in mangrove swamps.

Last night I got to the part in Peter Pan where Captain Hook jumps ship into the gaping maw of the crocodile; once the kids were asleep, I read the above passage in my own book and felt that sometimes there is a nice symmetry to life. I figure, what right do I have to moan about lack of library books or friends, when this incredibly brave and funny woman could write so cleverly about such a scary thing? And she didn’t have internet and there are no crocodiles in Inner Mongolia.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Back to School

Everyone started back to school this past Monday. Dave is teaching basic English every day, between 1 ½ and 4 ½ hours per day; somewhere in the middle of the week he is supposed to continue with seminars, either on American History or Teaching Methodology, neither of us are sure. He has lots to say about this on his blog, so I won’t attempt to regale you with the details.

The kids, much to their chagrin (though sometimes I think they keep up the “I hate school” routine because somehow they feel it is part of their childhood rights to complain about it, not so much because they really believe it), started back to lessons on Monday, also. Samuel is in 3rd grade now, Grace is in 1st. In our haste to get ready for the kids’ birthdays, my annual trek to Alaska, and for the trip to China, we ended up cutting school off pretty early last spring. Because of this, we have unfinished business, mostly in the math department, and so the transition into school has been fairly un-traumatic, as there isn’t anything too new. In spite of occasional melt-downs, the kids seem to be happy to have this familiar structure to their day. School also makes the days go by faster, which helps ease the recurrent bouts of homesickness. Nothing like being able to say to them, “Look how quickly time is going! Only 5 ½ months left!”

I think the person hardest hit by “back to school” is myself. I realize now how spoiled I am back home where I am part of a large homeschooling community, able to meet at the park during school hours so the kids can burn off steam (and moms can gab), go to the library to get tons of reading materials (oh, how I suffer as I read the kids their history and can’t pick up stories from ancient Egypt or Elizabethan England—the padding just isn’t there to help fill out their understanding of the period they’re studying), and shuttle the kids to fiddle lessons or gymnastics. All of my support network, from friends to library to parks to art supplies, to even something as mundane as my kitchen, where we can make cookies together and plan meals, all is at home and here I have just the skeleton. We had plenty of challenges in the first six weeks in China. Now I see that I will have a constant challenge at hand: how to make school alive and interesting for the kids as well as myself, without ending up isolated and loopy from too much time inside. Samuel is learning a little poem from history about Guy Fawkes, that starts “Remember, remember, the fifth of November”. As we march around the apartment shouting out the lines to learn them, I think, “Gee, this would be a lot of fun if we had other kids here, to make “guy” dolls together and have our own Guy Fawkes Day.” These are the kind of challenges I’m talking about. Of course, as Dave points out, there are ample opportunities all around us for learning. Yes, I say, but the kids also need to learn how to read...

Not to get on the pity wagon, really. I’m just so used to the usual ups and downs of homeschooling and now, like with everything else we have encountered since coming here, I have to re-orient myself yet again and fit homeschooling within the context of being very much isolated, educationally as well as linguistically. At this point I am sure someone out there is saying, well gee, what about all the kids there? Can’t you all get together with them for weekly play dates? Well, yes and no is my answer to that. We live next door to a huge school.

Some kind of group p.e. class--view from our balcony

As far as I can tell, Chinese kids spend a lot of time at school, much like kids in America. There is a huge traffic jam every morning about 7:30 as the kids arrive to school, on bikes, in cars, on foot. About 11:30 they go home for what seems to be a 3 hour break, then return around 2:30 and stay until 5 or 6 (when there is an even bigger traffic jam, accompanied by a cacophony of horns), depending on how old they are.

Cars, bikes, buses--going home from school

Many kids stay even later than that, though, as there are kung fu lessons, dance lessons, and other lessons, the kind that take place behind desks, in the building right next to ours. I’ve seen kids in dance class as late as 8. Of course, I am kind of old-fashioned and believe that kids need a lot of unstructured time to play, goof off, read, stare at the wall, exercise, etc. I also feel they need to get lots of sleep. So I tend to feel a little alarmed at how much time these guys are in school. I guess I am just too lazy to consider having them out for lessons at a time I think best suited for showers and pajamas.

I don’t think anyone has figured out the best way to teach kids, the best way to raise them, the best time to go to bed. For me, I'm just trying to work out what seems best for us. I struggle with being too rigid and too stuck on a set routine, when oftentimes that rigidity is just a symptom of my concerns that I am doing the best thing or just ruining my kids. And now, mixed in with the usual parental doubts that plague us all, I must create a fruitful and fun learning environment, which incorporates both the wide world around us as well as the usual suspects of any curriculum. And to think I used to just be worried about the water!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Dinner Tonight

We went out on our bikes this afternoon for a little loop around the block, ending up at the veggie lady behind the International Exchange College. She has excellent tofu and very fresh vegetables. For 3 1/2 yuan (about 50 cents) I got everything in the picture--that's about a pound of fresh tofu--which we'll have with steamed rice and red and yellow peppers for dinner tonight. The tomato is actually a gift from the veggie lady to Grace. (Grace gets lots of freebies wherever we go, because everyone is so taken with her. Yesterday about 6 clerks and the manager of the grocery store huddled around her as I was buying eggs and gave her a little motorcycle toy.) Anyway, we made it home and got our bikes stashed under cover just in time for a terrific fall thunderstorm. Nice and cozy and ready for dinner!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Comments Welcome!

Thanks to Jennifer's brilliant husband, I now have a way to access reader comments! I have changed the information on my profile to reflect this, though I haven't seen the change reflected on the post yet. So please, feel free to tell me what you think!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Hummer in Hohhot

My jaw literally dropped when we saw this on our bike ride today. Is this a vision of what is to come in China?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Beijing Weekend

If I wanted to put a positive spin on the past three days of high fever and general body-purging, I could say that this time has allowed me to both cleanse myself of Beijing excesses (wine, cheese, Western food in general, two nights in a four-star hotel), and to absorb everything that I saw and experienced, in order to present it all in a cohesive tale. In any case, the past three days have definitely cleansed my body and caused me to take up another notch in my watchband (since I don’t wear a belt). I can’t guarantee cohesiveness but then, that hasn’t stopped me in the past.

We took a night train to Beijing Friday night. It’s an eleven hour train ride so we got soft sleeper tickets. “Soft” is basically first class, meaning there are four bunks to a room with a door onto the hallway, and the toilet at the end of the train car is Western-style, meaning you can sit down. This is different from hard sleeper, which has six bunks in the same space as four, no door onto the hallway, and the toilet is the porcelain-hole-in-the-ground variety. We could only get hard sleeper back to Hohhot. Lots of people ride on either soft seats (maybe they have a cushion?) or hard seats (self-explanatory), so despite the next statement, we were really traveling in high style. Whatever the distinctions between “hard” and “soft”, neither are very comfortable (at least to me, who thinks every bed should be covered in down mattresses, something along the lines of The Princess and the Pea, without the pea), and as we didn’t get Grace a ticket (being under the 1.2 meter height limit, she doesn’t count as a person in terms of buying entry to anything), she slept with me. Translation: Mom didn’t get a heck of a lot of sleep. Next time we are going to lie about her height and buy her a ticket.

A sleeper train is definitely the way to go, though, because we pulled into Beijing about 7:30 in the morning, basically bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. After a rather heated discussion with the cab driver, punctuated by stabs at the piece of paper with the hotel name in Chinese, and at the map, he finally figured out where we wanted to go. So now here I have to give full disclosure, despite our extreme embarrassment in admitting this: using the Lonely Planet Guide to China as our guide (for lack of a better word and hang repetition), Dave chose a hotel from the “mid-range” section of hotels, and with Clyde’s (aka Mr. Song) help, he was able to get a room for us. Mid-range got us a four-star hotel at an unmentionable price, because Dave ended up pushing us up to an “executive” room in order to take advantage of the breakfast buffet. In the end, embarrassed as we are, we are very glad we stayed there for the following reasons: awesome bathroom with huge walk-in shower; 17th floor view of downtown Beijing; breakfast buffet and evening snacks on the 19th floor overlooking the Forbidden City, traditional courtyard homes, and St. Joseph’s church; it’s a French-based hotel so guess who got to speak French (also meant croissants, pain au chocolat and brie for breakfast); it’s very close to Wangfujing Street, the big shopping street with Starbucks and the foreign language bookstore, and the Forbidden City; and last but certainly not least, it had a pool. I guess in the end, if you can do it, it’s nice to live the high life for a short weekend, after being in such close quarters at home, always having to think about what to get at the grocery store for dinner. Since life in Hohhot is relatively inexpensive, it worked out okay. Of course, we haven’t seen the Visa bill yet.

We checked-in and headed out to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Or rather, we started walking there and then got side-tracked looking for the Starbucks that was supposed to be across the street from St. Joseph’s church (terrible, aren’t we? and unabashedly so, too). We found the church, complete with bride and groom posing on the front steps, but couldn’t go in because all the doors were locked. Whoever heard of locked doors on a church??

But we didn’t find Starbucks. [We later found two buried in the basements of mondo-sized super malls on Wangfujing.] By this time we were hungry and thinking food would be a good way to keep the kids happy while tourist-ing. After a short stop in the incredibly expensive foreign language bookstore (200 yuan for a Tintin comic and a unicorn book), we went to the Wangfujing Food Court (not to be confused with the Wangfujing Snack Street, which is outside and offers among a dizzying array of fare, such delicacies as deep-fried seahorses, bugs of many sorts, and octopi) recommended in Lonely Planet. The Food Court is an amazing place, underneath one of the many high-end malls on Wangfujing Street.

One of many restaurants

You pay money to get a debit card of sorts, then wander around a bazillion restaurants (not much different from a food court at any US mall, except for the fare) and choose something. Eyeballs completely glazed over from looking at all the choices, the kids and I staked out a place to sit and Dave found us some really excellent food.

Re-fueled and feeling good

Back on track, we made it to the top of Tiananmen Square but were so overwhelmed with the vastness of it, presided over by a gigantic portrait of Mao, that we decided to look from afar, then head through the gate under Mao, and into the Forbidden City.

As we got closer, Samuel progressively dissolved into a quivering, shaking, crying little boy who absolutely did not want to go in. I never was able to get from him exactly what he was afraid of, since this is generally how he acts when frightened (is it because of the name? because of the size? because of all the people trying to be our “guides”?), or if he was just really exhausted, but he basically clung to me through the first part of the F.C., sobbing and wanting to spend the day in the hotel. This of course caused Grace to go into anti-Samuel mode (something I think sisters can do very well, at least this one) and she became super-trooper number one, not a complaint or a whine to be heard. Maybe Samuel has been permanently scarred by my seeming insensitivity, but we really felt he needed to see that we wouldn’t take him somewhere scary, and that we hadn’t come all the way to Beijing to sit in a four-star hotel that didn’t look any different from one in any other big city. All this to say that we didn’t go into the museum, or any other side building, as we felt we had to make some kind of concession to him—it isn’t fun being eight and not having a say in what happens to oneself.

Inside the Forbidden City

Samuel started feeling better about this point.

Super-trooper and Dad

A lot of the F.C. is undergoing a giant face lift, probably for the Olympics (whose logo is pasted on absolutely everything from milk to buses to hats and shirts) so much was unavailable to us anyway. I think if we ever go back, I’d probably spend most of my time in the gardens that surround the buildings. It is definitely very impressive, though, and it was easy to imagine a whole world existing there, completely insulated from the city outside its gigantic walls and moat.

The second day we got smart and rented bikes—easier to get around, and it kept the kids from complaining of being tired (they found other things to complain about). Again using the Lonely Planet (I love this book, did you get that idea yet?) we took a bike tour around the Forbidden City and then into the hutongs, which are quickly falling under the demolition ball to make room for more skyscrapers. These are narrow alleyways with one-story homes and businesses on either side that used to pepper all of Beijing and housed many Beijingers.

We bought great pastries from this guy.

Because of the Olympics, and because I guess the government doesn’t think they are that charming, the hutongs are disappearing and the families who lived in them are being shuttled to the outskirts of town to live in newly-built huge “family buildings”—giant skyscrapers reminiscent of the co-ops on the outskirts of Manhattan. The hutongs we saw ranged from extremely narrow and crowded to much more spacious with shops and even a youth hostel clearly intended for a Western crowd.

Dave went deep into one alley to get this beautiful picture.

A particularly harrowing alleyway--Grace perched on back.

They are really quite wonderful and have to be explored on bike (even when you are afraid your knees and elbows might scrape on either side of the alleyway). Part way through our ride we stopped at Bei Hai Park for lunch. We didn’t go through it very far, but I just had to include this picture of the lake and the White Dagoba in the background, built in 1651 to honor the visit of the Dalai Lama.

The last day in Beijing we hired a private taxi (you have two choices: private taxi or big tour bus) to take us to the Great Wall. It was quite a long ride out, about 1 ½ hours, which gave us a great sense of the incredible immensity of Beijing. The city is comprised of 6 circles, each one with its ring road going around it. With over 12 million inhabitants it spreads out very far, but despite its size, Beijing traffic, while thick in parts, is much tamer than in Hohhot. Once there, our driver didn’t give us any other choice to get to the wall than take the gondola ride up (it wasn’t until we were on the Wall that we found the hiking trail, but I guess with kids it was better the way we did it) so with great reservations, not purely aesthetic, we did so. Grace and I went in the front car and you can tell from this picture how I felt about it: ramrod straight with my arms around Grace. I actually spent the whole ride with my eyes either focused on the Wall or on the trees in the distance. There was just not enough between us and the ground, which seemed very far away.

Gondola ride, with the toboggan route below.

I don’t know how to describe the Wall, it has been described so many times, we’ve all seen pictures of it, it seems like it should just be a big tourist trap. But really, it was absolutely awesome to be on it. I mean awesome in the sense of awe-inspiring.

These worn bricks remind me of the 300-some steps up to the top of Notre Dame in Paris.

Samuel said we should write to the lady who writes the kids’ history books (Susan Wise Bauer) and tell her we visited the wall, since Samuel studied about ancient China in first grade. I just might send her an email, because, I think, thanks to her descriptions and the extra reading we did about it, not to mention the Wall itself, Samuel really enjoyed himself in a way he hadn’t on the other two days (possibly due to the fact that we couldn’t just go right back and hop in the pool, but maybe I’m being cynical). It is something to be able to stand on one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Except for the occasional person selling water, beer and pop on the Wall, you couldn’t see much around you other than the Wall and the landscape around it. Very moving. Oh yes, and to get down, we had the choice of the gondola (NO) or the toboggan ride. Even the Great Wall is part theme park now. The kids loved it and I went so slowly down (did I mention that besides heights I am not terribly fond of going downhill fast?) that I think I irked the gentleman behind me who was looking for a fast ride, and caused Dave, Samuel and Grace to think I had fallen off. Hey, I’ve done my thrill-seeking in the past, survived it, and am not about to resume it in China.

We made it home fine, hard sleeper and all. Even having gotten so ill, I’m glad we went and I know we’ll go back again for a one-night stay sometime in November. Memories of the Visa bill will probably have faded by then.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Not Quite on Death's Doorstep....

Just a little heads-up since I've promised a big post on Beijing and haven't done it yet: Tuesday afternoon I was suddenly hit with a fever and I've been down ever since. Luckily no one else has it at home. I won't go into details, but I'm hoping it is just an early flu and will work its way out soon.