Sunday, January 30, 2011

To Infinity and Beyond

The trip to Shanghai was all but likely. Yes, we'd bought some plane tickets and sure, we knew how to get to the airport, but once at the airport it seemed like the Beijingers did everything they could to keep us from leaving.

First, we couldn't find where to check-in. We were flying on a Chinese discount airline called China Southern who was supposed to be at check-in station Q. We looked around and saw that the stations went from A-L. We were finally directed to station "Q" located in the corner and near a suspicious open door. We checked in and then went downstairs to the gate, which was also strange because the rest of the gates were upstairs. It turned out that China Southern flew out of a sort of make-shift gate that was on the ground of the runway. From there, we took buses to the actual plane. Well, that's how it was supposed to happen. We were there pretty early so we had a seat, read and wrote in our journals. They were announcing boarding calls in Chinese and English so we kept an ear out. We were supposed to board at something like 11:00, and while neither of us really kept track of time, we were both listening intently. At some point, instead of the clear, automated English messages, they started using a scratchy walkie-talkie and only speaking in Chinese. The next thing we knew, it was 11:10 and we still hadn't heard anything about our flight. J went to check it out and not only was it "last call," but our gate had changed! We ran over to the gate, which was just a door, then ran outside, hopped on a bus, and just managed to make it to the plane. Of course, it ended up being delayed for an hour anyway, so all that worrying was for nothing.

Before leaving for our vast Asian adventures, J and I had heard about the Maglev train of Shanghai. It was the fastest vehicle in the world, and it just so happened to transport people from the Shanghai airport to the city center. The Maglev, no longer the fastest train in the world, can top 300 mph and runs on magnetic levitation. They actually have a model of it at the Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago. So, we were pretty excited about taking this train into the city. We had lofty aspirations about our first trip in Shanghai being at top speed. Unfortunately, China Southern got us once again. Apparently there are two airports in Shanghai, a sort of smaller domestic one (think Midway) and a larger, international one (O'Hare). The Maglev runs from Pudong International Airport to the city center in 7 minutes, and between the airports, but not from Hongqiao Airport to the city.

We found the hostel easily and checked into our room. The can of Raid on the cabinet wasn't a good sign, but the common area looked nice and it was filled with foreigners there to see the World Expo.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Peking Duck

I can't remember if I've already talked about the bugs on sticks yet, but I'm about to. If you're squeamish, skip ahead to the part where I talk about eating duck brains. It's much less disgusting.

There's an alleyway in downtown Beijing, hidden amongst such Western favorites as Prada and KFC, that I choose to believe exists only as a tourist trap. Lining the alleyway are vendors of culinary delights. And by culinary delights I mean crickets, starfish, roaches, and even de-shelled turtles on sticks, some of which continue to wiggle.

There were cheap knickknacks and J and I made full use of our new haggling skills to score ourselves some bargains.

It was our last evening in Beijing and we decided we needed to try the fabled Peking Duck. We asked the person at the front desk of our hostel and he recommended a place not far from where we were. In order to get there, we had to meander through the hutongs like real Beijingers.

The duck was pretty awesome. It was served with plum sauce, cucumbers, scallions, lettuce and tortilla-like items in which we rolled them up. The waitress, seeing us rather primitively rolling our duck with our hands, showed us how to do it with chopsticks. After she left, we went back to doing it with our hands. The duck was juicy and rich, the skin was crispy and fatty. J took his time and savored the meal for once. 

Waiting impatiently for the duck.

Duck served on a duck-shaped plate. Culture.

As you can maybe see, the duck was cooked whole and then chopped in half, head and all. It's eyeballs and brains were also divided nicely into two even parts. J ate the brain and said it was delicious. I said he could have my portion too if he wanted.

I'd been wanting to see the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium since we got to the city and since it was our last night, I dragged J out even though it was pretty late. The Bird's Nest and Water Cube are actually pretty far outside the city and by the time we got there the park was closed.
Water Cube to the left and Bird's Nest to the right
When we got back to the subway, it was closed too so we took a taxi back to our hostel.

Notes on Beijing: Frantic, chaotic and overcrowded. Amazing technology aside filthy alleyways. Independent art thrives despite (thanks to?) a Communist government.

The Summer Palace

The next day we went to see the Summer Palace, the palace of the Qing Dynasty. Like the Forbidden City, it was an enormous complex, however the Summer Palace was more spread out and thus the crowds were better dispersed. Surrounded by a large lake and built on a hill, it had magnificent views.

There were various sections of the palace, from exposed sunny areas to shaded overgrown corners, connected by trails (which also served to meter foot traffic). Even though we had a map, we got very lost and didn't get a chance to see everything we wanted to. I think we were content with what we did see though, and I know I enjoyed this trip much more than the one to the Forbidden City.

In places the structures looked newly painted and vibrant.

There was a nifty boat made from marble.
 In other places, the structures were worn down and neglected. I liked these places because they were quiet and greenery was starting to peek through.