Saturday, February 28, 2009

MIA

Yes, I have been missing. Sorry!!! I'm fine, everything is fine. Internet cafes have been scarce/nonexistent/really far from our hotel. I have had limited access via Sunny's (our intrepid tour leader-guide) computer, but I can't monopolize it and spend hours as I generally do when I write these notes. And, I've just been lazy, enjoying spending time with my new bunch of friends- (MORE rice wine!).

Onwards! Back to the blog! (The security guard at the hostel where I'm staying was nice enough to walk with me to this net bar- I never would have found it otherwise. But now I know, and I'll be able to come back and update regularly, at least until I leave for Japan on Friday.)

Let's see... The last I wrote was in Wulishan, sitting in a dark and smoky "net bar" with a bunch of Chinese gamers as they whiled away the hours as it rained outside.
That night we ate at a restaurant where they had various cut up animal pieces inside a giant display cooler- there was poultry and pig, beef and some other interesting pieces- one was a bear, it's claw and fur still on. There were live frogs and other squirmy fishy food.

The next day we went on another hike through more scenic and rainy mountains of which China has a plethora. I've seen so many scenic mountains- and rightly so- these rainy mountains were the very ones that inspired the Chinese landscape paintings that inspired this very trip to China for me!

Anyways, Shanghai was a blur- but one of the highlights was visiting Instrutor Gueirrero's (Cordao de Ouro) capoeira class, and coming with him the next day to help out with a performance at a kidnergarten! 150 little Chinese kids- they loved it! Oh, and the BEST FOOD EVER- the night after the class we ate Chinese Muslim food and ordered so much food 13 hungry capoeiristas couldn't finish it- kebabs, cucumber salad, and so many other dishes it was all a blur... And after the performance, the best Brazilian barbecue I've ever had- and I spent 7 months in Brasil- and it wasn't a result of not having any other type of food except for Chinese for a month previous. THE FOOD WAS DELICIOUS!!! Rodizio-style- the meat kept coming out of the kitchen! Guarana, feijao e arroz, batata frita, pao de queijo fresh out of the oven, doce de aborbora e doce de leite... The all-you-can-eat salad bar was splendid- and so was the service, amazingly enough, an anomaly in China. And the price? 88 yuan- divide that by 6.8. About 13 USD. Damn straight, one of the best meals ever.

Then what... Xi'an and the terracotta warriors.

Speaking of service- Sunny had told us that Xi'an was not generally known for customer service. Against his advice we ate at DeFang's house of Delicious Superior Dumplings in Xi'an- how could you go wrong with a title like that? Well, the dumplings weren't bad, per se. They were ok. Just ok. It was the service that made it worse- asking for us to pay a couple of seconds after we received our warm beers, then clearing our plates before we were finished eating. That on top of the sound of meowing cats coming from the kitchen. I suppose that indicated that were no rats. Hopefully. We saw lots of rats in Wulishan.

Anyways! The terracotta warriers were everything they said they would be. Interesting, and worth the trip, but not as awe-inspiring as the Taj Mahal. Not much can top the Taj Mahal. There was an introductory video shown on a very old surround-screen style theater. Innovative, I'm sure, for a film made in 70's or 80's China. I'm sure it was very informative, but it was all in Chinese. We had fun turning around to see the events unfold in front of as well as behind us. We had a local guide who waved a flag around that we had to follow. She was very enthusiastic with her explanations about the history- we just weren't used to following a flag.
Other than that, Xi'an didn't have much. It was cold. The Muslim quarters had some pretty good street food- fried balls of persimmon dough stuffed with sweet sesame seeds, pancakes stuffed with an egg and fried, other pancakes stuffed with spicy noodles and meat with onion, and roasted chestnuts. Mostly very greasy and dripping with oil. I'm actually almost used to the oil by now. Doesn't really phase me. I just eat it. There's not much of an option as far as healthy food out here. The Swedish girls had started to opt out of many of the group dinners that we had in Chinese restaurants. They just didn't like the food, the heads on the fishes, the random live animals swimming about in tanks in the front, the bear claws or the dead rats on the floor- most of the time they ended up at McDonalds or KFC. Yeah, China is a world away...

Next stop- Beijing. Wow- I've caught up! Almost. It's cold here! We were so excited to see snow on the ground in front of the hotel, throwing snowballs at each other! Frozen fingers, leg warmers and wool socks and hat are par for the day.
Day one: Summer Palace. Quite nice- a summer resort for the emperors. The lake was frozen over and there was snow everywhere. Lots of bridges to islands with pagodas on them. We walked around for 4 hours. On the way home we went to the Olympic Center, and saw the Birdsnest and the Water Cube up close and personal. The Birdsnest was quite imposing, in a shockingly uninspiring way. It looked quite... UGLY! I guess on TV, with lighting and swooping angles, the imagination fills in the details and doesn't acknowlege how a building of such stature could fail to be at least- nice looking?! In person it looks unfinished, as if someone forgot to file down the edges, or give it a nice polish. The lines are not clean, and don't seem to make sense. I suppose it's a feat of architecture that it can remain standing, and it will certainly maintain a name for itself in history. But wow! The other buildings are really nice, actually. The water cube is also incredibly tacky, but with the blue luminescent glow at sunset, becomes a sort of larger than life amusement-park style kind of building. I became quite emotional actually, staring at it from behind the fence, imagining the Olympic athletes entering the building for the first time, all nervous excitement and anticipation. I remember that feeling from my old days of competition. I savor those moments and wish I could experience them all over again, knowing what I know now. I love competition! I didn't acknowlege that part of myself fully back then- now, I'm ready for it. Bring it!
So we bought tickets and went inside- 30 yuan just to go inside. Worth it! Got to stare at the competition pool, the dive pool, the warmup pool. All empty, shimmering glasslike surface of blue water. With an exciting echo that one hears in a swimming hall or gymnasium. It's a shame actually. I would have wished to see it full of clamouring little kids and old ladies taking swimming lessons and water aerobics. It seemed like a crystalline monument to unattainable perfection, a place to revere the athletes that passed through during the Olympics and all they worked for- which is great! But these athletes had to start somewhere, and these buildings have the potential to inable society a step up towards health and vitality. Physical activity should be accessible to everyone... Actually, I really don't know what China plans to do with these facilities. For all I know there are swimming lessons on Fridays only, or every other Monday... There's still a lot about China that really confuses me.

So let's see- the next day we went off to climb the Great Wall! One of the best highlights of the tour- 10 kilometers over a remote section of the wall, over rugged stretches of broken bricks, across snowy side-paths, trailed by incessant souvenier-sellers... Beautiful! We finished by taking a "flying fox", hooked up to a wire and sailing out over a resevoir of clear green water. What a great day. Pictures will speak for me when I get a chance to add them.

Of course we had a tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden city. We saw General Mao's picture hanging up in front of the square, with the eyes painted to look like they are following you. The Forbidden City came out great in the photographs, but walking through it took forever. Endless courtyards upon courtyards. Our guide regaled us with stories of emperors, conquests, concubines and eunuchs.

Following that, we paid a visit to one of the social projects that Intrepid supports. It's a school for mentally disabled adults. They fed us lunch, then put on a performance. It was one of the best things I've seen or done this entire trip- India and Dubai included. They sang Jingle Bells, and made us all stand up and join in. They had so much enthusiasm! Fully putting their hearts into their performance, singing off key and clapping off beat, all with the utmost conviction. There was the dance with the masks, a girl and a boy huge painted face masks, doing a very strange modern sort of interpretive dance to music box music. Excellent. There were other singing performances. There was the dance of the cute girl and the silly donkey. But above all, I liked the bullfight- OMG it was the BEST! I wish I had it on film, I would watch it over and over, any time I had any doubts. About anything. It uplifted my spirits and made me cry at the same time.
Then we went inside and they gave us a calligraphy lesson. It was great. We learned how to write the Chinese characters for happiness, and I love you.
And we finished up by playing a round of kick the flying feathered hackey sack-type thing. Excellent all around! The best time ever!

For our last dinner together, we went out for Beijing Duck. The funny thing was, it was probably the best Chinese dinner we had so far, and yet the duck wasn't even that great. It was everything else. Fried pork, the eggplant/potato/pepper dish, the egg and tomato dish, um, I don't remember what else- oh, the fried banana fritters dipped in melted candy coating... The duck was ok. The beer was warm. The wine was quite good- Chinese wine, Great Wall label!

There was quite a terrible moment of awfulness a couple of days ago, when I thought I lost my camera. We had gone out to a club- (Banana Babyface) where I was taking photos and getting told not to take pictures- and that was the last I saw of the camera for the next two days. Sunny took me to the police station to file a report, (thank you Sunny) it took two hours and we were dead tired- and we tried calling the club to see if they found it- they couldn't help us. I was retracing my steps over and over in my mind, wishing I hadn't brought the camera out to the club, I was ruing the fact that I hadn't backed up any of my photos- and I was feeling SO STUPID! 8 gigs of photos from the entire trip. Well, THANK GOD! luck was with me. As Sunny was wrapping up business with the hotel staff, they simply handed him the camera. A security guard had found it and turned it it. Wow. I was overjoyed and grateful- life was right again- and I found a caribiner and have pinned that camera to me and will never let it go. And I will be backing it up later today. Ah... so happy.

And with that, so ends the story of Sunny's Intrepid Tour group. Nobody hurt, sick (majorly ;-)) or otherwise put out. We made lifelong friends and shared unforgettable moments. I was unsure at first about the wiseness of my decision to take a tour together with a bunch of strangers through a country I wasn't sure I wanted to be in anymore, at the end of a trip I was tired of taking, but in the end it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. This is one of the wonderful things about traveling. (I reiterate, I know!) Meeting other people and learning new ways to look at life. Changing and growing, adapting, learning and becoming different people. This is the life I want to lead. I am so thankful that I am able to DO and BE all these things.

I leave for Japan on Friday- still have 5 more days in Beijing. I can't believe it's March already! It seems like I looked away for just a moment, and all these things happened and time passed- I'll be home in less than a month! And I still have another country to experience- Life just keeps getting better, I swear.

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