Apparently, China has been around for a few thousand years, so the fact that I just now took the time to visit is evidence of my propensity to dawdle.
The current wife and I, along with a 11 other stalwart academic and business types, spent just over two weeks in late April nosing around the eastern quarter of The People’s Republic of China.
The following is a synopsis of the first week. A later blog will chronicle the final week of the visit.
Our introduction to China was a van ride from the Beijing airport to our hotel in city center. This ride occurred on a Sunday, a day that most Westerners consider a “light traffic” day. This is not the case in China. Saturdays and Sundays are the days when all the novice Chinese drivers head to the open road in their new cars to practice recently-acquired and not-yet-perfected driving skills. Ironically, this turns out to be a safe practice because we could only barrel along the freeway at 2.2 m.p.h., making the danger of a grinding collision nearly impossible and the term “open road” a cruel joke.
Upon arrival at our hotel, I was comforted to see that it was located next door to a “Sizzler Steakhouse” where, should Chinese cuisine fail to satisfy, I could get a thin, overcooked and likely grisly ribeye; a touch of home in a faraway land.
One should not visit China without seeing the Great Wall because it is, well, really great. It is fairly easy to see the Wall. All you need to do is mentally clear away several hundred thousand tourists who swarm the structure on any given day.
The route from the visitor’s jam-packed parking lot to the Wall requires either (1) a brisk and sweat-inducing 3/4 mile hike up a 40 degree incline or (2) a hair-raising ski lift contraption manned by surly, non-English speaking attendants. They shouted warnings, instructions and threats but all of it just sounded to me like someone had dropped a really large silverware drawer.
Once you reach the Wall, which is really, really great, you discover–it being built along steep dentritic ridges–that your climbing has only just begun. The Great Wall is mostly a constantly ascending or descending staircase. The stairs have stone side walls that protected ancient warriors from arrows shot in anger and today serve as safety barriers to keep tourists from falling into the brambles 30 feet below. The builders of the wall paid little heed to the height or width of the individual steps, which makes for a bit more adventure than expected.
Once your Wall curiosity is sated, you can return to the parking lot via the ski lift, manned by the second shift of grouchy guys OR, you can stand in line to take one of the individually controlled sleds on wheels that bend and plunge down the mountainside on a sheet-metal half pipe. This entertainment option is the Middle Kingdom’s cheesier version of a cheesy ride at the Magic Kingdom, kingdoms that should not be confused.
Our Beijing visit also included a trip to the ancient dynastic “Summer Palace”. This is not one structure but a 720 acre assembly of lakes, gardens and multiple palaces, all of which greatly pleased the royals, their concubines and eunuchs but royally pissed off the peasants. By the time Mao came along in 1949 the ancient pampered leader-peasant relationship had frayed substantially and communism seemed a better alternative. Today, the peasants can go to the Summer Palace any time and fight their way through several hundred thousand other peasants (now know as “the people”) as they pose for pictures in front of such things as the Emperor’s Marble Boat, or, as I call it, The Boat That Don’t Float and For Which the Peasants Got to Tote the Note. The Summer Palace serves as a cautionary example of what happens when wealth disparity gets waaaaaay out of whack.
You can’t go to Beijing without trying the local specialty, Peking Duck. I was curious as to why, when the city changed its name back to its original from the Western influenced “Peking”, that the residents didn’t also change the name of the famous dish to “Beijing Duck”. I was told that Peking Duck was too famous a moniker to go messing with its brand equity. The Chinese apparently learned a lot from the New Coke fiasco.
Beijing is home to the infamous Mao Mausoleum which purportedly holds the remains of the infamous Mao Zedong. Mao’s Tomb is located on the infamous Tiananmen Square. Every day, thousands line up to view the infamous waxy remains of the still revered, and still dead, Great Leader. This national reverence is undiminished by the fact that Mao’s primary strategic ideas were the infamous Great Leap Forward and the infamous Cultural Revolution which, together, resulted in the death by starvation or torture of more than 25 million admirers. Go infamously figure.
By day five in Beijing it was clear that it was time to move on because it wasn’t clear. The air quality had gone from hazy to particulate soup. We groped our way to the train station and boarded the Beijing-to-Shanghai Bullet Train. If it weren’t for U.S. airline industry lobbyists, America could have similar sleek trains darting about the countryside at 200 m.p.h. connecting cities and towns in a way that is clearly less hassle than air travel. China’s transportation infrastructure is one example that a one-party political system has some advantages, The Great Leap Forward, The Cultural Revolution and rampant fraud notwithstanding.
If Beijing is the “Washington” of China then Shanghai is its “New York”. The main difference between Shanghai and New York City is that the former has nearly three times more people, most of them Chinese. Shanghai has also adopted the Las Vegas approach to highrise exterior lighting, thus the city is aglow and flashing when night falls. From center city, one is surrounded by a dense pack of high rise condos and office towers, all seeking attention with unique designs and neon. The world’s second tallest office building, the creatively named Shanghai Tower, is just being completed and is still unoccupied. At nearly 1/2 mile high and sporting nary a warning light of any color at its top or anywhere along its ascent, the building would be an FAA and OSHA nightmare. It looms as a foreboding shadow amongst and above its punier neighbors.
It was in Shanghai that I was introduced to Duck Tongue, a local favorite that, once breaded and fried, looks like a weensy corn dog. However, and this is a key difference, Duck Tongue, when chewed, tends to chew back. Given some of the other food that was proffered during the trip, Duck Tongue was a relief. Sea Cucumber, which is actually a sea creature whose real name is echinoderm and is also known as sea slug, tastes much like the name suggests. It tastes nothing like a cucumber and has a mouth feel similar to…….well, nothing that I have ever put in my mouth. “Springy” comes to mind but that’s still not quite it. Eel tastes exactly like what you expect eel to taste like and that would be eel. Ewwww. Cooked jelly fish is very similar to cod liver oil flavored rubber bands. Deer tendon, when boiled down, is like eating lemon-colored chicken gizzards but without the grit. Chicken feet, which I diplomatically avoided, are highly prized by Chinese consumers. Ironically, most of the chicken feet consumed in China are imported from the U.S., where the taste for things chicken pretty much stops at the drumstick.*
There were many vegetables, greens and bean products that were quite delicious as were most of the dumpling and noodle dishes. Fresh fruit, often served for dessert, was great; not as great as the Great Wall is great but still pretty great. Most of our fellow travelers actually gained weight on the trip. The fact that virtually all of the cities we visited had a Haagen Dazs shop on every corner may have contributed.
In a later post I’ll have some observations about Hong Kong shopping, 1,000-year eggs and Macau gambling.
Observoid of the Day: One man’s delicacy is another man’s ipecac.
*In defense of the more exotic Chinese cuisine, I note that all cultures develop certain unusual preferences in daily diet. If not, how can one explain the Scots’ love of haggis, the Brits’ fondness for blood pudding, the French adoration of snail and Americans’ devotion to McRibs?