Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Today's Alarming Statistic:

12 million

The number of cars expected to be sold in China this year – a 90 percent increase over last year, putting China on track to surpass the U.S. as the world's biggest auto market.
Financial Times

Wow - hope all those will be electric cars or I can't see how China is going to seriously participate in anti-global-warming measures!

Only two more days until we see Drew! He will probably be ready for a long rest when he returns to the USA. He nearly suffocated in Prague due to his throat closing up because it was so swollen! Had to go to the hospital and have his tonsils drained (gross!) We are lucky to be seeing him at all. We spent a few days wondering if he would spend all his time in Beijing at some quarantine facility, but he's apparently healthy as a horse now and ready for some duck blood soup.

I took a guess at miso yesterday and made a yummy miso soup. It may not have actually been miso, but it was soybean paste with bigger chunks of soybeans and dark brown. It made a good soup, whatever it was!

Much Much Later ...
Sorry about the silence - I took time off. I've been busy hanging out with Drew. It's so nice to have another human to speak with!!! He leaves tomorrow morning and we are going to seriously miss him - WE NEED ANOTHER VISITOR IMMEDIATELY!

I guess the favorite thing we all did over the past eight days was climbing the Great Wall at Simatai.

I have seen pictures of it all of my life, but actually climbing it - being there - was breathtaking. I even had a moment of sobbing inside one of the towers. I couldn't even believe that I was there. First that I physically could climb it (it's steep!) And second that I was standing on one of the great wonders of the world and the only man-made thing that can be seen from outer space. It really was overwhelming. This is looking back at the starting point:

We were on the wall by 8:00am which was fantastic because we were nearly the only people there. We left Beijing at 6:00am by hired car - a London style taxi so we could all fit. It cost 900 Yuan for the day which comes out to $26/person. So worth it! Here are the girls in the cabbie:

At the entrance to the hiking trail we met this guy sweeping the path.
Eric took the picture
but he feels so tall here and Drew towers over everyone!

The hike up was surreal - very few other people and a gorgeous day. Here are the pictures - judge for yourself.

We spent four hours on the wall including having a short lunch that we brought along and a beer on the way down. There are merchants along the way every so often with beer, water, and ice cream.

We started off and it got steep immediately.

There were 13 towers to the east of our starting point and that direction was rumored to be the most beautiful and also the most difficult so that's the one we chose.

One of the highlights was at the very end of the hike - way up there where they posted a sign saying "Danger - don't go any farther" or something like that. By this time crowds were getting thick and Greta and Ivy were swarmed by teenage girls wanting to get their photo taken with them.

Greta and Ivy accommodated everybody and then all of a sudden they all swarmed Drew! It was like he was a rock star! They all had to have their picture with him next and Drew took it all in stride. In fact he mentioned that this was "just another day" to him!
About 20 minutes up
the hill from the parking lot is a zip line. We saw it on the way up and of course, Greta announced that she wanted to zipline down at the end. Ivy wasn't so sure, but she had four hours to convince herself. It wasn't running or manned when we passed it, so we weren't even sure it was available and working. Given the small stature of the Chinese, Drew definitely had second thoughts about it. And you don't even have to ask if I was tempted. Surprisingly, Eric also opted out (I'm sure he was just being sweet and didn't want me to hike the rest of the way down alone!) Here they go!

The Great Wall Rocks. I'll post this and tell about the rest of Drew's visit next time.
Miss you!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Oddities, Patience, and random observations

Today's Alarming Statistic (as reported in The Beijing News):

The percentage of Beijingers the municipal government aims to have regularly brushing their teeth within 10 years.

I truly believe that there is not a measuring cup or measuring spoon in all of China. But I'm positive that the ones I used in Seattle were manufactured here! They must just cook from feel. Maybe I'll get some insight when I take my cooking class:

I may have to return to IKEA today although I swore I was done with that place. We need a rug for our apartment and unless we want an "oriental" one I think it is the best option. If so, I can get free coffee because I am now the official holder of an IKEA Family card! And I may get lucky enough to hear a different Abba song in Chinese!

I bought some shoe racks at a shop I walked to (about 25 minutes away) and since they were fairly light I decided to walk back home. The only concern I had was the awkwardness of carrying 4 of them, not the weight.

Well, here is where there is an advantage to living in a city where people walk/ride bikes. The sales girl tied them all together with strong tape and even fashioned a "handle" out of tape. Made it a piece of cake to carry the two bundles. She didn't blink an eye or make it seem like I was being a pain. I didn't even tell her I was walking in fact; she just did this without a word. I continue to be impressed by how accommodating people are in Beijing.

Another example was when I went to the appliance store (like Best Buy but Chinese). I bought the water cooler base, vacuum cleaner, some flash drives, and a power strip there.

When you buy things here you select them, then someone spends about 10 minutes filling out some paperwork and they walk you over to a distant place in the store where you pay. Well they probably wouldn't need to walk a Chinese person, but... Then you pay which takes about 10 more minutes while they fill out forms in triplicate and make you sign each one. They staple various things together, hand you your copy, and then you wonder what's next. About 5 minutes later someone appears with what you bought and you can leave. There is a lot of dead time for me in there where I am wondering if the process is working!

At the appliance store once I had my stuff I asked for a taxi (chuzu qiche) and the store guy ran out to the street about 60 yards away and flagged one for me. He rode in the taxi back to the store and got out so I could get in. I showed the driver my address in Chinese (this was before I had my helpful recording on my phone) and he refused to take me. The store guy stayed with me the whole time and then together we walked the 60 yards to the street to try again. 2nd time was a charm. The guy said ok. You truly feel at the mercy of the taxi drivers here. I believe it is illegal, or at least considered bad business, for taxis to refuse you in big cities in the USA. Here that is obviously not the case.

I'm telling you it can reduce me to tears more easily than anything else to be far away from the apartment and believe I might not get home. We have learned to open the door and pile in before showing the address. It makes it that much harder for them to say no (or actually wave their arms at us with an angry face).

The guards in my building are soooo nice though. It makes me feel like a fancy lady. They will run across the lobby to open the doors for me each time - first the inner lobby door then the one that opens to the outside. I am not used to this and certainly always try to beat them to the door to open it myself but I think they consider this as a big part of their job and I wouldn't want to deny them the pleasure!

Because we don't have our printer yet, (it is coming in the air shipment which will arrive after October 9th due to the big National Day Holiday eight days long), I have many times asked one of the guards to come up to my apartment to look at my computer screen and write down the address in Chinese of where I need to go for the taxi driver. They bring little baggies with elastic around them like shower caps and always put them over their shoes before they enter. Totally unnecessary of course, and I try to tell them so, but they insist. I think the guards go above and beyond their call of duty.

It is a little freaky though that they all carry radio walkie talkies and are in constant communication with one another. I sometimes think I must be on video in my elevator area on the 8th floor because they are usually ready for me whenever I come out on the first floor. I imagine them saying "The American lady and her daughters have left the apartment... they are approaching the west entrance..." I'm sure that's not the case (I hope!)

Let's talk about electrical conservation for a moment.

Inside our apartment, the bathroom lights are on motion sensors. Whenever you get close to the doorway the light comes on. That's fine unless it is the middle of the night. The big downside happens if you stand in one position too long while brushing your teeth or applying your make-up. Then the lights go off and you have to wave your arms around to get them back on again. I find this very annoying. There is a small light inside the shower and above the tub that stays on, but you have to remember to turn it on because it's a separate switch. Then you take your shower and it is pitch black in the rest of the bathroom. When you open the shower door, however, the lights come on again. Usually the motion of drying off keeps the lights on until you are done.

Most escalators operate by motion sensors too. As you approach them they start. At first I would get so angry that all the escalators seemed to be broken and I'd steel myself for a long climb only to be pleasantly surprised that they would start when I needed them.

They just don't waste electricity here.

Yesterday I spent 20 minutes at a little store around the corner trying to buy paper towels. I use them a lot for cooking - drying off chicken, prawns, spreading oil on my pan, etc. I know I bought some somewhere - maybe Jenny Lou's which stocks lots of American / European products - but I'm running dangerously low. I drew a picture of a roll of paper towels, including the perforations, and pantomimed tearing some off and wiping the counter. They tried to sell me a handi-wipe type cloth, and multiple other cloths but I kept saying "no". Finally they indicated I should wait. Apparently one guy had left the store in search of what they thought I needed without my noticing. This store is about 4 yards wide and 20 yards deep so I'm not sure how that happened. Anyway I didn't want to be rude since they were trying so hard, but it was nearly time for Greta to be home from school. I waited and waited and finally pointed to my wrist to ask the time. The cash register said 15:45pm (everything operates on military time here). I was getting antsy and just about to leave when the guy came back with two items made of plastic. They were cylindrical - about 6 inches in diameter and 4 inches high decorated with cartoony images of puppies on the sides. One yellow and one purple. They each had a removable top with air vents in them. Hmmmm. I almost felt like I had to buy them because they had gone to all that trouble, but I said no thank you, nicely, and ran home. Now I take pictures of what I need... observe - all the basics necessary for life!

Also yesterday, I needed to mail my first letter since arriving in China. This lead me to remembering when we lived in London in 1988-90 and again in 1998-2001. Both times the post office was a real destination for me. I had to almost immediately locate one and learn all about stamps and international rates and scales, etc.

The advent of the internet has really changed that! I can pay all my bills over the internet and communicate with everyone either in e-mail or with my MagicJack phone thing-y.

Anyway, I had to mail a tax payment and it had to be postmarked by September 15th. Hopefully the IRS will accept a postmark from China... So I hopped on my bike and hunted for a China Post. There is a big building that says China Post on my left as I walk to the subway, so I thought I'd try there. I biked in and out of 6 tower block areas before I found the one that housed the China Post. Then I parked my bike and in the process of locking it up, knocked down 2 other bikes. Sweating and embarrassed, I struggled to pick them up while my bike was falling on top of me (my kickstand is useless). The entrance to the post office was only 3 steps away so I walked in and it was literally just a cubicle with a lady sitting inside. I handed her my envelope and said USA and she said "liu kuai" and I figured that's just under a dollar and sounded about right. The simplest things can become what you are going to accomplish in a day.

A few days later:
I took a few days off ... Eric just left for a week in London, so now we're on our own again. It's not really a big deal since he works all day during the week anyway, and long hours because he's always having conference calls in Seattle and London, etc. so he has to be at the office at weird hours to accommodate the time differences. If he was gone on the weekends it would be a bummer, but he'll be home Friday afternoon!

Our first visitor, our nephew Drew is coming on Saturday!!!!!!! We are all excited but Greta and Ivy are bouncing off the walls. He has been on a "world tour" after graduating from Western. Can't wait to feed him some chicken feet and duck blood soup.

Almost every day I walk to the market along this canal:

It ranges from 5 inches of water to bone dry. As you can see it has quite a lot of something growing in it. There are usually some people peering down into the murky stuff with nets in hand. I feel too conspicuous to photograph them, but I have stood nearby trying to discern what they are catching. So far I have no idea, but I hope I'm not buying it at the market! I also see this a lot:

These are obviously drying in the sun, but it is not obvious to me what they are. A close up:

They look like sea shells, but I see nothing like that in the water. Maybe it's pasta? But I haven't seen this in the market. It's a mystery, but this blue sheet has been along the canal for weeks.

The other day there was a big event here at MOMA. They had this fancy chair setup and here's how it looked at dusk and then at night.

From what we understand,
it was an investor event. Not sure if they invested in this development or if they were totally separate and just rented the venue. They had beautiful music and dancing and a very enthusiastic violin duet. It was all very elegant. We watched from our window.

This weekend we bicycled to the Lama Temple which is less than 2 miles away. It's our new favorite thing to ride around on the bikes and although

Beijing is pretty flat it's still a challenge with a 90 lb. kid on the back! Greta is a great helper though, warning me whenever cars, carts, donkeys, or other traffic is coming. This is a diagram of the layout of the Lama Temple (Yonghegong). It covers a vast area and is chock full of Buddhas and their alters. The temple was built in the late 1600's and originally home to court eunuchs, but later was home to a prince related to the emperor at that time (Qing Dynasty). 30 years later it was turned over to the Tibetan monks and it is the only working Buddhist monestary in China now.
The photo on the right shows the entryway into just the first of many courtyards housing temple after temple. At the entrance to each one is a metal fire pit into which practicing Buddhists place armloads full of incense. The air was thick with the scent throughout.

There were actually a lot Do you know these people?
of practicing Buddhists there on this day.

The final temple houses an enormous Buddha - said to be the largest one carved from a single piece of sandalwood. It is three stories high and 9 meters wide at the base. No pictures were allowed inside any of the temples, but I took a few through the windows.

This is a Buddhist prayer wheel.

And here are Greta and Ivy ringing the bell!

It seems a little is lost in translation sometimes. Check out the informational plaques on the Drum Tower in Chinese compared to the English...

All the more incentive to learn this language!

Pomegranate tree in Lama Temple grounds...

Well, that's all for now. Hope you are all doing well. Missing you!

Friday, September 11, 2009

End of Shanghai.. Bunch of other stuff...Bicycles!

Today's Alarming Statistic:
12.56 million -
The number of kilowatts of electricity consumed in Beijing Friday, July 26th - an all time high according to Beijing Electric Power Company.

Well, that was an interesting whirlwind trip to Shanghai. Literally the only things I had to do were:
Day 1 - hand my passport to Echo (Callison employee facilitating our residency visa application)
Day 2 - go to an administration office and sit on a stool in front of a dismal Chinese lady who looked at me, stamped some papers with the all important red Chinese authoritative stamp and take my photo. That entire thing took five minutes.

In the taxi on the way to the admin place I saw something that made me homesick...

The Chinese Space Needle, only toppled over on it's side! Another view:

Well, look on the bright side. I got a chance to sit in a nice coffee shop, Wagas and contemplate Chinese currency and how bizarre it is. Observe:

This is one yuan, also known as one kuai (think "buck"). It comes in a bill form and a coin form. That's not so weird, we have silver dollars and even Susan B. Anthony dollars.

But check this one out:

Each of these is the equivalent of half a yuan (like 50 cents to us). If you split up a yuan into 10 parts, each part is called a jiao (like a dime). Again, bill form, a gold 5 jiao piece, and 5 individual jiao. But look closely at those single jiaos... there are 3 that look alike - the 1st, 2nd, and 4th left to right. The middle one is made of some totally different material that feels like plastic toy cash register money. The far right one is octagonal and made of yet a third type of material.

Last currency lesson: Here is a paper bill for one jiao and the three different one jiao coins.

Need I say explicitly that when I am in a crowded market place
attempting to pay for my leeks
and prawns quickly, not even
being totally sure the price they
are quoting me, that it can be
somewhat stressful to figure out
the money involved? Hence I
typically end up using a 100 yuan bill and accumulating
tons of these random, confusing
coins and tiny paper bills.

One final comment about Shanghai. There seemed to be even more bicycles and small motorcycles there than in Beijing if that is possible. This is how they park them. Would you want to be the first one in? I'm not
sure if you can tell from
this photo, but they are parked
about eight deep.

It was so great to get back to Beijing and see Eric and the girls. Look at the surprise they had for me!

They had to dump out all my tall kitchen utensils from the "vase" which are now still laying on the kitchen counter since we don't own a vase yet.

It was also exciting to see the
progress on the roof terrace we
look out over. Bamboo! It is growing in about a foot of soil. Each bag of soil was carried up
in one of the two elevators in our building. The actual process is this -
1. A truck brings a bunch of soil and drops it on the street in front.
2. About 15 workers in blue uniforms and little black worker shoes use tiny little shovels to fill bags full of dirt. Each probably only weighs around 30 lbs.
3. They fill the floor of the elevator and go to the 5th floor.
4. They unload the elevator and send it back to the lobby.
5. Residents wait impatiently for the elevator to be free.
6. The workers dump the bags out in the planter boxes.
7. The workers take the empty bags down to the street.
8. Repeat from step 2.
It is hot work since it's still in the high 80s here and humid.

Saturday morning we woke up and I actually, for the first time, felt like I was "home". Going to Shanghai alone was a good thing. We went to the market right outside our building (to look for a vase) and here are some things I saw:

Ivy took this picture - the picture I have been attempting to get since mid August. We see this every day under the airport express highway... there are one to three "dentists"? set up down there. I try to slyly snap a photo of them working on someone's teeth but they always catch me and glare. Leave it to Ivy to finally get the shot! Right next to this they are selling nuts, bolts, huge tobacco leaves, and a bucket of dead frogs. Seriously. A bit later I snapped this one - another I've been

wanting to show. Not just this guy, but all the working people take naps during the noon hour. They just sprawl out wherever they are. Sometimes on the sidewalk just flat on their backs. Taxi drivers lay in the back seats of their taxis with their bare feet poking out the window and the car doors open. This is the type of bike that you see carrying queen sized mattresses, huge loads of coal in eight inch cylinders, water cooler bottles or just anything you can imagine.


Of course, anyone who knows us would be aware that we would never ever buy a NEW
bicycle, especially in a place like Beijing where most bicycles are pretty beat up and there are many that get stolen. However, we have been looking and looking for used bikes and we have not found any. I have been told that if we do, they are most likely stolen. So the purchasing agent at Eric's office found us this one.

How much would you pay for this bike? Wait~! It also comes with a basket for the front... NOW how much would you pay? We are getting two of these bikes (delivered) for $100. What a deal! The only thing is the fear of actually riding one. Eventually, if we get confident enough, we will put Greta and Ivy on the little seat on the back and they can sit side saddle like 99% of backseat riders do here.

Later that day... Well, we learn something new every day that we are here, and there seems to be a trend. The man came to deliver our bikes - we were so excited! But that excitement ended abruptly as we examined the bikes. They were totally different than the one pictured above! Both were "girl style" and much lighter weight. They had the side kickstands which were so ineffective that a slight breeze would topple the bike. Eric went back to the apartment to get his blackberry to show the guy a picture of the bikes we ordered. Our friend Vivian who owns the laundry business at MOMA and her (husband?/boyfriend?) Bell were helping us out with the translating that was necessary. Luckily we did not pay in advance! We have learned that whomever holds the cash holds the power.

Vivian and Bel suggested it would be best for us to go to an actual bicycle shop and see the actual bikes so we could choose the right ones. There is a community market not far away that they suggested so we walked there and found just what we wanted! We payed slightly more, but still it was only $71.50 per bicycle - and this includes a seat on the back for each bike, foot pegs, baskets, and bells. Also we were supporting our local community market and Eric made friends with the shop owner so he can go there for parts, etc. when necessary. Here they are! It's a little terrifying to ride bikes here. The only saving grace is that no one is speeding past. People ride at a fluid, fairly slow pace, weaving around anything going more slowly than they are. They also weave around people opening car doors, cars pulling out, and about 400% more pedestrians than we are used to on a Seattle street.

This is where we park them and here we are getting ready for our first longer ride to the train station.

We did that on Sunday, parked them in a bike lot for 20 jiao (figure out how much that is based on your currency lesson above!- Exchange rate about 6.8 yuan to one dollar). So we left the bikes there - they have integrated locks and we also used our cable lock - and took the train to Qianmen station, south of the Forbidden City. From there we walked through these amazing hutongs full of little market shops.

This picture is dedicated to my friend Carrie Pratt, who asked me to take a picture of the deepest darkest alley in BJ. It's a first attempt. I'll keep trying!
Right next to this is a fancy street which is full of beautiful old buildings like this:

The one on the left has three intricate world maps.

The other one has been serving roast duck since 1864.
We walked across a large road overpass and were able to look down into the hutong.

We were heading toward the Temple of Heaven (which is Ivy's "house" at school (think Gryffindor). Greta's is Forbidden City (think Slytherin... no! Just kidding). Oh, here they are in their house t-shirts!

But unfortunately, my camera battery chose that time to expire for the day. The Temple of Heaven was very cool though, trust me. It is where all the emperors used to go at various times of the year to pray to gods for good harvests, among other things.

We saw all the major temples and outbuildings and my favorite was the Circular Mound which is a circle with three tiers like a wedding cake - lots of short marble pillars all around the edges. There are nine steps going from the bottom layer to the 2nd. There are nine steps going from the 2nd to the 3rd. In the center of the top layer is a round stone about three feet in diameter where the emperor stood to do the big prayers. Fanning out from this stone were nine fan shaped flagstones. Fanning out from those were 18, fanning out from those were 36, etc. etc. until you get to the edge (there are nine repetitions.) Then on the 2nd layer down it starts at the next multiple of nine and gets bigger by multiples of nine. And finally to the third and bottom layer. All together there are some huge big old number of flagstones and if you are a good mathematician you should be able to figure out exactly how many.

The number nine is very important and powerful in Chinese culture. That's why so many people got registered to marry the other day on 9/9/09 (or as they would write it 09/9/9). Those people should stay married forever.

Last night our apartment complex was hoppin'! They are holding a big event here on the 17th with a bunch of stars coming. They have set up this stage and a huge sound system and they were testing it all out last night. "Hotel California" was blaring on and off until 10pm and colored lights were fanning all over the towers. It was really cool. We had an awesome view from our windows until they
just hung a big backdrop.
Now we can't see a thing.
Hopefully they'll let us in!

This picture is dedicated to Lily from Ivy...

Adventure in Chinese is Maoxian. I'll let you know more about ours later! Miss you all.