October 2006

I have a few notes that we made ourselves so as not to forget the highlights, so hopefully I won’t leave out anything crucial. I’m going to have to put the bits about restaurants that we ate at in a different post, because I can already tell this is going to be really long. We stayed in Beijing for eight nights, so had plenty of time to see the few things that we really cared about seeing and to relax and do nothing, which was sort of our first priority at the time. As I think I mentioned in a previous post, Beijing struck me as very Orwellian, but was still a good time. We stayed in a really nice hotel, which was especially appreciated since the city itself is not so nice that we really wanted to spend every waking moment out in it.

Pretty much the first place we went was the silk market, where I ordered several pieces of clothing to be made for me (the number of pieces increased the longer we hung out in there, since they have some really amazing silk fabrics!). I ended up leaving with two silk jackets (one hip-length and one nearly knee-length), a silk blouse (Chinese style, don’t really know how else to explain that), one qipao and three skirts. They’re really pretty awesome, although I did get some strange looks when I wore the bright-red knee-length jackets with gold embroidery all over it today. Confirming the popular opinion that I’m slight off, I guess. 🙂 It was sort of overwhelming at first since that was our first experience with really aggressive salespeople, but certainly not our last!

One of the really cool things about Beijing is the gardens — you have to pay to get in, but they’re really sprawling and beautiful. Our favorite was Beihai park, here’s a picture:

We also went to the Temple of Heaven park, which was not quite as amazing as Beihai in our opinion but also really nice. More sort of manicured (reminded me of an English garden that way) than Beihai. The coolest part of Temple of Heaven (besides the fact that I took a nap there for about an hour while Danny read, which was just a great example of how chill our trip was) was that there were several different random musicians playing in different parts of the park. They were playing traditional Chinese music, and it was one of those moments where we had to laugh because we kept exclaiming to each other how much like China the whole thing felt. Here’s a pictures of one of the (less gardeny, but still cool) parts of the park:

Of course, we also went to Tiananmen Square, Mao’s tomb and the Forbidden City. Of all of them, the Forbidden City was by far our favorite, although there is something really cool about standing in a place that you’ve seen on the news so many times, so Tiananmen Square was neat because of that. Here’s a picture from the Forbidden City:


I’m normally pretty on board with not starting Christmas too early or letting it go on too long (Christmas lights in February are just depressing), but sometimes you have a plan ahead. Since it takes mail anywhere from 2-4 weeks to get here under normal circumstances, last night we ordered a Christmas tree. It’s sort of silly since we have a tiny little apartment here and all of our decorations are in storage, but whatever. We’re going to be here for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, so I think anything that will give us a little holiday cheer is called for.

Although I am normally opposed to artificial trees, obviously getting a Christmas tree here is not really a practical option since a) 99% of the country is Muslim, b) there’s not exactly a booming tourist economy that would mean cheesy Christmas items catering to seasonal visitors, c) there are hardly any trees in this city period, and d) we’re not allowed to go out shopping anyway.

So we ordered a tree from target.com (pictured to the left), which will hopefully arrive here in one piece and before Christmas. Since we also have no Christmas lights here, we ordered one of the pre-lit trees. Hey, if you’re going to go artificial, why not go all the way and have it be convenient?

Although I won the full size/table size fight and our tree is 7.5 feet tall, I did have to concede that a full-size tree with a 60″ diameter would just not fit in here, therefore we got a “slim pine” — read, tall and skinny. We also ordered some shatterproof ornaments (believe me, delicate glass balls are NOT going to make it through the mauling that is our mail system), but then noticed after the fact that they’re not shipping for 2-6 weeks, so they may or may not make it here in time for Christmas. Oh well, at least we’ll have a tree! We also just got an ornament from one of our friends here, so we have at least one to put on our tree.

If anyone is feeling inspired to mail off some ornaments, I would totally welcome that, but let me reiterate my warning that our mail system is not gentle with packages. Anything you wouldn’t let your average 2 year-old play with is probably not a good idea to ship here. 🙂

I don’t actually even begin to remember the rules for setting up an ode, so this will not be an ode in the poetic sense of the word, but I would like to take a moment to send a shout out to supermarkets. I was just on a brief business trip, which was close by enough that I was able to stock a small cooler (and half of my suitcase) to take on the plane back with me, which has resulted in our larder having swelled to include the following:
– REAL CHEDDAR CHEESE (this is the first time since June we’ve been able to get it)
– real goat cheese
– spring roll wrappers (to approximate some jiaozi, since Beijing Danny has been obsessed with them)
– tofu (doesn’t even need to be refrigerated until opened!)
– canned beans (make life SO much easier but very expensive to ship)
– simmer sauces (another current love, and one of the reasons I curse Trader Joe’s for not offering internet ordering)

On the down side, the other thing I picked up on my trip was a nasty case of food poisoning, from which I am slowly recovering. I got in yesterday and took the afternoon off, worked half a day today, and will probably be back on a more normal schedule tomorrow. I am still planning to post more details on our trip to China, but right now want to go lie down. Thanks to the care package from my mom and dad I have some of my favorite chicken noodle soup now, so I might enjoy that and some saltines for the second day in a row, as that was the only food I could face yesterday after two straight days of not being able to eat anything. I guess that’s one of the down sides to living and traveling in sketchy areas. 🙂

We’re back from our second R&R — rested and relaxed and so ready to be going home for real, but alas only half-way done. *sigh* The feeling is something akin to the day after Christmas as a child…you still like looking at all of the toys you got the day before, but it’s a bit depressing to realize that you’re as far away from next Christmas as you’ll ever be. To compensate, we’re already starting to plan our next R&R, which will happen some time in the beginning of January.

For anyone who I forgot to tell before we left, we went to China — Beijing, a hiking weekend outside Beijing along the Great Wall in a province who’s name I can’t remember to save my life, Hong Kong (somewhat impromptu, but more on that later), and Xi’an. We have tons of pictures, which I have yet to sort through but will hopefully get a chance to send out in the next week or so. I, like the fool that I have sometimes been accused of being, scheduled a work-related trip the first weekend back here, so that has thrown a bit of a wrench in the works. Catching up on three weeks of missed stuff at work is one thing, and preparing for a trip is another, but combine the two and hopefully you’ll all understand why this is the first time I’ve been able to sit down and write a short entry since we got back on Thursday.

I’ll work on getting a fuller read-out of our trip posted soon, but suffice it to say that it was wonderful. Beijing was very interesting — just as polluted and conformist as I’d been told to expect, but since most of what we wanted to do was see a couple of things, walk around, eat in good restaurants and relax in a nice hotel, it was just fine. I did have to run out and buy a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 as soon as we got to Hong Kong because of how eerily Beijing reminded me of it. I told Danny my great plan for our Beijing pictures is to use one of those three-photo frames to put up pictures of the Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square, and Mao’s tomb, and underneath them put the three party slogans from 1984: “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.” I think he’s hoping I was kidding on that one. We’ll just see about that.

The hiking weekend was very very cool…I would recommend it for anyone who’s going to China and has a couple of extra days to play with. There were a total of four hikes over the course of the weekend (okay, so I only did three of them…but Danny did all four), all along different sections of the wall that were unrestored and really beautiful. No one else was out there other than the six or eight people in our group, so we avoided the whole tourist goat rope that I’ve heard characterizes the experience of the wall in Beijing.

Hong Kong was AMAZING. As anyone who knew me during my James Clavell obsession could have predicted, I was already positively pre-disposed toward it, but even keeping that in mind it was a definitely highlight of our trip. The whole time we were there we kept commenting on how cool it was, and we’ve already started scheming to try to get an assignment there at some point. I don’t know how realistic that is, but still, you get the point. It was freakin’ awesome. (And, as a side note, Danny managed to score me a copy of Tai-Pan shortly before we headed for Hong Kong, which won him major brownie points…yes, my life does revolve around books. Is there a problem with that?)

After Hong Kong, Xian was an odd little detour. Maybe the tone was set by out slightly terrifying ride from the airport with a cab driver that we weren’t totally convinced wasn’t going to dump us on some dark road somewhere in Xangxi province and leave us to fend for ourselves, or maybe it would have been a better fit after Beijing but before Hong Kong. At any rate, the terra cotta warriors were really cool and we took lots of pictures of them for Danny’s mom and for my sister, who said that she regretted never having gotten to see them when she was in China.

There will be more to follow, including some snapshots, but right now I have to get to bed. Hopefully this time my internet connection won’t die again just as I try to post this (this is the third iteration of this post, as I’ve lost and had to recreate it twice already…).