Monday, May 7, 2012

High Season

The past week has been our last school holiday in China. One of the perpetual gripes of teachers is that although they get long holidays, they're at the same time as everyone else's and high season prices. This year working as a fake teacher  I have been able to experience this frustration for myself. I can confirm for all the "you guys are so lucky getting so much holiday, I only get two weeks" crowd (whom I will probably reunite with soon) that it is a bit annoying having everyone else on holiday at the same time as you.

What happens when everyone in China goes on holiday at the same time? This. 
A tourist, briefly escaping all the other tourists
Despite being outnumbered millions to one by Chinese tourists and outgunned in the matching hats and flags stakes, we set out to do battle with Beijing and Xian's sights as a united gang of five family members. Thanks to Peter's arrangements we were staying in hotels with a level of quality far loftier than we're used to, including the novelty of English speaking front desk staff. This was a great novelty though I'm out of practice asking for help with things as I usually can't understand the answer, no matter how helpful it may be. We tackled Beijing's greatest hits of commercialised history, including the Forbidden City, Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace. Most of these were like a combination of Disneyland China (actually soon to be built for real, apparently) and feeding time at the zoo. It was very illuminating to see the true scale of some of the Emperor's paranoia and enthusiasm for giant monuments to themselves at the expense of the people they ruled. The rise of Communism in China suddenly made a lot more sense to me. Fortunately, the massive redirection of China's resources into the Emperor's private city and summer resort didn't go to waste and it's all there, complete with instant noodle vendors for all of China to enjoy... and they certainly seem to enjoy it.

Possibly the best street musician ever
The previously forbidden city is now open for business
Temporary art
At the other end of Beijing's tourist spectrum, we did a little exploring around some Hutongs (narrow streets) in the Drum Tower area. If I was to find myself back in Beijing I would definitely investigate around here a little more. We are some kind of non-barbecue street food, that we thought might be barbecue, but turned out to be cooked in broth and then have spicy sesame sauce put on it. Yum. We also accidentally had some dumplings in an award-winning dumpling restaurant. Cheap, and also yum.

We are Family
Lina fails to convince the crowds that she is  one of the guards
I felt rather under-gunned in the camera department next to this guy
"Photos that make me look taller: Part 1 - The Summer Palace"
Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace
The Beijing Olympics site was a typical vast paved area with no obvious purpose, but the "Birdcage" stadium was a great place to photograph... including a brief but satisfying pitch invasion that we performed when someone left a gate open.

Lina's brief pitch-invasion at the Bird's Nest.
Our second stop of the trip as Xian to see the reassuringly-expensive Terracotta Warriors. The warriors are of course stratospherically hyped, but I enjoyed the trip and learning that they are only a sideshow to the main event of the first Qin Emperor's (unexcavated) tomb.   Our guide managed to unravel some of the significance of the characters we saw in the Big Goose Pagoda on the way back... which has baffled me in every other Buddhist sight we've seen.

HDR fun with the warriors
I'm not sure what the message here is?
One of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting the Muslim quarter and Great Mosque hidden away in Xian's narrow streets. The mosque was peaceful and had a real feeling of age to it, which can be rather lost in the ultra-restored historical sites which are common in China. We ate some hand-pulled noodles and lamb soup with thick bread, which were really tasty and got us away from the tourist prices and hassles for a while.

Muslim quarter, outside the Mosque
Peter makes a new friend
Mosque pagoda painted ceiling
"Photos that make me look taller: Part 2 - Xian Great Mosque"
Worth mentioning was the fabulous swimming pool at our hotel. Well, technically it was the fancier neighbouring hotel's pool, but we were allowed in. Not only was this the first time I've seen a non-toxic looking pool in China, but it had a bar in the pool. Yes, actually IN he pool. You could sit on an underwater bar stool and lean on the bar. Genius. I didn't actually buy a drink as the prices were a bit too luxurious for me... but it was nice to know I could have had a beer between laps if I wanted.

An abundance of photos can be seen here. Finally, I leave you with some of Beijing and Xian's greatest public information signs: