Forbidden City and Taboo Foods (Day 3)

On Tuesday morning, our friend Sun was kind enough to pick us up and take us to the front gate of the Forbidden City, where we gained free admission thanks to her job with the Beijing Museum for Cultural Heritage Exchanges.

As one walks through the succession of gates to go deeper and deeper into the palace grounds, it is impossible not to feel a sense of awe. To think that, for centuries, the inner workings of the City were a mystery to even those living in the shadow of the 26-foot high walls makes it all the more unbelievable to wander around and explore freely.

The only yellow roofing tiles seen in China throughout history were those in the Forbidden City, for no one else could decorate using the color of the Emperor. In addition, only the most revered buildings would display as many as ten figures between the customary man-riding-phoenix at the head and the imperial dragon bringing up the rear. This is still an important part of Chinese architecture. In fact, we can see two figures between the  symbolic bookends on the roof of the hotel across the street from us. 

Ten figures in the Michelin Guide means it's worth a special journey. 
Our celebrity status was at its highest this day as we could hardly walk ten feet for the first half hour without a dozen or more people stopping us (well, the kids) for photos. Even when they didn’t stop us, cameras were constantly pointed our way. Throughout our tour, if we paused for more than ten or fifteen seconds a crowd was on us. It finally got to the point where the kids got little wary of all of the attention but people kindly backed off when we politely declined to pose - after they nonetheless snapped a quick photo of course.

We should have followed local customs and charged a few yuan. 

We paid a small admission to visit the Hall of Clocks and Watches where about two hundred timepieces made by foreign and Chinese artisans and presented to or collected by the Emperors of the Qing dynasty (18th century) are on display. There were some remarkably intricate pieces including this 19-foot tall hand-carved wooden clock with stairs to access the winding mechanism and whimsical pieces like this sunflower. Others had figures that performed various tasks such as dancing, striking bells or even writing Chinese characters. 

Just killing time, waiting for the dumpling stands to open...   

We saw birthplaces of Emperors, gardens where princes and princesses once played, halls that housed the catty concubines as they jockeyed for royal favor, a fascinating display on the life of Puyi (The Last Emperor) and throne rooms where business and ceremonies were conducted and dignitaries were received.

The wooden eaves and some of the building exteriors are meticulously repainted every forty years or so. However, much of the ceramic artwork adoring the walls was in the very inner part of the City was in excellent condition.  

Including this dragon greeting visitors to the Big Hunk O' Love Hall.
Since turnabout is fair play, we corralled a dancer in traditional dress who was preparing for a show and asked them to pose for pictures with us. She was happy to comply, gratis!

That evening we undertook one of the more memorable adventures of our journey as we set out in search of the strangest street food we could find. The little alley off of Wangfujing we scouted out the day before turned out to be quite fruitful. We saw trios of live scorpions squirming on a stick next to inanimate seahorses and various entrails-on-a-stick. I opted for the scorpions and Vaughn was eager to try the seahorse. After a quick bath in boiling oil, we energetically dove in. Vaugn shared a bite of seahorse with me and Xander ate one of the scorpions. Both reminded us of fairly flavorless shrimp tails. Neither good nor bad.

The scorpions found it very distasteful.

Next we found a safe-looking series of stalls on Snack Street all staffed by people wearing the same uniform. This gave us confidence that we weren't eating items cooked in gutter oil. Below you can see the giant brown grubs and the white strips of snake meat we (I) sampled next. Note the grubs are sold on sticks of four or five. I was able to convince them to just fry up just one grub for me and that was definitely for the best. It was not pleasant to mix the exoskeleton with the mushy bug-paste inside but I guess the aftertaste wasn't that bad. While that was not something I'd eat again, the snake was quite tasty. It was cooked and then dipped in a spicy sauce and felt like a cross between chicken and good, thick squid mantle when chewed. Snake is often eaten in the winter months in China because of the pleasant warmth it leaves behind. They say it's also an aphrodisiac (not pictured).    

Who needs Viagra when you've got Wangfujing Snack Street?
But we didn't have the balls to try the balls.

Tomorrow we head to The Great Wall for our next bucket list item.  

Arrival, Sunday in the Park and New Friends (Day 1)

Finally in Hong Kong with unrestricted internet access! 


We arrived in Beijing at 10 p.m. on Saturday, July 28 and quickly found the car Betsy had arranged to take us to our hotel. Though sleep on the long plane flight was tough to come by, it was 10 a.m. Minneapolis time when we reached the Crowne Plaza Wangfujing so we stayed up and watched some World Cup action (Brazil over Chile) before we finally settled in for a long nap.

On Sunday morning, we set out by foot to wander in the general direction of the Forbidden City, just a half-mile from our hotel. It was a quiet morning in Beijing; families strolled with their children and/or dogs as we delighted in the new sights and avoided some of the new smells. The kids and I bought some pork buns for breakfast and we stopped for a taste of authentic Chinese food.

They didn't have any ketchup.
We strolled around a bit of the exterior of the Forbidden City but with plans for a visit on Tuesday, we opted to explore a park immediately north of the former palace. 

Jingshan Park encompasses 57 beautifully maintained acres dating back 1000 years and featuring a 150-foot high hill made of material hauled over from construction of the moats and canals in and around the Forbidden City. That and four other similar, smaller peaks are all topped with centuries-old, elaborate pavilions once used by officials for gathering and leisure. A climb to the top of the Wansui (Long-Life or Ten-Thousand Year) Hill gave us our first glimpse at locals worshipping and afforded a wonderful bird’s-eye view of the Forbidden City.  

In what will be a running theme in the blog, we also delighted in our first lost-in-translation Chinglish. Enjoy along with us, won't you? 

Since it was Sunday, many people weren’t working and instead were gathered in groups singing songs accompanied by traditional instruments (though we did hear a rousing accordion version of “Roll Out the Barrel” from one corner), doing tai chi, dancing or engaging in some other form of exercise. One popular activity is kicking around the jian zi, a cross between a hacky-sack and a badminton birdie. Many ladies twice my age were more adept at keeping it aloft than any of us will ever hope to be but we bought one of our own so we can start practicing. In fact, most of the people relaxing at the park seemed to be “grandmas and grandpas” as Quinn says. We figure the weekend is their time for themselves as the grandparents usually take care of the kids on weekdays while mom and dad are working.

We were initiated into celebrity life as we could hardly walk a few steps without being asked to have a picture taken. Walking around with the kids here is like being with Tom Hanks. Heads turn everywhere we go and people nudge their companions to share the sight. If they don’t ask us to take a picture with them or their kids, they have one sidle up on the sly and then snap a photo. It’s unusual to see blond hair, let alone a family of five. Of course, when the kids open their mouths to say hello in Mandarin and then respond to questions, the crowd really picks up. So far, they mostly enjoy being ambassadors of goodwill, happily answering questions and posing for photos. Betsy says she usually gets the same amount of attention but people are less likely to approach her or ask her to come over when she’s by herself.

One highlight of the day for us and some locals was when one offered a large paintbrush so the kids could try their hand at writing characters on the sidewalk. I doubt anyone expected Quinn to write her Chinese name and the characters for “Chinese” so beautifully! Each of the kids had a go as the people around us beamed.

They quickly dispersed after she wrote some controversial statements on Taiwan/China relations. 
It is extremely humid here this time of year with temperatures in the high nineties so we beat the midday heat with the first of our almost daily visits to a hotel pool. After cooling off, we entered the heat again to meet up with some wonderful new friends that Xander's 4th-grade teacher, Lixia Shi, electronically introduced us to prior to our visit.

Sun Miao picked us up from our hotel and drove us to her office on the grounds of the Zhi Hua (Wisdom-Attained) Temple, a 600-year old Buddhist construction. The complex contains one of the only wooden structures and group of buildings from the Ming dynasty to remain intact in Beijing, and provided our first close-up view of traditional, nail-free Chinese architecture. It’s amazing to imagine the artisans assembling the hand-hewn pieces like a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle and to see it standing strong after all these years. Thanks to our hostess and her friends, we gained access to the second-story of the main temple too view more of the rarely-seen 10,000 gold leaf-covered Buddha statues and had all of our questions about the history of the temple answered. (Photography is not allowed in side the temples.)

We fondly remember tossing around a football (American) with some friends of the Miao family after the tour and a spot of tea. We taught a father and son to throw spirals and when Abu caught a tight one from his dad on a slant route, we all raised our hands in triumph! 

They were flagged for holding but it was still a nice play.
Sun, her husband and seven-year-old son Bo Han then welcomed us into their home where Sun's parents had been working all day to prepare a tremendous home-cooked meal in our honor. 

This was an amazing opportunity to see the daily life of a Beijing family with some gracious and inquisitive hosts. We enjoyed dumplings (jiao zi) and noodles (mien tiao) along with other delights and great conversation as we compared and contrasted home, school and work life in the U.S. and China. Bo Han got out his English workbook and read some passages for us. 
“Banana starts with B. Yellow is the banana.” Direct quote.
It was tremendously eye-opening to see how this happy family of five shares a living space about half the size of our basement. A small apartment in the city can easily run the equivalent of US$1600 per month. The meal they produced was even more amazing when we saw the kitchen (with a single sink and no dishwasher) where two people could barely fit side by side. 

A meal worthy of a fine dining establishment is cooked every day right here.
The rest of the apartment is a main living/dining area that also has three beds, a single separate bedroom, a thin balcony and a bathroom. The bathing area consists of a shower curtain and a stack of five basins on the floor. Our hosts accepted us proudly into their home and we felt the warmth, friendliness and comfort of a family that lives, loves and laughs together. It was a night we’ll never forget and some day we hope to return the favor in some way. 

Until next time, friends…

Who's bad? Here are three candidates.