Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Trip to Black Stone Village (黑石头村)

The fog that covered the city notwithstanding, we decided to carry on with our plans to visit Black Stone Village (黑石头村), a village just outside Beijing, to the West. We had seen some pictures in a book called "Encounters with Ancient Beijing", and the author described it as well preserved stone village.

Well, things in China change. A lot. Very quickly. The author last visited the village in 2003. Four years later, we found that China's development reached even that quaint corner: the "village" had grown considerably, and practically all the old stone houses were under renovation, with piles and piles of bricks covering what must have been very nice sights.

We did manage to find an abandoned house (or temple?) atop a hill, which provided all the charm we needed for the trip. It's a cool thing people are having money to replace old houses with newer and better ones, and it's really selfish to want people to keep living in precarious conditions just so we can take quaint pictures, but nevertheless I admit we were just a bit disappointed not to find a secluded, old, black stone village.

The day Beijing disappeared

The strangest of feelings...

This morning my habib woke me up with a "hey! come see this!" full of amazement. I figured it was snowing, or that it had snowed during the night, or maybe some people were performing lion dances downstairs. He pointed at the window. And there it was. Or, more like it, there it WASN'T. Our windows, all of them, offered nothing but a grayish white nothingness. For those of you who don't know, we live on the 35th floor of a 6 building complex. We have a number of similarly tall buildings all around. None of which we could see. Not even an outline. Nothing!

We decided to go to the roof, and the first three are pictures we took from up there. Please note, you're supposed to see Beijing in all three of them! LOL The last two are some we took from the ground (we couldn't even see our own apartment!).

Monday, February 19, 2007

Temple Fair in Beijing

The first day of Chinese new year we decided we'd try a Temple Fair. Temple Fairs originated in Taoist and Buddhist activities, and were opportunities where people gathered for religious, commercial activities, as well as for entertainment.

So, we set off for Bai Yun Guan 白云观 (The Temple of the White Cloud). With not a single taxi in sight, we took the subway. We got off at a station not too far from the temple, and joined the throngs of Chinese for the experience!

Bai Yun Guan is next to a moat, and all along the moat you had a series of stalls selling all sorts of traditional snacks, sugarcane, and handcrafts. Ah, and of course, Uyghurs (that's a Turkic speaking Islamic minority from the Northwest of the country) selling delicious chapatti bread and nut based sweets, as well as roasted sweet potatoes! Yum!

Inside the temple, we were supposed to find three stone monkeys and rub them for a year of good luck. I can tell you one thing, we didn't see all three of them, but we did see the longest queues leading to them! LOL and rub them they did! the stone was shiny from the countless hands asking for good luck! You'd also normally put an incense stick at the various shrines (there are shrines for different needs, including a "shrine for the relief of suffering ones"), but by the time we got there, so many of them were burning in front of some of the shrines they were practical incense bonfires!

In this picture you can see people throwing special metal coins. Hanging from the small bridge is a huge coin (about a meter in diametre) with a hole in the centre, and the idea is to throw your coins THROUGH the hole, for luck. From the sound of hundreds of little coins hitting the big one, it didn't seem luck was very forthcoming for many people. LOL

All in all, a very peculiar experience, especially since we got to see the temple under a different light, full of life! (and after seeing too many temples in China, you're always thankful for something that makes the experience different).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Happy Chinese New Year!

The night of February 17th over a billion people in China and abroad, celebrated the beginning of Spring Festival, which marks a new year in the Chinese tradition. "New Year's Eve" is celebrated with a big dinner with all the family. And when I say big dinner, I mean BIG. You get stuffed like you've never been before. But, having no family here in China, and since all our Chinese friends were having dinner with their families (and most of our foreign friends took off to some other city or country to take advantage of the week-long holiday), we stayed home.

This is the year of the Pig of Gold. As many of you know, there are twelve animals in the Chinese "zodiac", and every year is assigned one. Then, there are five elements which, when combined with the zodiac, give 60 year cycles. It'll be another sixty years before we have a Pig of Gold again. And, since this would be a very auspicious year (well, auspicious for people, but definitely not for pigs, as more than 1.2 billion of these poor creatures will be slaughtered worldwide for food this year alone), quite a few Chinese are doing all they can to give birth to a child during these year (only three months left to conceive before time is out!).

What you see here can only hint at how Beijingers celebrated the entry of the new year. Early in the day you could hear people setting off firecrackers here and there. As the day went by, you could hear more and more until, by 11pm, you could hear and see fireworks EVERYWHERE AROUND YOU. We live in an area with few residential complexes, so fortunately you didn't have anyone setting off row upon row of firecrackers next door, BUT even then, by midnight, we really felt like in a city under attack! Really, you can't imagine how LOUD it was, you can't imagine a WHOLE CITY setting off fireworks! not a plaza, or just downtown, the whole city!

Anyhow, remember, don't clean your house on new year, or you might sweep luck away, don't cut your cut or you'll risk an uncle of yours dying, and wear red! ;-)