Sunday, June 29, 2008

a romantic weekend in the Financial Street

My habib and me had won last December a weekend stay at a nice hotel in Beijing's Financial Street (BTW, my first raffle win ever! hurray!), which lies basically opposite to where we live (we're in the South-East, this is in the South-West) - an area of town we hardly knew. So one day we decided make good that raffle prize and have a romantic weekend there and be tourists in our own city!

It didn't hurt at all that the hotel was really nice, and that the room had a huge, plush bed. We even ordered room service! If you're gonna play tourist at home, you better do it right, right?

Of course, since we were in exploring mood too, we had to go out and see what this part of town had to offer!

Yeah, I know, I said we went exploring and then there are photos of a mall? But you have to understand, malls in this part of town were way, way fancier than any on our side! It really felt like we were visiting a different city! How much fancier were the shops here? Well, we saw this table we liked. Very modern design, very smooth. It really stood out. I asked for the price... 

Now, in English and many (most? all?) western languages we name numbers in groups of three zeroes, so to speak. For example, there is a special word for a one followed by three zeroes (1 000), it is "thousand", but there is none for a one followed by four zeroes (10 000), so we have to say we have "ten units of one thousand", or ten thousand. But when you get to a one followed by six zeroes (1 000 000) a new word appears: million. And the next, a one followed by nine zeroes (1 000 000 000)? A billion. See? Every three zeroes we have a new word. It's such an ingrained part of our languages we don't give it any thought. Until you get to Chinese and... surprise! They names change every FOUR zeroes! So all of a sudden, there is a special word for 10 000 (a one followed by four zeroes) - wàn (万). One for 100 000 000 (a one followed by eight zeroes) - yì (亿). And so on. So what happens when you want to say something as simple as, say, 134 678 yuan (the Chinese currency)? Then you say thirteen wàn four thousand six hundred and seventy eight (as if you were to write 13 4678). What about 1 134 678 yuan? That would be one hundred and thirteen wàn four thousand etc etc (as if you were to write 113 4678). After this long mathematical parenthesis, back to the table: when they told me the price, I had to take out my calculator to see the number and do all the conversions because I just couldn't handle the full Chinese name.

So, yeah, wandering around super pricey fancy-schmancy stores and malls was one very interesting experience. And that was one long and complex paragraph. And possibly very boring. I'll try to avoid doing this in the future... sorry!

Anyhow, the other interesting place was this temple: Wuta Si (五塔寺), or Five Pagoda Temple. There are only a handful of temples with this design (called a "diamond throne") in China, inspired by an Indian Buddhist temple called Mahabodhi, in Bihar. This is indeed an unusual temple, as it consists of a square base with four pagodas on the corners and then a central one rising a bit higher than the others. As many other things in China, this is an old place - 15th century. And it's covered with Buddhist imagery - Buddhas, dharma wheels, bodhi trees, sutras... So glad to have found myself visiting it! Although, truth be told, I should be thanking the habibi, since he had been here before on a visit with his mom and he was the one who discovered this place. Anyhow, the many photos that follow certainly testify to my amazement at this temple's architecture...

That, and the scrumptious, enormous, abundant buffet breakfast we totally enjoyed made for a very special weekend. And you can never have enough of those, eh?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

grape picking in Tongzhou!

Because, why not go grape-picking in a Beijing summer? Especially if you've never done it before? (ah, no, wrong! I did that once, in Xinjiang, in 1998 I think! oh well...) 

Whatever. We came back home loaded with grapes of different kinds and having spent a relaxed summer morning. 

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bangkok! Bangkok?

Yes. We were in Bangkok. The city where you go for super fun partying, and great food, and fantastic trips to unbelievable nature... Except when you don't go for that. Say, like when you go there because your government gives no official recognition to your multi-year partnership. And when the government of the country you live currently in not only doesn't recognize it either, but refers to your own country's lack of recognition too. And when, ahead of the Olympics, the Chinese government has decided foreigners must renew their (now ridiculously hard to renew) visas either in their countries of origin or in a few selected places. Like Bangkok. 

So, when your trip is a self-humiliating exercise in begging for a document so your long-term relationship doesn't have to endure a separation because two governments say you're nothing, and when you're surrounded by other foreigners engaging in their own begging exercises (like the Israeli man desperate because it loks like he will be granted a visa to return home to China to his Chinese wife and child), a trip to Bangkok turns into something slightly different than usual.

But after swallowing that bitter pill - which including swallowing the most disgusting pizza I had ever had, from Pizza Hut, while waiting for the life changing verdict - we did what we try to do in this sort of circumstances: give the finger to those who put us through it by enjoying whatever we may. So we headed to a shopping mall and enjoyed a 4D film about the sea and its denizens, with moving seats and squirts of water and all, and had a good laugh (thanks to, instead of despite of, the people snoring in the theatre), and saw beautiful seahorses, and made sure I had at least one pretty photo and one pretty video for memory's sake... 

A ranty post with a happy ending. Yay!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Tokyo January Trip - LAST(!) part

restaurant near our ryōkan, and our ryōkan

Sunday (Jan 27th) was our last day in Tokyo. And we made very good use of it... by visiting the Ikebukuro Centre for Disaster Prevention (池袋防災館)!

We had about half a day, and being the Japanese the experts they are, we thought it could be interesting. Actually, we thought we might get on some sort of quake simulator and enjoy it as a ride, or something, but we got much more than what we bargained for!

the Ikebukuro Disaster Centre

We got there, we "signed up" for the "morning class", and were promptly instructed to proceed to our lesson on putting fires out. Mind you, it wasn't bad at all! We were with a group of Japanese men, women and a couple of children (probably the grandchildren of the older ones), and we got to use real fire-extinguishers to put out a fire on a digital screen! It wasn't just cool, it actually gave us a sense of confidence, since we had never actually put one of those things to use!

After being congratulated for being such nicely behaved visitors, we were taken to our next lesson: escaping a smoke filled maze. That as a bit more challenging. First, we saw a video (in Japanese and in English) on things to do and to avoid during a fire (key point: DO NOT panic, thing with a cool head, lay low, and find the exit). Then, we entered a room, along with three other ladies. And THEN, the room started filling up with smoke! "FIRE"! it was a real maze, with doors, LOCKED doors at times, rooms, doors that lead to fire, and the smoke (fake smoke, of course) was getting heavier all the time, making it difficult to see! In the end, we made it out, a bit shaken, even, but then again, it was good to live through that and gain a bit of confidence for the time that could happen for real (knock on wood).

The final test: an earthquake. Another instructional video on do's and don't's, a review of equipment or stuff you should keep nearby in case a quake strikes (torch, calorie dense food, whistle, radio, and more techy stuff, like a kind of straw that purifies liquid, or a metallic-looking blanket that protects from the cold, from the sun, and from water), and then you enter this mock house, you sit at the table with 2-3 other people, and then you feel what people in Kobe felt: sheer horrendous power. Mexico's earthquake of 1985 was about as strong as that one, but I was pretty young then, and it was my first quake, so I had no negative associations to deal with. This ride was something else: I knew it wasn't for real, but man, it was totally unnerving. We took cover under the table, with the chairs, table, cupboards and walls shaking violently; but if I ever feel something like that coming for real, I'm out of the building as fast as my adrenalin allows! As a reward, we bought a nifty gadget, a radio that needs no battery (you turn a lever to power it) and that doubles as a torch and as a sound emitting device (to help people locate you). And we learnt our lessons and now we sleep with two small backpacks next to our bed, each with a torch, a bag of nuts and chocolate, our wallets and passports, and that device we bought at the center. I really hope we never have to use them!

After such an intense morning, we headed back to the hotel, took our stuff, took the long ride to the airport, and came back home, to China.

flying over, and away from, Tokyo

Tokyo trip - VII

Saturday (Jan 26th) and Sunday (Jan 27th) were nice, relaxed and, as all our previous days, rich.

On Saturday, after a very early and interesting (not sure the word would be "delicious", but definitely interesting, and decidedly aesthetically enticing!) breakfast, we went back to Ueno Park, this time to visit its museums.

We saw a number of interesting things at the Tokyo National Museum (東京国立博物館), but there's one I think is especially worth mentioning: a Buddha exhibition. Yes, we have seen PLENTY of Buddhas. We've seen Chinese Buddhas, Thai Buddhas, Khmer (Cambodian) Buddhas, Tibetan Buddhas... but this was the first time we saw... Pakistani Buddhas! What was interesting here were their faces: they looked like any (handsome) Pakistani local! Somehow, having seen so many East Asian Buddhas I had failed to appreciate the ethnic differences that were reflected in the Buddhas of each region, but seeing this starkly contrasting features served to bring back to memory, under a very different and much clearer light, the faces of so many people I had seen through their Buddhas.

After that cultural promenade, which included seeing one of Rodin's "Porte de l'enfer", and after buying (and immediately eating up, I must admit) delicious Japanese dumpling-like sweet snacks, we had the chance to see a young Japanese, with kinky hair died red, wearing a skirt, juggling "diabolos" (that's what he called them, I don't know the name for that) with astonishing skill!

It was a sunny day, and we were just enjoying our park visit so much! at one end of the park was the Shitamachi Museum, which included some sort of old toy section (which amused us more than we expected) and a reproduction of an old Japanese town, shintō shrine included. Do you remember how people sometimes shake some box with sticks in it, and then whichever stick protrudes supposedly predicts your fortune? Well, they had that at the shrine, we gave it a go, a stick came out alright, we drew a slip of paper from the drawer that the stick indicated, and I read my luck (well, actually, a most helpful volunteer helped translate, LOL): I'm getting married in August! Well well well! That will require some adjustment in our laws, but hey, the spirits say that will be possible in August, and if the spirits say so... ;-) (unless, of course, his translation was way off, and something completely different will happen!)

And this is a view of the park. The lake was full of reeds, and ducks! beautiful ducks, by the way, their feathers had the most gorgeous of hues!

We still wandered a bit around town and, it being a Saturday, we went partying! And this time we partied till the subway started working again (at about 5:15 or so, I guess). It was exhausting, especially after so much touring around, but it was also very interesting to see how a few people were literally falling asleep at the night-club! but then again, who would pay a 100USD (or more!) ride back home? LOL

Tokyo January Trip - VI

This keeps getting longer and longer... well, I guess it just says how much we enjoyed that trip! :-D

Friday 25th we left our clean, modern room in hip Akasaka to move to a ryōkan! (called Hōmeikan Ryokan - Morikawa Bekkan, 鳳明館 - 森川別館) A ryōkan is a traditional style Japanese hotel, and since we hadn't tried one in neither Kyoto nor Osaka, we wanted to make sure we didn't miss the opportunity again. What did staying in a ryōkan entail? Well: staying in a completely different area of town, with Tokyo University nearby and small, old streets; staying in a particularly old quarter of that area, with 100 year old houses! (remember, Tokyo's had quakes, fires, and war, not the best preservation cocktail!); sleeping on tatamis on the floor (honestly, the firmness of a tatami is unbeatable); having to take your shoes off when entering the ryōkan, and changing into slippers, which you'd leave outside your room, or outside the shared toilet, which had its own specific set of toilet slippers (after a while, you get used to the constant "slippering" in and out, LOL); enjoying Japanese breakfast in your room (at 6am, of course); wearing yukatas (浴衣, a form of bathrobe) around! and all in all just taking in a very relaxed, locally flavoured atmosphere.

That afternoon we went to Ueno Park (上野公園) which, at night, had a very quiet, even mysterious air about it. We wandered around aimlessly (well, I think my habib knew what we were doing, but I was completely lost), found a pagoda and a temple, all of which looked brilliant at dusk and, once the sun had set, with their own illumination. It complemented perfectly our ryōkan experience!