Sunday, August 31, 2008

Qianmen - the front gate


What do you do when it's a gorgeous late summer day with blue skies? And by the way, thank you Summer Olympics for making the Chinese government shut down factories, restrict traffic and limit people's movements as needed in order to secure minimal pollution and allow blue days to happen again! Why use a bottom-up model and let people question and demonstrate against unsound ecological practices when you can use a top-down model and simply decree blue skies?

But I digress. So, gorgeous days. Well, we headed first to Qianmen (前门), the front gate guarding the southern side of the Forbidden City. I can't believe how beautiful these buildings look with blue skies! Amazing! I don't think I'd ever seen it like this!

And you know what else was great? Qianmen Avenue (前门大街)! This is a recently renovated and pedestrianized street (as many other things, done as part of the showcasing of Beijing during the Olympics), and though most of the buildings have yet to open and fill up with shops and restaurants, it's really nice to be able to walk around, look at the architecture, and enjoy the views of Qianmen in the distance. 

Thank you, blue skies. Thank you, renovations. Sorry for all your trouble, citizens.





Friday, August 29, 2008

The Olympics Post part III - The good, the bad, and the ugly

Me, my habib, as well as countless others, had very high expectations. So, in the end, what did these Olympic Games bring to us?

WHAT I THANK THE OLYMPIC GAMES FOR:
  • THE OPENING UP OF TV AND INTERNET: Before this year's riots in Tibet, every time you watched CNN, BBC or TV5 (the 3 foreign news channels we have access to at home) in Beijing, the moment they dared say the words "China", "Dalai Lama", "Tibet" or "human rights" the screen would go blank. No images, no sound, nothing, until the "sensitive" news piece was over (and something less "dangerous", like how butterflies need sunshine, was on). During the riots, the CNN and BBC started reporting, for the whole world to know, on the censorship of their newscasts by the Chinese government. And lo and behold, thanks to that (and the sheer magnitude of the riots), FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 3 years, thanks to that pressure, we had the chance to watch TV news about China from non-Chinese sources! And as the Olympics grew closer, and the foreign media were relentlessly and ruthlessly reporting on Chinese TV and internet censorship, more and more "dangerous" sites were becoming available! Wikipedia! the BBC website! Blogger! (remember, before, I could only EDIT my posts, but the published posts themselves wouldn't open) the BBC's Chinese website! WOW. OK, if you type some sensitive words, your browser will stop working for a few seconds, but this opening up is unprecedented!
  • THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SUMMER I'VE HAD IN CHINA: I endured 3 summers as a student in Beijing, and I had endured (yes, that's the word, ENDURED) another 3 as part of my present job here. Beijing summers, for me, were abominable periods of sweltering heat, unbearable humidity, gray skies bearing heavy on you like another slab of cement mirroring the one you were standing on. I totally despised them, and even days before they started I was already looking forward to the arrival of autumn. Well, this, my 7th Beijing summer, was BEAUTIFUL: it was warm, occasionally hot, but never unbearable; it wasn't dry, but you didn't find yourself covered in sweat just because; and we had the bluest summer skies ever. There were days, at work, when I'd walk past a window and stand, staring in disbelief at the beautiful blue sky over the treetops, mesmerised. I don't know how many factories had to be closed down in the provinces surrounding Beijing, and half the cars had to be taken out of circulation on alternating days but, for the first time. I ENJOYED Summer here.
  • A MORE LIVABLE CITY: Subway lines MULTIPLIED (and we've taken good advantage of that), people spit in public way less than before (thanks to campaign after campaign from the government), and there's an amazing new airport that really is up to international standards, among other things.
THE NOT SO NICE THINGS:
  • All the opening up of the internet and TV led, funnily, to us being exposed to a number of news and reports on not so pleasant aspects of China which the local press would never dare expose. We saw horribly embarrassing interviews of government officials (I'll never forget one that explained that the Chinese were free to watch foreign media, and that all they had to do was rent a room at a hotel with international cable!). We saw how Uyghurs (who comprise over 7 million people, some 45% of the population of Xinjiang Province) could not bring themselves to talk freely with reporters, how you could read fear and mistrust on their faces, and how government officials sprung up and watched carefully over anyone foreign reporters tried to approach; how government appointed translators to news teams asked the families of victims of the Sichuan earthquake not to say anything against the country, against the government, against the people responsible for building shoddy schools that came tumbling down. We saw news on elderly people being sent to reeducation camps for asking permission to stage a protest at the officially appointed parks for the Olympics.
  • We saw a kind of nationalism which left us unnerved: during the Olympics, on national TV, the main focus was on the Chinese athletes; countless times they didn't bother to mention who'd been 2nd or 3rd when a Chinese had got a gold medal; when showing competitions that hadn't been shown live, you were shown mostly Chinese athletes, even if they hadn't got a medal, with foreign gold-medalists getting barely a passing mention. No, it wasn't like that all the time, and yes, I can understand a country being proud of its athletes, but then it didn't feel like you were watching an international event, but a Chinese one (I can see criticisms coming this way; this issue is too complex and a powder keg, but I'll stand by what I wrote).
  • The theatricality of it all: the city was beautiful, clean, with nice mannered middle class families, as the workers that were here illegally building all the venues, the new subway lines, the oh-s and ah-s for the world to see were sent back home (they were illegal residents, after all, right?). Did we like the venues? Sure did! Were we thankful they were completed on time? Sure! Did we think about the workers? About how they can be paid next to nothing, worked ultra-long shifts and fired with no explanation because they're illegal and they'll accept abuse because they're better off here than back in their provinces? Hmmm, so, it all does have a price, isn't it. The blue skies, the clean air, thanks to extraordinary measures taken right before the games (not extraordinary measures taken 4 years before). The goodwill towards all visitors, while thousands of foreigners had been refused renewal of their visas before the games and had to emigrate en masse (I remember an Israeli guy pleading, begging at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok to renew his Chinese visa, 'cause he had a Chinese wife, a child, and a job in China; I remember because I was there, pleading, begging, for a renewal of my habib's visa, by the way). The obsession with presenting a show was made the more obvious when we found out the cute Chinese girl that sang at the inauguration ceremony was chosen to cover up for the REAL singer, who the Chinese considered "aesthetically unfit" (I mean, a child! a little girl with such a voice! would any of us have cared a iota!!??).
You know what, countless media and individuals have written about China before, during, and after the Olympics, and they've written plenty and, probably, better than I have, about the great, the good (we must be respectful and give due credit where it's due), the bad, the ugly. (being equally respectful, not overlooking faults). So I'll stop here. I'm glad the Olympics took place here, I'm glad I was here, I think this was good for China in many ways, and for the world. Like Jacques Rogge quite accurately said, the Beijing Olympic Games were truely exceptional.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Olympics Post part II - the partying!

It's not like we don't know how to have a good time in Beijing. We certainly do! But hey, during the Olympics, it just gets so much better! Specifically, a number of countries opened houses or pavilions. And given our special relationship to The Netherlands, and the bright tangerine light you could see from afar, how could we resist entering the Holland House!?



They had bands. They had plenty of Heineken. And it was packed with foreigners, but mostly Dutch just having a silly wild time! The had us singing, dancing, jumping! This was one major refreshing change! You gotta love the Dutch, right?





Afterwards we still headed to our usual gay nightclub, Destination (目的地), which was enjoying its own Olympic effervescence with lots of people from out of town (hell, out of country!), people doing pole-dancing, and just a much more fun mayhem than usual.

Note to self: Olympics = top-notch partying!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Olympics Post part I

Although I still have a number of posts of trips and stuff to write, I felt I had to publish this one first, lest the subject get too dated!

The Olympics. My nightmare. Or at least so it seemed, since we'd have thousands of tourists, and my job description includes assisting them, from simple things like just offering advice and orientation to (knock on wood) informing their families of their unfortunate demise and helping arrange for funerary details. I dreaded the games, because of that, because of the prospect of having a multiplied possibility of disaster striking; I truely dreaded them. And yet, the games came and passed by, and work was, with few and unimportant exceptions, quiet and smooth. Whew!

Of course, mixed right there with dread was excitement! We were going to actually watch the games! live! We just managed to secure tickets for 4 things: Greco-Roman wrestling, athletics, diving and the closing ceremony (only one ticket, though, which was dutifully assigned to the man who had been dreaming of this since he was a child: my habib).

The Olympics are a complex thing, in many ways, so I'll have to split this post into: the sports we saw, the venues, what we thank the Olympics for, and the negative side of the Olympics. So let's get started!

THE SPORTS




Wrestling - I found it so exciting I would have joined a wrestling club right away if I had had the chance. Until I saw someone bleed, that is. Still, amazing sport. My respect for those athletes.

Athletics - We saw 400m races, relay races and long jumps, but what caught our attention was, of all things, javelin throwing! Why? For 5 rounds, a Russian athlete was the undisputed best thrower. She was one passionate athlete, watching her put her all into the throw was awesome. And then, in the 6th and last round, a Czech woman threw the javelin just somewhat farther than the Russian's best throw! All of a sudden, the Russian's chance for gold was pending from just one more throw, one and only one chance! Honestly, it was so intense... we were all watching, intently, acknowledging she had been by far the best, until that throw by the Czech athlete. She ran, threw it, growled and yelled from the effort, the javelin flew... and didn't fall far enough, the gold medal was lost. Who on earth could have figured that my most intense experience at athletics would come from javelin throwing!

Diving - And here, unexpectedly, as javelin throwing surprised us, diving bored us. Maybe we have TV to blame: on TV, you get a close up of the face, you see the diver concentrate, then, you see him preparing, flexing, tensing... he jumps, you follow his every twist and turn, see him enter the water, and even get to see him swim underwater, out of the pool and into the showers. Now, when you're there, you follow the same things, but from afar, and from the SAME angle all the time! Not quite the same experience. Weird.

THE VENUES

Please just look at THIS and repeat with me: GOOORGEOUS



Do I know anything about architecture? Only what my travels have exposed me to. Am I particularly interested in architecture? Rarely, except as part of a bigger cultural experience. Was I dying to see the Bird's Nest Stadium (鸟巢)? Nah. Did I make an effort to see it while it was being built? Not at all! Well, I LOVED it. I loved the nest-like structure, I adored the intense metallic-hell red colour, I raved about how the stairs were nestled in the structure, and the torch was magnificent - I LOVED the thing. Period.

And what about THIS!


It's easy to say "you've never seen anything like this". But really, you've never seen anything like this, the Water Cube (水立方) It's beautiful. It's... out of this world. I won't even get into the technological and architectural details of how they got to build it, marvelling at the result is enough for me. While competitions were taking place, it maintained a deep acqua blue colour, intense, rich, like from deep seas. When the competitions were over, it started changing hues, sometimes softly, sometimes violently, always mesmerising.

THE OLYMPIC GREEN

And just in case that were not enough (yet HOW not!)...



That imposing red gate is... the entrance to the subway, ladies and gentlemen, to leave the Olympic Green. I was taken aback. As simple as that. And the flame-shaped tower? A 5 star hotel, with the name Pangu (盘古) on top, which was the first living being and creator of all in Chinese mythology.

OK, as many times before, I've written too much, and still have more to write, so the gossipy (and critical!) side of this will have to wait just a couple of days! (and videos will follow, too!)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

my habib's "Kaiseki-Birthday"

THE WHY

I would never say we're connoisseurs, but we certainly do like food and have sampled quite a bit of what's on offer here and in other places. And so, of course, when looking for a place for a special birthday meal (for my habib), I had to look hard. It was almost like buying a gift! Something special... out of the ordinary but not useless... highly personal... and you still ave to make do with what you can actually find or get a hold of!

THE WHERE

After considering many options, I finally found the ideal place: A restaurant that offered Kaiseki (懐石).

Our first (and, until my habib's birthday, only) Kaiseki experience had been in Kyoto (back in July, 2006), a city well known for it, and Beijing had, apparently, just one such place offering it (Nadaman restaurant). The perfect surprise!

On our way, he had no clue where we were going, and kept trying to guess! Now, when we got there, the kimono-clad girl that welcomed MIGHT have given away part of the surprise, but when we sat down at the table, and he realised we were having Kaiseki, he was sincerely (and, fortunately, pleasantly!) surprised.

THE WHAT

OK, I've mentioned Kaiseki four times (the title counts). What is it? Here's my subjective, simple take at it: It's Japanese food, but a special kind, it's... beautiful food, food that appeals not only to your palate, but to your eyes, to your sense of texture, to your sense of rhythm... (wow, what a weird description; and I'm not high, I swear)


The ingredients have to be high quality, in season, fresh. How and when they're presented is as important as how they taste. Portions tend to seem small, but you also get at the very least five different dishes, which are brought to you at different times (much like many Western meals, actually). And the food is always arranged in a visually attractive way and served in colourful plates and lacquer boxes which accentuate its texture and appearance. And it doesn't need to be really fancy food, either: the cooking methods, the care in presenting the food, and the quality and freshness of ingredients is probably more important.

AND AFTER

And so, after an utterly delightful birthday lunch, with maybe just a drop or two of too much saké, we had to "ruin" such elegantly prepared lunch with the most inelegant of desserts: Matcha Latte with a carrot muffin (for my habib) and an Iced Vanilla Mocha with a chocolate muffin (for me) at Starbucks (that's where a number of you go "connoiseurs shmonoisseurs!").

Food, a fantastic way to begin a birthday celebration.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Anniversary trip to Pingyao


As promised, Píngyáo (平遥), in Shānxī Province (山西), is getting its own entry. And so, without further ado, here it is!

We spent just a short weekend: we flew in on a Saturday, and left on Sunday. We were ready to see some nice places, but were not expecting much, since we had already visited a number of so called traditional towns and come across ugly urban sprawls with remnants of tradition (some of them fully rebuilt and fit for a theme park). Yet, this was to become one of our most memorable trips.

The town has a history of some 1500 years, although it's present form has "only" some 600. A walled city, it was a rich banking center with wealthy merchants and bankers, villas, temples, palaces... Most important of all, in 1986 it was declared a national historical city, and in 1997 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of which meant that none of the buildings within the walls could be demolished to make way for "modernisation" nor to make way for totally new replicas with no real physical link to the past.

Even though the trip by taxi from the airport in Taiyuan (Pingyao has no airport) proved hellish (as the driver was bent on extracting every single penny possible, arguing rudely, taking the longer road, driving excruciatingly slow, and just making our ride miserable), and the entrance to Pingyao looked as "modernly ugly" as many other places, the attentive staff of our hotel picked us up at the outer side of the wall encircling the old town, and drove us past one of the gates, into the past: we drove through many old houses with tiled sloping roofs, old wooden doors, narrow alleys, ornamental lamps; but the best part was it wasn't museum like, it was ALIVE. People were buying vegetables from street vendors, children were riding their bikes from school, old people idling at their doorways...



Our hotel, a renovated mansion, was definitely not luxurious, but it was extremely welcoming. It had a labyrinthine quality, with inner open air alley-like corridors leading to the different rooms, all maintaining the traditional look and feel of the town.


Pingyao proved an excellent anniversary gift: we couldn't stop exploring! We were so enchanted with the place that the first thing we did the very same day we arrive was to go leave our bags and step out right away to wander around; I mean, we were walking ON TOP of the city walls (no shade), at NOON (this is Summer, remember? HOT), just marvelling (gawking?) at the views and completely forgetting about the sun and the weather!



In two days, we visited most of the main sights, including some beautiful villas that had been converted to museums, but we also wandered off the main tourist streets and simply enjoyed the history oozing from every corner, the dignified old houses that weren't important enough to have been renovated, the odd abandoned temple. We tried food we'd never seen before, including some delicious cold (oh, so refreshing!) flat noodles with a delicately spicy sauce (we just couldn't have enough of those, as simple as they were! LOL). We saw architectural styles new to us too, plus applied art like we hadn't seen in China.




And, on top of it all, the staff at the hotel was attentive and friendly; so much, in fact, that the day we left they gave us to small clay bowls as a gift!

The place is a MUST. We saw so much and experienced so much I could either write a really lengthy post (yes, a way longer one), or post countless pics and vids (believe me, I exercised restraint here, I had so much material to choose from!), but I'll leave it as it is, just a glimpse into one of China's wonders.



Monday, August 04, 2008

7 years and counting!

That's right. In 2001 my habib and me met in Mexico City, and 7 years later we're still together, happy as ever, celebrating. Lest I turn this into a corny post, I'll just say that we had a blast: we ate, drank, were merry and pampered each other to our hearts' content in Beijing (since my workload wasn't going to allow an escapade to some distant or exotic destination worthy of a 7th anniversary), and went for a short but truely (and surprisingly) amazing weekend trip to the ancient walled city of Pingyao (平遥), a true gem. Pingyao was so marvelous, in fact, it deserves its own post (which will give me time to stock up on more varied adjectives, or you'll get sick tired of reading "marvelous", "amazing", "incredible"! LOL).

As for us, I must say, we deserved the celebration. These things take hard work! And exposing a relationship to two challenging countries like Lebanon and China is as much an opportunity as a hazard, on top and above the usual hazards relationships face, and on top and above the additional and not so insignificant intricacies of being second class citizens with no constitutional right to recognition of their relationship (don't worry, I won't go into any lengthy discussion of the subject, I've saved those for the people who actually have a say in my country and at my workplace).

And so, here's to these 7 marvelous years of sharing life together! "cheers!" "¡salud!"


... a commemoration of so many life-experiences requires Canadian Icewine from a Tokyo flight and zealously guarded for a special occasion...


... and fresh flowers in a Lebanese vase guarded by an Asian Guanyin...


... and a romantic getaway in a traditional house in a traditional 600 y.o. walled city...