Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 1

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26 March 2012, Monday

Goodbye Beijing, and hello Hong Kong! Beijing sent us off with some taxi-related difficulties – it turned out that concept of “booking a taxi” didn’t work at all here. The most you can expect when booking is that the clerk will catch a taxi for you out of turn. But even despite a slight delay, we managed to do everything (i.e. to have breakfast, check out, get to the airport and pass through all stages of airport control) with a huge lead time.

Compared to the Chek Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong, the Beijing Airport looked half-deserted, perhaps, due to its vast territory. The long winding queues in Hong Kong Airport reminded us of London, while the luggage claim part didn’t remind of anything at all. One would think that it’s really easy – just follow the signs, check the announcements on the monitors and find your luggage. But for some reason our flight wasn’t mentioned anywhere. I had to go to the information desk, where it turned out that our luggage had been unloaded on the conveyor for a flight from Singapore. It’s hard to tell, whether this was a single case, or such disorder is generally usual for Hong Kongers.

Hong Kong’s topography is very complicated, which we realised while trying to find a taxi to the hotel. There are taxis of one colour for one island, those of another colour for another island and taxis of third colour going to the peninsula, while the airport itself is located on yet another island.

The road to the city was totally stunning, as opposed to the dull one in Beijing. Picturesque hills entirely covered with greenery, crimson flowers everywhere, air full of spicy fragrances, huge bridges, skyscrapers of incredible forms, the bay of the purest blue colour – amazing! Every now and then we grabbed each other’s hands and cried: “Look, over there, look there!” Narrow skyscrapers made us feel somewhere in New York, and the palms and tropical greenery clearly indicated that this was an exotic place. Well, as for the left hand driving (as well as triple outlets), it reminded of the good old England.

The hotel somewhat disappointed us though, compared to the five-star one we had in Beijing, shining with luxury. This one was inferior in terms of both service and location: it was situated somewhere on the outskirts, in the interior of the Hong Kong island (Happy Valley area). However, the view from the window was quite interesting: we could see a hill covered with greenery (as all hills here), as well as terraced roofs with tables, chairs, chaise lounges and people, hanging clothes out to dry or cooking something.

After settling in the hotel, we immediately went out to walk around a bit. Hong Kong absolutely has the appearance of a western city. Although the people you see around are pretty much the same Chinese, but their clothes, their manners, their dogs on leashes and even their faces are quite different. For example, in the Beijing Zoo we noticed a group of guys, one of which must have probably been claiming to be very stylish: he had a cool tie, a short-sleeved tight jacket, shades and patent leather shoes. Still, next to any Hong Kong guy he would have looked a bit provincial, despite living in the capital.

The streets, surrounding our hotel were very busy and full of banks, real estate agencies, restaurants and shops. We bought some exotic fruits, like cherimoya and star fruit. The first one turned out to be very sweet, and the second one – rather tasteless, but peculiar. What made us glad was the fact that there were “hop on-hop off” bus tours in Hong Kong, which we planned for the next day.

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Trip to China – Beijing – Day 6

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25 March 2012, Sunday

The day turned out to be quite authentic. In the morning we met our guide (an official one, of course) and went on a hutong tour. By the way, what is really good about tours here is that usually it’s not just a trip to one place, but rather to several different places, very cleverly connected so, that there is a good balance of walking, riding and climbing.

Likewise, this hutong tour started with two towers, facing each other – the Bell and Drum Towers. Thank goodness, we only had to climb one of them, the Drum Tower. Both towers were built during the Ming dynasty and were used to alert people of the time, every two hours.

In order to get to the hall with the drums, we had to climb sixty very steep stairs, and then nine more. Apart from drums exhibited here, there were also ancient devices used in the past to determine the time, so that servants would know when to hit the drums. The operating principle of most devices was based on the burning of incense, which was calibrated so that it took a set amount of time to burn.

At half past nine four guys and a girl arrived and demonstrated a drum performance. The girl was hitting the largest drum. And the drums, I have to mention, were nothing like those you would typically see on the stage: each one was of the size of a huge barrel, or even two. So, no surprise that the whole city heard them back in those days.

The guide showed us all parts of Beijing from the balcony. It was really interesting to look down on the places we had already seen: the Beihai Park, the Olympic Village, the Forbidden City.

From the Drum Tower we moved to the Bell Tower, but luckily the visit was limited to the ground floor, where we participated in a tea ceremony – not a theatrical one, as in the Lao She teahouse, but with detailed explanations and tasting of different varieties of tea. We were taught how to brew the tea, how to hold the cup with three fingers and how to drink the the tea, sticking out the ring finger and the pinky finger. Interestingly, in some countries the latter was once considered a bourgeois affectation and was highly ridiculed. Here, though, the two fingers sticking out symbolised the tail of a phoenix, which, in its turn was the symbol of the Empress. So this gesture was only made by women. Men also used to hold the cup with three fingers, but tucked the remaining two in – this gesture symbolised the dragon, i.e. the Emperor. We got to taste five different varieties of tea: oolong with ginseng, jasmine tea, pu-erh (in tiles), black tea with lychee and rose flowers, and fruit tea. It would have been a sin to leave this tea kingdom without buying some real Chinese tea, so we purchased two packs – one oolong and one jasmine.

From here we walked to the Shichahai quarter, which, as our guide explained, is a favourite places of Beijingers, with plenty of restaurants, bars and shops. The place is very picturesque, located on the bank of the Shichahai lake. We learned that “hai” meant “lake”, therefore “Beihai” meant “Northern lake”. Then it dawned on us that “Beijing” started with “bei” by no accident, and that is how we figured out that “Beijing” simply meant “Northern capital” (a fact, which probably everyone else knows anyway!)

The journey continued on a rickshaw, which this time was part of the official tour but which we still had to tip.

First we visited an exemplary Beijing family. Often people live in hutongs for generations. Clearly, senior representatives of families enjoy living here, while junior ones – not so much.

Right at the courtyard entrance we stumbled upon a wall. The guide explained that, just as high thresholds, such walls were believed to prevent evil spirits from entering the house. A typical courtyard was surrounded by four houses, and, together with them, used to represent the five basic elements of the Universe. The main and the most prestigious house was the one on the north, under the sign of Water – that’s where the parents lived. The house on the east represented the Wood element and belonged to the sons – the support of the family. The western house was associated with the Metal (Gold) element and was inhabited by the daughters. In the southern house, under the sign of Fire, lived the servants. And finally, the yard itself represented the fifth element – the Earth.

In addition to that, the guide drew our attention to the obligatory presence of trees in the yard. The 人 character means “a man”, and if a man is surrounded by a wall on four sides, it makes 囚, which means “a prisoner”. In order not to create such an unpleasant analogy, trees (木) were planted in the yard, but necessarily more than one, because the 困 character means “difficulty” – something that clearly wasn’t desired by the residents.

Speaking of characters, I should mention that the Chinese are fond of pasting the “fú” (福) character, which means “good fortune”, on doors, windows and walls. Moreover, they often paste it upside down. This is based on a wordplay: the word “dào” in Chinese means both “inverted” (倒) and “to arrive” (到). So, “Fú dào” at the same time means “Fú upside down” and “Fortune arrives”.

A resident of the house sat us under a portrait of Mao (this was happening in the eastern house, adapted for visitors) and, in fluent English, told us about life in such a house and showed her father’s paintings, made in traditional Chinese style.

Before leaving, we saw other members of her family: her father and her son. The cute two-year-old boy was shy at first, and refused to pose for us when we wanted to take a picture, but then took a fancy to us, escorted us to the door and even said “See you later” in English.

Next, we made a walk through the hutong. In fact, the word “hutong” is of Mongolian origin, meaning “water well”. During the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty each such quarter had a water well, hence the name. Nowadays the term “hutong” refers to these narrow, or sometimes, very narrow alleys.

Like everything in China, the front door design of each house was strictly regulated by the social status of its residents. If the house belonged to a military official, there were two round stones at the entry, decorated with various ornaments, standing on their edges, one on each side. Square or rectangular stones, on the other hand, indicated that a civil official lived in the house. The number of hexagonal wooden beams above the door jambs also depended on the social status of the owner. Twelve beams was the maximum, which was only attributable to the Emperor. Severe punishment or even execution expected those who dared to break this rule (as well as using other privileges of the Emperor: yellow colour, dragon as a symbol, constructing two-tier roofs). Then the number of beams decreased with decreasing social status – so a commoner would content with just two.

We already mentioned the meaning of four cardinal points in the design of Chinese courtyards. About the city as a whole we were told that east was for the wealthy, west for the noble, north for the poor and south for the lowly.

We came back from the hutong and had lunch, after which we visited our last place in Beijing – the Hongqiao Pearl Market, where we had great fun! In order to get to chic, certified pearl jewellery on the fourth floor, one would have to survive three seething and boiling floors full of low-quality Chinese goods (the ones we have oodles of as well). Escalators were located in different places, just as in any other large shopping centre, but in, say, “Marks and Spencer” it’s quite hard to imagine noisy sellers chasing you, grabbing you by the hand and shouting: “What is your last price?”. And this arrangement of escalators made it totally impossible to avoid them.

We had been warned that bargaining was absolutely necessary in China, but we couldn’t even imagine that people haggled so passionately and fervently here. The mall was packed with foreigners, who, apparently, had also been briefed on the rules of shopping in China. Here and there we observed many funny scenes, such as a resentful buyer walking away, a seller running after him, ready to make any concessions just to palm off his fake “Dolce and Gabbana”. A sales girl caught our conversation and cried out in broken Russian: “Come buy a scarf, why don’t you want a scarf?” We left without any scarves, though.

And finally, we had a very, very tasty dinner at the same Japanese restaurant, albeit with more modest portions.

Of course we didn’t get the chance to see everything we wanted to – for example, the Summer Palace, the China Ethnic Museum, the Lama Temple… But still, we spent five useful and fabulous days, full of impressions, in Beijing. Let’s see what Hong Kong is going to be like…

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 5

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24 March 2012, Saturday

Today we visited the Beijing Zoo.  As we had scheduled the Kung Fu show for the evening, we decided not to spend more than 3-4 hours at the zoo. Therefore, we acted on the same principle as once at the Louvre, where, first thing, we had checked out the Mona Lisa and then viewed whatever we had time for. In this case, first of all we headed for the giant pandas. It should be mentioned that all the “Mona Lisas” of the local “Louvre” were sleeping like logs during our visit!

Signs of at least some activity were only shown by the very first panda we saw. It was calmly eating bamboo leaves, but then again, having completed its meal, it lay down to sleep. But anyway, those big cute animals looked very sweet!

The same thing was observed of the small (red) pandas: only one of them was eating something, while the others were sound asleep, sprawled in the branches.

Actually, the entire zoo seemed like a big Land of Nod. The wolves were asleep, the bears were asleep, the jaguar was asleep… However, the lion and the tiger didn’t let us down. Apparently, the usual desire of all cats to show off played its role. While other animals tried to hide from spectators in the most inaccessible corners, the lion and the tiger, on the contrary, specially lay down on the most prominent places and struck majestic poses. We managed to take a photo of the lion while it was stretching!

Of course, the zoo was very busy; after all, it was a Saturday. We finally saw a lot of Chinese children (there are not too many of them on the streets). They were all chubby and rosy-cheeked, very cute!  It was a big surprise to see a lot of girls. Clearly, the desire to give birth only to boys, resulting from restriction on the number of children, has significantly decreased, at least in the capital. Perhaps, this is the consequence of the prohibition to determine the sex of the child before birth. At times we saw rare couples with two children (probably, well-off people), but never with three.

By the way, – that’s already another story – we also never saw any foreign guides. In Europe, a French-speaking group of tourists, for instance, would have a native francophone guide, the same about the speakers of other languages. In China, though, it seems like for any language requirement there is a corresponding Chinese person available. Even the text for the audio guide in Russian, mentioned earlier, was clearly recorded by a Chinese woman. Another point is that, all the TV channels, whether they are in Russian or French, are in fact Chinese, show news about China and the TV presenters too are Chinese! For example, a thin Chinese guy with glasses, giving the spiel in fluent Arabic from the screen, made an indelible impression.

The zoo was, indeed, huge, but we decided to leave out other animals, such as giraffes, anteaters, elephants, as we had seen them many times before, and they were not among our most favourites. The same can be said about the aquarium – only a few months before we had seen a very beautiful one in Bergen, Norway.

We got to eat something quite late, because most restaurants here serve food strictly at certain hours and are closed all the other time. So, if you feel hungry, say, between two and five o’clock in the afternoon, you can hardly find anywhere to eat. As a result, we combined lunch and dinner. And that was a good idea! We tried out the Japanese restaurant in our hotel. Not being quite sure what was what in the menu, we selected Teppanyaki course which was a set meal. We even thought that it was surprisingly expensive (300 RMB), but as it was our penultimate day in Beijing, we decided to still go for it.

And – oh my God! – it turned out to be an eight-course meal!!! The waitress just kept bringing and bringing plates, bowls and salad-dishes. From the menu description it wasn’t really clear that we would get that much: appetisers (salmon roe, a snail and some sort of jelly), a salad, miso soup, a fish dish, a beef dish, a rice bowl, grilled vegetables and fruit! Even when the waitress had already served all our food, we winced every time she appeared in sight with another tray, and sighed with relief when she passed by. And it was impossible not to eat everything – the food was incredibly delicious, perhaps the best of all we had eaten here. Our noble diet plans must have come to nothing after such a nosh-up. And the prices seemed not so high after all – where in Baku could one have such an abundance of delicious food for just 38 AZN (appox. 48 USD)?

In the evening, as already mentioned, we familiarised ourselves with Chinese martial arts, i.e. watched “The Legend of Kung Fu” at the Red Theatre. We had very good seats in the ninth row, numbers one and two – not at the edge, as one would expect, but right in the middle. Odd numbers were counted to the left of number one, and even numbers to the right of number two. Most of the spectators were foreigners, and the performance was in English with Chinese subtitles on the screen (while the Buddhist mantra “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ” didn’t require translation). Although one would think that a performance like this should be particularly interesting for men, and despite the imposing price of tickets for our row, the man sitting next to me slept through the whole performance.

The plot was rather simple: it was the story of a boy who entered the monastery to study martial arts, about his life, temptations and achieving the highest level of enlightenment. But the performance was very impressive and colourful, combining elements of ballet, pantomime, circus and opera. The actors did an amazing job, sometimes it even was impossible to distinguish imitation from real Kung Fu skills: the main character lay on swords, broke metal bars over his head, smashed bricks over his chest. So what was it – a sham, an illusion, or did we see a true master of Kung Fu in front of us?

The Chinese wouldn’t have been Chinese, if they hadn’t demonstrated their exceptional get-up-and-go. Apart from selling souvenirs with logos of the performance at the foyer, they also organised an opportunity to take photos with the artists for 20 RMB. We were among those who went for this opportunity – while had it been free of charge, we probably wouldn’t even have thought of doing so!

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 4

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23 March 2012, Friday

Today was the Great Wall day, which had been planned from our very first day in Beijing. We woke up bright and early, and at 7.30 am were all ready, as instructed beforehand. But unfortunately, the other tour participants were not as punctual, so we didn’t hit the road before 8 am.

Our hotel staff had advised us to choose the tour to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, together with a part of the Sacred Way. Later we found out that the programme also included visits to jade and silk factories. Our guide was a small nimble lady of indeterminate age, named Hui Liang (Melanie for foreigners), who definitely earned her bread honestly and conscientiously – during the day we learned a lot more information about China than in all the previous time.

For example, while our coach was heading to the Sacred Way, we learned that the tombs of the Ming dynasty, to which the Way actually led, were located so far outside the city in accordance with feng shui requirements. As the Dragon used to be the symbol of the Emperor, all buildings associated with the Chinese ruler were constructed so that they lied along the so-called “dragon line”, where the Forbidden City symbolised the dragon’s head and the Ming Tombs were his tail. We also learned a lot of details about the mutual harmony of yin and yang, e.g. that in addition to well-known pairs like the Sun and the Moon; the earth and the sky; male and female, even fruits are divided into those related to yin (watermelon, pear) and those related to yang (lychee, orange), and it is not recommended to eat too much fruit of either category, it’s better to strike a balance.

The part of the Sacred Way, which we saw, was, of course, interesting, but not really stunning. It represented a cobbled alley, lined with tall trees, with stone statues on both sides. Dourly towering officials and generals were followed by animals: elephants, camels, lions and mythical sons of the Dragon. In accordance with yin and yang principles each pair of standing animals had a corresponding pair of the same animals, seated.

We walked two and a half kilometres along the alley, right up to our coach, which was already waiting for us on the other side. This time, our talkative guide Melanie regaled us with stories about the famous Chinese jade. In fact, there are two kinds of jade. One of them, the nephrite jade, also known as “soft jade” is used primarily for carving handicrafts. The other variety – “hard jade” or jadeite – is rarer, and therefore, more expensive, so it is used for jewellery. Jade is also referred to as “living stone”, as it changes colour over time, depending on the temperature of the human body. Raw stones, potentially containing jade, can be the subject of gambling (called “gambling stones”), for even a trained eye can hardly detect whether an ordinary-looking grey stone conceals the precious mineral inside.

Right at the Long Di jade factory entrance, stood a stunning huge solid piece of jade, representing a mountain with finest carved openwork in the form of trees, flowers and pagodas. The composition had different colours: green, wine-red, yellow – all of which formed part of the jade block’s natural play of colours, so skilfully used by the carvers. It’s worth noting that the handicrafts at the factory were much more beautiful than those we had seen the day before in the imperial treasury, and the articles were sold for far less than in shops and, of course, hotels.

Among various figurines, we saw a lot of “cabbage”. The name of this vegetable in Chinese (báicài 白菜) sounds similar to “cái” (財) which means “wealth” or “money”, so figurines in the form of cabbage are believed to bring prosperity to the house, if properly located (the leaves should point to doors or windows, and the roots should point inside the house, otherwise financial fortune will smile upon your neighbours instead). By the way, another charm that brings wealth to its owner is one of the Dragon’s sons named Pi Xiu, the figurine of which we didn’t hesitate to buy. We were told that in China every self-respecting businessman possesses one, and in Las Vegas those with a Pi Xiu in their pocket aren’t allowed in casinos.

At the factory we were taught to distinguish real jade from fake jade:  if you hold it up to the light, you would see something like swirling clouds in a real piece of jade, while the fake one would either look totally homogenous or have air bubbles. To tell the quality of the jade it’s enough to strike it with a piece of agate and listen to the sound it makes: the higher the pitch, the higher the quality of the mineral.

We had lunch at a huge restaurant right at the factory. Apart from our group, there were at least a thousand people dining simultaneously, without exaggeration. We hadn’t had the chance to talk to any of our fellow travellers in the morning, but during lunch we met those of them we were sharing the table with. It was a couple from Australia and a brother and sister from Turkey. Another couple, sitting at the other table, was from Brazil, and the rest (a company of three) remained unfamiliar to us.

After the meal we drove and drove to the mountains, towards Mutianyu. The road would probably look much more beautiful in summer, with leaves on the trees. Upon arriving, Melanie told us that we would have to go up to the Wall by cable car. So we did, and, I have to say, riding in an open-top shaky cabin at a height of twenty metres was quite scary!

It should be mentioned that the information desk staff at our hotel hadn’t deceived us when recommending this tour: the Mutianyu section of the Wall was not too crowded (unlike the Badaling section, which is the closest one to Beijing), and the view was just spectacular. Walking the Wall basically meant constantly going up and down the stairs, most of which were not very steep, although there were some difficult sections. Here and there, all along the way, there were enterprising local merchants, attacking tourists even more intrusively than on the ground, sometimes just to chat and with the obligatory question: “Where are you from?” The same question was sometimes asked by other tourists too, though, for example, a Burmese guy – and when he heard the word “Azerbaijan”, he cheerfully told us that he had lived in Baku for four years and worked for BP’s ACG project. It felt quite funny to meet a colleague on the Great Wall of China!

If it hadn’t been for the strong wind, which spoiled the journey a little bit, we would have walked even more. We went back by cable car as well (although there was some kind of a wheel sled too), and this time we felt calmer and jumped off the seats with greater agility.

After visiting the Great Wall, we were already full of impressions. But that was not the end yet, and we drove to the Dong Wu silk factory through the Olympic Village. On our way, Melanie provided us with another batch of background information. Well, of course, we did have some general knowledge about silkworm larvae, cocoons and silk production. What we didn’t know was that in China (and nowhere else) there exist unique and very rare double cocoons, containing two worms. Such cocoons are unsuitable for yarn reeling and, consequently, for silk fabric production (as the two threads are bound together), but they can be stretched. These cocoons are used as fillers for pillows and blankets, which are extremely hygienic, warm in winter and cool in summer. First, the cocoons are put in boiling water, cut open, and the worms, which have completed their “work”, are thrown away (later they might end up at the Donghuamen snack market, fried and skewered!). Each cocoon is then stretched first over a small frame, then over a larger one, and, finally, four workers stretch it into a large square of the desired size. One cocoon can be stretched into a layer for a queen size blanket! A blanket usually contains about fifty layers.

On the whole, it was an excellent day – very interesting, very informative, and not too tiring!

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