Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Paris, je t’aime – Day 2


22 March, 2010

It was a long and rich day full of impressions! It began at 9 am, when we left the hotel after the breakfast. The original plan to go to the Louvre was dropped immediately, because the weather was delightful and promised to stay delightful all day, so spending a day indoors would have been a sin!

And so we walked to the quay of the Seine, and decided to go to the Champs Elysees from there, but this plan was soon changed as well, and we headed to the Eiffel Tower.

The road to the tower was not much impressive, but something strange happened there. Some dodgy-looking guy rushed towards us with a gold ring, asking if it was ours. After he learned that it wasn’t, he began actively trying to foist it on us, pointing at its countersign and insisting it was genuine. And then he began to beg for money to buy a sandwich and a Coke. When we asked a completely fair question on why he wouldn’t take the ring instead and sell it, he said that he was a Baptist. Somehow he managed to wheedle 4 euros out of us (yes, I always knew that the word “DUPE!” was written in large letters on my forehead). As for the ring, we decided to throw it out of harm’s way, as the whole story seemed too suspicious. Thinking back now, I realise that there wasn’t need to worry too much – the ring, according to its weight, was not gold at all, and most probably this is a common scam.

Then we walked to the Eiffel Tower without any incidents. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance to go up, as the queue was unbelievable and we didn’t want to waste time standing in it. Especially that there were a lot of gypsy beggars scurrying around, soldiers with weapons, and more dodgy guys selling Eiffel Tower figurines and trying to palm them off on us. However, at some point they suddenly started off to run somewhere simultaneously! Most likely, they were running from the police, but my mom’s comment really made me laugh: “Where are they running? Did anyone tell them that more dupes had arrived?”

The Eiffel Tower itself made me want to take an infinite number of pictures of it. And the sight of this beauty was simply breathtaking. However, if you look closer, the tower doesn’t have any special beauty. By essence, it is a pretty ugly construction. So, I think that its beauty is a purely psychological phenomenon – it is the main symbol of Paris, one of the world’s major attractions, so our eyes are used to considering it beautiful.

After viewing the tower on all four sides and at least a dozen of photos made, we decided to take a bus tour around the city, taking advantage of the good weather (quite unusually, it didn’t start raining with wind, as it always happens when I get in an open-topped tour bus!). And this, I must say, was a very good idea. Such tours should always be taken at the very beginning of one’s stay in a city – it allows to understand its structure and logic, and at the same time to determine the places that you want to visit later. Especially that there are always places that you generally do find interesting, but seeing them from the bus is just enough, and in the future you don’t have to spend time on visiting them. For example, the Place de la Concorde, which we drove through so many times that we definitely didn’t want to visit it separately.

We got off near the Notre Dame Cathedral, looking for a place to eat, but for some reason couldn’t find anything other than sandwiches and croque-monsieurs. So we had to get on the bus once again and head to the Galeries Lafayette.

This area is somewhat like the City of London, where the majority of people are wearing suits and there are lots of banks around – Commerzbank, BNP Paribas, etc. We managed to find a restaurant here.

Looking through the menu, I came across a dish called «Rôti de chapon aux cèpes avec Gratin Dauphinois», and became interested, because I had previously heard of Gratin Dauphinois being a very tasty potato dish. I had no clue what “chapon” was, though, so I asked the waiter. He replied that it was “le coq”, and mimed the process of castration. By the way, the poor cockerel tasted quite good, and the Gratin Dauphinois was absolutely fabulous!

After lunch, replete and happy, we continued our tour bus, to go back to Notre Dame de Paris and get inside. As there was still plenty of time before the 6 pm mass, which we very much wanted to attend, we decided to get off near the Eiffel Tower once again and have a cup of coffee in one of the outdoor cafes.

Then we caught another bus and headed directly to Notre Dame de Paris. On the way, I made a few observations. First, it is the love of the French for their flag. It seems to be everywhere: not only over every state institution, but also over all billboards.

Secondly, it is the huge number of motorcycles on the roads, I’ve never seen that many before! And most importantly, they tend to rush at a crazy speed!

And third, I noticed that the names of shops, cafes and hotels are directly dependent on the location. For example, they are all called “Madeleine” in the neighbourhood of the Madeleine Church, or “Notre Dame” in the area of Notre Dame de Paris.

Speaking about the Notre Dame Cathedral, initially, we were prepared to stand in a long queue for an 8-euro ticket. As we approached the tail of the queue, we noticed a sign, saying that there was no point in joining the queue, as that was it for the day. We got very upset, but then decided to ask how to get to the mass, and found out that the entrance was through the church, and it was free! Frankly, I didn’t understand what these guys in the queue were planning to pay 8 euros for, because inside, we were able to view everything free of charge. Actually, “free” is a bit of an overstatement, as we had to spend money on candles, and metal medals “for luck”, and the entrance to the treasury of the church, and the donation after the mass.

The treasury was well worth the three euros paid for it – it had amazingly beautiful goblets, finger rings, busts of various archbishops, as well as objects of unknown purpose, probably just for decoration.

We highly enjoyed the mass itself too. The service started with vespers at 17.45, followed by the mass at 18.15. Everyone was given sheets of paper with the lyrics of hymns and psalms in Latin and French. Since, wishing to see everything well, we sat in one of the front rows, we had to sing along with everyone. But it all sounded truly divine! The next part mostly consisted of preaching and talking about the biblical Susanna and the two elders, occasionally interrupted by chants such as «Kyrie Eleison».

Generally, looking at all this, I come to the conclusion that if I was a believer, I’d certainly be a Catholic. Because only Catholic churches, services and rituals make me feel awe, albeit minimal. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that I would be able to listen to stories of Susanna, the elders, and others like them with sincere reverence.

Leaving 2 euros as a donation, we left the cathedral just in time to catch the last tour bus, which dropped us off at the Grand Opera, from which we had to walk to our hotel. Once near the Boulevard des Capucines, we decided to have dinner somewhere. Seeing «Le Grand Café des Capucines», I got quite excited about oysters in the menu exposed in front of the cafe, but my mom flatly refused to try them. For the sake of revenge, I suggested Pizza Hut, where the pizza was very, very mediocre.

Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 6


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…

Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 5


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!

Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 4


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!