Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Chinese Characters”

Hong Kong – Day 3

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2 December 2013

Today we went on with the bus tour which continued on the Kowloon peninsula. I found it less interesting than the island – lots of skyscrapers and shops, the streets mostly looked quite the same. Generally, it would have even been better to find a hotel on the island instead, it is way more picturesque than the peninsula which basically has only shopping and restaurants, and also the Avenue of Stars on the promenade, where we walked prior to the bus ride. The first time, I mean last year, it had been more fun – at least, seeing the handprints of local stars for the second time seemed less exciting now, however I still found the Bruce Lee statue impressive.

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During the bus tour, as usual, we were listening to the audio guide, and again heard the familiar information about the Black Christmas, when on 25 December 1941 the Hong Kong authorities had ignominiously surrendered to the Japanese; and how the Chinese emperor had mastered Kowloon and why this area with eight dragon-like hills was called the peninsula of Nine Dragons. But there was also an unfamiliar piece of information which I found quite interesting: one can hardly find any rats in Hong Kong nowadays, but in the late 19th century the city was literally flooded with lots of them. When some Japanese doctor proved the correlation between the spread of plague and the presence of rats, the city authorities took drastic measures and announced a reward of 2, and later 5 cents per caught rat. All went well at first, but then the reward had to be cancelled, for some particularly enterprising citizens started importing thousands of rats from China!

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The highlight of the day was meeting my teacher of Cantonese, which I learn over Skype. It’s always great when you have the opportunity to talk to someone local during a trip – it was fascinating to ask her questions about the Chinese language, and how text messages are typed in Chinese (she said there were dozens of ways: for example, her cousins, who can only read, but not write characters, use an app where you input romanised text, and it suggests all possible character options, out of which you need to find and select the appropriate one; while she herself prefers the app where you handwrite each character on the touchscreen, and the app recognises them and translates into printed text – the trick here is to follow the correct stroke order), and to hear from her that the income tax is very low in Hong Kong, however, there is no state pension at all. By the way, despite being 35, my teacher looks 23-25 at most.

She took us to the Maritime Museum, which had an exhibition of John Thomson’s photoworks, depicting Hong Kong and Coastal China of the 19th century. The technique of creating these photographs was shown right there: the wet collodion photographic process he had been using was already somewhat more advanced than the daguerreotype process, but still as far as the moon from being any similar to the modern process. It was rather complicated and time consuming, so it’s really amazing how Thomson managed to obtain photographs of such high quality. Personally, I liked the most those portraying people, some of which had been obviously posing very diligently and thus had ‘frozen’ faces, while the facial expressions of some others were vivid and natural, creating real genre pictures.

The rest of the museum expositions were stationary, and demonstrated the history of local seafaring and shipbuilding, piracy and maritime trade from ancient times to the present. Even we, being generally quite far from maritime affairs, found it very interesting.

We finished off the day with a night tour of Hong Kong and the laser show. Hong Kong is remarkably bright at night, and the famous neon signs are not the only contributors to this – the walls of most skyscrapers basically turn into huge glowing panels. As for the laser show, it didn’t impress us any more than the last time we had seen it, even though the air was way cleaner and the rays should have been more noticeable.

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Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 2

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

27 March 2012, Tuesday

First of all, we should praise ourselves. And Hong Kong too. The first ones (i.e. us!) were able to find our bearings all the time, figured out where and how to go, purchased Octopus cards which are used for payment in all public transport in Hong Kong (and some shops as well). No more taxis from now on, long live the public transport! The second one, that is Hong Kong itself, provided an opportunity to understand everything, being a very user-friendly city: the streets, the transportation – everything is clear and more or less available, unlike Beijing, where standing on one side of a very wide street, you might have no clue how to get to the other side. Hong Kong’s streets are narrow, often literally a gap between skyscrapers. Usually there are overground crossings in areas with heavy traffic.

So, after breakfast (which was way more modest than in the luxury Beijing hotel), we, as decided the day before, headed to the nearest tour bus stop. We took a tram; trams here, as everything in Hong Kong, had grown in height and not in length: they are short and double-decker.

The bus took so long to arrive, that we got quite anxious whether we were standing in the right place. But just at the moment when we went to clarify this with a staff member of the Sogo department store, in front of which we had been waiting, the long-awaited bus appeared in the distance. Interestingly enough, the tickets were only sold near the Victoria Peak tram station, meaning that should we have decided to get off earlier, we would have ridden for free.

The road to Victoria Peak, which had been open to the public in late 19th century, was extremely steep and we rode at a crazy angle! We were literally pressed into the seat backs. The funicular is not only an attraction for tourists, but also public transportation for residents of the upper levels of the island. In fact, it was originally created in order to stimulate building development of the mountain.

As we got off the tram, we immediately found ourselves in a mall, where we had to climb quite a few escalators in order to get to the lookout. But it was totally worth it: the view from the Sky Terrace was just divine! The Victoria Harbour was picturesque to the utmost; and the concrete jungle, framing it, looked very harmonious next to the lush and curly greenery on the slopes.

We had lunch at the peak, at the Bubba Gump Shrimp & Co restaurant. It is a nice seafood restaurant from an American chain, with average prices. The way of calling the waiter is really interesting: there is a two-sided sign board on the table. If you don’t need anything, you turn it to its blue side, which says: “Run, Forrest, run!” If you need the waiter though, you turn it over to the red side, saying: “Stop, Forrest, stop!”

After a ride through the Hong Kong island (the name, by the way, originates from the Cantonese “Hēunggóng”, which means “Fragrant Harbour”), which is the historical centre of the former British colony, we took the Star Ferry to the Kowloon peninsula. Its name means “nine dragons”.

One of the main attractions in Kowloon is the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, or more precisely, the Avenue of Stars, like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but, obviously, related to Hong Kong cinema. Among a myriad of names, completely unfamiliar to us, there were also the names of internationally famous actors, such as Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, and of course, the two biggest local stars – Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. The latter also has a monument in his honour, which is really an object of pilgrimage for Chinese (and other) tourists.

Speaking of Chinese tourists, we had been told that the Chinese liked to be photographed with the Europeans, but in Beijing no one had expressed the desire to take a picture with us. Here though, right on the Promenade, a whole family – apparently, tourists from some Chinese province – approached us and asked to take photos with us, which they then did one by one.

We toured around Kowloon twice: in the day and evening. During the daytime it looked a bit inferior to the island, despite some memorable sites, such as the Peninsula Hotel, where during the Second World War, just after several days of fighting, the British signed the surrender to Japan; or the International Commerce Centre, which is the tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong (by the way, Hong Kong has the most high-rises in the world, almost twice as many as New York does). In contrast to the fashionable boutiques of the island, the peninsula is famous for its more democratic markets: the Ladies’ Market, Temple Street Night Market, Flower Market, Bird Market, etc.

However, at night the streets of Kowloon are brilliantly lit by colourful neon lights – especially areas like Nathan Road and Mong Kok – and look absolutely safe (the crime rate in Hong Kong is really very low).

After the night tour around Kowloon we came back to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, where a laser show is demonstrated every night at 8pm. Honestly, we expected something more from it, and when the green laser beams started appearing in the sky, we kept waiting for the real show to begin. But that was it, as it turned out – not too impressive (later note: the light show on Maiden Tower walls in Baku during Eurovision Song Contest 2012 week was way more spectacular). But I took some photos of the harbour.

On the way back we easily found the right tube station (or MTR station, as it is called here), then the right tram stop, and after the 12-hour “sortie”, safely returned to our Emperor (Happy Valley) hotel.

A few general observations: the local language, that is, Cantonese, is quite different from Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, which is the official language in China and Taiwan. As for Hong Kong, it has two official languages: English and Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese, which makes, in fact, three). For example, tube announcements are made in all three, and pretty soon we got the hang of aurally distinguishing Cantonese from Mandarin.

The writing is also different. Here they use older, traditional characters, which look more complicated, with lots of strokes and dots. In Mainland China, though, as well as in Singapore and Malaysia, simplified characters are used. They were introduced in the middle of 20th century, to increase the literacy of the population.

Watching the locals, you sometimes feel like you see the English in Chinese guise. They queue sedately (something which the Chinese don’t tend to do generally), obey traffic rules, stand on the right side of escalators and walk on the left. All the service staff in all public places speak English, schoolchildren solve math problems for homework in English (we saw this in Starbucks; they were speaking Chinese among themselves, though).

In general, having arrived in Hong Kong, we clearly felt the difference between the communist and capitalist China. Not that in Beijing they flaunt their communist slogans, prohibitions and restrictions – it all seems veiled. But you still have the feeling that the tiger is holding out its paw, even though with hidden claws, over everything around: controlled Internet, controlled television, guides necessarily referring to happy life with universal equality in the People’s China, Mao’s portraits, five-star symbols, and even endless barrages on the streets constantly remind of it. In Hong Kong you see democracy in full bloom. No wonder that in 1997, when Margaret Thatcher returned Hong Kong to China after a 99-year lease  in accordance with the agreement, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers hastily emigrated to the West, terrified by the “charms” of the communist “paradise”. However, Hong Kong practically doesn’t feel its implications so far, because, as well as Macau, it has the status of a Special Administrative Region and will retain its internal system for 50 years. What Hong Kongers will do after the 50-year period expires, is a big question.

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 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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