Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hangzhou Pt 1: West Lake

New Century Hotel, where we were staying, turned out to be much less of an international hotel than our one in Beijing. For example, they allowed smoking in common areas, which was something I forgot hotels ever even did. Another notable thing was what was served for breakfast. In Beijing, the breakfast buffet was pretty standard Western fare (eggs, bacon, pancakes, etc.) with a few traditionally Chinese options, like hard boiled eggs soaked in tea and soy sauce. (Look up the recipe and try them out. They're fantastic.)

My first morning in Hangzhou, I woke up quite early for some reason. So early, that I was on the front end of when they were serving breakfast. They had only started putting out the Chinese food options. I saw some hard boiled eggs, next to various dishes of unknown meat and vegetable combinations. Not being one to experiment with food when it comes to breakfast, I just took the eggs.

I bit into one, and it was like biting into pure salt. Dr. Wu later explained to me that you're supposed to eat it with the side dishes. Not knowing that at the time, and not seeing any other options, I ate those salty, salty eggs, and waited around hoping something more normal might show up at the buffet, which it eventually did.

In daylight, Hangzhou looked absolutely beautiful. It was a garden city, full of tree lined streets and parks. Everything seemed so lush and verdant compared to what we saw in Beijing. The sky was overcast, but it just added to the beauty.

The bus took us out to the West Lake District, a region known for its gardens and historical sites. Our first stop was at Qinghefang Street, a market that was a mix of street vendors and store fronts. On the bus, Kathy mentioned that they might have scorpions for sale... to eat. Somehow despite not wanting to be experimental with breakfast, I felt the urge to be experimental with a mid-morning snack. Actually, most of the guys did. Sadly, we did not find any scorpion snacks for sale.

While some of the vendors still wanted to barter, most of the ones with storefronts had set prices. After bartering for a few items, I was relieved to be able to buy some of the nicer souvenirs right away, not having to go through the routine of going back and forth until we reached something resembling a reasonable price.

I found a chopstick shop, which turned out to be the same company as where I bought the chopstick set at the Beijing train station. I decided to take my time and look for a nicer set, not getting one just for the sake of having a souvenir. I had apparently also forgotten that my family hosted two Japanese exchange students while my sister was in high school, so my parents already had more than a few sets of nice chopsticks. Not remembering this, I bought another to add to their collection.

I had wandered into the store on my own, but a few of my classmates had caught up with me, also eager to buy some chopsticks. As I waited around in the store, looked at more of the sets they had for sale, and bought yet more chopsticks. This time, just a single pair, not a set. They were engraved with a dog, which is my year in the Chinese Zodiac.

We hopped on the bus again, and traveled through town towards our next destination. I began to have some idea of just how affluent an area the West Lake District was by the number of high end car dealerships we passed. We passed Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Maserati dealerships, and saw a few high end cars on the streets too.

Our next stop was the Yang Gong Causeway, a garden at the edge of the lake, with several bridges crossing over the water. It was one of those quintessential views of China. The landscaping highlighted both the plant life and the rock formations. Small pagodas dotted the park. Fleets of small fishing boats were lined up along the water's edge. Temples sat off in the far distance on the other side of the lake.

Had I been relying on my film camera, I would have burned through a few rolls that morning, just walking through the garden. I did have a film camera with me, a Holga, but I was using that sparingly on the trip in general.

Again, more souvenirs were purchased, although this time it was the cheap variety that kids tend to buy on field trips. I'm pretty sure every one of the guys on the trip bought one of those little slide whistles that sounds like a bird, when used correctly. We probably spent a good half hour blowing them incessantly. The women were not amused.

Next: Dragon Well Tea and the Lingyin Temple.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Beijing Pt 7: Lunch and the Bullet Train

Now that we were back in our civilian clothes, we headed off to another restaurant for lunch. The bus parked on a main street, as it was apparent that our bus was not going to be able to park on any of the side streets near the restaurant.

We passed by various shops and restaurants along the way, until we reached ours. Unfortunately, I didn't get the name of it, but the decor of the place was definitely geared towards paying homage to the country's history. In the main room, there were street signs on the wall, along with plaques indicating the location of the street as well as historically significant facts about it.

Along the side streets
Inside the restaurant

On a stage at one end of the room was a guzheng, a Chinese zither-like instrument that most westerners probably heavily associate with the sound of Chinese music. Kathy jumped on the stool and did an impromptu jam session (for lack of a better description,) then invited us to give it a go. Naturally, I could not refuse.

The restaurant had a Cultural Organizer, who took us on a tour of the various dining rooms. Each one was decorated in the style of a room from various decades in the past century. For example, one had a TV on a shelf a by the wall, whereas another had a radio and a sewing machine.

Our dining room, was the Mao Room. Sure enough, it was larger than the other rooms, and had a shrine to Chairman Mao off to the side. He indicated the shrine and suggested that I take a picture of it.

Now we were definitely going deeper into Chinese cuisine with this lunch. The dishes were certainly delicious, but many of them were unrecognizable as anything I'd ever seen in a Chinese restaurant, such as a dish that resembled a sort of fried vegetable cake, or one that was a sort of black rice cake that was then set on fire.

I know I need to come up with better descriptions of food other than "a sort of cake," but those were the two dishes from the meals that seemed most unique.

After lunch, the Cultural Organizer returned asking us to rate the meal and provide feedback. That was more or less the phrasing he used. The food was excellent but it did feel a bit strange being asked so directly what we thought of it, especially since I'm so used to giving feedback anonymously through survey websites found at the bottom of receipts.

I'm not sure how honest his request for feedback was, but I offered one suggestion anyway. (One of my classmates told me doing so seemed rude, but I think he generally wanted advice for how to make guests' experience better.) My advice was this: Have somebody explain what the meals were as they were brought out. With every restaurant we visited, the dishes were increasingly delicious, and it was becoming increasingly frustrating not knowing what some of these dishes were called. I may never see them on an American Chinese restaurant menu, but I wanted to entertain the idea that I may some day come across these dishes again without having to buy a ticket to China.

Or, if I ever did find myself in China again, I'd like to remember what to order.

After lunch , we made our way to the train station, where we would catch the bullet train to Hangzhou. By now the smog was practically palpable. I could feel it as grime clinging to my face. Some of my friends had brought surgical masks with them on the trip, and were now starting to wear them, without a trace of irony or humor. I did have one that I had bought at a grocery store when I first arrived, but I opted not to use it, as it looked somewhat fancy and I had bought it as a souvenir.

So much smog

We had a bit of downtime at the train station, so I did some impulse souvenir shopping, out of some weird concern that we wouldn't get many opportunities to do so over the next few days. I wound up buying a Chinese copy of GQ, and a colorful set of chopsticks.

My friends also bought a decent amount of beer, which made sense since the G-Train, despite traveling between 150-250 mph, was still going to take five hours to get to Hangzhou. We were also told we could buy food to take with us on the train, but as we had just had lunch, I wasn't in the mindset to buy fast food. I figured I'd just get something on the train. That turned out to be a disappointing decision, but I'll get to that later.

We also stocked up on one of my favorite things about shopping for snacks in Asian countries: exotic flavors of familiar snacks, like kebab flavored Lays chips.

Exotic flavors of potato chips

When we boarded the G-Train, I made sure to grab a seat by the window. I felt the way I remembered feeling the first time I can recall boarding an airplane. As an American, the idea of high speed rail, feels novel and futuristic. Hell, living in the midwest, the idea of any sort of rail infrastructure feels novel. The only passenger trains that pass through my city do so at odd hours of the morning, when the tracks aren't in use by the freight lines. For a region as densely populated as the northeast quadrant of the USA is, it's bizarre that the only true passenger rail infrastructure is along the east coast.

The train took off, and the city of Beijing zipped by. Soon the buildings gave way to the countryside, but the smog persisted. It was like that scene from The Mist where they drive on, hoping to drive far enough until they make it out of the fog, but it just never seems to end. The sky did clear up for us eventually. For a while, the landscape was just rocky mountains, but eventually it gave way to lush greenscapes.

The novelty of being on a bullet train soon wore off, and it soon felt like being on an airplane again, except it was quieter, and we could freely move about at all times. Apparently, entire rows of seats could be rotated to face each other, so a few of us re-arranged our rows. Sure, our knees were now bunched up together, but at least we could have a proper conversation instead of trying to talk down a row.

We were told that there would be food available on the train, and there was, but it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. In my head I was picturing a proper dining car, like in a spy movie, with little tables where you can order a full dinner. Realistically, I was even prepared for something closer to airline food. In reality, the dining car options consisted of various snacks. The most filling options were a bowl of noodles (the microwave kind,) or a plate of pork buns.

Actually, "pork buns" was what my friend Steve told me they were. He spoke Chinese, and I didn't. He described the dinner options as the noodle bowl or the pork buns, but he gave me a sort of quizzical look when he mentioned the pork buns. I took the pork buns, because I had some earlier on the trip, and they were delicious, and it sounded more filling than the noodle bowl.

I was given a tray with six pork buns that, like the noodles, appeared to have been microwaved. I bit into the first one, and was very confused. The contents of the bun were clearly not pork. In fact, it wasn't even meat. It was some sort of seaweed, vegetable filling.

I asked Steve if she was sure the woman in the dining car said it was pork buns. He said that maybe she just said it included pork buns. I took a bite of the next bun, and it had some sort of almost gelatinous purple filling, which was probably vegetable again, and definitely wasn't pork. Finally I took a bite of the third one, which actually turned out to be pork. The other three buns were the same combination of fillings: green vegetable, purple gelatinous vegetable, and pork. So at least there was some pork.

We arrived in Hangzhou Station, which I was told was one of the biggest train stations in China. It felt more like an airport than a train station, both in terms of size and architecture.

It was night when we arrived in the city, but from what I could see in the dark, it looked like a much more open city. Maybe Hangzhou was actually a cleaner city, or maybe it just didn't have an international reputation for being polluted, but the air felt fresher. The city also looked much more vibrant and lively than Beijing, but again, we didn't really get out and explore much of Beijing, so it wasn't a fair comparison.

Hangzhou at night

We checked into our hotel, the New Century Hotel Xiaoshan, then were given a brief layout of the area, just in case we wanted to get a late meal. As it was very late, our options were Kentucky Fried Chicken, or McDonald's. While I've heard that KFC is wildly popular in Asia, (possibly more than it is in the US,) I opted for McDonald's. It's my default travel food.

Having McDonald's, or visiting a Hard Rock Cafe, are two things I generally do when traveling abroad. No matter how great the cuisine is wherever I go, I've found that I occasionally need a break from being a tourist, and need something comfortable and familiar. Hence, McDonald's. It's like doing a soft reset for my system. If I have at least one Big Mac part way through the trip, I know I'm not going to be days into the trip, surrounded by fantastic cuisine I'll never see again, and thinking "I'm really craving some American fast food right now."

Also, there's the academic reason for wanting to visit McDonald's. As I mentioned before, localization of international products is something we've studied repeatedly as part of the MBA program at Xavier. I know that McDonald's more or less uses the same menu around the world, but they also have regional dishes, depending on the country.

My first Chinese McDonald's did not disappoint. Among the menu items were some sort of chicken and rice platter, and something called the Double German Sausage Patty, which was two sausage links drizzled in mustard, on top of two beef patties, served in a pretzel bun.

The Double German Sausage Patty is on the left.

When we approached the counter, the cashier handed us a menu with pictures of all the dishes available, and more or less communicated to us that we should order by pointing at what we wanted. I opted for a Big Mac, but it turned out to be one of the sparsest Big Mac's I'd ever seen. It might have been a regional thing, or maybe they did a bad job of preparing it. Either way, it was close enough to leave me comfortably settled in for my first night in Hangzhou, a city I new almost nothing about.

Underwhelming Big Mac

Next: The West Lake Area

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Beijing Pt 6: Smog and the First Company Visit

The morning started off at a fast pace. We had breakfast and checked out first thing in the morning. As we boarded our bus, I saw that the man selling counterfeit goods, from our first day in town, was back. He made one last sales pitch to our group, but alas, it was to no avail.

The Beijing we drove through was not the same one we had seen days before. Everything was covered in a thick impenetrable fog. Even the CCTV building, which was just blocks away from our hotel, couldn't be seen. It was like being in Silent Hill, or some other 90's video game with a constant background fog to cover up the fact the game console couldn't fully render the environment too far into the distance.

And at first, it gave the city an other worldly feel. That is, until I registered what it really was I was seeing: Beijing's infamous smog. No longer was it just a thick brown haze, visible on the horizon. Today, it was a poisonous cloud that invaded the city. Perhaps someday Beijing's smog will be romanticized the way people talk of the "London Fog" as if it weren't polluted air. Years from now, we may be buying "Beijing Smog" jackets.

But for now, this was the air I was breathing, and it alleviated my disappointment that I wouldn't get to spend more time in Beijing.

We had to leave the hotel dressed in our suits because that morning was the first of the company visits we had scheduled for the trip. We were going to visit the China location for Delphi, an international auto parts manufacturer. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a bit of a miscommunication about what we were supposed to be doing there. We had blocked out about two hours to meet with company representatives, for them to inform us about what they do, and for us to get a better understanding of how business works in China.

Instead, we were given a tour of the factor floor that lasted about fifteen minutes. While it was certainly interesting, it didn't really give us any insights into the company's business process, or how this was any different from any factory anywhere else in the world.

Dr. Wu and the reps from the Asia Institute quickly adapted to the situation. After we piled back onto the bus, we were given the option of checking out a Chinese Wal-Mart (for the record, they meant an actual Chinese Wal-Mart, not some Chinese equivalent of Wal-Mart,) or we could visit a furniture mall.

The idea of visiting a Wal-Mart in China genuinely interested me. A common topic in many of my MBA classes was re-inforcing that companies cannot assume that a store opened internationally can operate the same way it does in the states, regardless of how strong the brand is in the US. Home Depot and Best Buy both famously failed in China, due to failing to understand the Chinese Market. Other brands, such as IKEA, have managed to do quite well, because they adapted and tailored their business models for the local consumer.

Naturally, I wanted to see how Wal-Mart, one of the biggest brands in the US, was adapted for Chinese buyers. However, they decided we would visit the furniture mall instead. I suppose that made sense. There is only so much time one can eat up in a Wal-Mart, anywhere in the world, especially if you're just browsing.

The furniture mall had the English name of Top City Shopping Center, and it was simply a mall where every store sold furniture or home furnishings. It proved to be informative in a way I didn't anticipate, as it showcased the supply for the demand caused by an increase of wealth among the Chinese.

There was an immense amount of variety in the types of home furnishings available at the various stores. Some of them offered goods that had a traditional Chinese aesthetic to them, such as hand carved wood, with geometric shapes, stained with mahogany varnish, or sculptures of dragons or Buddhas. Other stores sold much more modern looking furniture, with minimal ornamentation. Depending on your aesthetic orientation, it either had a distinctively Asian or distinctively Scandinavian appearance.

Then there were the stores that catered to those craving more traditionally Western furnishings, allowing them to decorate their houses to look like a quaint Rhode Island cottage, or English parlor. There were products that seemed to mash various styles together, such as wood sculptures of English women done in a traditionally Chinese fashion.

And of course, there were stores offering replicas of famous artworks. Yes, even in China there's apparently a demand for copies of Michelangelo's "David." It seemed that here, you could have it custom hand carved too.

We still had a bit of time to kill after the mall so we drove about town a bit more. Then the men and women in the group took turns changing clothes on the bus so that we didn't have to spend the rest of the day in our suits.

Next: Lunch, China through the ages, and the bullet train.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Beijing Pt 5: Peking Duck and Karaoke

Dinner that night was at a restaurant called China Lounge, and was also our official orientation meeting with the Asia Institute. It seemed a bit odd at first to do the orientation meeting after a whole full day of sightseeing, but I guess they figured we'd be more likely to focus on what they had to say if they gave the presentation over food, and if we had already gotten two of the major tourist sites under our belt.

They had reserved a room for us to have to ourselves. At first I figured it was just because of the presentation, but as I later realized on the trip, it seemed like a fairly common thing for large groups to dine together in separate rooms. I only draw this conclusion because many of the places we ate at had a surprisingly high number of private dining rooms.

I was a bit worried about the fact that just about every meal on our itinerary was going to be Chinese food. Yes, I know that seems obvious, given that we were in China, but as much as I love American Chinese food, it's not something I could have for every meal for a week straight.

Fortunately, as I quickly realized, American Chinese food is an amalgamation of various types of cuisine from all around the country, and usually made oiler for American palates. So while lunch was more or less what I had in mind when I thought of Chinese food, there was much more flourish and presentation to dinner. The appetizers that were brought out had a very minimalist presentation to them, and weren't at all anything I recognized as the usual Chinese appetizers.

The specialty for the night was Peking Duck. I'm not sure I've ever ordered that in the states, but if I did, I'm pretty sure they don't usually do the full show to go with it. The duck was brought out on a trolley, fully cooked. With surgical precision, the chef then took a knife and quickly stripped the duck of all of its meat, acting swiftly and cleanly. Soon the duck was practically down to its bones, with the meat in a pile next to it. It's then served on these little pancakes, with various vegetables you can put onto it, so it's almost like a duck taco.

The orientation portion of dinner was primarily a basic rundown of what we'd be doing on the trip, which businesses we'd be visiting, which tourist sites we'd see, and which days we'd be expected to dress in business attire. It was in essence the itinerary packet we'd been given in advance, done as a Power Point presentation, which was good because I had the hunch that a few of my classmates hadn't really gone over it.

At some point during dinner, a few of us started to kick around the idea of going to a karaoke bar, or K-TV as they call it in China. About half of the group seemed interested, and Sharon and Kathy said they'd take us to a bar they recommended after dinner.

Somewhat naively, we insisted that they didn't have to actually take us to the bar itself, and it would be fine if they just told us where to find it. After all, they had a long day of leading us around, and we didn't want to keep them up. Sharon and Kathy in turn insisted that we'd be better off if they just took us there. I was under the self delusion that as a well versed traveller, I could find any place if just pointed in the right direction, but as I realized, none of us were going to find this place without their help.

I was expecting that they were going to lead us towards some sort of bar district with a bar that was clearly marked K-TV on the outside. (In all fairness, we did see several prominent K-TV signs as we drove around town.) Instead they led us down a street, and under a highway overpass, which from the look of it was leading us away from anything interesting. We then popped down into the subway, not actually getting on the subway, just using it as a shortcut, then emerged in front of a what appeared at first glance to be a plain, innocuous office building.

From where we stood, I didn't see anything on the outside that gave any indication that there was a K-TV bar inside. Of course, that might have been due to my inability to read Chinese signage. (Also, I didn't even know what we were looking for.) As if to further ensure we couldn't have found this place on our own, it was on the second floor of the building. With such an inconspicuous location, I was expecting that this wasn't going to be a great K-TV bar, but just the one closest to the hotel. Which would have made sense, since we did have to do a business visit the next day, and I imagine Sharon and Kathy didn't want us out late wandering around a strange part of town on our own.

When the elevator doors opened on the second floor, the bar had the glitz and glamor of a proper night club. It was practically empty, but that was probably more due to the fact it was a Sunday night than being an indicator of the quality of the bar, which, for the record, was called Melody.

The way that K-TV works is that you rent out a private room for a few hours, pick your own songs from a machine, and buy all of your drinks in advance. They had a small shop off to the side, but Steve took care of the drinks. The host led us to our room, and a few minutes later a server showed up with our drinks.

The karaoke room was small, but perfect size for our group of about nine. It had couches, disco balls, and several TVs showing the karaoke videos on it. There was a stand with an old school microphone permanently affixed to it, but you could rock the stand back and forth like a rock star. They also had extra microphones so whoever wanted to jump in and sing along could.

Again, we told Kathy and Sharon that we'd be fine on our own from here on out. We really didn't want to keep them out late just for our sakes. Well, it turned out that us being fine from that point out again turned out to be a lie. The song selection machine proved to be a bit trickier to use than we expected. There was supposed to be an English language mode on it, but failing to find that we just settled for English language songs, so we still needed Kathy and Sharon's help, in addition to Steve's... and one of the hosts.

Normally I have my go-to karaoke songs, like "Don't You Forget About Me," stuff by The Killers, Chris Isaak, and a few deeper cuts depending on the crowd and the song selection. However, as we were having trouble with the machine, I opted to go along with whatever reasonably well known top 40 hits the others in our group picked out. Also, my classmates were adding songs to the playlist so quickly, I would have held things up if I took the time to scour the machine for the "right" song.

 The joy of using a private room for karaoke is that it lowers everybody's nervousness threshold for performing in front of others. A few of the women in our group came along just because they thought going to the bar itself would be fun, but had no intention of singing, and yet sure enough, as soon as the Spice Girls' song "Wannabe" came on, they were all on stage. It also turned out that a few of my classmates were karaoke aficionados. Lindsay, it turned out, could belt out a few soulful ballads.

I think Kathy and Sharon's plan was legitimately to help us find the place, set us up in the karaoke room, them head back to the hotel, but then either we talked them into staying for a few songs, or they decided the might as well stick around for one or two. Either way, they joined in on the fun of K-TV. Kathy and Sharon sang a few songs too, some in Chinese.

One odd thing I noticed (and had heard about before) was that some of the songs had familiar backing music, but completely different lyrics and melodies for the actual songs. For example, it took us a while to recognize one song they sang because the main melody of the song was brand new, but eventually we realized it was the backing track for Gwen Stefani's song, "Hella Good."

Eventually Kathy and Sharon did say they really did have to leave, but at that point we realized it was a good time for us to head home as well. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day that involved both a company visit and traveling to another city, so it was probably best that we got some rest.

Next: Beijing smog and the first company visit.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Beijing Pt 4: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

After lunch, the bus took us to Tiananmen Square. As our guide, Chris, pointed out to us as we approached the Square, we probably knew more about it's recent history than he did. He was referring to the protests in 1989 that culminated in what has become known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, a protest that ended with Chinese soldiers killing hundreds of civilians. Despite having been built in 1651, I realized that for me, and probably many of my generation, the Square has become almost entirely synonymous with the protests.

The government somehow managed to both acknowledge this association while at the same time not acknowledging it. There are no plaques or memorials for those who died during the protests, but there is a strong presence of security around the Square. We entered the Tiananmen Square through an underground pedestrian tunnel on the south side, and had to pass through a security checkpoint. As a tourist group, composed mainly of non-Chinese people, we were quickly let through, although the guards did try to briefly hold back some of the Chinese members of our group. They were allowed to continue through when Chris explained they were with our group.

Zhengyang Gate
On the south end of the Square sits Zhengyang Gate, a massive stone gate with a tower perched on top of it. The wall it was a part of had long been demolished. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to explore it much closer as our group was on a bit of a tight schedule to make it through the Square and to the other side of the Forbidden City, where our bus would meet us. We weren't in a rush. We just had a schedule to keep.

The Square was flanked on both sides by museums, and in the center stood a mausoleum to Mao Zedong, and the Monument to the People's Heroes. In front of the mausoleum were the sort of triumphant statues to the people you tend to see in countries with communist history, and the architecture of the museums and the monument had that rigid geometric design that was typical of communist architecture as well.

Bisecting the square is a long video wall. I have absolutely no idea what was being broadcast on the wall, but the video wall enjoyed a bit of internet notoriety a few years ago, when a photo taken of the wall showed a video of a sunset being played on it. It was accompanied by a story that claimed that Smog had gotten so bad in Beijing that the government resorted to showing a video of a sunset, at sunset, because people couldn't see it any more through the pollution. (This isn't true. The video actually showed the sunset among other things, and was broadcast throughout the day, regardless of the smog.)

As we neared the Tiananmen Gate, I reached the spot of the obligatory photo almost everybody takes when visiting Beijing: a picture of one's self in front of the Tiananmen Gate with the portrait of Chairman Mao. Seriously, look through the photo album of any friend of yours who has been to Beijing. Some version of that photo is undoubtedly there. It's China's version of the picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, or Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Attempt 1: Not what I was hoping for 
It took a few tries to actually get the photo I wanted, as the first of my classmates that I handed my camera off to had a shockingly bad eye for composure. After a few tries, I told her to hand the camera off to my roommate, Josh, who managed to get the exact picture I was looking for on the first try.

Attempt 2: Much better
As empty as Tiananmen Square was, there was a sizable crowd around the bridge leading to the Tiananmen Gate, which is the entrance of the Forbidden City. The crowd was understandable, as the gate was never intended to handle a daily influx of tourists. Once we were over the bridge and through the gate, the crowd dispersed again.

We were given our tickets to enter the Forbidden City, and as we stood before the Meridian Gate, the proper entrance to the Forbidden City, Chris explained that of the three passages before us, only the Emperor was allowed through the center one. Quite noticeably, tourists were primarily entering through the two side passages. I asked Cathy if we were allowed to go through the central passage, and she said that we were. I asked again, just to be absolutely sure, because the last thing I wanted to do was cause an international incident. I could just see this as being one of those instances where the police swarm upon me halfway through the gate, and I wind up in prison for entering through the Emperor's gate.

Again, Cathy assured me that it was okay for tourists to enter through the central passageway. So a few of my braver classmates and I entered the Forbidden City through the Emperor's passageway. Why wouldn't you? It was a view of the city that was once reserved for a handful of people. Considering how nicely symmetrical the city was, it seemed like the only logical way to go in, having everything perfectly framed as you enter.

I did not get arrested, nor did my classmates who joined me. I suspected there was a bit of remorse from my classmates who opted to take the side passages.

The Forbidden City was larger than I expected, in some ways, yet smaller in others. The size of the complex is massive. "City" is an apt term for it. However, most of its size is taken up by massive courtyards. The buildings themselves were actually much smaller than I thought they would be.

Unfortunately, we couldn't go in most of them. I was rather disappointed, because I remember there being a scene at the end of The Last Emperor where Emperor Pu Yi returns to the throne room, long after the rise of communism in China, and the scene transitions to a shot of tour groups passing through. We couldn't recreate that scene, though. The doors were open, but barricades were put up, so we could only look inside.

The Throne Room
As you probably guessed, they also barricaded off the bas relief covered ramps between the stairs, so you can't recreate the scene from the movie where a toddler Pu Yi runs out into the courtyard either.

It's possible that they never let any tourists through the buildings, and that was just a scene shot for the movie, but it seemed that we visited during an ongoing renovation project. According to Chris, there was one undertaken before 2008, to get the palace spruced up in time for the Beijing Olympic Games. However, it was clear that this renovation wasn't complete. If you approached many of the buildings from the front, as most tourists would approach them from, much of the palace looks bright and restored. However, if you look at the rear of some buildings, or the ones less centrally located, you can see the cracked paint and chipped wood. It reminds you of just how old a structure this is.

According to Frommer's guidebook on China, there is a large scale, $75 million dollar renovation that is scheduled to be complete by 2020, which will be a more complete restoration of the palace, and also ad temperature controlled buildings that will be used to showcase hundreds of thousands of Ming and Qing Dynasty artifacts that are currently in storage.

We exited to the North of the city, crossing over a moat. Ahead of us was a tree covered covered hill, topped with a pagoda. I later learned this was called Jingshan park, but unfortunately we didn't have time to go in and explore it. We would have plenty of gardens to see later on in the trip.

Jingshan Park

As we walked back to the bus, a vendor approached me selling a dragon statue. It was larger than the one I had picked up at the Great Wall, and his asking price was already cheaper than what I had paid for mine. I briefly considered buying it, but decided to pass. Partially, it was because our group was moving steadily ahead towards the bus and I didn't want to be the guy who was separated from everybody else on the first day, but also because I didn't want to set a precedent for myself of buying too many trinkets, then having to figure out how to get all of them back home.

Next: Peking Duck and karaoke