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