Sunday, April 20, 2008


(Snapshots from Beijing, Part Four)

"He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man." - Mao Zedong

Fighting words, indeed, from the Chairman.

Truth be told, i had always wanted to see the Great Wall, known in Mandarin as "Chang Cheng", literally "long wall".

With apologies to the charms of historical sites (and tour group staples) such as Summer Palace / Forbidden City / Temple of Heaven / Tiananmen Square (and that blasted panda bear), it was the chance to hike up the Great Wall which made me all excited about this trip.

Before we proceed, we might as well clarify a few things about the Wall.

First, contrary to popular belief, it CANNOT be seen from outer space.

Second, it is NOT a single continuous structure. I was rather taken aback upon learning this, to be honest.

Third, it was a dismal failure at its purpose of keeping out the Hun army from the north, as intended by Emperor Chin Shi Huang. Why? Because the guards were simply bribed to look the other way. [Click here for the official website detailing the Wall's history, etc.]

But let none of this detract from the fact that the Wall is an engineering marvel in its own right. Think about it, how were they able to build this thing in such remote areas, and given the available technology and equipment of that era?

We were initially supposed to visit Badaling, the most-visited restored section of the wall (read: swarming with tourists). Aside from the usual souvenir stands, it boasts of a cable car and yes, a KFC outlet.

However, due to heavy traffic caused by an accident of the highway, we ended up at the Juyong Guan (Dwelling in Harmony Pass) section.

The place was teeming with tourists, which made going up rather difficult. Partly because the steps were uneven in height, and were steeper than the normal "stair" height step we are used to. More than this, the throng of people all going in the same direction made it a start-stop, start-stop affair. One had to take one step forward, then pause for a few seconds before proceeding again. Rather hard on the knees, i can tell you.

However, the crowd pretty much thins out after you reach the first station. At this point, most of the intrepid hiker-wanna-be tourists realize this is a far more strenous undertaking than initially expected, and decide they will just stay where they are, puff on a cigarette or two (to mitigate the cold weather), take snapshots for posterity and buy a T-shirt or two at the souvenir stand. You know, just to say they've been to the Great Wall.

Check out some interesting signs posted on the Wall:

These guys from the Beijing Tourist Administration are really thoughtful, no?

It sort of boggles the mind why anyone would want to use a cellphone up here. Oh well.

Well, if you're climbing steps as steep as these, you'd be careful, too.

Check out also the graffiti on the Wall:

Terrible, isn't it? [Of course, while saying this and shaking my head in disgust, i made a mental note to bring a black Pentel pen next time, so i can write as well!]

Once you get used to the steep steps and shake off the other tourists, hiking up the Wall becomes a real joy. And the cold weather ceases to become a factor as well. In fact, i had to shed off my jacket since i was getting real sweaty.

Two stations down. . .three stations down. . .the adrenaline rush is pretty awesome!

Then at some point, i stopped, not sure if i wanted to go up further, or turn back and start the downward trek back to terra firma. After some twenty seconds' agonizing, i chose the latter course of action.

Why, you may ask?
The ache in my knees and thighs and hamstrings was getting too much? No.
Dizziness from the high altitude? No.
Fatigue and heart palpitations from the climb? No.

What then? Actually, i felt the need to pee; and obviously, there were no toilets up there. Darn.

Here's a sample of the view:

Of course, the Great Wall experience wouldn't be complete without bringing home some sort of souvenir. Check out the souvenir stand below, doing brisk business:

As the banner says, you can actually have a "I Climbed the Great Wall" certificate for RMB40.00. Rather desperate, don't you think? :D

I preferred to buy the T-shirt below:

YEAH!!! Been there, done that!!! :D

I'm sure the Chairman is turning over in his grave, though.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


(Snapshots from Beijing, Part Three)

One of the de rigueur things to do in Beijing is to eat Peking duck. Thus, all tour groups include a lunch or dinner at one of the famous restaurants specializing in this succulent bird.

Just right off the plane, our guide announced with great flourish that we were having lunch at
Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. She described in great detail how the 65-day-old ducks (take note, only "white-feathered" ducks were used) were "cooked the traditional way" (i.e. roasted for several hours under a wood-fuelled fire).

Preparation of the duck also apparently involves forcefeeding it with mash for the last 20 days before cooking it . . . ahh, but let's not get into that, lest our appetites get spoiled, okay?

As we went up the dark staircase to the second floor, on the landing were black & white pictures of various well-known personalities who had eaten at this resto over the years, most notably Mao Zedong and Henry Kissinger.

So there we were, feasting on various dishes when the Peking duck was wheeled in. It looked, well, quite ordinary and the same as any other duck i've eaten locally.

The waitress was supposed to carve the crispy skin and attached meat into a hundred pieces (don't ask me why. . . so that the duck gets a 100 lives in duck heaven, perhaps? :D) before serving, but everyone had heightened expectations by this time and wanted to get their hands on it as soon as possible and no one bothered to keep count anyway.

Pretty soon, everyone at our table was busy assembling slices of duck and slivered scallions, dashed with hoisin sauce, over the thin, white pancakes.


I took that first bite, and savored the crispy skin and fat of the duck mixing with the other ingredients. Hoisin sauce started dribbling down the right side of my mouth.

So, what was the verdict?

Well, i would have loved to say that this 'authentic' Peking duck was so fantastic, that it felt like the clouds roared and the blue skies parted, and a heavenly choir of angels appeared in immaculate, gleaming white robes, singing the "Hallelujah" chorus of Handel's Messiah.

But no . . . it was just . . .okay. Nothing great or spectacular about its taste or texture or flavor. I wouldn't even say it was the best Peking duck i've ever had!

In short, overrated.

[For a much more detailed account of a Peking duck lunch, with picture of an actual duck (!), please check out fellow blogger Gypsy Soul's post here, taken during her Beijing trip last year]

Sunday, April 06, 2008

(Snapshots from Beijing, Part Two)

The thing with Beijing's cold weather (it was something like 4 - 13 degrees Celsius while we were there) is that it induces you to look for a toilet at every stop and take a leak.

Correct me if i'm wrong, but it seems only people from the Philippines refer to toilets as "comfort rooms" or "CRs". Asking locals where the CR is will get you nowhere; but mention "toilet" or "water closet" (i.e. WC), and you'll most likely get pointed in the right direction.

Now, if you thought only Michelin awards stars to restaurants, or only hotels proclaim themselves as having "five-star" luxury amenities, etc., well, think again.

The amiable folks at the Beijing Tourist Administration (BTA) have apparently been tasked with rating the toilets at various tourist spots. Check out these toilets at the Forbidden City:

Which begs the following questions:

How exactly are these star ratings determined? Is the criteria for traditional "hole-on-the-ground"-style toilets and Western-style toilets the same?

What happens if a particular toilet doesn't maintain the standards set by the BTA , and loses its stars? Do they close it down, and send the sanitary workers to the countryside for re-training and self-criticism?

How does a particular toilet obtain a five -star rating? For that matter, what makes the difference between a three-star and a four-star rating?

In the spirit of fun, and with due apologies to the dear comrades at BTA, yours truly decided to invent the following standard rating system:

FIVE stars - Gleaming floor tiles; bathroom fixtures are either Grohe or Kohler brand; hand dryer works perfectly, providing warm relief to your cold hands. Fragrant smell emanates from citrus air freshener.

Unfortunately, NO ONE has ever sighted any WC under the BTA's jurisdiction with features such as the above, as these can only be found at the Beijing Shangrila and the like.

FOUR stars - Urinals have automatic sensors; with soap and paper towel dispensers. Bright lighting, wide mirrors; and nice floor tiles. Taciturn attendant mops the floor every 20 minutes, while smoking a cigarette.

THREE stars - neutral smell; drab grey walls; the tissue paper actually doesn't hurt your ass. Taciturn attendant hands out paper towels grudgingly, after you wash hands using floral-scented liquid soap, and waits expectantly for a tip.

stars - slightly less smelly, with Western-style toilet; and liquid soap is available. The tissue paper is as coarse as sand paper, though.

ONE star - basic stinky, smelly Chinese-style toilet, with no handlebars to help you get up. Also has poor reproductions of Impressionist paintings posted above the urinals. Oh, bring your own tissue paper.

At any rate, we men can learn an important lesson from this sign posted above the urinal of an unrated no-star toilet, found at one of our tour stops: