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Imperial Vaults and More!

The Long Corridor. When the Emperor made a sacrifice, this hallway would be lined with lanterns.

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Yesterday, I took a quick-ish little trip back to Tiananmen Square to go visit the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. It was fairly impressive. They don’t allow you to bring any bags, cameras, etc. into the Hall, which I think is largely related to the security concerns of running thousands of people through the place everyday. The wait was about an hour, as I worked my way through a rather long and meander line that wound itself around the Square. Just outside the main entrance you could buy flowers to place at the foot of a statue of the former Chairman (I decided to take a pass on this part of the trip). Then you got to enjoy the AC for a few minutes as the line wound through to the back of the building where Mao’s body was on display. It was extremely quiet in this part of the building, especially compared to the general chaos that seems to characterize most public venues here. I personally thought it was kind of creepy to see him just lying there. But then I also realized why many people claim that the body in the casket there isn’t actually Mao (many claim it’s made of wax, etc.). The only thing you could see was his head (the rest of the body was covered in a blanket), and his face had a very orange color to it. The experience was quite fleeting though, as the friendly communist stooges quickly waved me through the line. Once outside the building, there were a few gift shops set up. They mostly sold ornate pictures of Mao and Maoist jewelry. However, I was feeling fairly nauseated by this point, so I just took a quick peek and left.

I also went to visit the Temple of Heaven, one of Beijing’s more iconic sites. However, the pollution wasn’t exactly cooperating, so the quality of some of my pictures leaves something to be desired. I actually ended up walking through the park backwards. Typically, the emperor would enter through the south gate and proceed to the Circular Mound, then to the Imperial Vault, then to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. However, I came in the east gate (which also happens to be where the Metro stop is), and so went to the Hall, then the Vault, then the Mound. It was a nice little park. There were also two Cyprus forests on the grounds. Though, I think they may have been man-made, as most of the trees seemed to situated along straight lines.

Before heading back, I took a quick stop at the Pearl Market, located across the street from the Temple of Heaven. It was one of those large market deals, where you can buy nearly anything. The Pearl Market also sells pearls and tends to target foreigners for its customer base. I didn’t buy much (mostly just some panda-themed chopsticks in a rather snazzy box), but it was quite interesting. You bargain for everything, which is kind of neat as long as you know what you’re doing. The general rule of thumb is to not pay more than half of what the original asking price is. So, for my chopsticks: the starting price was 460 yuan, which she immediately cut to 260, which I negotiated down to 80. I also had someone try to sell me a belt. She wanted something like 300 for the belt, but I had zero interest in buying a belt (which she didn’t seem to understand). But it was kind of fun, because without me even doing much, she dropped the price down to 100 before I just took off. I found the trick was to sort of play dumb with the bargaining and then pretend to have no interest in whatever it is you wanted to buy. I also found that the best way to avoid being harassed by the shopkeepers was to simply keep walking (though this strategy was less successful when they tried to grab my arms). All in all, it was an interesting experience. There are several other markets like that in the area (the most famous be the Silk Street Market), but from what I understand, those can be considerably more intense.


Of Penguins and Pandas

Penguins, doing their penguin thing

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I went to the Beijing Zoo today, which was quite interesting. You can flip through the pictures I took in the album above. It was a fairly large zoo and took several hours to cover. However, beforehand, I lunched at KFC, where I enjoyed a Shrimp Burger. While unexpected, the burger was quite tasty.

The zoo has an unbeatable 20 RMB (about $3) admission fee, which includes the 5 RMB (for reference, Ren Min Bi, aka the yuan or, more informally, the kuai) add-on for the pandas. There was also a 10 RMB add-on for the penguins, which now that I think about it, is quite odd. You’d think that with pandas being a national treasure and all that, they’d be worth more than the penguins and, the zoo would charge more to see the pandas than the penguins. Or maybe this is some sort of government program to ensure that all the masses can see the pandas and thus revel in their great proletarian revolutionary past. I will have to give this some thought.

Anyway, I sent most of the day wandering around gawking at all the cool animals they had in the zoo. There were penguins, really cool goldfish, pandas, deer, donkeys, monkeys, birds, lions, and bears. Oh my! The Beijing Aquarium (the largest inland aquarium in the world) is also located within the grounds of the zoo, but I did not have time to stop by. The exhibits were all quite interesting, and the zoo generally allowed you to get quite close to the animals (especially when compared to the standards of most American zoos). In fact, there were hordes of excited children running around the zoo with bags of lettuce that they would take and feed to the animals, both for the excitement of feeding zebras and such, but also as a way to set-up a better photo-op with the animal in question. I actually saw one guy banging on one of the lions’ cages with a stick so that they would be situated directly behind his son when he snapped a picture. It didn’t really strike me as the smartest idea in the world, but it worked.

I hit the pandas last, mostly because they were on the other side of the zoo, but also because one of the better souvenir shops was located in the Olympic Panda House. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the prices at this place were quite reasonable. I was able to pick up a couple of pandas (one at the behest of Molly, the other one I bought for myself), some rather decent postcards, and a rather cool-looking piece of panda art for about $25. Even the sodas weren’t that pricey. I bought a 20-oz. bottle of Coke for about $0.75. The Chinese have obviously not learned the art of extortion that typically characterizes gift shops.

On an unrelated topic, I also went to go see a Chinese acrobatic performance at the Heaven and Earth Theater on Friday night. Unfortunately, they had a rather strict no cameras policy, so I couldn’t snap any shots. However, the performance was quite interesting, with the acrobats doing all kinds of wild twists and turns (so of which I didn’t think were even possible) and balancing acts with glasses and balls and whatnot. It was quite cool.

Pandas, etc.

I did take a quick trip to the zoo the other day. Unfortunately, since it was something of an unplanned visit, I did not have my camera on me. However, considering that admission was all of $3 (and a certain someone’s desire for a stuffed panda), I do anticipate returning sometime in the future.

I am finding the traffic in Beijing quite interesting. I think it’s worth referencing the State Department:

Traffic is chaotic and largely unregulated, and right-of-way and other courtesies are usually ignored. The average Chinese driver has fewer than five years’ experience behind the wheel and the rate of traffic accidents in China, including fatal accidents, is among the highest in the world. Cars, bicycles, motorbikes, trucks, and buses often treat road signs and signals as advisory rather than mandatory. Pedestrians never have the right of way, and you should always be careful while travelling in, or even walking near, traffic.

The assortment of vehicles on the road is also quite interesting. Actual cars tend to be quite nice, but there are also some creative interpretations of the bicycle. My personal favorite is the motorized bicycle, which looks like a bike, but flies down the sidewalk (or more frequently, weaves in and out of traffic) at about 30 mph.

There are also some new links on the side of the page. The Engrish link is particularly amusing.