Sunday, March 26, 2006

the emperor and the scholars

Yesterday we started off at 10am (more like 10:05, to the chagrin of the tour guide) to see the Sacred Way and the Great Wall. For a group of four (professor N., myself, Hoeteck and guest), we had our own driver, minivan, and two tourist guides.

The highway we drove on has several pedestrian bridges. At one point we saw a flock of sheeps descending the stairs of one of these overpasses.

The Sacred Way is a sort of cerimonial road leading to the tombs of Ming emperors. The main attraction at the beginning is a series of statues, that guard and protect the dead emperors. There are first twelve animals, some real and some mythological; each animal comes in two pairs, one pair standing and one pair sitting. Then there are six pairs of people. Three are warriors and three are scholars. Yes, the scholars are right there with the warriors, the lions, and the mythological animals when it comes to keep the emperor company. The warriors are depicted with their armor and sword, while the scholars are seen holding a tablet with some notes that they are going to read to the emperor.

After appreciating the Ming attitude towards scholarship, we had a terrible lunch and proceeded to the Great Wall. That section of the wall appeared to have been almost completely reconstructed recently. The wall went up steeply along the side of a hill, and the main attraction is simply to go up all the way until the peak of the hill, from where there is a broad view of the valley and one can see the wall snake around for miles.

On the way back, we drove through side roads, probably to avoid traffic, and we had a glimpse of working-class China which was actually one of the highlights of the day for me. At one point the driver stopped, and he explained that he was going to buy some fish to take home in a place that he knew. Intrigued, we followed him (it was 5pm and we had had a disappointing lunch) in a place that looked quite unsanitary. He got this box with several small fishes that had been deep-fried and then marinated for several hours to become so tender that one could eat the whole fish. He offered it and I was the only one to try it. It was really good, except that I did not eat the head and the tail. Then everybody wanted to try it so we got another box. At this point even the tour guides bought a box for themselves. And there went my resolution to be careful with the food.

The dinner was in a muslim-mandarin place recommended by Su Chang, Andy Yao's very efficient secretary. Dinner for 3 with delicious lamb skewers, beef stew, a spicy chicken dish and bok choi with mushrooms was less than US$18, or $6 per person. (It would have been around $23 total, but they gave us a discount because when we got there they told us that the wait would be ten minutes but we actually waited for 40 minutes.) The large lamb skewers were about 70 cents each. We can't remember the price of the small ones, but it was either 25 cents or 12.5 cents.

This really puts things in perspective. An espresso here costs about US$3, which is steep by US standards, but is ludicrous when you realize how many lamb skewers it costs.

Finally, back to the same club of Friday, where I realized what difference (for the better) it makes if one is awake there. The locals are friendlier to Westerners than I thought. Communication, however, is sometimes problematic. Sample conversation: "Where are you from?", "Italy," "oh, that's a beautiful city." Some locals, on the other hand, speak excellent English and are quite sophisticated in their knowledge of Western culture. Another version of the "Where are you from?", "Italy" conversation, indeed, proceeded with the guy talking about De Sica (for the Italians reading this, he meant Vittorio, not Christian) and how much he liked Bicycle Thiefs.

Update 3/27/2006: two days after eating the fish, still no adverse consequence. And, in my one-man protest against the high price of espresso, this is my third day without coffee.

Update 4/3/2006: Pictures of the great wall

It's steep to go up

But then there is a view


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