Monkey see, monkey ... sit?
This morning brought us another wushu (martial arts) class from Master Sun, where he introduced us to tai chi, a form of martial arts which focusses more on yin-yang (dynamic balance in opposition), breathing, "internal" martial arts, and humility. Rather than engage us in learning the style of martial arts, Sun laoshi gave a lecture on the material and then performed three forms; one, in the traditional style of tai chi and two in the more modern style popular world-wide.
Many Happy Returns
After class, we were released for a free day, so we all (students and teachers alike) fanned out across Beijing in small groups. I joined up with a group of three taxis' worth of people: Anthony, the Asians (Mark, Lauren, and Kevin), Hailey, Karen (the younger), Kim, and another four who broke off to walk faster: Brittney, Kelli and Laura (the pole-vaulters), and another.
First stop: back to Tian'anmen Square (天安门广成). It was still pretty big and empty. There were fewer people today than before, but they were all grouped around the Olympic flower display, which was still under construction when we saw it last week but is now complete in preparation for the games (five days!).
Before we went to the actual square, though, we stopped by a camera shop for my benefit. Since I dropped my camera on the ground last night, it looks like it really did bite the bullet and quit working for me. From the selection available at the store, which was a variety of brands and qualities, I found a comparable camera from a Eurasian company, Brica: a DigiArt Z830. (For the camera buffs: AF optical zoom lens, f=5.8-17.4 mm / 1:2.8-4.9; 8.0 megapixels max.) It also takes videos (better than my Olympus did), plays music, and allows a bit more control than the Olympus (but with an equivalent auto mode). Best bit? It's a mini-boombox! It has a little speaker which is actually pretty loud for its size and it can play back music stored on the memory card. I picked up a 2gb Kingston microSD card for it, which is plenty enough for me.
Thus equipped, we took on the Square and were duly unimpressed. It was about the same as the first visit: a moderate number of people in a very large, open space. However, the Olympic flower display, which was still under construction when we visited last week, was completed, and many Chinese people were amassed in front of it to take touristy pictures. You done good, Chinar, real good. Funniest part of that was trying to find the two Asian-Americans in the crowd of Chinese people ... and then finding Anthony, the tall, broad, white guy wandering around taking photos.
While you were out ... shopping
After stopping to smell the flowers, we set forth to 王府井街 (Wangfujing Street), a pretty commercialized area with good shopping, no cars, and plenty of people.
We found one of the officially licensed Beijing 2008 Olympic stores, which shared space with a variety of other vendors selling watches, flasks, food, and other tourist necessities. The Olympic merchandise is all variants on the logo for the games (the running man on a red field), models of the Olympic venues, tourist attractions, and an awful lot of the five animal characters for the games. Five creatures, each representing an element from Chinese philosophy, are the representatives for the games: a fish (water), a panda (earth), the Torch (fire), an antelope (metal), and a phoenix (green). They're made into keychains, cell phone charms, and plushies: little plushies, medium plushies, talking plushies, and 3'-tall plushies! (By plushie, I mean stuffed animal.) They scare a few of the Americans, but a lot of us think they're really cute. I picked up a keychain with the phoenix on a field of green and Lauren, on my recommendation, chose the antelope to take with her on runs.
En route to Wangfujing, we hit a public bathroom, which was a curious experience. There are a number of public bathrooms in the city and in quite a variety. None of them charge, as they do in London, so I suppose they're all government-supported. This one was pretty clean and had a large anteroom with several people selling goods: watches, tourist junk, drinks, etc. The whole structure had tall ceilings and a number of sinks, urinals, and toilets (Western-style, I imagine). The entrance had large strips of plastic hanging down to walk through, like some other doors we've seen in stores, restaurants, hotels, etc. A pleasant experience for all.
Our first stop on Wangfujing St. was a mall, which turned out to span what looked like an entire block. It was two floors and had five or six separate zones, each of which had probably one or two hundred stores. We saw a lot of American brands, such as Nike, BMW Lifestyle, and Dairy Queen, and a lot of European brands, which I don't remember because they're European, and a decent number of Chinese stores. It was definitely a mall, that cosmopolitan ubiquity of commercialism, with nice AC, food kiosks, food court, expensive stores, moderately expensive stores, and everything well-packaged. We got ice cream at Sprinkles, which looked like a competitor to Coldstone Creamery; I picked up a bubble tea. Nummy!
Also in the mall were Olympic displays, which I imagine were put there by Nike and other sponsors. In one area, a mock track was put up with mannequins in various racing positions, wearing uniforms from various countries (all supplied by Nike). China was always in the forefront, of course, beating Americans and Ethiopians on the track and, in another area, USA vs China in basketball. Incorporated into the displays were explanations of the technology used to create the uniforms in Chinese and English.
During our stint as mall rats (and getting shooed off the steps of an entrance to a upper-class club, where we sat down for a rest), we were approached by a college student who was looking for foreigners. Sure, we said, what's up? Turned out her name was Wang Xue, she was an Olympic volunteer, and she works part-time for an "indoor decoration supplies" company and was trying to attract attention to the store; the location was inside a hotel, without a street-facing front, in order to save rent. They also had a brochure in Engrish with standard press photos of their wares. Anthony and I were up for an adventure, so we said we'd go visit while our compatriots looked over the 4-story bookstore next door. It was a small store-front, but filled with beautiful traditional jade, ceramic, and metal handicrafts: room separators, painted dishes, jewelry, but especially jade flowers. Crafted by retired Chinese artisans, they had very realistic-looking plants and bouquets made all of China and bronze, very beautiful! Our hosts were also very gracious and served us jasmine tea while we looked at the wares, took pictures, and chatted with the other college students working there. The owner, an older woman (maybe late 50s?) asked us what kind of market she could get in the U.S., if people would buy these. We told her that we certainly wouldn't, as college students, but our parents and grandparents would; as for the jewelry, there was plenty of beautiful jade things, but we recommended that she show only the smaller pieces to American girls. In addition to examining the store, we played with Wang Xue's hand-held translator, a pocket computer that was a Chinese-English dictionary with quite a variety of words. We looked up "lefty," because one of the boys noticed I was left-handed ("ah, you are crafty!"), and turns out that that the British usage is short for "leftist," politically speaking. Anyway, Wang Xue gave me her email and her cell phone number and invited us to call her if we wanted to go out around Beijiing.
生日快乐 (Happy Birthday!)
Since yesterday was Dr. Goodwin's birthday, we planned him a surprise birthday dinner out at Mississippi Steak House. Instead of taking a cab from Wangfujing Street, we decided to walk the 2-3 miles. (After all, we're all athletic folk.) I forgot how long 2-3 miles is when you've been wandering around all day anyway =p Nah, we managed, but it was a bit of a long walk. Downtown Beijing's not too bad to walk around in, though. Over the major roads were pedestrian overpasses, nice wide walking bridges. Along the way, we saw an awful lot of big commercial buildings, banks, hotels, etc., some with groovy sculptures or flower displays out front.
I was entertained again by all the stores near Mississippi Steak House: 7-11, Baskin Robbins, Sappori d'Italia (an Italian place), and lots of Russian establishments. The food at the Steak House was good, though not authentic American; my chicken caesar salad was artfully, but oddly arranged, and they neglected to put tomato sauce on the spaghetti with meat. Nonetheless, good prices ($12 for a grilled salmon, $8 for a 150g steak), good drinks (Carlsberg Chill and Watson's Mineral Water), and definitely good company.
Also, catching a cab home was nowhere as hard this time! We got two at once, but neither of them knew how to get our neighborhood, so we had to play tag-team follow-the-leader getting home. Fortunately, I had the runner in my car, so they knew the neighborhood a little better than our compatriots in the other car. We used the universal language: point and wave!