|This is Norman Niu. He's the guy who makes it all happen. He's been doing this since 1994, and has made more than 200 roundtrips back and forth to China in the course of working with adopting families. We like Norman. We met him for the first time Sunday at the "kick-off" banquet at a local restaurant in Guangzhou. Our group is pretty big by now: 38 families, maybe 100-120 people without counting the new babies. We got details about the next few days. We split into five groups based on the location of our daughter (or son, or in one case, daughters). Four of the groups will be leaving Guangzhou tomorrow to fly somewhere. We're in the fifth group, the babies from Guangdong province, where Guangzhou city is located. We're staying in the city, and the babies from all the orphanages in Guangdong province will be brought to a government office in the city. We leave the hotel today at 2:30 to travel to this office. It's hard to believe tomorrow is The Day.|
|It's probably worth spending a quick word on the banquet, or at least the restaurant. It was good stuff. The entry to the banquet hall was lined with giant fishtanks from which hundreds of entrees ogled you, wondering whether you'd be the one. The entrees covered much of the animal kingdom: lots of fish, all sorts of giant crustaceans, eels, a separate tank full of snakes, big stacks of shark fins, and so forth.|
|The pictures capture some of the highlights. In the first (above), notice the unexpected similarity between a shark fin and a dunce cap. The second picture (left) is a cautionary tale for our daughters: if somebody dares you to put your hand into the deep fryer, it's okay to say no. I'm assured that with a few doses of traditional medicine, I'll be good as new in no time.|
Across the street from the square is the entrace to the Forbidden City itself. This was the imperial seat during much of the Ming and Qing dynasties, from the 1400s to 1911. Commoners are forbidden from entering the city except under the order of the emperor; hence, "forbidden." So essentially, the forbidden city is a giant palace, containing 9,999.5 rooms. Yes, that's 9,999.5 rooms. One half room short of 10,000. As it turns out, 10k is the number of rooms in the palace of heaven, and as the emperor is only the *son* of heaven, he's not allowed to have that many rooms in his earthly palace. So he built 9,999, plus a little half-room just to make sure he had more than any upstart neighboring potentates. Furthermore, during that time period, 9 was considered the luckiest number, denoting longevity. As an aside, courtesy of our tour guide Robert, the luckiest number today is 8, rather than 9, denoting wealth. Times have changed. Car license plates are sold with the car, and those containing an "8" may sell for as much as twice the price of those without. Those with multiple 8's: far more. Likewise, phone numbers containing 8's are desirable, so for instance our Tianlun Dynasty hotel's number is 6513-8888, denoting the vast wealth extracted from tourists on a daily basis. If you're wondering, 4 is currently the most unlucky number, and most of the odd numbers are to be avoided if possible. 6 is a good egg, denoting good fortune. As a further aside, I'll point out that all the correct facts in this section of the blog are due to Robert, whereas all the incorrect ones are simply made up by me. You be the judge. Okay, end of parenthetical comment on numbers and provenance of information. So, 9,999.5 rooms. The forbidden city is a long line containing a sequence of courtyards, each of which contains a major sub-palace at each end, right across the line, and various other buildings along the sides. The buildings are all in similar style, and all have properly Chinese names, like the "Hall of Supreme Harmony," the "Hall of Union and Peace," or the "Hall of Ambiguously Positive Adjectives." The picture to the right shows one of the courtyards, and one of the sub-palaces. The bricks in the emperor's receiving courtyard were laid in traditional paranoid imperial style. The courtyard was paved fifteen times, alternating between horizontal and vertical, resulting in bricks about a meter deep, in case an assassin took it into his or her head to tunnel in. You can see the original bricks side-by-side with bricks replaced a couple of years ago, and the original ones are in almost as good a condition.
Theroofs of these halls are decorated with the kings of various kingdoms along the tops of the eaves, showing the emperor's dominance over all the kingdoms of the world: the Dragon on the right as the king of the animals, then the phoenix, heavenly horse, sea horse, and others following. In case you're wondering, the sea horse is king of the seas. So don't mess with him. Incidentally, he's available deep-fried on a stick, a couple of blocks from the hotel. There's a monkey in there somewhere, but we're not sure what he's king of. Monkeys, maybe. An enterprising craftsman somewhere along the way realized that it was possible to combine the task of nailing down the top of the eaves with the task of invoking the kings of the spirit kingdoms to protect the emperor, so the figures are also nails.
The forbidden city is fascinating. It's enormous, and entirely ceremonial -- unliveable. And its scope is beyond any palace anywhere.
We're off to Guangzhou Saturday, and will have more to report from there.
From there, it was off to the tombs. The picture shows our group outside the Ming dynasty burial site, where thirteeen emperors were buried. All told, I think everybody walked away impressed that Chinese emperors managed to avoid the excesses of their Egyptian counterparts. The construction of the underground grave was impressive, as was the machinery created to channel proper chi to the tomb's entrace, but the tomb itself was basically a few red wooden boxes in a little room. They had apparently rotted over time, and we saw duplicates instead of the real things (no complaints here).
After our two-hour hiatus from rampant commercialism, I think we were all happy to get to lunch at the government "Friendship" store, where they manufacture and, more importantly, sell cloisonne wares. Incredible process! They use vegetable glues to bond tiny pieces of copper that look like little fingernails to copper items like vases and plates. Then they lacquer over them, filling in all the interstices with different colors. Finally, they go through a thorough polishing step that fills and smooths the fingernails, and the results are fired. And sold to tourists. A large 5' tall vase takes one year to make. The results are pretty startling; suffice to say that we spent some time and money here too.
And then it was off to the Great Wall. Our tour guide Robert gave us some good history on the wall, which I will now mis-represent. Apparently building of walls of various degrees of greatness is a longstanding Chinese tradition. In pre-empire days, the seven warring kingdoms of China each built walls, which together totalled more than the 6000+ km we have today. Since then, various other groups built numerous flavors of walls in unsuccessful attempts to keep bad people from conquering them. Much of the current wall is about 400 years old, and random sampling techniques have been used to determine that approximately one life per meter was expended in constructing the wall. Old-school Chinese emperors apparently formed giant teams of workers (one in five people were assigned to wall duty during much of the construction of the present-day wall) and, unfamiliar with the teachings of "The Mythical Wall-Month", set unreasonable deadlines with dire punishments for failure to meet them. As a consequence, many workers died, and rather than expend additional resources burying them, their bodies were added to the base of the wall. At an average rate of one body per linear meter of wall. Bill Gates, are you listening?
Okay, enough offensive revisionist history lessons. We set out to climb the wall. I thought this would basically mean starting on one side, climbing one and perhaps two flights of stairs, celebrating briefly at the top, then climbing back down. Not so. Instead, the wall was placed in the most inaccessible and mountainous regions so that crossing the wall involved a healthy degree of mountain climbing. It tends to follow ridgelines. So climbing the wall involves, not a transverse approach of gaining the top of the wall, but rather a longitudinal approach of first gaining the top of the wall, and then following it along the ridgelines until a little immural is starting to sound pretty good. We climbed for an hour or so, until we couldn't climb any higher, along steps whose heights ranged from maybe two inches to fifteen inches or so. Along the way were various one and two story watchtowers, which we employed as griping stations. By the top, the whole valley was laid out before us, with the wall stretching off into the distance in both directions. The area was mountainous but covered with trees which had been planted by hand after the land had been artificially terraced. So many of the trees appeared in tiers, which leant a strange sculpted feel to the surronding nature. All told, the wall was extremely impressive.
Restaurant was good, and was more or less what I'd expect of an semi-authentic US chinese restaurant. They served Beijing-style food, including great eggplant and home-made tofu, with a few more daring items: pigs ears in particular, and various entrees with their heads attached.
We met some old friends from group 106, and a set of new friends, including two northern CA families who were on the plane over with us. Our group in Beijing will apparently number 23, plus our tour guide Robert and our driver. I wasn't totally clear on the itinerary, but there seems to be a pretty strong sense of "leave it with us -- everything will be fine." I'll miss Wednesday and Friday to visit some places in the city, but I'm sure Donna will provide complete reporting.
So far, the hotel is beautiful, and city is industrial and a little smoggy, and the people have been helpful and friendly. We managed a great hotel buffet breakfast this morning, so come what may, we're not likely to starve. After a good nights sleep, we're feeling much more alive than last night, and ready for adventure.