Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Great Leap Backward 感恩节

Just another beautiful Beijing autumn afternoon (taken last weekend when more businesses were still open, and not today)

Today is our first Thanksgiving Day observation here in Beijing 北京, that cliched time of year when Americans (and Canadians, though they do it a month earlier) look back at the year that's elapsed, and feel gratitude over all the things they should be thankful for. In my case, I suppose I should be grateful most of my recent symptoms seem to have abated, probably the result of all those new medications I've been prescribed. And all the exams I've recently undergone have not (yet) revealed anything nasty lurking inside my body or my brain. Now if you'll excuse me for a moment while I locate some wood upon which to furiously knock...

Okay, now that I've taken care of the one superstition that rules over me, it should be noted that I've battling with bouts of depression, along with difficulty getting to sleep and all-around general lethargy. My daughter suggests some of these could be a side effect of one of the meds (she Googled it), but I suspect it has more to do with the COVID-19 situation here in China's capital city. For you see, while the rest of the world in 2022 has learned to live with the coronavirus, in China life has reverted back to the year 20 fucking 20. Thanks to a recent upswing in COVID cases, we now have to have our throats swabbed on a daily basis. Both my Chinese classes and Amber's high school courses have moved online. Restaurants have either closed up entirely, or are only open for delivery and takeaway orders. Some colleagues are presently quarantined in their residential compounds because of a small number of positive cases, and it's most likely an inevitability that we'll soon be in the same situation. And yet the Chinese government continues to stubbornly cling to its Zero-COVID policy, despite the fact that (as a friend puts it) you cannot attain zero COVID when the COVID in question is the omicron variant.

Why is this so? The nature of my work means it's better to limit the expression of any personal viewpoints (even on an insignificant blog such as this), so instead I suggest you click here, here and here to learn more (you can also go here to read how some Chinese are surprised to discover much of the rest of the world seems to moved on). Instead, I'll devote the remainder of this relatively short post to how I spent my Thanksgiving holiday (my daughter still had to attend her classes online). Which is to say I used one of the city's share bikes to go for a ride along some surprisingly deserted roads on an unsurprisingly smoggy day (today's AQI was 192). In China the fourth Thursday of November is just another school/work day, but with all the restrictions currently in place, it felt more like a Sunday this afternoon...except it was a Sunday where only essential businesses related to food (like convenience stores, restaurants and supermarkets) appeared to be open. Like being back in the year 20 fucking 20 again, in other words.

From a distance I thought this might have been a repurposed Orthodox church, but it turned out to be an indistinct building housing a traditional medicine clinic:

The explosion in personal wealth in recent decades has resulted in grandiose apartment buildings with tasteless examples of external décor:

The Phoenix International Media Center 凤凰国际传媒中心. Click on the link to see what it looks like on clearer, sunnier days:

I have no idea what or who this is supposed to represent as I didn't see any sort of explanation (like a name or title) nearby, although a Google Images search suggests a possible ripoff source:

The infamous CCTV Headquarters. My cellphone weather app described the afternoon conditions as being "moderately polluted":

So "moderate" I couldn't see the top of the CITIC Tower 中国尊 across the road:

An up close look at the "big boxer shorts" 大裤衩:

I'm unable to identify this structure, but it reminded me of a scaled-down model of Taipei 101's Chinese takeaway container boxes design:

Google Images is identifying this as the Kerry Center, but Google Maps is placing it in a different location from where I took this photo:


The Conrad Beijing hotel 北京康莱德酒店:

Another juxtaposition, this one of ersatz imperial walls in front of a dated-looking 1970's-style glass edifice (and both comprising the Great Wall Hotel Beijing 北京长城酒店 complex):

A selfie taken near the end of my tour of a few of the Chaoyang District's 朝阳区 architectural sights:

As we're only a family of three and Zero-COVID has put a screeching halt on dining out, we didn't a purchase a large turkey this year. Instead, my wife made a ground turkey meat casserole, and supplemented it with some ham, broccoli and youtiao 油条. It may not have been very traditional, but it's the spirit that counts. Eons ago, when I was single and living in Tōkyō 東京, I would "celebrate" the holiday by having a turkey sandwich for lunch at a café in my neighborhood:

All of this was washed down with a bottle of Tuhao Gold Pilsner 凸豪金, while Cameroon and Switzerland battled it out in Qatar:

And so as I look back on yet another Thanksgiving Day, I do really feel grateful...for not being dead yet. 

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Monday, November 14, 2022

The Decline and Fall

The view of Beijing from the top of Incense-Burner Peak

What a drag it is getting least it has been for the past several weeks. At the end of my last post, I complained like the little bitch that I am of all the walking I had to do during Immersion Week. But not only was it hard on the aging knees and legs, the exertions of that week also appeared to have aggravated some more serious sensations, plus a brand new one never before felt. Said complaints led to an extended absence from my Mandarin lessons, due to a combination of feelings of discomfort and uneasiness, and the several visits to see various medical specialists that were a result. 

After several tests including a CT scan and an MRI, the initial worst-case scenarios were ruled out, and the blame for the current afflictions has been placed on a misfiring heart, acid reflux, low blood pressure and (possibly) "things in the air". New medications have been prescribed, and changes to lifestyle recommended. Though I've since returned to class (online due to an upsurge of in local COVID-19 case numbers, and with my mind scrubbed free of much of the Mandarin I've learned up to this point), I'm Ivory soap*-certain the hospital I've been visiting won't have seen the last of me yet.

Into the free time vacuum strode my wife. The past few weekends since the end of Immersion Week have seen Shu-E take the lead on how to best experience the wonders of Beijing 北京, with the determining factor being the opportunity to see the changing colors of the 秋天 season, like when she decreed we should visit the Beijing Stone Carvings Art Museum 北京石刻艺术博物馆 in the city's Haidian District 海淀区. On the way there, we walked alongside the Nanchang River, taking in that autumn scenery:

The BSCM is located on the site of Zhenjue Temple 真觉寺, a Ming dynasty Tibetan Buddhist place of worship with connections to the imperial household. All that remains today of the temple is the photogenic Diamond Throne Pagoda 金刚宝座, erected in 1473, and more resembling something you would find in Thailand than in northern China:

Shu-E and Amber joined the queue facing the northern side of the pagoda. Why was everyone lining up?:

To wait for their chance to take a photo of the pagoda with their cameras perched in front of a stone basin:

The results from my iPhone 8...:

…and my wife's more up-to-date model:

The park is home to various stone sculptures and steles gathered from all over China:

There was also a short maze, which to my daughter's disappointment hardly posed a challenge to us due to our height:

The building behind the maze houses examples of stonework (hence the name of the park):

This artist drew a crowd of curious admirers:

Buying some sugarcane juice from a vendor outside the museum entrance:

Before going home we took a stroll through Zizhuyuan Park 紫竹院公园 as the daylight faded:

Sometimes while walking the mean streets of the capital city, one will encounter those moments that can be best described as "WTF?!". Like when I passed by this sign and was left pondering the meaning of "Chinese democracy" as something other than the title of an overproduced Guns N' Roses album. It turns out the China Association for Promoting Democracy 中国民主促进会 is one of the eight legally recognized minor political parties that give the People's Republic of China 中国人民共和国 a (very) thin veneer of representative democracy:

Being the privileged expatriates certain narrow-minded, racist relatives-through-marriage are prone to believe, perhaps we should indulge their fantasies by doing more stereotypically expat activities on the weekend, like lunching at an Italian restaurant called Marzano, located in front of the Diplomatic Residence Compound where we're most definitely not residing. This is me trying to look calm, cool and collected despite feeling yet another strong urge to fall over onto my right side (an intermittent symptom that I've had for more than a decade):

(Before you get too impressed, Marzano is just the name by which Pizza Express goes by in China!):

Following lunch we did some 逛街 at the high-end shopping mall adjacent to the five-star Kempinski Hotel. The only items we ended up purchasing, however, were some snacks in the basement supermarket, though I did eye these modernist Chinese duds. There's no way in 地狱 I would go outside dressed in an outfit like this, though, at least not while we're living in Beijing; instead, this could make for a nice parting gift when the time comes to leave the Middle Kingdom:

A post-hospital visit lunch at a Japanese restaurant:

Last Friday was November 11, Veterans Day in the U.S. Initially called Armistice Day, the eleventh day of the eleventh month is known as Remembrance Day in many Commonwealth states. Our military and political elite, however, apparently didn't want the American public to recall the senseless carnage and slaughter that was the First World War, so instead we get the generic-sounding Veterans Day, and continue to send our young off to needlessly die in foreign lands. But a federal holiday is a federal holiday, even outside the U.S. of A., meaning I had the day off. As that day was also a professional development day for the teachers at her school, Amber was free as well. It was a rare opportunity to do something as a family on a day when the rest of China still had to go to school or work, and so Shu-E planned for the three of us to see the blazing maples in Beijing's Fragrant Hills 香山公园.

Alas, the day turned out to be both rainy and smoggy, a remarkable coupling that only Beijing is seemingly capable of pulling off. Other than our usual COVID testing (now required on a daily basis due to the increasing number of cases in the city's Chaoyang District 朝阳区), the only time we ventured outside on the holiday was to have lunch at a nearby Yunnan restaurant:

Yunnan Province 云南省 is China's most diverse region, the home to many of the country's ethnic minority groups, and featuring scenery ranging from dense jungles to terraced rice paddies and snowcapped mountains. It's a province Shu-E really wants to visit, and thanks to zero-COVID she can't go, so for now she(we) can only sample some of the cuisine here in Beijing:

Life-sized mannequins with nightmarishly-large heads, or what アニメ characters might look like if they were to cross over into our world, bringing the Apocalypse with them:

A Taiwanese-style lunch at a Chinese fast-food noodle chain called Yonghe King 永和大王. Yonghe is a district of New Taipei City 新北市 that is apparently famous for (though I don't profess to know these things) soy milk. I had a red-bean soy milk drink to wash down a bowl of braised pork on rice 卤肉饭:

On Sunday (yesterday), we made another attempt at visiting Fragrant Hills Park, and this time succeeded - sort of. The day was chilly, with the temperature not getting past 8°C (46°F), meaning I broke out my winter jacket for the first time since...well, last winter. Following Friday's rain and Saturday's wind, 星期日 was gorgeously clear and sunny. Alighting at the Xiangshan light rail station 向山站, we had lunch at a nearby restaurant (a blue collar special for me - beef and potatoes on rice):

We then made our way along the aptly named Shopping Street 买卖街:

Once inside the park, it was apparent that the weather during the past couple of days had taken it's toll on the fall foliage, much to my wife's disappointment...:

…though some hardy trees had emerged relatively unscathed:

It's difficult to see in the photo, but visible in the background is the chairlift that whisks visitors to the top of Incense-Burner Peak 香炉峰:

Persimmons ripening high up in the branches:

On the way to the chairlift my daughter made friends with one of the park's many resident stray 猫:

According to a directional sign, it was 1.9 kilometers (1.2 miles) to the top of the peak. Shu-E went ahead of Amber and me:

We found the aging ride a little unnerving at times, as it ratted its way up the mountain. Fortunately there was little wind to speak of:

At the end of the ride we were greeted with these wishes left my past visitors, grouped by theme ("eternal ties" in this case):

The view looking down on Beijing from an elevation of 557 meters (1827 feet). The large body of water is the Summer Palace 颐和园, which we visited back in May of 2014:

Looking in the opposite direction (and into the sun):

Purchasing some 糖葫芦:

We eschewed the chairlift for the descent, a decision that would prove hard on the knees for both myself and Shu-E, but which didn't give Amber and her youthful legs any difficulty at all:

Some history: Fragrant Hills Park dates all the way back to 1186. The park saw many gardens, halls and pavilions constructed during the Qing dynasty, though most were destroyed by hairy barbarians during the Second Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion. Ruins of the old imperial walls could be seen in places as we made our down:

The pagoda of the Heart Mirror Jokhang Temple (more simply known as Zhao Miao 昭庙 in Chinese) is one of the few remaining structures of the temple (established in 1780) after it was largely burned to the ground by an Anglo-French military force during the Second Opium War:

Enjoying a squirrel-shaped popsicle after the long descent:

Exiting the park, we found ourselves back on Maimai Jie...:

…where our daughter had a hankerin' for some skewered quail eggs:

Back on the light rail for the trek back to Chaoyang:

The one bright spot during all these medical ups and downs was that at least the last of our belongings arrived in Beijing, transforming our Japanese-style townhouse into a typically cramped Japanese-style home (which should be ameliorated somewhat once we finally unpack the contents of the last of the boxes). Our pair of terracotta warriors now stands watch outside our front door, hopefully keeping us safe from viral pandemics and the onset of the northern China winter: