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Happy International Women’s Day! (Sorta a bigger deal here than in the US, nice!)

So a friend of mine recently left China, I bought her bike, and have been whizzing around town ever since! The weather has been sunny and relatively pollution-free lately, and it’s not freezing, so I have really gotten a kick out of biking to work and around town. Biking in Beijing is certainly more dangerous than in Tangshan, but I’m still amazed at how well bikers are accommodated in this city. I mean yes, you are biking on highways and sharing a lane with commuter buses, but there’s literally a bike lane everywhere and cars are always (ok, mostly) letting bikers have the right of way. It’s more efficient to bike than any other mode of transportation, and I already feel more productive and active!

Sunday night was quite a personal biking adventure. After work I had a planning meeting for International Women’s day, and had offered to supply dinner. You should’ve seen the sight. I had a backpack on my back, a bag full of donations on my left arm (that I kicked with each pedal) and a basket filled with salad and topped with a pizza box. I balanced biking with my right hand and held the pizza onto the basket with my left. Luckily the ride was a short one. Hilariously, no one batted an eye at me, since many Chinese balance a heck of a lot more on their bikes every day! My arm was sore the next day from the awkward position, but that’s a small price to pay for transporting so much precious loot.

Today I was quasi-off work and spent the morning checking out the progress of the first events email I sent in Beijing to highlight the different projects I have been promoting and managing here. It’s certainly not perfect, but I have received a lot of great support and feedback, and look forward to using this tool for additional promotion! Afterwards, I biked to The Bookworm’s literary festival to see authors Emma Donoghue (author of Room) and Christos Tsiolkas (author of The Slap) talk about the issue of taboo through their texts and life experiences. It was a great presentation, as the authors eloquently commented on issues like homosexuality, physical violence as a child-rearing technique, the family, and even the appropriate age to wean a child from breast-feeding. I felt particularly connected to Christos and his background, and had a nice chat with him after the presentation.

I then had an incredible meeting with the founder of The Library Project in China. (http://www.library-project.org/) A few people had mentioned that I should speak with Tom, as our charity interests are aligned, and I’m so happy he took the time to sit down with me. The meeting changed my perspectives on many aspects of charitable work in China, including the importance of working directly with the government instead of outside its control. Despite the fact that Tom is not fluent in Chinese, he has managed to set up a government-supported NGO that has donated over 150 libraries to schools and communities all over China. His organization is fully self-sufficient and doesn’t even solicit funds directly from its supporters! The most incredible thing, in my opinion, about The Library Project is that it has truly been embraced by the Chinese people. Tom worked hard to truly understand the cultural nuances of charity work in China, and at this point he has thousands of supporters from all over the country who consistently contact him to support the cause. What a motivating and insightful meeting!

After the bookworm I snuck in a yoga class at Yoga Yard with Jess, one of the best instructors I’ve ever had. (Did I mention that I splurged last week and bought a 30-day pass to this place? The prices are western, but it’s worth it.) Check out my review: http://www.thebeijinger.com/directory/Yoga-Yard
My back has been killing me from being on the computer too much, and now I feel better in every way. Jess also introduced me to my acupuncturist, is a musician, http://blog.jessmeider.com/ and looks like Sarah Jessica Parker. I keep meeting more and more incredible women over here.

Rejuvenated after yoga I biked to Jenny Lou’s where I picked up quite a few western essentials that have been lacking in our kitchen, and a handy “Healthy Chinese Cuisine, a Restaurant Ordering Guide” to balance my cultural halves! I would also like to cook more in general, so I think this will be a good tool to having a more effective learning experience in the markets. (I was recently taken to Sanyuanli market and I forgot how much fun it is to learn and practice Chinese in that environment!) Anyway, I made a dinner of sautéed onions and mushrooms over brown rice and a fattoush salad! Phew, what a fun past few days made much more exciting and effective thanks to my new (bright pink/Avon Walk would be proud) bike!

*If you are reading this from Beijing, please come to the Int’l Women’s Day Benefit this Friday at Yishu 8. www.intlwomensday.org

*Below are photos from a few weeks ago when I spent an hour as part of the Beijing crowd to be featured in the upcoming “Dancing Matt” video. If you haven’t heard about Matt, please watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlfKdbWwruY It brings tears to my eyes to think of how one spirited guy ignored the judgments of others and just welcomed cultures around the world to do a goofy dance together.
As one commenter on the YouTube so succinctly put it,
“I am utterly incapable of comprehending why any human being could possibly “dislike” this video. As a misanthrope through and through, this video makes my grinchy heart grow three sizes and creates an overwhelming sense of hope to me.”

I truly think Matt has united the world, in just a small way. He was also incredibly friendly.

*Also included below is my trip to Sanyuanli market, the meal I made after, and the Angel Mom charity dinner I organized at The Hutong.

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I hope not! Because we have a few more for you. This past Monday we visited the Summer Palace, where the emperors would spend the summer in luxury. The entrance had an impressive canal lined with small shops and ancient buildings, which looked like a perfect movie set. The actual palace was huge and ornate, but overall very similar to many we have visited so far. There was a big lake around which all of the palace buildings were strewn, and my favorite part was the lily pad pond. The Summer Palace is known for the “Marble Boat” which is made to look like an incredible feat of buoyancy, but really it’s made of wood. Unfortunately we didn’t see the boat…strike one.

After the palace it was our mission to find Kro’s Nest pizza, which we had tried to find on a previous trip but couldn’t locate. We took the subway to Mudanyuan and started the quest. We walked around the area for nearly an hour, unable to locate the restaurant. Then, we got in a cab and tried to say “pizza” because we knew we were close…fail. I was getting really hungry at this point so we stopped in “The Library Cafe” which was very nice and Western, and I got a mango smoothie. Re-energized, we set out again. We asked even more people on the street about the confusing address…were about to give up, when finally we asked a guard who understood us and pointed straight ahead. No sign and all, we had finally found the Kro’s Nest! The pizza wasn’t NY quality, but it was the best we have had in China, and the salad and fries were also really good. They were also giving out free beer that night, and although I don’t usually drink, I had a few celebratory sips, ha. Oh yea, and we got veggie and mexican pizza! After dinner we took the metro to the Olympic Village, in hopes to see the buildings at night…strike two. We missed the lights by 20 minutes at 10:20pm.

We slept in a cheap hotel room without windows (hate that but it was a good deal). In the morning we stopped by a bakery and went to Tienanmen Square to see Mao’s embalmed body. Stike three! Viewing hours ended at noon, we were TWO minutes late. Still took some pretty photos and headed to a culture street behind the square. I passed by a store called Me & City and saw a dress that I really liked, and David actually agreed to go in! I debated heavily over the dress, but it was a little pricey, so I just bought a tank-top…and we headed to Lao Shi tea house. This tea house has hosted many politicians and world leaders and it was incredibly beautiful and ornate. This has to be one of my favorite buildings in China…but drinking tea here requires renting a private room and paying over 100 RMB per pot, so we didn’t sip. Maybe we can in the future with some visitors, though! After the tea house we had lunch at an authentic nearby restaurant and, much to David’s excitement, headed back to the store to buy the dress that I couldn’t stop thinking about. The employee informed me that if I bought the dress I would get a free t-shirt…so it was a done deal. (I know you were worried.)

To end the trip we walked on the Wanfujing shopping street for a while, bought two English books at the international bookstore and did some food shopping at Jenny’s Lou’s. We missed the 7:30 bus by a few minutes (strike 4), waited, and headed back. Overall it was a frustrating trip because of timing, but that was our fault for not checking hours better…and we still saw another good chunk of the city.

We decided to spend two of our days off this week in Beijing again. We were trying to decide between Tianjin and Beijing, but the other David had not visited Beijing yet, so we all went together. Our first stop after the 2-hour bus ride was the Temple of Heaven; a large park/temple sanctuary constructed in 1421 for the emperors to worship, ask for good harvests, make sacrifices and enjoy its beauty. We went on the Qingming holiday (Tomb Sweeping Day to honor the dead), so it was bustling with people. Lots of elderly people were selling small hand-made wares, dancing around, laughing and singing, practicing tai chi, and generally being a lively addition to the park. The major temple, used for making prayers of good harvest, was really impressive. It is ornately decorated on the inside and out and very architecturally complex. Beside it, we visited the “70-year Door” created in 1779 by during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. The Emperor’s health was failing and building door was offered as a way for the Emperor to bypass the long walls and enter the ceremony grounds more quickly. He accepted the offer, but only on the terms that no other Emperor could enter the door unless they had also reached the age of 70. Since no Emperor ever lived to that age again, he has been the only one to use the door.

We experienced a funny situation as we walked through the park, and stumbled upon a Chinese couple who had paid to rent some Qing Dynasty-esque costumes to take pictures. We started to take photos of them, but they immediately invited David and I into the photos. The Chinese man took of his Emperor hat and necklace and put it on David, taking his Avon Walk Crew hat for his own head. Everyone was definitely amused (except the attendants standing around waiting for us to stop taking advantage of the costumes) and the photos came out great. They have these dress-up sessions at almost all Chinese attractions, although I haven’t actually seen any foreigners participating, only the Chinese. I also posted a photo of an older Chinese couple with some really sweet Nike and Adidas shoes. It seems like everyone young and old likes these brands, and I get a kick out of the combination of traditional Chinese clothing and Nikes!

At night we went to the Hou Hai area of Beijing, which is known for its lake-side scenery and night-life. At night it looked great because all of the buildings were lit up and reflecting over the lakes. Not many people were walking around because it was raining on a Monday night, so we were more harassed than normal to patron the many empty bars and restaurants in the area. David was a little sad that the whole area seem really Westernized, as most of the bars featured Budweiser, Gin & Tonics, White Russians and other typically Western bar drinks. The area sort of felt like the Cancun or Miami of Beijing, but it was still really fun to see this touristy place. The drinks and food are all extremely over-priced, but we did find some great deals on DVDs around the area.

It took a little time, but we found a youth hostel nearby, and had dinner at a Thai restaurant. Again, expensive but I thought the food was excellent and the decor was nice. David and I split lemon fried tofu and potato/egg pancakes, and the tofu is definitely some of the best I have ever had. I am a big fan of lemon sauces, but it was awesome! After dinner we found another chic little coffee shop and had tea and cake…definitely felt frou frou for China but it was a good night.

The hostel was good, located next to the Bell Tower in Beijing, and in the morning we each ate an egg omlette from a street vendor for $1.50 total. The second day was bright and sunny after the rain, and probably in the low 60s. It was a prettiest day we have had in China so far, so we walked around a lot! First we went to Beihai Park, which is huge and is definitely the best tourist deal for the money. We saw carp pools, Buddhist temples, a big lake a little reminiscent of the Tidal Basin in DC, Chinese temples on the water, one of the 3-famous 9-dragon walls, and a lot of pretty scenery. You could also rent a small boat to take to a center island in the park, but we didn’t do that this time.

After Beihai, we went to another park across the street from the Forbidden City, called Jingshan (literally Prospect Hill). We climbed to the top of a small mountain in the park and got some really good views of the entire city. We took aerial photos of the Forbidden City, and could see all of the spots we had visited in Beijing. Unlike most cities in the US, it is obvious that Beijing is very old, because the center of the city is filled with small neighborhoods and windy roads, while the malls and skyscrapers don’t begin until you get a few miles out. We are so used to skyscrapers being right in the middle of town, but that isn’t the case in most historical spots. One of the interesting things about this park is that the last Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, actually hanged himself from a tree here, because he sensed the end of his rule by invasion of the newly proclaimed Shun Dynasty.

After Jingshan and a bidding war between drivers, we got into a small 3-wheel car to head back to Hou Hai for a restaurant that David heard was good. The drivers were really trying to rip off visitors to the Forbidden City, and charging 50 RMB for 5-7 RMB rides. We found a driver that offered us 5 RMB, so we got in. He took us through an Old Beijing neighborhood called Hutong and showed us three houses that were supposed to be hundreds of years old. Then, we stopped at our destination and he first locked the door of the car. He then told us the price was 180 RMB per person. David sprang into action and began yelling,” No 5 kuai, you told us 5″ (in Chinese). He showed us a laminated sheet of paper that said 180 RMB for “Old Beijing” tour. What a joke, he literally showed us 3 houses along the route and was trying to make us pay for a ridiculous “tour.” For this amount of money, we could have literally taken a bus to the Great Wall which is an hour outside of the city. He said, ok fine, 500…just as David managed to unlock the door. We tried to give him the 5 kuai (like saying “bucks” for RMB) he earned, but he refused and pulled out a tire lock and started waving it at us. We began to walk away and he began acting like he was going to run the small car into each of us, as many tourists and Chinese people started laughing at him. I called him a “Huai Ren” (bad person, I think) and we just kept saying that he could come and talk about it in the Tourist Center across the street if he really wanted. He eventually gave up and drove away with no money, but it certainly made me scared and so sad that he rips off tourists like this. So the moral of the story is: 1. David is no fool. And 2. Only take taxis in Beijing because they have meters. The tri-wheel bikes are a cute gimmick but the drivers are real jerks.

To add a little to this point, one of the major benefits of living in Tangshan versus a tourist city is that no one tries to rip you off. They are so surprised and interested in just seeing a foreigner, that I’m not sure thee idea of ripping them off is even in their thought-process. Tangshan doesn’t have anything in English like Beijing, or hardly anyone who can say more than hello, but I really like that there seems to be more embracing and appreciating visitors than trying to take advantage of them. Yes, my bike was still stolen, which is a big problem here…but I don’t think I was targeted as a foreigner, I was just targeted because I had a nice bike! One thing I did learn in the Beijing Silk Market though, is that even the Chinese people there respect the fact that David and I have come to teach, and immediately give us the “teacher price.” Yes, it’s still initially a rip-off, but it’s still somethin!

At this point we were really hungry and walked to a nearby pizza place in Hou Hai. It was ridiculously expensive, but David got a really good veggie burger and we all had pizza. It was ALL foreigners in the joint, and lots of kids getting their pizza fix! After pizza, we took a cab to try and find Jenny Lou’s import store. Somehow the cab actually made it there, and we bought some ketchup, cereal, ingredients for chili, granola bars, and rolos and caramellos for our boss. The prices were the same as at home, but clearly expensive for China. We walked through one last park with a lot of activities for the warm weather (rock climbing for about 4 dollars a day), and headed back to the bus station. Overall it was another successful trip to Beijing, and there is still a LOT there that we haven’t done!

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