It's Wednesday morning, and we have places to go. The first place is the dining room, for breakfast! This hotel, the Sino-Swiss, as I've mentioned before is quite nice, and has good food for every meal, but breakfast may be my favorite. It's a buffet, and there are a lot of choices. The waffles are superb, high and fluffy, and there are several fruit compotes and syrups from which to choose. The chef will prepare an omelet to order, and there are piles of bacon, ham and sausage. The bacon ranges from very crispy to a bit limp, which is the way I prefer it. On another table, there are croissants, sweet rolls, biscuits and different kinds of bread. There are also trays of sliced fruit and some really excellent cheese. There's something for everyone.
After breakfast, we board the bus and head out for a day of sightseeing. Our tour guide, David, is aboard, and Eloise and I are fortunate enough to be seated at the front, so we can hear him well. His accent is heavy, and sometimes we have trouble understanding him, but mostly we get it. There is, however, a small disadvantage in sitting in the front. We can see everything! We see every car that passes within two inches of our bumper, every bicyclist that escapes annihilation by the thickness of a coat of paint, every pedestrian whose head just bobs alongside and across the front of our bus, seemingly totally unaware of our existence. The driver keeps up a steady rhythm of little beeps of the horn, and absolutely never loses his temper. I can't help thinking that in traffic like this in Dallas, someone would get shot, or there would at the very least be a fistfight or two. It's absolutely certain that there would be wrecks, but we have yet to see one.
We inch along at a snail's pace, but this is fine with us, because we have a chance to take in the beauty that exists in much of Beijing. David tells us that a major beautification project is under way across China, and this includes Beijing. It's easy to see the results. There are beautiful, new high-rise buildings. There is lovely landscaping along the roadways. We are aware, of course, that what we're seeing now is strategically placed to enhance the tourist's impression of the city. We strongly suspect that there are areas that are not so nice, but of course, that's true anywhere. Dallas has its seamy side, too.
We're going to visit many places and points of interest, and I'm not at all sure of the timeline, when we went wherever, so I'm not going to try to reconstruct it. I'll just tell you the more interesting things about each place.
One major stop was Tiananmen Square, the scene of the bloody standoff between the Communist regime and the young resistance movement. Who can forget the picture of the young man in the white shirt, standing alone, facing an advancing column of tanks, blocking that advance with nothing but his own body? If you don't remember, or want to know more, just run a Google search on "Tiananmen" and you'll find enough to keep you reading all day.
A light rain was falling, but we left the bus and walked out onto the square, along with several thousand other people. The square is huge, and even though there were so many people, it wasn't crowded at all. You see a lot of police personnel, but they don't seem to bother anyone. There is a feeling in the air, though, an impression, that one had better watch one's step. This is still a Communist nation, though I wonder how long it will be so. The uprising in Tiananmen Square was brutally put down, leaving many people dead, but the movement still lives, and I believe that the day will come when Communism will be a thing of the past in China. I pray so.
Because of the high volume of foot traffic, and the thick motor traffic, tunnels have been dug beneath the streets, to allow people to cross without having to get in the streets. These tunnels are long, wide, hot and very humid. People can be seen sitting along the walls with their head on their knees, apparently napping. Others just simply stretch out on the ground next to a wall and sleep. No one seemed to bother them.
Another place we visited was a silk factory. We got to actually watch the workers as they unwound the incredibly thin filament of silk from the cocoons and spun it into thread. About ten cocoons are floated in a small basin of water, and the worker sloshes a little brush around in the water until it snags a filament from each cocoon. Once they have isolated these filaments, they put all ten or twelve of them together into one thread, and this is attached to a spinning spool. As the spool twirls, it pulls the filaments from each cocoon and winds it up as a single thread. When the spools are filled, they are removed to a loom where the threads are woven into silk fabric. It was absolutely fascinating, to watch the little cocoons dancing and spinning in their water bath, as they were unwound. Inside each cocoon, of course, is a silkworm caterpillar, which is already dead and therefore doesn't mind being undressed as his cocoon is unwound.
We saw some absolutely beautiful silk fabrics, and things made from silk. One thing that fascinated me was the silk duvets. Several girls stand around a square table, about the size of a king-size bed. The edges of the table are lined with pegs or hooks. The girls start with a large fluffy handful of silk filament, which looks a lot like cotton candy. They each take hold of a section, and pull outward on it. Remarkably, it stretches and gives, and soon they have a very thin layer of silk, as large as the table. They hook it in place, and begin another. I don't know how many layers they stack on top of each other, but eventually it's over an inch thick, light and airy, virtually weightless. This is the duvet stuffing, or batting, and it's sewn into a very light silk envelope, which will then be placed into a colorful, beautifully embroidered silk duvet cover. This outer cover is removable for cleaning, and the rest of it just needs to be shaken out and aired now and then. We were assured that the silk inside would never shift or bunch up. I didn't buy one, but I wish I had.
Another interesting place was the pearl factory. This is where pearls are literally produced by the dozens in large, fresh-water oysters. In the foyer of the building there was a water tank which was filled with huge oysters. A guide opened one, and showed us how the pearls just filled the bed of the shell. Apparently, an irritant is introduced into the shell, and the oyster immediately begins covering it with the smooth and beautiful substance that hardens into a pearl. I couldn't help thinking that we should all be like an oyster. When life deals us a hurt, or an irritating thing makes our life uncomfortable, we should try to just cover it with a smooth attitude, and thereby render it harmless. T
here were about two dozen pearls in each oyster, of all sizes, and we were each given one. Mine is particularly large and beautiful, and I plan to get my brother to make it into a pretty piece of jewelry. That is, if I can find it....
We also visited the cloissonne factory, where we were able to watch the process by which the beautiful cloissonne vases are made, as well as jewelry and Christmas ornaments. It's a fascinating process, and results in beautiful products. A cloissonne vase is created by first tracing a pre-designed pattern onto a plain brass vase. Then thin strands of a beaded-texture wire are glued in place, following the pattern. Paint is then applied to fill in the spaces between the wires, creating a beautiful design. The piece is then fired to set the glues and paints. After this, it can be either polished or not. If the piece is to be polished, it's turned on a polishing wheel until it's perfectly smooth, and the rough surface of the wire disappears, giving the impression that it's embedded in the piece. If not polished, the piece has a rough, raised, textured surface that is quite beautiful. Either way, the resulting piece is lovely.
Along the way, at the appropriate hours, we would stop for meals. Guess what we were served. You guessed it, Chinese food! Fortunately, I love Chinese food, and thoroughly enjoyed every meal. Our first experience was a surprise, as food is served differently than in America. The tables are large and round, and in the center of each is a revolving platform, a very large lazy susan, if you will. At each place, there is a very small plate. It's smaller than the little salad plates we ate from in Mongolia. The plates in China are about the size of a small saucer. How, one wonders, will I ever get enough food on that to satisfy my appetite? In the states, we wouldn't feed a two-year-old child from a plate that small.
After everyone is seated, the servers begin to bring steaming dishes of food, which are placed on the revolving centerpiece. Each person is expected to take a small amount from each dish and place it on their little saucer, then give the lazy susan a little push to pass the dish on to the next person. The food is not brought in all at once, but rather with a delay of a couple of minutes between each dish. As we were usually hungry, we would begin eating the little dab of food on our plate, and as other dishes were brought in, we would take a little bit, eat a bit more, another dish arrives, take a little bit, and so on. By the time the tenth or twelfth dish arrived, and we had managed to sneak a second dab of something we particularly liked, we would find that we were satisfied and had eaten quite enough.
Chopsticks were always at each place, and they are not disposable. To take a pair as a souvenir would be the same as pocketing the silverware in a restaurant in the states. Forks were always available, standing in a little holder in the center of the table. Knives were not needed, as everything is served with bite-size preparation, in deference to the chopsticks, I suppose. I tried the chopsticks a few times, and could have kept from starving if I had to use them, but since I prefer to eat my meal as opposed to wearing it, I gave up and used a fork. I'm just not very cosmopolitan, I guess.
The food was always quite good. Some meals were better than others, of course, just as it is here at home, but all of it was good, and a lot of it was really excellent. Surprisingly, I didn't get tired of Chinese food, though I'll admit I could have done some serious damage to a hamburger or a plate of cheese enchiladas. There is more to tell, but this installment grows too long, so we'll pick up again tomorrow.
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