Sunday, January 29, 2006

So now we're up to Saturday, Jan 7th. We'd sort of planned to check out the Great Wall today, but we didn't really know the bus schedule and didn't quite give ourselves enough time in the morning. Also had a dinner date planned for that evening with Ada and wanted to be sure we got back in time. So instead we ambled slowly toward the bus station to find out when we had to catch the bus the next day. (9am, it turned out.) We went through Tiananmen Square but were too late to see the waxy corpse of Mao. Then we aimed for this famous old market, and on the way there we were swept into a jam-packed warren of silk shops and tea shops and crap shops of all sorts right behind the bus station. It was great, so much to look at. Pretty soon we got hungry, so we stopped for lunch at this place called something like the "Friendly Welcome Restaurant." You walk in the door and all the guys working there yell something, presumably a friendly welcome, and then everyone cheers. (It wasn't just us -- they cheered for every customer.) We had some really great (steamed?) calamari and another enormous bowl of soup noodles in the best broth I've ever tasted in my entire life. (With "beef." Haha!) Under drinks we noticed it said "Snake Vodka." It was well after 10 a.m. by then, so, naturally, we ordered one beer each and a shot of Snake Vodka to share. (They also offered Lizard Vodka, but that looked gross.) They scooped it out of what looked like a failed aquarium, with gravel and dead snakes curled up on the bottom. Tasted pretty good, actually. (It's supposed to be for guys, to increase virility, so the boys working at the restaurant thought we were outrageous. They couldn't decide whether to be amused, disgusted or scandalized but eventually they settled for just giggling a lot.)

Eventually we both had to pee. The "bathroom" outside the back door of the restaurant made both of us kind of wish we'd had bigger shots of snakejuice. Let's just say it was pretty freakin' virile in there.

The rest of the day we wandered in a snake vodka trance through all kinds of random alleys, being regarded with extreme curiosity by everyone we saw. The streets got narrower and grimier and more fascinating the further we walked. I wouldn't say we were lost, exactly... we were exploring.

I might've mentioned this before, but when you walk around in both Beijing and Hong Kong, your nose assumes the end of the world has arrived. It sees its entire life flash before its eyes. Every smell you can imagine and many you'd rather not think about -- the olfactory experience switches from good to bad to GREAT to bad to GAG REFLEX to Pavlovian food-drool and back again, all within about five steps. EVERY five steps. There is not one inch of either city that doesn't smell VERY strongly of something or another. You have to be pretty careful if you're going to walk around while you eat.

We found the historic market we were looking for and went into a crazy antiques shop there. Among the dusty museum pieces for sale were actual human skulls, mostly just the tops, some decorated with silver. We didn't buy one, though. Too hard to pack.

Then it was time for dinner with Ada. The restaurant was unbelievable -- she described it as looking like a Zhang Yimou film set, and it did. We got out of the cab and stepped onto the red carpet. Beautiful hostesses in glimmering silk cheongsams were stacked seven or eight deep on either side of the double doors, smiling and bowing us in. The huge dining room was like an exaggerated version of some decadent Roman palace or something...columns, marble, wooden-doored VIP rooms, massive orange lanterns. Our table was at the very front, by the stage. Oh, yes, there was a stage. The food was spectacular but it had to compete for our attention with the performances. There was a mini Beijing opera, a kung-fu show where a guy broke a metal bar with his head, traditional musicians, and a ten-year-old contortionist girl who balanced about a dozen flaming candelabras in positions that anyone who studied anatomy could tell you are impossible for the human body to assume. Crazy.

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