Today we feel like tourists. We arrived in Beijing yesterday afternoon and tried our best to stay awake until 7:30 so we could justify finally going to sleep. Woke up early today and we were guided around to a couple of the big tourist sites.
This morning we went to the Beijing zoo to see the giant pandas. One panda was asleep and the other was eating, but Cheyenne was thrilled. We bought a little stuffed panda that she promptly named "Pandaman". There were also a large number of big cats in the zoo. One lion, one leopard, one panther and a half dozen tigers. Big ones too. I guess it is easier to find tigers in China than to find lions.
We didn't see much of the zoo, because we had to catch a boat that was docked in the middle of the zoo property. The dock was easy to find because it had a loudspeaker blaring the same phrase over and over again. I have no idea what the phrase was, but it was really loud and kinda catchy after hearing it twenty or thirty times. This was actually the first loudspeaker ad that we have seen in Beijing. In Chongqing they were in every storefront.
Once in the boat, a young Chinese girl in extremely trendy clothes picked up a powered megaphone and began giving us a tour of the sites on either side of the canal. With perhaps a dozen people on the boat, the megaphone was a little overkill, but I wasn't the one giving the same speech several times an hour. There were two problems with the tour: 1) the tour guide was only speaking Mandarin and we only spoke English. 2) the canal was quite a bit lower than the surrounding land, so only occasionally could we see the tops of buildings that she was talking about.
Luckily, our tour guide Amy could translate what the boat tour guide was saying and was able to cut out a lot of the tour. While the boat guide talked non-stop into the megaphone, Amy would wait until the boat guide stopped to take a breath and then she would quickly translate the last several minutes into English before the megaphone started back up.
At one point we had to change boats, and Pandaman decided that was a good time to go for a swim. While Cheyenne screamed, a very friendly man on the dock fished the stuffed animal out of the canal. Pandaman was now very wet and smelled strongly of a Beijing waterway, but Cheyenne was very happy. If Pandaman makes it home, you are welcome to smell the Beijing canal with your own nose, because the smell has yet to fade.
The second boat had an even trendier boat guide who was wearing go-go boots and a tshirt that appeared to have a design that was silkscreened with fur. Halfway through her leg of the boat ride she stopped screaming at us and sat next to the boat driver and read a fashion magazine.
The boat eventually stopped at one of the gates of The Summer Palace. Now, when I was at WSU, the drama department ran musicals during the summer break and the shows were called "Summer Palace" for some reason. And although those shows were big, they were nowhere close to the scale of awesome that is the Summer Palace in Beijing. I'll post some pictures when I get a chance.
The Summer Palace was basically the emperor's vacation house. Except this house was actually a private lake with marble bridges and arches at the entrances and several mansions stretching around the lakes. The center mansions formed into a complex of mansions that were built on a complicated hierarchy of who was officially in power, who was unofficially in power, and who was unofficially imprisoned at the end of the Qing dynasty. Luckily, I happened to read a really good book on the Boxer Rebellion last year while on a cruise, so I could fill in the juicy bits about the politics of the era, which our guide really couldn't mention. All the tour guides in China have to be trained by the government before they can talk to tourists, so several obvious questions were left unanswered all afternoon. We wanted to know what happened to the Summer Palace during the Cultural Revolution. It didn't seem like a place that any proletariat would approve of. But our guide couldn't answer that. They are refurbishing the entire thing for the 2008 Olympics, and she mentioned that they were removing the obscuring paint from the front of a lot of the artwork. But never said why they had been white-washed in the first place.
She did tell us that the Empress Dowager lived in the Summer Palace and spent obscene amounts of money on the property. And that the Empress once had a breakfast with 128 courses. She didn't eat every course, most she just looked at. But with the money she spent on that breakfast, the Empress could have fed 5,000 farmers for a full day. I don't know if the story is true, but I found it fascinating. It seemed like the story that was told to every Mao-era Chinese grade school student. Pointing out how the monarchy would waste what the workers could have used.
Tomorrow we hit Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City. Hopefully we can get a better Internet connection and I can start posting pictures.