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Friday, 01 January 2021

Fortunate Cookies: A Father-Daughter Adventure in China

Written by Eric D. Goodman
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Part 1: Beijing and the Great Wall


From Little China to Big

We make a great globetrotting team: a sixteen-year old high school student and a forty-something writer. With the rest of the family, we travel often, normally to places in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. But this time, it’s a father-daughter trip. And this time, it’s west meets east. We consider ourselves fortunate cookies, to be able to take this exotic trip. Although, admittedly, we never once encountered a fortune cookie in China.


The last time we took a big father-daughter trip was about nine years prior when we went to Walt Disney World. At Epcot Center, we visited little China and imagined one day we’d make it to the big one. Finally, we did. The two weeks were even more packed than our line-hopping theme park adventure of nearly a decade before.


The weather in China was ideal (65 to 80 degrees the entire time we were there). Most days we got up around 6 a.m. and came back to the hotel around 9 or 10 p.m. We enjoyed delicious, filling breakfasts of east-meets-west each morning at the hotels, fortifying ourselves for the excursions of each day.


Glimpsing the Beijing ’Burbs

Our adventure began, as such trips usually do, with a day devoted to travel: a seemingly everlasting flight from New York’s JFK airport all the way to Beijing, China. The nonstop Air China flight took fourteen hours, so we were sleep-deprived when we arrived on the other side of the world. We took advantage of the Chinese movies and folk music selections on the in-flight entertainment, but it’s hard to get very comfortable on a crowded Boeing. At Peking International Airport, we met our tour guide, Lot, who escorted us to our hotel. After that we got a bite to eat and took a stroll around a local neighborhood, taking in the local park, buildings, cafes, and everything the urban suburb had to offer—including the mosquitos! Men and women walked their toy dogs, people did their grocery shopping, and the streets were crowded with scooters, bicycles, and vehicles on their way home from work. It was late when we got back to our hotel, and we were already exhausted from our flight halfway around the world, so we went directly to sleep, ready for our exiting next day exploring Beijing.


Nurtured Harmony

To begin our first full day in Beijing, we woke to a delicious breakfast (our favorite breakfast food on the trip) at the Beijing Four Points by Sheraton. The food there was part western style, and part Chinese—everything from eggs and bacon to sticky rice and noodles. The roasted snow plum flavored drinkable yogurt was sweet and tart, the many pastries and bacons delicious.


By 7:30 a.m. we were on our way to the Summer Palace, or Yihe Yuan. Originally an Imperial retreat from the bustling city, the palace and grounds are now a public park for all to enjoy. Empress Cixi, or the “dragon lady,” especially enjoyed the summer retreat. She had the palace rebuilt twice: in 1860 and 1902. Today, the palace and grounds form a public park for all to enjoy. Enjoy it we did.


It was beautiful and peaceful—easy to understand why an Emperor and Empress would want to escape the busy city for days at a time in a place like this. The Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha capped the slope known as Longevity Hill, an impressive, tree-filled mountain over the water. Statues and sculptures guarded the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, from dragons and deer to peacocks and mythical creatures. The Marble Boat looked magnificent, even if it is made only of wood, painted to appear like marble.


We explored the large courtyards with decorative stones, mosaics, trees, and statues of dragons and deer and cranes, natural rock formations that were works of art themselves, sculpted by nature, and the West Side Lake. The straight and narrow outdoor corridor (more than 2,000 feet long) featured thousands of scenic paintings decorating the beams: dragons and phoenixes among the golden and multi-colored images.


We climbed a hill to the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. There, a large and lively group of retired people celebrated the morning by playing traditional music, singing, and dancing. A full band sounded as dozens of singers read from songbooks and dozens more danced in circles before the conductor. We were pulled in by some of the older women and danced with them, hand-in-hand, in a circle. It was an exhilarating experience, and the smiles brightened the morning as the sun rose higher in the sky. After a few songs, we escaped the dancing ring and climbed a rocky path to a garden above the singing and dancing people. From there, we got a bird’s eye view of the scene. We learned that these gatherings of retired people happened almost every morning, and it seemed like a great way to start the day off on a positive note.


Pearls Before the Americans

After strolling the morning away in the peaceful gardens of the Summer Palace, we went to a pearl factory. We learned how freshwater pearls are harvested and made into jewelry, art, and products. We had the opportunity to see the freshwater clams, and to see how the pearls appear inside. Sometimes a mutation occurs and several pearls grow together, creating a unique look. The pearls come in a multitude of naturally occurring colors. We learned that you can tell a pearl is real when you rub two pearls together—if it’s real, there should be no scratches, and when you wipe it on your thumb, there should be pearl dust. There were a number of unusual and attractive works of art and jewelry on display and for sale, ranging from necklaces and bracelets to inlayed pearl pictures and furniture. It was all for sale at discount prices at the official government-run gift shop exiting the factory tour.


I’ll bet Mom would love this.” Not the traditional pearl drops or spheres, but one of the more rare, more unusual, more expensive mutated pearl necklaces with each piece being a natural melding of several pearls into one.


Yes, I’ll bet she would.”


I like them too.”


Yes, I’ll bet you do.”


The good news was that the one-of-a-kind strand of pearls was on sale, 50 percent off. The bad news: the price tag, which was several thousand dollars.


China is famous for its pearls,” I say to Nicole. “We don’t want to buy the first ones we see.”


Rickshaw to a Cricket Lunch

There is a place in the middle, a part of Beijing where lifestyles of the past and of present meet. That part of Beijing is the Hutong.


Beijing’s Hutong, or “well water” settlements, are unique in that they present a picture of how everyday Chinese people lived prior to the rapid development of recent decades. The Hutong, located right in the middle of the city, are old alleyway neighborhoods (originally centered around a well) and among the few pre-communist era communities in the city that have not been demolished and rebuilt in the interest of modernization.


We enjoyed a rickshaw ride through the narrow Hutong alleyways, taking what once must have been the average Beijing neighborhood less than a hundred years ago. In the Hutong, we visited the courtyard home of Mr. “Cricket Leo,” a master cricket trainer. He introduced us to his champion crickets and grasshoppers, as well as his pet birds, turtles, and many other animals.


Cricket Leo’s courtyard apartment is typical of Beijing’s courtyard houses. Traditionally, several families share a courtyard. The four walls around the open middle space include the homes of individual families. The walls allowed families to have privacy in their homes as well as moderate privacy outdoors, in their paved courtyards. Leo’s courtyard was paved, and it featured trees, vegetable gardens, flower gardens, and an array of animals such as various birds.


Ni Hao,” a few of his birds greeted us as we entered the courtyard garden.


Hello,” we said back to them.


We ate a traditional meal with lots of dishes, all cooked by Leo’s wife. Both Leo and his wife have been featured in international magazines and newspapers (including the New York Times—which he proudly showed us) for his work as a cricket master and hers as a cook. The lazy Susans on our table were on fire as we passed the dozens of delicious dishes around to share. This was our favorite lunch the entire trip, especially nice because we were being hosted in someone’s private home.


A white bust of Mao decked out in a communist red scarf looked down upon us as we ate. Chinese art and statues decorated the dining room. Plants and flowers, teapots and dinnerware—the place was packed. Not to mention the caged crickets, grasshoppers, and free dogs and cats.


As we finished our meal, Leo showed off his champion crickets and grasshoppers. He took them from their lavish boxes of polished, inlayed wood and handled them, offering to let us hold them. The grasshopper crawled on his face as he held the crickets in his hands. His prized champion cricket, in what must have been the luxury-apartment of cricket boxes, had top mating privileges, feeding menu, and got five-star treatment.


We stepped back into the courtyard with our bellies full, Leo’s birds singing to us from in the courtyard over the sounds of crickets serenading us and sending us on our way back to the two Beijings most people picture: modern city and Imperial past. For one traditional courtyard meal, we were pleased to enjoy a helping of both in one ding pot.


After saying goodbye to Cricket Leo, we rickshawed back to our bus and went to inner Beijing to see more of the modern sights of Beijing (the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium, which is more impressive from the outside than inside), and the historic sights of Beijing (the Lama Temple, the Bell and Drum Towers). Then arrived to Beijing’s most popular meeting place and China’s most popular tourist destination, a place where Beijing’s current government rubs right up against it’s Imperial past.

(Page 1 of 4)
Last modified on Wednesday, 13 January 2021

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