Monday, November 19, 2012

Great Wall

After finally falling asleep around 4:00 a.m. I was pissed when my alarm started going off at 6:30.  Time to get up, the driver is here.

For about $80.00 USD Tiffany, Kate and myself booked a car and driver for the day on Monday for the purpose of going to see the Great Wall at Mutianyu.  I roused myself and threw on a pair of boots and my biggest baddest jacket and stepped outside to grab a coffee.  I met the girls who immediately teased me for being from Seattle and drinking a Starbucks coffee in Beijing.  Yea, maybe it is "funny" but there is a lot of shit coffee here, and there is a lot of expensive coffee here.  A classic Pike Roast drip from Starbucks is neither of those things, so when I am not feeling adventurous I opt for the good ol' Seattle brew.

Our driver pulled up in a old school VW, we piled in and we were off.

Thirty minutes into our drive we were in a China that I have not experienced yet.  The urban environment that makes up my world gave way to a much more rural setting.  Small towns, kids at school, older folks sitting on the front stoop, people working, beautiful scenes.  Every person I saw was bundled up head to toe, the temperature was in the mid 20's as I recall.  There were so many abandoned buildings, I thought it was very strange.  We were all chatting and having a nice drive despite being absolutely exhausted.  Tiffany screamed as our driver did some dare devil passing on a small village road alongside a river and both Tiffany and I were rightfully entertained at Kate's stories of her experiences working as a singer in Dubai.

Once we arrived at our destination, we paid some sort of ticket fee and made our way towards a ski lift that would take us up to the wall.  The shabby looking lift only fit two people, so being the gentleman I am I went up front alone and the girls rode together behind me.

I was wearing the biggest baddest North Face down, subzero, fur hood coat you can purchase in Seattle, some pants with long underwear underneath and wool socks with boots.  It was not enough.  I have never been so cold in my entire life as I was riding that stupid ski lift to the top of the Great Wall.  The wind was blowing in from Mongolia, it was 7:00 am and clear sunny skies.  The outdoor temperature was about -6 Celsius, which is about 20 degrees Fahrenheit  but the wind blowing in from the north was just awful.  I was a watermelon being decimated by the hammer of the celestial arctic ice Gallagher.

Once we got to the top of the wall we spent some time wandering back and forth between the guard towers.  The Great Wall in itself is really an amazing thing to see, and the view from the wall was equally incredible.  Mongolia was to the north of the wall, and China to the south.  I was under the impression that the wall was going to be a straight line, but in truth the wall winds all over the place.  In total the structure covers over 13,000 miles of terrain including natural barriers such as rocks and rivers.  It is a true testament to the power of ancient China.  Interestingly enough the wall consists of many different sections, and unfortunately the entire wall was never connected fully.  Thus, invading armies would just swarm in and invade China through the gaps in the wall.  <insert Homer Simpson "DOH!>

After wandering around for a while and checking out the view we were ready to go.  The section of the wall we visited was limited in how far you could walk in either direction before there were large sections in disrepair.  As the sun came up the temperature started to rise and the ice on the wall started to melt so walking back to the ski lift was not as difficult as walking away from it.

This part of the day was crazy.  You only take the ski lift one direction, to get down from the wall you use what is basically a luge (toboggan) set on a metal chute.  You release the break and you fly down from the mountain on this crazy course - oh and make sure you lean into your turns so that you do not crash.
Since we got there so early, we had to wait about thirty minutes for the ice to melt off of the course so we would not crash (comforting thought).  While we were waiting we chatted with a few locals - one guy found out that Tiffany and Kate were singers and he started singing songs for us.

"Oh that is a beautiful song" Tiffany would say after three or four minutes, and the singer would just hold up his hand in a gesture to Tiffany that said ' Hold on, I am not done with my song yet...'   So we sat and listened, and waited, and listened, and then he started singing Celine Dion, then Michael Jackson, then back to some Chinese power ballads.

Finally the chute was free of ice so we could go down.  I jumped on the luge and released the break and was off - it was really fun, I could go really fast.  I was banking my turns like a pro.  I do not know how far I went, but it took about ten minutes to get all the way down.

Once at the bottom I waited for the girls, they were like ten minutes behind me somehow.  I thought they were riding the break the whole time.  Turns out that after I jumped on the luge, the singer guy helped them onto their individual luge's and was not too sneaky about groping each of them in turn before pushing them off down the slide.  That was really obnoxious to me - wait til the big American guy was out of the picture before molesting my friends, what a pervert.  I liked that guy kind of when he was just an annoying singer, now however I want to go back up there and knock his last tooth out.

We jumped back in the car and joked with our driver as we took off home.  My favorite and most successful joke that I can tell in Chinese goes like this.  "I am not American and I do not speak English".  It works the best, every Chinese person just about dies laughing.  My continual successful results are giving me a false sense that I am funny.  Maybe I will consider a stand up comic career here in China...

We stopped off two times, once to grab some food at a local restaurant and the second time to run some errand for the driver unbeknownst to us.  I have learned that you just have to relax when traveling so it was not a big deal that the driver had secret detour plans - whatever man!  Got back home and crashed for a good three or four hours before heading out to Wangfujing street - translates to the "Snack Street".

before eating the tofu...
At Wangfujing we had some delicious street stall food.  Scorpions, centipedes, deep fried whole robins,  and spiders to name a few, but also dumplings, fried banana doughnuts (the best), candied fruits, meat skewers (chicken supposedly, but there were not any cats around...), and last but not least the infamous stinky tofu.  Actually contrary to what I just said, it was last and least.  That shit is raunchy.  I could eat it if I needed food desperately  but it is one of the few foods that I would say I did not enjoy in any manner.  I ate a bunch of it too, not just one taste, but maybe four large pieces of the tofu covered in mystery sauces.  The overwhelming smell of disgusting, moldy, rotten gym socks is almost overpowering just being near the stuff, and as you eat it that smell permeates your entire body for the duration of the consumption.  Not to mention rancid breath afterwards!  YUK!


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Maybe I'm Crazzzaaayyy, Maybe I'm Craaazzaaayyy. Thank you Gnarles Barkley

The China World Art Museum has a exhibit on Contemporary American Realism, on display are supposedly fifty or so American artists works, although no specific names are mentioned.  The exhibit is sponsored by the US-China Oil Painters Union, and also backed by the Shanghai Art Museum, as well as the China World Art Museum (not the Beijing Museum, or the Chinese National Art Museum).  When I found out about the exhibit, I decided I would go check it out the following day.

When I got off the subway after about a twenty/twenty-five minute ride I was standing outside of the Chinese Military Museum.  It looked very interesting, but it was a huge building and was only open for another hour.  I will make a trip there soon, to see some of the American spy planes that were shot down by the Chinese in the fifties.  These trophy's are readily on display outside the entryway to the museum - and I read that an entire floor of the museum is not translated into English to avoid being offensive to tourists.  I do not know what is more offensive...

My destination was behind the Military Museum.  A weird sun dial shaped building holds the China World Art Museum, a stark contrast to the uber communist, stalinist Military Museum.  I walk up to the front door - locked.  An old man comes over and speaks Chinese to me.  "往往破坏o趣味我?" He asks.

"I want to see the art museum" I reply.


"I want to see the art museum" I reply again.

This goes on for a good six minutes, neither of us budging, neither of us understanding each other.  Eventually he walks over and gets a younger woman that works at the building.  She comes over and speaks Chinese to me.


"I want to see the art museum" I say.

"Closed" she replies.

Well damn.  It was two o'clock in the afternoon on a Monday - the only thing I can think of is that the museum is maybe closed on Mondays, but it did not say that on any of the posters or ads or on the website... or at least not in English.

This is a typical every day interaction that I have so I am really putting a lot of time and effort into trying to learn some Chinese.  If you could speak Chinese and English, you would be able to talk to most people on the planet.

Wow, it just look cold!
Anyways, slightly frustrated I decided to walk around a bit.  For the first time since I have been here I was in West Beijing.  Directly behind the art museum I found a huge park, with a large lake in it.  You can rent boats and go paddle out into the lake for a nominal fee, but it is so damn cold and windy here that a boat trip seemed a little treacherous.  I walked around the edges of the lake, it is about 4k to walk around the whole thing.  It was a beautiful park, there are some pictures I took that I will post to this blog.

One of the CCTV towers, not as good
as the space needle!
As I was leaving the park (I cannot find the name in English, but it is the western ancient park - Beijing has a historic park from hundreds of years ago in each cardinal direction from the city center) a portly old man saw me and yelled "HHEEEELLLLLLLLOOOO" as he tore off his pants and shirt and ran and jumped into the fridgid lake.  Oh my god it was probably 40 degrees F, with a windchill that could freeze the sweat on your mustache!  I do not know what was going on but I said "NNIIIII HHHAAAAUUU" back to him, and noticed that there were several senior citizens going for a dip.  This is not like your typical Polar Bear, where everyone jumps in for a second then gets out, these folks were literally going for a swim in the freezing water.  It will always be a happy memory for me thinking about the kind of old, kind of fat Chinese guy running while tearing his shirt off and screaming "Hello" at me and then jumping in a nearly frozen lake...


Saturday, November 3, 2012


I had the fortunate experience to be invited to a staff party this last week.  It worked out well since it was on Halloween evening, and I was worried that I was going to be the only twenty-something American that was not waking up November first with a gnarly hangover.  It was a staff party, so the company was picking up the tab - they booked a VIP room at KTV from 8pm til 8am.  I have been to Asian karaoke clubs before, but nothing yet that compares to this.

We have to play until midnight every day, so I naturally asked if the party was still going to be going on by the time we arrived.  It was explained to me that since people are all working different shifts at the club, throughout the entire night waves of people will be joining the party at KTV.  Ok cool, lets go.

A short taxi ride later we pulled up to a building.  There were all sorts of people out front, most of them dressed to impress.  As I descended the huge escalators to the karaoke club, it felt more like I was entering one of the monstrous casinos in Vegas, Caesars Palace, or the Venetian or something like that.  We got to the reception counter, and I was confused because it really looked like we were entering a five star hotel.  I explained through gestures that we were trying to meet our friends (can you imagine that?) as the workers at reception did not speak any English.  Ten minutes later and a few phone calls, we figured out that our room was 555 (Wu, Wu, Wu).  "Atmosphere party...!"  says the receptionist.  "Isn't that what I have been telling you the whole time?" I respond slightly frustrated.  That is just how things go here, so I am getting used to it.  My secret trick is this:  Smile and nod, smile and nod again, give a high five, shake hands, smile and nod, then repeat from the beginning.  It makes friends every time!  Oh, and my mandarin is good enough to say you are my new friend, "你是我碰育" that works wonders.

Now a little background information:

As a 'very white person' I am only told peoples English names, which often times the owner of the name is so unfamiliar with they do not know I am trying to talk to them.  Anyways, there is this guy Ken that I see every night.  He has been requesting me to play on the piano "Gangnam Style" for weeks, and I keep telling him, there is not much to it.  If I play Gangnam Style on the piano, you will not even recognize it because it is an electronic song, and played on a acoustic piano it sounds so empty, and simple, and utterly stupid, not to mention I cannot sing or rap in Korean.  It is the number one song in the world right now, and I recommend that everyone stop reading this blog for three minutes to go watch the video on Youtube.

We find room 555 and open the door.

Smoke billows out into the hallway and music is blasting, and what do you know, it is Gangnam Style.  Ken is dancing around the room, and thirty other people I know are all doing the dance and going nuts.  Food, beer bottles, liquor bottles, cake and cards are all over this room.  All of our friends cheer when we enter :) and I am quickly rushed to the front of the room to do the 'dance' from the video.  Wow, I need a drink for this! (or two, or maybe four!)

Gangnam style is played three times in a row, then finally onto some Chinese love songs. I can finally breathe the smokey air.  We are in a medium sized room, two 70 inch super nice TV's are on one wall projecting all the karaoke videos, many nice cushy couches line the opposite wall, and there are tables and chairs, and a fridge.  It is a nice room.  The sound system was the most overkill I have ever seen in my whole life as a musician.  This room maybe holds fifty people, and we are talking 8 speakers, bigggg speakers, lots of reverb, lots of delay, really loud, lots of feedback, oh man a sound mans nightmare.  The karaoke machine itself is something out of Star Trek, two touch screens in opposite corners, with wall controls also if you want to turn on the original vocals (is that illegal?) or skip the song, or volume up and down, or effects.  "Beam me straight to the BeeGee's Scotty".  Bottles of Grey Goose are being consumed like water, and some of the people from the morning shift who have already been at the party for hours are passing out.  Everyone wants us to sing, but the English selection of songs was maybe a total of one hundred tunes.  Anyone who goes to Karaoke in the states knows that a typical selection may consist of thousands and thousands of songs, so it was difficult to find a good one out of just a mere one hundred tunes. They did have my go to, which is 'Stayin' Alive'.  They also had Pink, Avril Lavigne, Jewel, Taylor Swift, Linkin Park, and Bon Jovi.  Ouch.  Everyone is waiting for us to sing so we put our songs in the que, the BeeGee's tune and Michael Jackson.  Everyone knows Billy Jean right?  Not true.  Nobody in the room knew it at all as me and Deybis were belting it out - but they did give us some pity cheers and  clapped on beat one and three for the whole tune (hah!).  Stayin' Alive went just as well.

Then our friends decided to just pick random English songs and give us the mics.  "Wo Men Bu Jer Dao" supposedly meaning "We do not know" magically stopped working, and nobody could understand all of a sudden...

Brittany Spears, Taylor Swift, Cheetah Girls, some random dance tunes that everybody knows and recognize but not a soul know the names or bands performing them pass by.  Then it is straight onto Incubus, Bon Jovi, and thank god, Maroon 5 (Damn you Adam for having such a high voice).

Check out this giant television ceiling!
I eventually moved to the other side of the room, and the singing went back to being all in Chinese.  At the table some of the girls were playing a complicated drinking game with wagering... some kind of three card Chinese poker, but utilizing lucky and unlucky numbers.   Too much for me to grasp so when the deck came to me, I taught them a very basic, and easy American drinking game.  F*** the Dealer.  It involves predicting the next card.  You get two tries, and between them the dealer gives you a hint, higher or lower.  If you get either of the guesses right, the dealer has to drink.  If you get them both wrong, you have to drink the difference between your last guess and the correct value of the card.  The dealer has to stump three people in a row to pass the deck.  As the game progresses, it becomes easier and easier to guess the correct card because you can see what has been layed out on the table.  Thus, the last dealer gets totally f***ed.  They loved this game, and it was played for litterally three hours.

At about three in the morning, re-inforcements showed up.  They consisted of all of our friends that work while we perform, the night shift.  Throw another twenty people into the mix!  Chaos!

There is a special word used here while people are partying or drinking.  "Gambay" is the word, and it is the ultimate challenge.  When someone says that to you, you have to finish your entire drink.  This is taken very seriously here, its not like in the USA where you can say, "Oh no thanks..." or, "I have had enough".  From a Chinese to a Chinese, there is no backing out of this without a big loss of face.  The seriousness of it has to do with the way people hide embarrassment in this culture.  This also explains to me why there are so many 'pukers' at our club (see above blog post).  Lucky for me, as a 'ignorant' American, I could just pretend I did not know what Gambay meant.  This saved my ass, because it was getting thrown at me like crazy.

The whole face/status/embarrassment culture here also helps to explain the popularity of these private karaoke rooms.  I never fully understood them because in the USA part of the fun is you have to shame yourself in front of a room full of strangers.  Here, the private karaoke room is like a haven where people can let loose and go nuts in a culture that is very in control, and introverted.  It was really cool to be invited and to be a part of.  Eventually everybody started to get tired and at about 6:30 in the morning we all walked home.

The next day, a lot of the girls were to embarrassed to talk to me like normal (I received a lot of drunken "I like yooooouuuuss") and everyone at the club was back to normal, serious, efficient and all business.  I will never forget that experience for the rest of my life, although I had a few similar experiences in Vietnam and Thailand, this one was the most extreme.  I am also having more and more fun, now that I am getting used to living in China.  I am building quite a network of friends here, which is nice.  I am the type of person that has a lot of friends, but those friends might not be friends with each other.  In China, for the first time in my life I am kind of experiencing what it is like to have 'co-workers' (outside of band mates).  While we are playing these first few months at Atmosphere I see the same people every day, and it is nice to get to know them.  Being a freelance musician can be a lonely profession strangely, especially as a pianist where the majority of work and performances are played solo.


P.S.  Sorry that my writing lacks structure, I just kind of sit down and blast through these blog posts.  What you are reading is a direct line of thought from my brain... I think I have some focusing issues!!!  : )