Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Summer Palace and an Evening In Beijing

 Driving away from lunch, Jimmy casually pointed out a canal and told us that it was the Chinese Grand Canal , built back in the 5th century and running from Beijing down past Shanghai to Hangzhou.

 He said it almost as an afterthought, but when pressed he said that it was as historically important and large a project as the Great Wall.  I got a picture and spent the next hour trying to think of a way to justify paddling the canal as Dad and I had the Mississippi.

We reached the grounds for the Summer Palace, and took these fun little boats over to the Gardens and Longevity Hill

Unfortunately we had spent so much time trudging across Tiananmen Square and exploring the Forbidden City, not to mention the traffic in Beijing not being very cooperative, that we had about an hour to explore the place.  This of course is not nearly enough time to really explore the place.  So we wandered around a bit and took some pictures.
Here's me in front of the Tower of Buddhist Incense

Underneath the walkways were amazing works of art.  Jimmy said most were repainted from time to time.  This one looks as if it had not been done in awhile, and was very cool.

This is the Gate of Heaven and Earth.

Pavilions and pagodas like this were everywhere, and I really wanted to stay a few days to explore.

The line to get on the boats to head back across the lake were very long, and fortunately we got to hang with the two little old sisters next to the entrance while our group made their way through the line.  The purpose for this was mainly to keep the street vendors away from the sisters, but gave Jason and I the chance to poke around a bit more.  It's a good thing, too.  Jason discovered something that I had wanted to see before we came over.  The great Marble Boat!  I'd seen pictures but had forgotten where it was.

 Back on the bus, we were taken for a "traditional Beijing noodle dinner" in a restaurant that was very much westernized.  When we got there the place was packed with American and European tourists.  Our table was laid out as such...

They brought us big bowls of noodles into which we dumped all of the little bowls of things, a couple sauces, some tofu and chicken.  It was pretty tasty, sort of a fancy Ramen meal.

Then it was off to the theater for a night of Beijing Opera.  As we walked through the lobby we saw one of the performers putting on his makeup.  We were told that one of the players is always out front as sort of a display and demonstration for the tourists.  As I approached, I was surprised to recognize the character.

"Hey!" I said to the people in front of me. "It's the Monkey King!" 

They turned and looked at me with smirks and looks that said 'yeah.  Sure, buddy.'  Then Jimmy walked up behind us to explain that this was a display of the intricate makeup of the Beijing Opera, and this performer would be playing the part of the Monkey King.   Boy did my Chinese cred go up!

We were shown to our table and shared a spot of tea and snacks that were quite tasty!

Even the guys serving the tea were performing.

The first act was a cute sketch between a nun trying to flee the monastery and find her love, only to be transported down the river by a crotchety and wry old fisherman.  There were no sets, very few props.  But the performers through their movements and gestures and sounds really did a fine job of painting the picture.
Then came the main event.

I was first introduced the the Monkey King in a children's video.  "Big Bird goes to China" which was a favorite of my kiddos as well.  We must have watched it a few dozen times.  In the video, Big Bird, of Sesame Street fame, goes to China to meet the Phoenix Bird, or Fèng Huáng.  Big Bird was hoping that the Phoenix would teach him about China.  But to find the Phoenix, Big Bird had to follow clues on an ancient map.  So Big Bird and Barkley (A big Muppet dog) head off to China, where they meet a little girl named Xiao Fu, or Little Lotus, who speaks English and translates for the hapless duo.  The clues are to be given to Big Bird by a Monkey, and when the three of them get to the first clue spot on the map, the Great Wall, who should appear but - you guessed it - the Monkey King.  In the video, he looked exactly like the performer who was now gracing the stage in front of me!
I was quite giddy, as my kids really fell in love with the Monkey King.  Before I left for China, my son made sure that I had memorized the ancient map locations, which included the Wall, a giant stone camel, a pavilion at the Summer Palace, and a big tree on the Yangtze.  He told me very specifically to keep my eyes open for the Monkey King and the Phoenix bird, and be sure to tell them hello from him.

As the performance continued, which was extremely acrobatic and martial...

I hatched a plan to ask Jimmy if he could take me backstage to meet the Monkey King.  After the performance, which really was very good, I asked Jimmy about it, but he was hesitant and hemmed and hawed.  As we exited the theater, we had to walk through a gift shop, where Jimmy told us we could spend a few minutes.  Well, I figured that since fortune favors the bold, I would just go try to find the Monkey King on my own.  I headed back into the theater, spent a few minutes finding an employee that spoke some English, and she started calling from the front of the stage to the wings for the actor, named Li Dan.

"Li Dan!"  She yelled.  "Li Dan!"
No answer.  So I called out, "LI DAN!  LI DAAAAAN!"
Apparently he thought something was wrong, because he came tearing out from the wings with a startled look!  Through the waitress I told him that my kids loved the Monkey King and wondered if I could get an autograph and a photo with him.  Unfortunately he was out of costume by then,  But here he is, Li Dan - The Monkey King.

He autographed that little red postcard that you see in my pocket there.  Fortunately in the video, there was a part where the Monkey King disguised himself as a human and read a story to a bunch of kids, and Big Birds trio.  So when I showed my son the picture, I told him that it was the Monkey King in human disguise.  He was suitably impressed and awestruck that I had actually met the King himself!

Back in the hotel room, Jason and I reflected on the day.  We agreed that the three sights we had seen should really be given about a day a piece to really explore them.  Or at least a day for the square and the Forbidden City and another day for the Summer Palace.  It was information and sightseeing overload!  We collapsed for the night, exhausted from the adventure of the day.  Tomorrow would bring The Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, and the required Peking Duck dinner.

More Later

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