Sunday, March 31, 2019

China memories, part 1 : pre-trip, and first impressions

Last year I remember coming home from work to find Wil sitting on the floor, tapping quickly on a laptop. I said, "Hi baby! What are you doing?" as I went into the other room. "Booking flights to China" was his reply.

I backed up into the living room, and said, "What?"

He said, "Scott's Cheap Flights -- wanna go see the Great Wall for our anniversary?" And then, 20 minutes later, we had a pair of round-trip flights to Beijing booked for the week of our anniversary, for about $800. Not each -- for both of them. (Seriously -- look into Scott's Cheap Flights -- they're amazing.)

Then I found a cute hostel in the old part of Beijing that had a private room with bath available for the week, so we booked our stay at the Red Lantern House.

Then we arranged for our China visas through Holiday China China -- completely no-fuss, they made the process easy, made sure we didn't make any mistakes on our application forms (that is, they corrected the error I had made on my form!!!), and turned them around at a much lower cost that other "visa offices" in Seattle advertised.

Finally we secured some Renminbi quickly and easily through Travelex, who oddly enough had the best exchange rate we could find in Seattle.  

I attempted to learn some rudimentary Chinese, with little success... and then early one Saturday morning we flew from Seattle to Beijing with a 2-hour stopover in Vancouver.

My journal has few notes from the flights -- apparently a smaller plane picked us up in Seattle, so some seats didn't exist, but everyone got a seat for the short flight. I also noted that, because we had a pre-flight drink in the lounge at Sea-Tac, and another in the lounge at Vancouver, we would set a goal to have whiskey in three countries in 24 hours. #aimhigh (Spoiler alert: we did.)

We had "oriental vegetarian" meals (tofu stir fry, red curry tofu, a lentil & bean sandwich); watched a bunch of movies; and eventually arrived in Beijing.

Immigration took a long time -- but no hassles other than that the self-serve fingerprint pre-scanner wouldn't scan my right hand. An assistant just told me to get into the main line. When we got to the front, Wil and I were separated -- one at a time means one at a time. For what it's worth, the main scanner read my hands just fine.

Then baggage, then customs, all easy. Wil spotted our driver -- we had decided to arrange for pickup through the hostel, which we were VERY HAPPY ABOUT. As the sun set, we were driven for about an hour on highways that alternated between super speedy and sudden stop-and-go stretches. Eventually we were on surface streets, and then turned down an unlit, narrow alley for the final two blocks. Wil said afterward that he was wondering what would happen, but I knew our hostel was down a hutong, so figured we were nearly there. And then, after a very slow drive, weaving past pedestrians, scooters, and parked cars, we arrived.

We checked in and had a slightly unpleasant surprise, totally my fault: our credit card had just held the booking, but we needed to pay for the week when we arrived. Luckily, we had enough cash to cover it, but it made us a bit edgy until we successfully got more cash the next morning. (And I'm pretty sure if we hadn't had enough cash, they would have let us pay for part of the stay -- they're very very nice at Red Lantern House!)

The hostel is a lot of rooms arranged around a common, covered courtyard. Lots of tables, some couches, places to relax.

And lots of lanterns. Really pretty at night -- such a great first impression!

A koi pond gurgled at one end, creating some nice white noise.

And in the very back, our room and private bath. The room was small but very clean, and we unpacked as much as we could in the limited space.

We went for a wander out to the main road -- amusingly, there's a Dairy Queen at the intersection, so it would always be easy to spot! There are lots of little shops, a couple of "hypermarkets", some restaurants, and, at one end, a mass gathering of musical instrument stores. So odd.

That night at the hotel we showered, had drinks the lobby (yes, whiskey in three countries, thankyouverymuch), and then went to bed to rest up for our first visit to the Great Wall.

Read part 2, the Wild Wall hike.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Adventure 8/50 : Our DC trip, part 2

We started the second half of our trip with a visit to Ford's Theatre. After some time in the small museum under the theater, we went upstairs to the auditorium to see a short play presented from the point of view of theater owner John T. Ford and actor Joseph Jefferson who was performing in "Our American Cousin" the night Lincoln was assassinated. The characters played other eye-witnesses and recounted the events leading up to and after the event. I had never thought about the theater owner and what had happened to the theater afterward. (The US Government seized the theater, eventually paying Ford for it, and no plays were performed for 103 years after the assassination.)

What was great, though, was being able to sit in the theater next to a recreation of the state box and see a play from that angle… it somehow made things really tangible.

We then headed over to the mall to visit some Smiithsonian museums, wandering through the Natural History museum…


And seeing Whistler's "undressed" Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery….

Then we went to the Holocaust Museum … we couldn't get tickets online, but were told we could visit the exhibits on the main floor. We went to the information desk to ask for a map, and the woman there said, "You're in luck! Someone turned in some extra tickets!" and, suddenly we went in.

There's not much to say about the Holocaust Museum that hasn't been written – it's horrible and painful, as is to be expected. For the most part the visitors were quiet and respectful, thankfully. We were behind a small group when we reached the first set of stairs between galleries – walking into the stairwell, seeing natural light, a woman let out a short, sharp, nervous giggle – the sound of a person who has been holding in anxiety in silence and just needed to release a little. But I don't feel she meant any harm; just needed a release.

It was still shocking to re-enter the lobby atrium to see kids wearing MAGA hats. Either they're really horrible people, or they just don't get it.

We left there for a sharp change of scene – taking an Uber to Farmers Fishers Bakers for a late lunch and a pair of tiki drinks:

The drinks were … just okay. The restaurant, though beautiful, had no "tiki" vibe at all. But the two starters we ordered – a Brussels sprout pizza and an order of cheese and artichoke dip – came as HUGE portions, and were delicious. Side note: in general, portions at restaurants in DC were HUGE!!! We had to walk off the food, so strolled along the Potomac to the Jefferson Memorial. Another gorgeous building, but the statue inside isn't as great. And from a certain angle, in a certain light, I swear it looks like the Darth Vader Memorial…

The sun was setting as we walked back toward our 'hood, admiring the cherry blossoms. Again, "peak bloom" hasn't happened yet, but some trees were doing their best!

Thursday we started our day at the Supreme Court. We admired the architecture inside and out.

We got a glimpse of the empty chamber…

Marveled at the spiral staircases…

And yet managed to avoid buying a gavel-shaped pen in the gift shop. In part because the staff were chatting about running shoes and supportive footwear and one of them said, "I just hurt my hip" at the EXACT moment I noticed a funny pencil with two erasers that looked like a gavel and it made me LAUGH OUT LOUD.

The two staffers stopped chatting and stared at me as I looked for Wil so I could hold up the pencil and say, "Look, honey, a pencil that's shaped like a gavel!" But he wasn't there. So I just walked out of the store, embarassed. Awkward.

We braved the pouring rain again and went to the Air & Space Museum where it is CLEAR that poor Pluto has been erased from the signage of the "Planets" exhibit. Not even erased … but covered up.

They're doing a major renovation of the museum, which means that a lot of the galleries are closed. (To our benefit, really: the moon artifacts will be in Seattle for the 50th anniversary!) But there's still a lot of stuff:

Then it was time to go to the Peak Bloom installation at ARTECHOUSE.

Katie, our bartender at Archipelago, told us about the place so we got tickets. And, though flawed, the exhibit was still pretty. It's hard not to fall in love with a massive room covered in interactive projections of flowers!

This artwork was also lovely – the tree bloomed if you made physical contact with others in the room; when Wil and I hugged the flowers went nuts.

These plants chirped at you when you gently touched them:

One downer: we went to the "interactive bar" and had terrible service from the whining bartender. With a total of six people at the bar she complained to the other bartender about being "slammed" for several minutes before she took our order, then complained to someone else before she made our drinks. Of course, she took Wil's order and made his drink first, then after several minutes came back to me and said, "Did you want something?" The drinks were interesting, but just okay flavor-wise. Mine was a ginger-turmeric soda with Pocky sticks and cotton candy garnish...

We were also sad that the iPhone app for the new exhibit hadn't launched, so we couldn't play with any of the interactive pieces. Amusingly, Wil's old phone showed him an old version of the app – everywhere he looked he saw Christmas trees in the augmented reality!

We walked back to the mall and nosed around the National Gallery for a little while since it was still raining.

Then it was time for our timed entrance to the African American Museum. We had checked the museum website that morning and were able to get a pair of tickets for 2:30 – but when we arrived they were letting anyone in – perhaps the storm had kept some visitors home?

I think the collections were interesting, and the building magnificent…

But to be honest, I think the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis was better laid out and therefore had more of an impact on me.

After our long and jam-packed day we went to "our place" … Archipelago … for happy hour drinks and way too much dinner. Behold the pineapple of hospitality!

Friday morning we were slightly at a loose end – we didn't have any plans at all! We started with a quick visit to The Barbie Pond, which I'd read about on Atlas Obscura. Happy (belated) St. Patrick's Day!!!

Then back to the National Gallery, where we looked at a lot of modern art….

… and saw even more modern art at the Hirshhorn. I really loved the site-specific pieces, especially Mark Bradford's "Pickett's Charge" installation, inspired by French artist Paul Philippoteaux's 19th-century cyclorama currently displayed at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Then it was time to get some lunch … and we decided to visit the USDA to eat in their cafeteria. Yeah, it's a weird idea. And it required us to clear security and hand over identification. But in the end, it was funny, the food was better than okay, and there were lots of different vegetarian options.

After lunch we headed to the National Portrait Gallery / Museum of American Art. The highlights? The portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, both of which had lines to photograph them.

While in the museum an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the National Weather Service had issued a severe storm warning so guests and staff were asked to stay inside the museum until the storm had passed. Apparently there were wind gusts up to 60 mph, and a freak hailstorm! But we just relaxed in the gorgeous Luce Foundation galleries until the skies cleared.

By the time we came out, the sun was shining brightly again, and we walked home wearing our sunglasses.

For our final night out in DC we went to the Showtime, where we sipped "combos" of "Natty Boh" (cheap local beer National Bohemian) and "cheap whiskey" and did some people watching.

DC was interesting – with all the museums, monuments, and governmental offices we had more than enough to do. We left a couple of things undone -- no nighttime tour of the monuments, no visit to the Postal Museum, no run around the mall... But I was still happy to head home on Saturday!

Read about the first half of our DC trip in part 1.