Across the Middle Kingdom

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23 July 1998 - Beijing

Another Western breakfast, thanks to my early-morning inertia. If I'd been a little more energetic, we probably could have had the Chinese breakfast. Well, maybe tomorrow.

We set out on foot in search of a supermarket where we could buy bottled water. Lo and behold, within no more than a block we stumbled across the Beijing Friendship Store! Once inside, the stumbling continued all the way up to the fourth floor. We didn't find a supermarket, but we did fine some hairpieces for Kat, as well as a scroll painting of an Imperial lady. Since we were now laden with souvenirs but still lacking water, we broke down and asked for directions.

Upon entering the food store section of the Friendship Store, we were suddenly in a another culture. First, it looked like a small supermarket, which you don't see a lot in China; for example, there was a wall-length open refrigerator case containing milk, cheese, yogurt, and all that sort of thing. Second, nearly every patron was Caucasian, and speaking either English or a European language (I caught bits of German and something Nordic). It was a little bizarre, really. Still, that didn't stop us from picking up a half-dozen bottles of water to add to our other purchases.

Upon getting all our booty back to the hotel, we decided to return to Tien'anmen Square so Kat could buy a replacement for her slowly unravelling daypack. This we did, but it began to rain quite hard as we completed the deal. Fortunately we'd brought our raincoats along, because the rain was to continue for several hours, and it came down rather forcefully at times. We had planned to see the Yonghegong Lama Temple, but with the weather as it was, we regretfully headed back to the hotel.

After finally getting in touch with our tour guide, we decided to have dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in a nearby hotel. It had been praised by both our tourbooks, and was within easy walking distance, now that the rain had stopped.

Upon arrival, though, we found that the establishment was now a Chinese seafood restaurant. "Why not?" we said, and it turned out to be a good choice-- everything was excellent. This is the kind of place where they have enormous fish tanks, and one of the meals on the menu is "Pick your own fish and have it cooked your way." (We assume it says something like that, since neither of us reads Chinese, and the English menu is sketchy at best.)

In fact, someone at the next table ordered that very dish, which revealed a certain risk. Before the fish is cooked, it's brought to you for approval in this covered wooden basket. They don't kill the fish first, though. So the lid was lifted, the patron approved, and the fish jumped right out of the basket and onto the floor. Whoops! We're talking a two-foot fish flopping around on the floor here. The waitress was thoroughly distressed, as were her two or three colleagues. They had to call over the guy who gets 'em out of the tank to begin with in order to re-capture it. I don't know about the people at the next table, but we found the whole thing highly entertaining.

Tomorrow morning our tour begins in earnest with the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, I think it's going to rain.

Since I brought it up, I should say a few words about the rain. It reduces visibility, of course, but when it ends the haze is still there. At night, the occasional flash lights the sky, but never very much. This is probably due to the haze, and the distance-- I have yet to notice a bolt within a mile and a half of us. Whether the lightning is cloud-to-cloud or cloud-to-ground, we don't know, since we see neither bolts nor clouds (the haze again). Even the thunder is muted to a sullen growl. Actually, it's rather depressing.

With any luck, we'll actually see the sun in the next day or two. Then again, maybe not.

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