So I've been offline for two straight days. That's most unusual for me. But there are reasons.
Well, Friday was just an ordinary day with class in the morning as per usual and then a trip to the bank in the afternoon. I hate banks. But then Friday was also Kiwi Club, and the May Kiwi Club is the "Almost the End of School" Special, meaning there was a barbeque, meaning it wasn't terribly difficult to persuade lzh to go along. So I picked her up from work, we sat in the McDonald's down the road from her work for an hour or so to escape the heat and get something cold and wet to drink. Then we went looking for a bus down to Yonganli.
Somehow, even though we got stuck in traffic from Dongda Qiao all the way to Yonganli, we arrived far too early. And so lzh insisted on looking at beautiful clothes for half an hour. Then we still had time to spare, so we walked the long way round to the New Zealand embassy, arriving just after six.
The New Zealand community in Beijing has really changed since I first moved here way back in 2001. Used to be that if you arrived at six or soon after there'd be a tiny handful of people there enjoying the space and relative peace and quiet, and it wouldn't get crowded until after seven, even when there was a barbeque on. Friday, though, the place was already getting packed when we arrived. I guess the barbeque was a big drawcard and everybody wanted to get there early to make sure they had a chance at getting some food.
And lzh has remarked that every time Kiwi Club puts on a barbeque a lot of Chinese show up. Never turn down free food.
But it wasn't just the barbeque. Kiwi Club also had Speight's! At 10 kuai a can! Genuine imported Speight's at a mere 10 kuai a can! When I was at university, Speight's was just an ordinary, local beer, nothing special. But when I went back to New Zealand after my first three years in China, Speight's tasted amazingly good. At Kiwi Club on Friday I opened a can of Speight's and.... Well, it was good, but I have to say I was a little disappointed. Perhaps because my expectations were so high. But then I looked at the can: Brewed in Auckland. Well, no wonder it doesn't taste quite right. What we have here is the Guinness Effect: Just as the only true Guinness is that brewed at St James' Gate, the only true Speight's is that brewed in Rattray Street, Dunedin. Not that Speight's can really be compared to Guinness, but still, you see my point.
The Kiwi Club also has Export Gold, also imported, also at 10 kuai a can. Export Gold is a lager. I think I've said enough.
Anyway, I enjoyed my Speight's, even if it wasn't quite the real thing, and we got ourselves some food. And then lzh found ourselves talking to: A student from her university, also an English major; a woman who works for my old boss at BeiGongDa; and a couple who work for the ex-girlfriend of a good friend of ours. It really is a very small world.
Anyway, on our way out lzh suggested stopping in a DVD shop to see if they had Tuya's Marriage/图雅的婚事, which we've both been wanting to watch for ages. Every time we've been down that way, the Wudaokou cinema has only had it on at weird, inconvenient afternoon times, and our local DVD sellers haven't had it. This time, though, we were in luck: There it was, sitting on the front rack, the one where they put all the big new films. 35 kuai, though. That's not the regular pirate copy price. I had a good look at the box, though, and decided it might just be a real copy. Don't laugh, these things happen. There are actually genuine DVDs out there. They're so rare they make the wild population of Siberian tigers look positively healthy, I know, but rare does not equal non-existent. And anyway, it is also possible to buy pirate copies that are of such good quality they might as well be genuine and are worth genuine DVD prices. So I decided to risk it. It took some effort persuading lzh, but I succeeded.
So we got home and lzh suggested putting the movie on, just to see if it really was worth the 35 kuai. So we put it on, and wound up watching the whole movie. Maybe not the best idea considering we had to be up ridiculously early on Saturday morning, but whatever. We could always sleep on the bus. Why did we watch the whole thing? Because so far as we could tell, it really was a genuine copy. If not, then one of those top quality pirated copies that might as well be genuine. And because it's a good film. I won't bother writing a movie review, but I will say Tuya's Marriage/图雅的婚事 is definitely worth watching. The ending is a bit messy and very sudden, but that's much better than some sappy Hollywood-style fairy tale happy ending. The only thing that bugged me was that, apart from the characters' names, there was not one word of Mongolian spoken in the entire film. Apparently all the Mongolians of China speak Putonghua with a mild Inner Mongolian accent. But that's a very minor complaint, and if I'm going to be reasonable, the only real choice was to make the film in Putonghua and keep the local accent to a minimum.
Anyway, then 6am on Saturday rolled around and my alarm woke us up. It took me a minute to figure out why the hell I was being woken up at such a ridiculously early hour on a weekend, but then I remembered the bus was leaving at 7.
The school had organised a trip for several classes, including my interpreters' class, to Heilongtan/黑龙潭 in Miyun/密云. So we got up, got as ready as we could considering we were trying to function at an hour that really should be illegal, and went to find the bus. We found two buses and a few of my interpreters, so we hung around waiting for the rest. Then I saw Lao Ma. Lao Ma was one of my students up at the Changping campus last summer. He's here studying Farsi now. He's from Panjin, Liaoning, and doesn't get too many chances to speak English up there, so he's all but forgotten his English, but he still tries to speak a little English with me now and then.
Anyway, we all piled on to the buses, names were checked, heads counted, and off we went. The tour guide, who turned out to be a third year student at Lin Da, from Tangshan, did his little, and obviously not overly experienced, tour guide introduction spiel, then mercifully left us in peace for the rest of the trip. I was kept awake long enough to see the bus go along the northern Fourth Ring Road and get on the new Jingcheng Expressway, then I spent most of the trip asleep, or as asleep as I could be. After all, heading northeastwards from downtown Beijing it takes quite a long time before you get to any hills, let alone mountains, and a plain is by definition a complete absence of scenery. Plains suck. No city is complete without at least a view of mountains. Beijing counts as complete because on those few days when the air is clean and clear you can see the mountains from just about anywhere in the city. Anyway, I knew there'd be nothing to see for quite some time, and I needed the rest, so I rested. I don't think I woke up until we got to Miyun County Town. I've only ever passed through there, but it looks like a really nice little town. The bus took us through the county town and then up into the hills, past the reservoir, into the mountains. Now there was something to look at, and I was wide awake soaking in the views.
Well, we had been informed by our tour guide that our first stop would in fact be 京都第一瀑: First Waterfall of the Capital. This, we were assured, was the biggest waterfall in all of North China. Sounded promising. But after we got off the bus and through the gates, we discovered two things: Our tour guide was only slightly better than useless; and the waterfall was only slightly better than absolutely pathetic. I know the entire northern and western halves of China are desperately lacking in water, but surely north China can rustle up something a little bigger. Anyway, after having taken a wrong turn and led us to the entrance to Tianmenshan/天门山 (perceptive comments from the tour guide: That's Tianmenshan, not Shanmentian (the sign was written in the old-fashioned right-to-left style) and everwhere's got a Tianmenshan.) we found our way to this rather pathetic dribble of water falling over what was actually a reasonably impressive cliff (north China does not lack mountains), then followed the path up to the top of the cliff, then further up the gully. I noticed the pool at the top of the waterfall was rather optimistically named Tianchi/天池. The tour guide assured us that the waterfall was entirely natural, but I noticed a dam further upstream, so I have my doubts about just how natural it is. Somewhat natural, sure, but with a fair bit of human intervention, I suspect.
Well, gripes about the tour guide aside, it was actually a nice place to be wandering around. Beautiful weather, beautiful mountains, surprisingly clean, if not quite perfectly clear, water. It was nice, and I enjoyed sitting back and soaking up the nature.
And the weather was so beautifully clear on Saturday morning. Some clouds appeared and it started to get a bit too humid later in the afternoon, but the morning was brilliant.
Eventually we were all herded back down the hill and onto the buses to be taken to lunch. The waterfall is only three kilometres up the road from Heilongtan, and lunch was supposed to be at Heilongtan, so it didn't take us long. We got off the buses on the other side of the bridge from the entrance to Heilongtan, and after a bit of confusion from the tour guides (one per bus, both equally useful), walked back over the bridge to a restaurant on the other side of the road from the entrance to Heilongtan, just down from the bridge, promising excellent views out over the valley. Unfortunately the room we had been assigned to didn't have any views, thanks to a few small, private rooms on the valley-side of the restaurant, but no matter.
Then the food started coming. Slowly, one dish at a time. Sure, it can't have been easy for the staff, feeding this group of 90-odd. I would've appreciated some better coordination from the tour guides, though. Wait, what am I saying? I would've appreciated better tour guides. It took quite some time for anybody to realise that perhaps drinks might be welcomed. It was, after all, a hot, sunny day and we'd been climbing up and down a mountainside, and anyway, it's always good to have something to wash your food down with. One table acted quickly and got themselves two bottles of Niulanshan Erguotou. Insane. Baijiu at lunchtime in such hot weather when your spending the day running up and down mountainsides? Lao Ma grabbed the tour guide and told him to bring me a bottle of beer. Cold beer, he inisted. Ten minutes later my beer arrived, but Lao Ma didn't want any. He rinsed out a spare bowl for me and gave that to me to use as a drinking vessel, old China style. Then something must've clicked in the tour guide's mind and he yelled out something about getting five bottles of beer for each table, and eventually the promised beers, plus a bottle of Coke for those who preferred not to drink, started showing up. Lao Ma agreed to drink a glass of beer with me, but no more. Fine with me.
Anyway, the meal was starting to look more meal-like. That was good. The quality of the food was a bit wanting, though, and having got a bit fussier as I've gotten older and my gut has gotten more sensitive to the quality of food, I just picked my way through, getting enough to say I had some sustenance in me. Then as the room started to clear out, I found my students and did the compulsory drink with them and some of Lao Ma's classmates, at least one of whom I recognise from an earlier session here, although I don't think I taught him. Then we all went outside to wait to be herded into Heilongtan.
So we went in to Heilongtan and started walking up the path that takes you from pool to pool, eventually leading all the way to the Black Dragon Pool itself. The climb was a bit much for some, who stopped at different pools along the way, depending on how tired they were, and eventually lzh said no more, and so we stopped only part of the way up. Others made it all the way to the top. lzh and I and two of my students hired two little rubber inflatable rafts and went rowing out on the pool. Unfortunately the oars were too short and the blades too small, making it rather difficult to control the raft and get around, but with a little practice I got the hang of it. The water in the pools at Heilongtan was cleaner and much clearer than the water at the waterfall, and we could see right to the bottom of the pool, which must've been a good three or four metres deep. Anyway, eventually we got bored of playing around on this rather small pool and went back ashore. Gradually people started coming back down with stories of the pools higher up. Apparently one pool was bottomless. Or at least, it was so deep you couldn't see the bottom. Nobody saw any dragons, let alone a black dragon, so I was left a little disappointed. No matter, it was still a great time. The best thing was getting out into the mountains and fresh air and getting a bit of exercise.
So we went back down the hill and over to the buses. Eventually everybody was rounded up, heads were counted, and we set off home. This time I fell asleep on the mountain section of the way home, and didn't wake up until we were back on the Jingcheng Expressway, meaning I had a good hour of staring at no scenery. And somewhere just outside of the central city, our bus pulled over. The oil was too hot, it seems, and the bus needed to rest. Well, it had worked hard, and the weather was hot and increasingly humid, so fair enough. Then we hit a traffic jam just outside the Fourth Ring Road. The expressway isn't finished yet, and the section inside the Fourth Ring Road isn't open, so all the traffic has to squeeze on to one narrow little off-ramp, meaning the traffic backs up quite some distance. But never mind. We made it home.
Then Lao Ma decided the day should end with me drinking with him and some of his classmates outside a little restaurant nextdoor to A Bao my beer man's store. Apparently the restaurant is run by a relative of A Bao's, or his wife's, and they cooperate quite well. The restaurant provides food (as if that needed to be said) and A Bao provides drinks. lzh decided she was too tired, though, and went home. So I sat and ate and drank with Lao Ma and three of his classmates, three of them, Lao Ma included, from the Northeast and fairly typical Dongbeiren all, and the fourth from Sichuan. So the usual Dongbei hospitality was applied, and the conversation was in a mix of Dongbei-accented Putonghua, English and the occasional snatch of Farsi. And even though I was hot, sweaty and really, really tired, it was a great time. Dongbeiren are excellent hosts.
And then I was really disappointed to wake up this morning and discover it was only eight o'clock. I was hoping I could sleep in until at least ten.
Well, I found Heilongtan and the park that contained this rather elaborately and very optimistically named waterfall (can't remember the name of the park itself, though) to be a bit over-developed, as most Chinese tourist attractions are, but still, the over-development was tasteful and comfortable, and the vendors in the parks were not only laid back and polite, but actually really helpful, and the natural environment was allowed to rule. And so, despite my gripes about bad food and hopeless tour guides, I really enjoyed the day, as did lzh. And I guess I'll find out tomorrow, but the students seemed to have a good time as well.