Thinking about following ABT and San Francisco Ballet to China? Some almost helpful travelling tips

24 Aug

This fall, all the ballet companies are headed for China, and by all the ballet companies what I really mean is San Francisco Ballet and ABT.  Even though Americans could easily see them here stateside, I figured there might be some people in addition to dancers and crew members who are considering travelling abroad and combining a vacation with an opportunity to see them (People do that right?  People with money?).  As a Chinese major who studied in China for a summer, I thought I might offer some travel tipsy dos and don’ts for spare time whims (by the way, all pictures in this entry are either mine or were taken by my fellow students).  Although, keep in mind, my experience in China was pre-Olympics, so I’d imagine things would be different these days.

I found China to be rather overwhelming.  It always seems like people are in a rush and in my opinion, they have a very hurried lifestyle.  Things always feel like hustle and bustle madness.  As a fairly laid back person, I found it all to be a little scary…don’t get me wrong, I never felt like I was in danger, but at the same time always frantic.  Even the language itself sounds frenetic, but assuming you are not a speaker of Chinese, that’s not really going to matter (actually, I studied Chinese for two years and it never stopped sounding frenzied and are you impressed with my use of three adjectives that all mean something similar but start with “F?”  Three cheers for me.).  But don’t let this deter you…China has a lot to offer, and certainly people who are used to big cities probably wouldn’t be surprised (even if I think Beijing is the craziest city I’ve ever been to.  SFBallet is also going to Shanghai and Suzhou, and though I only went to Shanghai for just a weekend, it seemed neat.).

Chances are, you’ll be staying at a very nice hotel with English speaking tour guides to help you get around, so seeing the sights should be easy-peasy, especially in Beijing (where both ABT and SFBallet are going).  Tiananmen Square is a must, but there isn’t actually a lot to do there, people often fly kites but it’s kind of like a desert without the joy of sand between your toes.  However, the Forbidden Palace is right across the street and has a lot of nooks, crannies, and a Starbucks to see.  The Royal Garden in the palace was probably my favorite part, since there are some really old trees, and I like that kind of geeky nature stuff.  One thing you might notice while traversing the grounds is that oftentimes, little kids will have a split in their pants where their bums are.  This is in fact, intentional by many Chinese people.  It’s so the kids can poo without having to bother with taking their pants off, and probably save money by not having to buy diapers.  My friend Mama J-bear actually had an obsession with taking pictures of kids with those pants:

Split pants...for your pooing convenience.

Split pants...for your pooing convenience.

It’s not like they just poo in public mind you, but on the topic of bathrooms, I would highly recommend carrying a little packet of toilet paper (they sell them in convenience stores) and a little bottle of hand sanitizer because public bathrooms won’t have toilet paper or soap.  I was one of the most popular kids in our group because I actually thought to bring some hand sanitizer (Bath and Body Works Cucumber Melon, if you must know).

Definitely hit up the Great Wall, which was one of my favorite things.  I mean everyone knows about it, you see it in photos all the time, but really you do have to see it in person.  But don’t get cute and think you’re going to climb to the highest watchtower…like our side view mirrors tell us, “Objects may be larger than they appear” and certainly the Great Wall is one of them.  We kept hiking with a certain watchtower in mind and eventually abandoned our quest because we were dying halfway through, also conveniently remembering that we had to walk the same distance back to the starting point.  Although, we were there in June when it was hot, and obviously it’ll be cooler in the autumn when SFBallet and ABT are there.  We were lucky enough to have really nice weather though…it’s true, air quality isn’t great in a lot of areas of China, and even mountainous areas can be hazy and foggy.  We had a gorgeous blue sky, and our tour guide even said that that was the first time she had ever seen the sky so blue.  Make what you will of that.

From atop the Great Wall.  It was then they realized they had a long way to go...

From atop the Great Wall. It was then they realized they had a long way to go...

Now I debated whether I should actually post this next picture of me doing a leap on the Great Wall, as it’s one of the few pieces of pictorial evidence that I ever learned to dance and it’s absolutely hideous.  But, self-deprecating or no, my humiliation is your entertainment.  Just keep in mind, this was after about two months of ballet classes, we were just fooling around, and I was also trying not to fall off the bricks and die.

Don't laugh...EVERYONE's grand jeté looked like this at SOME point.

Don't laugh...EVERYONE's grand jeté looked like this at SOME point.

Now be sure to be adventurous and try all kinds of different foods!  Isn’t this the true joy of travelling?  And don’t worry that you might get sick in China, because everyone does.  Seriously…in our pre-departure packet they recommended we bring Pepto-Bismol or something else for an upset stomach, but I was fine for like six weeks and only got sick once.  Not a big deal.  You don’t have to go all “Man vs. Food,” but limitations are for the lame.  So here’s a miscellaneous assortment of photos and thoughts:

A lot of meals at fancy restaurants will be served on a lazy susan, not unlike what you might find at Chinese restaurants around the world.  The dishes themselves are somewhat similar, but some foods are strictly Western, like sesame chicken or General Tso’s, so don’t expect those.  (ignore the french fries)

A lot of meals at fancy restaurants will be served on a lazy susan, not unlike what you might find at Chinese restaurants around the world. The dishes themselves are somewhat similar, but some foods are strictly Western, like sesame chicken or General Tso’s, so don’t expect those. (ignore the french fries)

Seafood is served fresh.  Sometimes it tries to run away.  Don’t be shocked if a whole fish, including head and tail shows up at your table.  They don’t do breaded, fried fillets.

Seafood is served fresh. Sometimes it tries to run away. Don’t be shocked if a whole fish, including head and tail shows up at your table. They don’t do breaded, fried fillets.

Yes, sometimes there are…unusual items, like the fried cicadas and grubs here.  They're perfectly safe.

Yes, sometimes there are…unusual items, like the fried cicadas and grubs here. They're perfectly safe.

Don’t try durian.  It’s not worth it.  It smells like a rotting corpse and has the texture of a preserved kidney.

Don’t try durian. It’s not worth it. It smells like a rotting corpse and has the texture of a preserved kidney.

McDonalds is a big deal.  Some parents/grandparents will take kids there as a reward, and can only afford to buy food for their kids, and won’t eat anything themselves.  Meanwhile, Pizza Hut is a fancy, sit down restaurant and Häagen-Dazs ice cream is like an arm and a leg for just one scoop.  I had to go to McD’s because I was massively craving a cheeseburger, but stick with enjoying local foods if you can, because imported things are much more expensive.

McDonalds is a big deal. Some parents/grandparents will take kids there as a reward, and can only afford to buy food for their kids, and won’t eat anything themselves. Meanwhile, Pizza Hut is a fancy, sit down restaurant and Häagen-Dazs ice cream is like an arm and a leg for just one scoop. I had to go to McD’s because I was massively craving a cheeseburger, but stick with enjoying local foods if you can, because imported things are much more expensive.

I don’t have a picture, but hot-pot is very popular, where you cook meat on skewers in a broth at your table.  Although this was the dish that I got sick after eating (first and probably only time I’ll ever eat intestines) so unfortunately I’ve got that “traumatized once so I’ll never do it again” thing going on, but it is good.  Other people who I ate with didn’t get sick, so really it was just my body that wasn’t happy with it.

Also, know that “not spicy” to a Chinese person, especially one that hails from Szechuan, Guizhou or even Yunnan province has a different meaning to the rest of us.  I visited Guiyang, capitol of Guizhou province and my friend and I ordered a dish we were told was “not spicy…for sure!” and when it came to us it was molten lava red, scorched our tongues and melted our faces off.  We couldn’t eat it at all, and after digging through it a bit also found the head and feet of the chicken.  Don’t be alarmed, this probably wouldn’t happen at a fancy restaurant…but I’ll never forget that spicy chicken head.

P.S. Peking duck is the bomb.

Now, for shopping.  Here are some recommended souvenirs:

Cloisonné.  Mama J-Bear asked the workers if they liked their jobs, and they said no.

Cloisonné. Mama J-Bear asked the workers if they liked their jobs, and they said no.

Chairman Mao hat.  Get one and wear it to the premiere of Mao's Last Dancer!

Chairman Mao hat. Get one and wear it to the premiere of Mao's Last Dancer!

Jade sculptures.  I’m not sure how you’d get one of these larger pieces onto the plane though.

Jade sculptures. I’m not sure how you’d get one of these larger pieces onto the plane though.

Now there’s a few different ways to shop in China.  You can go to places like the Beijing Longdi Superior Jade Gallery (which is where I took the picture above), which I would actually recommend because you get to see the jade making process and you have the opportunity to purchase the finest jade pieces China has to offer.  However, this is where it will also be the most expensive.  They also have malls and retail stores where pieces will also be expensive, indoor markets (which have the best deals), and outdoor markets which will have a lot of the fake stuff.  You can definitely do no wrong by purchasing somewhere like Longdi, where you’ll actually get a numbered certificate that describes the piece in detail and guarantees its quality, but if you’re on a budget, the indoor markets are the place to go.

A typical Chinese outdoor street market.

A typical Chinese outdoor street market.

For one thing, you can barter there (but not at fancy retail stores).  In fact, this is where I purchased probably the most popular souvenir from China, jade bangles.  I kind of became obsessed with jade bangles, as I’ve always had this inexplicable penchant for precious stones.  I don’t own any jewelry, but gems and stones really fascinate me (I went to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and stalked the Hope Diamond for an hour, and took countless photos in the Hall of Gems and Minerals). 

A brief trip to the Smithsonian: Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds.  Boy that sounds familiar...

A brief trip to the Smithsonian: Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds. Boy that sounds familiar...

Braving the markets can yield high quality purchases and the best deals, as long as you know what you’re doing.  So here’s a short guide to purchasing jade.

  1. If it seems shady, it probably is.  Don’t buy a bangle from just anyone.  Go to a shop that specializes in jade.
  2. Authentic jade resonates with a beautiful “ting” type of noise when struck with a hard object.  Glass thuds with a “tock.”  Don’t buy glass.
  3. Always hold up a bangle to the light, and look for cracks and repairs.  Note that cracks are different from natural sort of fractures in the stone, but repairs are obvious because they inject a translucent polymer to fill broken areas in.
  4. Translucency = good.  Translucency = higher price.
  5. Uniformity (less impurities and specks) = good.  Also = higher price
  6. Unusual coloring = can be good.  Can mean higher prices, depending on how favorable the coloring is.  Bands of lavender, white and also very dark green can yield attractive results which are prized higher than solid colored bangles even.
  7. Barter.  If you thought you got a deal, you probably didn’t…but at least you tried.

Here you can see the two I purchased for FAR below retail.

Note the one on the left is a medium green, with a band of lavender, while the one on the right is a more uniform milky, mint green, with some flecks of a spring green here and there.

Note the one on the left is a medium green, with a band of lavender, while the one on the right is a more uniform milky, mint green, with some flecks of a spring green here and there.

So venture forth into the street markets…you never know what treasures it will yield!

Quality shoes.

Quality shoes.

At the very least, be sure to refer to SFBallet principal as Tan Yuan Yuan (not Yuan Yuan Tan).  That’ll make you seem like you’re in the know!

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One Response to “Thinking about following ABT and San Francisco Ballet to China? Some almost helpful travelling tips”

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  1. Thinking about following New York City Ballet to Tokyo? More almost helpful travel tips « You Dance Funny, So Does Me - September 10, 2009

    […] I did when I heard ABT and SFBallet were going to China (read that entry here), I shall now write some slightly more useful than useless travel tips for going to Tokyo.  I […]

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