November 14, 2011
We might need to slow down. We started the day slow, but finished strong. So strong, in fact, that I fell asleep at the Happy Dragon Cafe “Dumpling Party”. The incredibly helpful and happy staff here told us 5 different times about their free dumpling party during which you make your own and they steam them for you. Much fun.
Fun until the sleep bomb hit me.
I was down by 9:45 and then woke like a bolt at 2AM to realize that I had not written my blog. Knowing also that the ridiculously slow internet would be better at this hour, I just decided to to put the jet lag to work for me. Heck, it is early afternoon at Camp Champions.
Today, we attacked the Summer Palace.
In essence, the Summer Palace is Asia’s answer to Versailles. It is a stunning royal retreat outside of the main hustle and bustle of the traditional royal court. Louis XIV left Paris and built Versailles. A series of Emperors similarly left the Forbidden City in central Beijing to build the Palace. Each wanted to find a more pastoral place to place a palace. [Warning: with low levels of sleep, I can find myself leaning lovingly to lots of alliteration. I ask fervently for forgiveness.]
The Summer Palace is more subtle than Versailles, but that is not a particularly rigid standard. A killer whale is subtle when compared to a blue whale, but that does not make it a minnow.
It resides on 290 hectares. For those of you like me who have no idea what that means, let me give you an idea. It is roughly 720 acres, or almost 7 times the size of Camp Champions (or 25 times the size of the main area between Home Plate and Lake LBJ). Roughy 500 acres is a stunning lake that sits at its center.
At the head of the lake is a 200 foot high hill that serves as the site of the Tower of Buddhist Incense and a series of complementary buildings.
Here is our clan across the lake looking back at the same structures.
Notice the haziness in the background. This is not the romantic mist of Chinese paintings. No, it is smog. China’s great economic experiment has produced staggering growth, but also diminished air quality. Many of our clan are wearing masks (donated by our dear dental friends, the Ritchies) and looking a little silly. In fact, I had some smart-aleck American post-graduate student ask me sarcastically if there was an outbreak of SARS he “had missed on the internet”. I started to respond diplomatically, but his smug grin led me to say that I had just heard about an outbreak of the Ebola virus and that I hope his affairs were in order. He found me exactly as funny as I found him.
Back to the Palace.
I could write a great deal on this lovely spot, but I have a few other areas to cover, so let me simply share some additional shots.
The royals were not allowed to interact with commoners, so they built a little canal with all the typical shops one might find in Beijing in the 18th and 19th centuries: butchers, fruit vendors, clothing vendors etc. This REALLY felt like EPCOT.
All the structures are made of wood. They do not use nails, but instead fit the painted pieces together precisely [again with the alliteration]. The paint adds both beauty and life.
The downside of wood is its flammability. By itself, this is not a huge issue. The combustibility, however, becomes more problematic when combined with a loss in the Second Opium War and a group of pyromaniac Europeans. In 1860, virtually every structure was burned to the ground by the Anglo-French Alliance. Essentially, the entire site is a giant rebuild.
We ended the day walking around the Olympic Village. It was actually pretty surreal. Tons of people were walking around, but nothing was open. We had to pass through security for reasons that I cannot even begin to guess. The entire area glowed from the combination of colored lights and thickening smog. We also were inundated with walking vendors that REALLY wanted to sell us kites and crystals with Olympic holograms.
Nevertheless, the walk was worthwhile to see two singular structures. Here is the Birds Nest (the main outdoor stadium and site of the opening and closing ceremonies):
Here is the Water Cube (the swimming venue).
In retrospect, I made a strategic error in my selection of activities. Everything we did today put us on our feet. We must have walked 5-7 miles getting to and around the Summer Palace. Our visit to the Olympic village was made more taxing by the fact that the subway was under repair and we got some dicey directions.
We met two Iranians who spoke English, Farsi and Mandarin, but they could not READ Mandarin. We saw that some announcement was posted on the subway spur going to the stadiums, but they could not discern their meaning. When we got to the station roughly 2 miles away (we learned in retrospect) we got walking directions from a nice Scotsman. He was nice, his friendly directions less so. His aid came encumbered with two small problems. First, he insisted that it was a 10 minute walk. Second, the friendly directions were a wee but wrong. We soon realized that the walk was 20+ minutes IF you are going the right way. If not, it was closer to 35. Getting there and back added another 4-5 miles to our walk.
In short, lots of time on our feet.
Remember what happened in 1860 with the burning of the Summer Palace. A perfect combination of wood and pyromania resulting in a massive conflagration? OK, think of my children as a palace made of wood. Picture the long LONG walks as a massive drought. All we need now is the equivalent of the Anglo-French soldiers to light a match.
We had several volunteers at the end of the evening.
Without revisiting the Baskin family dynamics in detail, let me give you a quick summary. Think “triplets and a baby”. The triplets are Wiley, Liam and Terrill. The boys are actually twins (14 years old). Terrill is just 16 months younger and is quite mature. In fact, she skipped a grade, so they all attend school together and are best friends. One of the reasons this trip is possible with teens (who would usually bemoan missing their friends) is the fact that they are so close. I love their camaraderie and mutual admiration.
The baby is Virginia. She is not a baby. In fact, she is a bright and engaging 10 year-old. She can keep up with most conversations and can add interesting snippets to them. She, however, often acts younger than she is. She loves being the youngest and can embrace the part with excess enthusiasm at times. She is also the most social of our clan. She is a great friend and has a plethora at school and both camps that she attends.
She also lacks a natural friend on this trip. The older trio generally tries to include her, but she can feel left out. Susie and I spend extra time with her, but it does not satisfy all her desires for kid interaction. She does knock heads with Liam a great deal as they are similarly determined to run the show. [Note: they love it when we point out how similar they are and that they will one day be best friends. By “love it”, I actually mean “cannot stand it”. We continue to believe that they will become tight in the future, but that future does not seem imminent.]
Wiley is always nice to Virginia. Heck, nice is what Wiley does as well as anyone.
Terrill casts the deciding vote. Most of the time, she is a exemplary sister - loving and tolerant beyond normal levels. She, however, has started to notice that Virginia will repeat some of her sentences. At least, I will take her word for it. None of the rest of us have noticed. But it has become the fingernails on the chalkboard of her disposition.
Remember the dried wood waiting for a flame. That flame came in the form of a repeated sentence that led to a strongly worded reaction which led to hurt feelings which led to FIRE FIRE FIRE!
We tried to process the meltdown. We said the right things (“we are not asking anyone to be perfect, we just want you to see the best in each other a little more each day”), but our timing was not great. Imagine discussing faulty wiring as you run out of a burning house. There will be a time for that discussion later.
I am sure that tomorrow will bring more harmony. Or, at least, I really hope so.
I want to conclude with an observation regarding my beautiful bride which I find particularly amusing in light of the previous story of familial challenge.
The woman is baby-happy. You know how sometimes you see a cute baby and want to take a picture but know that it might be a little embarrassing to do so? Well, she feels only half of that sentiment. Here is yesterday morning only:
I am trying to understand this photographic fascination. Let me be clear. I am Susie’s #1 fan. I love that she is such an incredibly wise and deeply loving mother. I, like her, also love children (this is a great attribute for summer camp directors). I share this because I am a tad worried that she might try to sneak a toddler out of the country. No, she will not kidnap anyone else’s, but I worry that a “trip to the store” might really mean “heading to the orphanage”. [Note: I deeply admire people who adopt. My best friend adopted a child from Guatemala. I just want to state for the record that four is feeling like a full house right now. That is all.] To be honest, I do not really think Susie wants another baby, but I do find the photo binge amusing.
The sun is about to rise on the new day. We will be going to the Great Wall today. Hopefully, there will be no fires there!