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    Born to Run by Christopher McDougall - (K) Humorous and thorough history and science behind ultrarunners and long-distance running
    *****
    Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela - (K) An autobiography covering his childhood, years as a freedom fighter and incarceration. Inspiring and informative
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    The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón - (K&T) A mystery set in Barcelona involving an old book, a failed writer and murder
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    Lush Life by Richard Price - A Lower East Side tale of cops, drugs and drinking
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    The Chinese by Jesper Becker - (K&T) Modern history of my peeps, from the cultural revolution to the many failed economic and social attempts to move the country forward
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    Setting the Table by Danny Meyer - A "how-to" on hospitality and business acumen by the restaurateur behind such NY institutions as the Shake Shack and Union Square Grill
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    The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama - Obama lays out what is wrong with the current government and how, vaguely, to change it.
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Beijing

Cultural capital of China and home to The Forbidden City, 2008 Olympics, Peking Duck and the resting Mao Zedong. The official population is 17 million though government numbers are notouriusly wrong and many think the population could be closer to 22 million. Technically, residents have to have permission to live in Beijing (or any city for that matter), but many come anyways and face punishment because the pay is so much better in the city.

It is a big, interesting and incredibly polluted city where one European study found that the air was so bad that each day spent inhaling the city air was the equivalent of smoking 70 cigarettes.

This was really our first experience with this kind of air, which exists all down the east coast and it is pretty shocking. We had heard all the complaints during the Olympics, but did not take it all that seriously. But now after having visited, I can completely understand why teams at leats made threats about pulling out. On many days form Beijing, you can’t even see the sky through it all.

Beijing is also home to Tiananmen Square where Mao Zedong and The Communist Party proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and then in 1989 The Tiananmen Square Protests followed by the massacre occured here (and though it is unclear that anybody died in the actual square, it is thought that approx 2500 people were killed in and around the capital).

K and Papa Chow

K and Papa Chow

Despite being pretty templed out, we felt we needed to see Tiananmen and The Forbidden City – so called because it was forbidden for the people to visit during the Qing and Ming dynasties. Built in the 1400s, containing 980 buildings and covering  720,000 sq meters, it is located in the center of Beijing proper and is where the royalty lived and ruled from.

One surprise of China has been the coompletely out of proportion to local economy entrance fees to tourist attractions. A National park in Shangrilia cost us $30USD each and here the price ended up being something like  $20 USD. How anybody local else can afford this that isn’t upper middle class is beyond me but they either can or there is a way for locals to get incredibly reduced tickets elsewhere because it is pretty crowded.

Another surprise is that the complex as a whole is a bit run down. The rooms are dusty and starting to look dilapidated. Considering how much money this place must bring in, I’m surprised that they don’t take better care of it. On the flip side, if you know how much the Chinese love to see anything “famous”, I also realize that it doesn’t matter what they do. The people will arrive in droves.

They say you should spend a whole day here exploring, but we had enough after a couple of hours. Impressive in its size, its a bit of a bore to walk around and just listen to the details of the audio program that I’ve already forgotten. Instead, we tried to think of what it was like to live in this city within a city a few hundred years ago. With multiple buildings for all your wives and concubines, I’m sure the night life was pretty exciting 🙂

Mama Chow arrived the next day, fresh from Shanghai. You can always count on three things with Mama Chow – wit, good food and smoking and she didn’t disappoint us at all for the next two weeks as we traveled around Beijing and Shanghai.

Beijing still has a few old neighborhoods that survived all the construction for the Olympics – called hutongs – and we spent the next day just walking around them and sampling everyday life. We did not rent a bike because we were a bit worried about putting Mama and Papa Chow on one, but that would have been an ideal thing to do.

Hutong Alley

Hutong Alley

Another day we visited the Olympic Park where the Bird’s Nest Stadium, The Watercube, and many other brand new buildings and infrastructure built for the Olympics, including 683 acre Olympic Forest Park. So what do you do with a multi-billion dollar complex after you host the Olympics? Good question. While a building or two are still being used to train gymnaists or swimmers, many buildings now sit idle while the government tries to figure out what to do with them. Even the iconic Bird’s Nest has an unclear future and it is quite possible that it will be torn down in a few years as it is has no regular user and with its income probably cannot be sustained by just charging tourists a couple bucks to walk around it.

Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium

Another day we went to The Great Wall of China. We woke up early and rented a cab for the morning and headed to a section near Mutianyu, which is a bit less visited than other sections near Beijing. We got there at 8am, right when the cable car opened and had the wall to ourselves for at least 30 minutes. The Great Wall, while never actually serving any purpose, is one of the most amazing things we’ve ever seen. We hiked around a bit, but for the most part you can just sit there and look out across the countryside, trying to imagine what it must have been like to haul those giant boulders up the hillside for several lifetimes.

Action Shots on the Wall

Action Shots on the Wall

 

And to dispell a myth we’ve heard several times – You can’t see the Great Wall from space. It isn’t wide enough (only 30-40 ft).

We also spent an evening with our German friend Andreas that we met in Thailand a few months prior. He took us to a nice French restaurant where we had wine for the first time in months as well as proper restaurant service that included neither shouting or strange parts of a cow. It was a nice 1st world change of pace.

Working for Mercedes Benz, he had his fair share of stories of doing business in China that were both hilarious and comforting. Our favourite lines of his were his simple “Things here work, but they work differently” and “There is a logic here, but we cannot understand it”. This so accurately describes our adventures in China.

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