情人节快乐！ We took a break yesterday from running errands to celebrate Valentine's Day. The weather was unexpectedly beautiful for Beijing at any time of year. The coal dust parted and there was blue sky! The day was full of success, and provided a much needed reprieve from the crowds, sulfur, and bureaucratic headaches of the previous days. (Several hours were spent in vain trying various banks in the area, attempting to recharge the gas card to heat the radiators in our apartment)
Our first stop was a karaoke palace (钱柜）on the east side of the city. Karaoke to most Americans means a bar, but in China these establishments can run to hotel-quality. The marble foyer, for one, was a dead giveaway. The complimentary lunch buffet was extensive if not as delicious as the street food we've been having, and our private karaoke room was cushy, soundproofed, and equipped with a 50-inch TV.
Next we headed to one of Beijing's historic attractions for a nice view of the city's lakes from the top of the Drum Tower (gulou). The area, Houhai, still preserves some of Beijing's traditional four-walled compounds and the narrow streets that in other parts of town have been bulldozed to make way for skyscrapers (see below).
The lakes are still frozen but the bicycle taxis were out in full force. Jeremy bought me a long-stemmed rose for a third of the price asked by a street hawker earlier in the day. We sighted the "Catholic Church" of Beijing and an Italian restaurant wedged in one of the hutongs, got hungry and hopped in a cab. 45 minutes later, we were still in the cab, stuck in traffic somewhere in the vicinity of the international trade district and diplomatic quarters. The sun had gone down, ruining our half-formed plans of dining at the top of one of Beijing's posh (and I mean posh, as in live string quartets in the lobby) hotels, and we were now starving. Two Pizza Huts later (we didn't eat there - there were lines out the door and weren't in the mood anyway for baby corn with our pepperoni), we eventually stumbled upon a little hole in the wall, where for 6 dollars we dined on 4 dishes. The MSG and the second hand smoke nearly knocked us out.
The evening ended with a "foot" massage, which for 12 dollars included a leg, arm, and back massage as well. The massage parlor, like the karaoke establishment, was more hotel than salon. From what I could overhear of nearby conversations, business deals were being made while calluses were being removed. And I thought, how can I work things out so that all my business is conducted in a massage parlor?