Thursday, April 27, 2006

Beijing Bicycle

The hutong were calling, so I got on a bicycle and went. Earlier that morning at the hotel, I was shown my choices of bikes: mountain, road, superior, giant. No pictures or descriptions. Mine was one of Beijing's eight million bicycles, (which outnumber cars 4 to 1) and I joined the commuters heading into the central part of the city. I followed the canals into and around the Fobbiden City, then on into the hutong, weaving between brick walls which hid courtyards and narrow passageways. I biked for hours, trying to become part of the scene. An old woman lay on a wooden cart as her equally old husband towed her, pedalling along. Unemployed men played cards. Kids yelled from doorways. Old women gossipped in the street, and a few of them used colorful new exercise equipment, pumping their legs slowly as they talked about Miss Chen and have ya seen the length of her skirts recently? Some people sat on low stools reading. In one doorway, I saw a girl sewing. I didn't take her picture because there was no need. There was eternity in that scene. Someone had been sitting in the same doorway doing the same thing since Mongol times. A couple people walked dogs. Here in China, animals are more often food than pets. I saw few dogs and no cats at all. In the hutong, one image was constant. Through a passageway, I see a single bicycle leaning against a wall, with another passage leading to the left. Again and again, block after block.

My bike also led me out onto some of the bigger streets. I saw a guy on a mountain bike wearing a cowboy hat. Outside a bridal shop, an employee stood in a white tux. Not the best choice for this polluted air. But today the sand was light. Instead, small pieces of white fluff floated and drifted everwhere. I know it is pollen, but it was if a gigantic duck had exploded high over the city. And once again, it was the signs which kept me amused. Babe Salon. Pink Mao Mao. Bling. I saw many "Sex Shops" and a "Herbal Heaven, " so a rock'n'roll joint is sure to follow. I also noticed the Chinese for Starbucks uses the star kanji.

After a lunch in the sunny courtyard of Passby Bar, I changed my hotel to Hao Yuan guesthouse. Located in the hutong, its large and classic rooms formed a figure-eight around two courtyards. I seemed to have the back courtyard to myself. My room was done in the old style, with dark wooden furniture and red fabric. It was one of the nicest places I've stayed and I didn't want to leave. I took my book and sat in the courtyard, looking at the fish and flowers and trees. Tiny birds sang in small bamboo cages. (Don't know why.) When it grew too dark to read, I got a traditional Chinese massage from a guy in a long white lab-coat. He pawed me like a cat, which I presumes brings blood to the skin's surface. It was relaxing at first, but after an hour, it felt like he was my older brother picking on me. I wanted to cry, "Mom! Make him quit it!"

I was the only diner in a small restaurant on the opposite side of the courtyard. Later I sat outside in the dark, looking at the moon. It was a warm night, and the sounds of the city were beginning to hush. It stayed awhile enjoying the quiet, fully engulfed by the city's embrace.

I left for the airport at six the next morning. My driver looked quite the hipster, in his funky clothes and cool shades. He further won me over by playing Dave Matthews on the stereo. But this was to change when he then played a CD by some clone boy band. I hate such pop pap at any time, but this early in the morning it becomes agony. Yet this driver had a few surprises. He pulled down the sun visor on the passenger side of the car, revealing a small TV screen. Alright buddy, you're cool.

There was little traffic, so I had plenty of time before my flight. There were a few small groups of Koreans about. I'd seen a lot more in town. It suddenly hit that I hadn't seen a single Japanese in Beijing. That's the first time that's ever happened. Like Germans and Australians, you seem to run into them in the most remote corners of the world. And Japanese products were scarce. Even cars. VWs, on the other hand, were thick on the ground. Nice work Koizumi. Enjoy that Yasukuni sake.

I sat with Theroux's book, occasionally looking throught the dusty air to new buildings being built across the tarmac. This visit had been good to me, much different than the last one, where I couldn't wait to leave. But has China changed, or have I? It's hard to do a true comparison. Last time I'd stayed deep in the country, in areas that get few "foreign guests." I realize that being a city, Beijing is different . But I'd been to Shanghai. Although by the time I'd gotten there, I was already pretty frazzled by seven weeks of hard travel. Just kept my head down and tried to blend, no longer finding the stares amusing. On my last trip, I think I'd been slightly intimidated by being in a communiust country for the first time. Being American, fear of the Reds is part of the mythology. (I still feel strongly that I missed out on never having gone to Eastern Europe when it was behind the Iron Curtain.) This trip, I barely acknowledged the ideology of my hosts, whereas before I'd looked for signs of it everywhere. And most important: this time, money didn't seem the be the primary focus of Chinese life, an incredibly strong impression I'd brought home. Now, I could travel more freely, be harrassed less. A trip back into the countryside should see if this change is a national trend, or just applies to moneyed Beijing. I'll brush up on my language skills in the meantime.

As my plane neared Japan, I looked down at a sea of pointillest waves. Where Chiba began, there was a massive, dense cloud which looked like a block of tofu. In Japan, there's a dish where a small living fish is slowly heated in water. It tries to escape by swimming into tofu and cool. But there it boils to death. I felt like this fish as we entered the cloud. Then I noticed what looked like lightning hitting our wing. I wasn't sure until I saw a stewardess take a phone call, then look out the window. And again, electrical lines wriggled down the wing. Our pilot then came on to confirm that we had indeed been struck twice, but we'd be OK. As the clouds thinned, they streaked the sky. I could tell their altitude by how big our shadow was as it passed across the surface of one. Then we were down.

Tokyo of course had changed little in four days. But after Beijing, to me it felt emptier. No doubt this is the first time in the history of the world that someone has thought so. In many ways Beijing is a more beautiful city than Tokyo. For all the dust and dirt, there is a greater sense of space. Tokyo, though scrubbed nearly spotless, feels more cluttered. It all comes down to a different sense of what is "clean." Some of the most spotless Japanese homes can have closets and hallways piled high with useless crap that's long outserved its impulsive purpose. Some spring cleaning is due.

On the turntable: Jerry Garcia Band, "Pure Jerry 2"

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