Tuesday, April 25, 2006

China: Slight Return

A few years ago, when I heard that the 2008 Olympics were going to Beijing, my first thought was that I needed to make a trip over before they levelled the tattier parts of the city in order to impress foreign guests. My instinct proved correct. Earlier this month, I read an article which stated that the city had already razed 60% of the Hutongs, those old maze-like neighborhoods that date back 800 years to the Mongol times. So I booked a flight, and less than a week later, I went.

On arrival, I passed through a large crowd of people clamoring for space and waving placards with the names of passengers and hotels. I felt a little like a rock star. Where the crowd ended, the adventure begins. "Here we go," I thought. Within seconds , a taxi pimp approached. We haggled the price down some, but not before I was reminded of my position in this country as a foreign tourist and therefore, a mark. Driving into town, I was further thrust into the memory of my last visit to China. The scenes were the same: of traffic and dust and crowds. A bus had overturned, crushing a guardrail flat, and strewing luggage down a hillside. The passengers stood milling about, the foreign faces looking dazed, while the Chinese ones looked bored. My driver slowed a bit to join the other rubberneckers, then we headed on into the neon glow of Beijing.

Nine years back, I had meandered the Chinese countryside, trying to stick to a $15 dollar a day budget, sleeping in the cheapest of digs. This time around, my lodgings were the posh Capital Hotel, midway between Tienanmen Square and the Beijing Train Station, terminus for the Trans-Siberian Express. Sitting in the lobby of my hotel, I nursed a $5 dollar bottle of Tsingtao beer and sinking into the fatigue of a long travel day, which had culminated in a 20-minute bounce down through strong Gobi winds.

Looking from my 10th floor window the next morning, my view of the neon had been replaced by yellow sand. Back in the 'Nog, it'll occasionally dust my car or make the edges of the horizon appear hazy. Here it hung thick, and I could barely make out buildings a few blocks away. Below me, the dust coated the rooves of the building which had been part of the Foreign Legation before 1949. All the dust and the sandy sky made the whole city appear two-dimensional. My head felt about as hazy as the sky, so I went downstairs for coffee. At the buffet table, a young woman was busy loading up on rolls and bacon and dim sum, stuffing it all into a box which was beginning to round and turn gray with grease. When she could pillage no more, she walked quickly out of the cafe. The staff sat silently smiling. I had this fantasy that she was the eldest daughter of a poor neighborhood family and had set out in her best clothes to get provisions for her family. I later found out that the buffer was cheaper if you took the food up to your room. My impressions from my previous China trip dying fast, I headed out into the street in order to form new ones.

It was a short ten minute walk to Tienanmen Square. On the way I passed a few wanna-be guides and some squawking postcard salesmen (Wili Lo Man?). The two massive gates at the south end of the square were covered in scaffolding. A few gates in the Forbidden City, along with some of its buildings were also covered, with those bamboo tinker-toy spiderwebs so beloved by Chinese laborers. Looking through the yellow air, the city skyline was a forest of cranes. Beijing was in the midst of getting a facelift. It reminded me of Shanghai a decade ago. In his book, "Riding the Iron Rooster," Paul Theroux writes about a 1986 Peking, "[It was] as if someone had simply sent out a decree saying, 'Build this city.'" Now, twenty years later, the IOC had done exactly that. Perhaps I'd already come to Beijing too late.

I walked on into the Square. It was a weekday in the spring, but it seemed there were a billion Chinese here--half of them yelling at each other. A couple hundred were lining up to enter Mao's mausoleum. (Great band name, that.) I tried to join the queue, but a few people started hollering at me. Finally one said in English, "No bag," gesturing at my daypack. He pointed at another long queue across the street, presumably where I could check my pack. I simply smiled and moved on. I'll come back another time. The Chairman's not going anywhere.

I wandered about the large open space of the Square, stepping into people's photos, people stepping into mine. It was too crowded to check out of reality and reflect on the history here, including what had happened to the students in '89. (I'd been a student myself at the time, watching CNN coverage from the safety of my Tucson bed.) For incredible documentation of the event, I recommend the film, "Gate of Heavenly Peace."

My feet led me through the various arches into the Forbidden City. It was nearing lunch time, and many old-timers were sitting around with tea and lunch. Unlike recent Japanese sakura revellers and their blue tarps, the Chinese preferred to sit directly on the dusty ground. In fact, the only tarps I did see were being used in construction; those of the striped variety, familiar to me from my time in Hong Kong.

The Forbidden City too was crowded, so I decided not to linger too long in the exhibit rooms. Better to wander across the cracked stone courtyards and pick up the vibe. Here was a hall with a big chair. Here, a hall with more big chairs. Here, an even bigger chair. They looked uncomfortable and I immediately channeled my step-father saying "They look like a royal pain in the ass." All these chairs and the crowds were making me get tourist burnout pretty quickly. So, rather than be annoyed by all the tourists, I decided to watch them. The group leaders would wave their little flags, leading their charges in their identical baseball caps. One team actually had green (knock-off) Nike swooshes. Besides these groups, every school child in Beijing was here today, in their identical blue sweatsuits. I eavedropped a little. Some years ago, I'd studied Chinese for a few months and was curious how much I remembered. Surprisingly, I could still pick out certain words. But one baffled me. I heard a guide saying something like, "Staw Basch." Looking to where she was pointing I had to laugh. There's actually a Starbucks in the Forbidden City. Coffee culture is now officially everywhere.

Exiting through a side gate, I followed a small willow-lined canal into the center of the Beijing. I eventually wound up at Huang Ting restaurant. It may be in the bowels of a posh hotel; it may be made up to resemble a 1930's Hollywood version of classic China, but here I had one of the best meals of my life. The highlight of the multiple courses was a grilled pigeon, washed down with a fine Aussie Chard. I left the place slightly and merrily buzzed. And so passed the rest of the afternoon, strolling around trendy Wangfujian. I really admired the signs. The boast of "Impossible is Nothing." And my personal fave of the day, "Mr Lee--California Beef Noodle King." I wanna see his crown. There was a huge figure of a basketballer dunking a ball onto the roof of a tall sports store. (Earlier at the hotel, I'd caught part of a Houston Rockets game on satellite. With Yao Ming now in the NBA, basketball is massive in China.) I lingered awhile in the square in front of St. Joseph's Church, watching old women gossip and young toughs do stunts on their mountain bikes. In one corner of the square was a statue of the founder of this religion--himself having gotten a Mandate of Heaven 2000 years ago. On one of the small side streets, a couple cyclo drivers reclined in the saddle, playing a board game with pieces the size of jam jar lids.

Back at Tienanmen Square, I noticed an attractive girl waving at me. When I approached her, she said to me, "Sit down and rest awhile." Her boyfriend and she were students hoping to practice their English. When they found out I taught yoga, they had me repeat the word, not quite realizing it wasn't English. We also chatted in Japanese, which the girl had also studied. I probably taught her more words in that language than in my own. They in turn praised my Chinese pronunciation. And so we sat enjoying the sun which had finally burned the yellow sand from the air. A few PSB guys passed by to check us out, looking like scarecrows in their over-sized uniforms. I noticed no crow during my stay in Beijing, but these guys didn't scare me, and it wasn't until the shadows grew long and the crowd thinned that I said my goodbyes.

Heading back through the Square, slaloming around the postcard touts and the statues of Revolutionary Heroes. Two women stood on either side of a quiet tree-lined street playing badminton. Boot camp yells came from beyond a high mysterious wall. A derelict poet sat against a wall, scribbling his latest masterpiece. A few blocks on, I came across a restaurant whose name I recognized, so I sat at a formica table and was served up greasy duck and warm beer by surly waitresses. I didn't linger long. Five minutes later I walked past another restaurant with the same name, and realized that I'd just eaten at its shabbier cousin. (Pa Ti Duk?) I strolled on, each block revealing a theme--of shops standing side by side, each carrying identical goods. There were barber shops, then shoe stores, then stand-up noodle joints. Finally I came to the theatre where they had the acrobats.

I was led for some reason to the large plush velvet seats of the VIP section. Next, I was given jasmine tea and Oreos. I had this entire section to myself, making me feel like I was on a Japanese train. Nine years ago, I'd seen an acrobat show in Shanghai, which I'd later recommended to an especially liberal friend, who later retorted, "Child labor." (Well, there is that, I suppose.) Where the Shanghai show had been amazing and professional and error free, this one was amateur hour. Which added to the appeal. The choreography and grandious gestures were pure camp. Best of all was the music, which I'd classify as 1980's Suburban Mall Moog. The Asians have nearly perfected kitsch. Throughout the show, my mouth got quite a workout, alternating between slack-jawed amazement and clench-lipped stiffle of laughter. I wondered if any of these performers would appear at any Olympic ceremonies. Most were great, but a few had a ways to go. When any of the jugglers would drop something, I immediately thought, "No dinner tonite." When one girl dropped bowls on three seperate occasions, it was, "No rice 'til the weekend." With the show over, I relinquished my VIP status and left the theatre full of mirth, quickly catching a taxi in order to escape the cold wind once again blowing sand into the sky...

On the turntable: Jerry Garcia, "Garcia Plays Dylan"
On the nighttable: Paul Theroux, "Riding the Iron Rooster"

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