Thursday, March 13, 2008
Today was my big tourist day in Beijing, which had been arranged for me, at my hotel, by my friend Hong Cai. Out at 8, drove to a hotel to pick up a British couple, and wait for a late arrival, who turned out to be quite interesting: an Iranian who grew up in Sweden, working for a law firm in Shanghai, and visiting Beijing. I tried to write down his brother's name, who evidently is a big Iranian rock star (although I'm not sure whether he does this in Iran). I had tracked it down at one point, but no longer seem to be able to find it; in any case, this guy's brother opened up the Middle East MTV Awards, and this guy himself was pretty interesting to talk with. The British couple were quite nice, quite British, very much oriented toward shopping, which no doubt endeared them to our tour folks, given the thrust of this tour. They all seemed surprised when I dared to utter a couple of words in Chinese, which seemed somewhat miraculous to them. Fortunately, they didn't know if I said any of it correctly or not, and I wasn't pressing the issue.
The first stop was the Great Wall (and no one ever called it just "The Wall"). The usual thing one reads from the sophisticated types is to knock it: it's crumbling in many places, it's touristy, it's kitschy. All true, but I thought it was cool. Admittedly, the product of slave labor, and not all that effective at keeping out the alien hordes (like the Manchu, giving China its last dynasty). But it is really quite amazing, and I was surprised at how steep it was. I climbed up a ways, got the standard pictures taken, got a little card describing me as a "hero" for having gotten even that far. My Iranian colleague went much farther, but I just wanted to look around. There were also some temples there, that allowed one to enter and leave the tourist kitsch behind and get all tranquil. I liked that. Even though I was at one of the most touristy locations to see the Great Wall, I was overwhelmed by its scale. I imagine much farther out, it can be spectacular.
Then off to a place where they practiced traditional Chinese medicine, focusing on herbs. (No, not the Jamaican kind.) We were told about a bunch of things I immediately forgot, then got put into a room, where a guy in a white coat came and gave us some tea and then talked at us. I'm pretty sure it was English, but I had no idea what he was saying the entire time; to leave was impossible, and it wasn't clear that we might not be trapped there forever, hearing this very nice man lecturing at us in incomprehensible syllables forever. After about 20 minutes, another doctor came in, and examined our palms to check out if we were in balance. Somehow, I passed inspection, and was pronounced quite healthy. On checking with my fellow tourists, they too had no idea what was being said the entire time.
Then off to the Jade factory, where we got a nice little lecture (this time in comprehensible and good English) about Jade. Then a rather aggressive set of sales pitches. I dropped 300 kuai ($40?) on some earrings for Emma, the cheapest thing I could find. Jade is interesting stuff, and some of the things done with it were extraordinary. But I was hoarding my money, and I'm not much for bling on any continent. We also had an unremarkable meal, with much discussion about using kuaizi (chopsticks). (I'm writing this with a bit of pinyin, much of which is probably wrong, but I don't know how to do characters here.) The Brits bought stuff; the Iranian didn't. After awhile, when whatever money that could be pried from us had been, we were off.
Then to the tomb of the Ming Emperors. The Chinese Emperors took their tombs pretty seriously, and this place was vast. It didn't take much of a Marxist to see the contrast between how the big shots lived, and how those who did all the work lived, and the enormous gap between the two. But lots of nice woodwork, enamel, jade, and clothing, set in an archictural setting that was stunning. This was a place to which I would return, with more time and a bit more background knowledge. Our tour guide seemed pretty much insistent on us knowing two things: that somehow the "God in Heaven" was involved in all of this (he said it as if there were a number of alternate locales for God), and that everyone in China was Han Chinese. Both of these points were made by him about 1,000 times, with unclear relevance.
Our final stop was the silk factory—again, a place to extricate hard currency from the foreign devils. I didn't buy anything except some cream made out of silkworms for Robyn. It was simply too expensive, although I thought long and hard about some silk pajamas for Henry. (The Brits came through, buying a quilt, a cover, pillows: I figured they were help making up for past British behavior in the Middle Kingdom.) We did get to see how silk was made, beginning with the little guys chewing on mulberry leaves and being harvested (I've been told that the empty silk carcasses are a treat for Chinese children, but I didn't try any). Then how it is, eventually, turned into a lovely product, just ready for your Western dollars to facilitate taking some home. Our guide there was cool; she spoke outstanding English, and while she certainly thought we would be better human beings if we bought some stuff, she had more of an ironic and sarcastic approach than I usually encounted among such folks. There was also a fashion show—I couldn't find my pictures of it—for the four of us, with a walkway, different models, etc.. That was a bit weird, since there were more models than viewers.
This was a long day, and a long drive back. I had a quick fresh down; since this was my last day in Beijing, and I had only seen a tiny portion of it, I at least wanted to see some things close by the hotel. Fortunately, that meant WangFuJing DaJie, the huge shopping street in Beijing, along with its famous blocks of food stalls. (Pictured above; I have no idea who that guy is, but I quickly gave up the fool's errand of trying to take pictures in China without some person walking into or through the frame.) I checked them out, was able to identify some things, guess at others, and remained wholly clueless about many of the items on offer. I didn't even know one could eat starfish.
This is also where I first ran into locals who wished, evidently, to have conversations with me. I'd heard about this, and wasn't really up for talking. Nor was I sure conversations were actually what the goal was; cynically enough, I had a feeling that such phenomena would end up with me spending money on something. After nicely saying "No thank you" in English to the first few—all women—I then switched to Chinese, "Bu yao, shieh shieh" (which more or less means "Don't want any, thanks"). Finally, as the evening got later and the approaches got more insistent, I switched to German. I was the only person anywhere within 100 miles wearing shorts, along with socks, so I had the German tourist look down. So I started just saying "Bitte, ich habe kein Chineschen. Ich kann nur Deutsch sprechen," and that worked like a charm.
A long day, full of many sites, some famous for their historical value, some famous for their contemporary value, all part of the amazing feast for the senses that is China. I would definitely go back to Beijing, and spend a lot more time there. My one big regret was not seeing the Olympic sites, especially the "Bird's Nest" stadium. But the city is enormous, and I was completely on my own this day, so I saw what I could, and finally headed back to the hotel and got ready to fly to Nanjing.