The farther east one goes, the more Western everything looks. By the time I got to Beijing, I felt completely at home. The city is urban, and filled with people who have a sense of where they're going and what they're doing. It also didn't hurt to stay at a 3-star hotel.
There was a sense of urgency from the minute I got there, since I would only be staying for 2 days. It was a bit annoying that there were so many dependencies on time. The group of Australians I met on the train to Irkutsk mentioned that they could use an extra person on their trip to the Great Wall, and that they would get in touch with me. Of course, they didn't give me any of their details, and to be polite, I would have to wait. I got to the hotel at 4:30, took a shower, and went downstairs to find that the tourist desk had closed at 5, and that that had been my last chance to book my own trip in case they didn't call (which they never did).
When I was in Mongolia I met an Irish couple who stayed at my hotel. They mentioned that there was a clerk at the hotel who had taken them on a tour for free, because he wanted to be a tour guide and was looking to practise his English. It sounded interesting to me, not because it was free (I would gladly pay something, even so), but because I might have a chance to fashion a one-on-one tour. I found that most of the experienced tour guides were on automatic pilot, and I was hoping to talk to someone who lived in Beijing to find out more about their experiences and opinions. This fellow's name was Benjamin, and I thought it was certainly worth a try. I asked the person checking me into the hotel whether Benjamin was around. That was him. He couldn't really talk about it in front of everyone else, so he said he would call me later that evening. On the other hand, I resolved to stay out as late as I could, since my time there was precious. His first duty as tour guide was to send me to a good restaurant, and he wrote down the name of a place that serves hot pot.
The name and address of the place was written on a card, and I had a similar card that came with my room key, which said in Chinese, "Please take me to " for the taxi drivers. At that moment I started to feel sympathy for all the Japanese businessmen I saw in New York who didn't know what planet they were on. I got in a taxi, showed the driver the card, and he looked like it was OK with him. Beijing taxis are metered, which increased my confidence. We arrived where we were going (I think), and he pointed to the corner.
Looking around, I wasn't sure of exactly where I was supposed go, so I took the card and looked at the signs. I saw a sign in front of a restaurant that was somewhat like the card, but not quite. The restaurant looked kind of humble, and no sign of anyone eating hot pot. Also, no sign of any other restaurant. There was a waitress hanging around in the doorway, and I showed her the card. Was this it? She looked a bit puzzled. Since I don't speak any Mandarin and she didn't speak any English, there were a lot of hand motions. I finally opened my guide book and looked for an appropriate phrase. The only thing I could find was, "I'm lost", and we both started laughing hysterically. In any case, I figured, while I'm here, I might as well have dinner if I were still hungry I would look for the other place. She took me upstairs, and what do you know? There were people eating hot pot. I negotiated one for myself and got a menu, and at that point (the one thing I probably could have done in Mandarin would have been to read the menu), an incredibly nice customer who spoke English took pity and came to help me out.
Hot pot, to clarify, is a way of cooking at the table. You get boiling broth (or water), and a variety of food to throw in. When it's ready, you fish it out with a net. The Chinese call it Mongolian hot pot, and I never saw it in Mongolia. The story goes that Mongolian soldiers used their shields to cook, but I think in this sense "Mongolian" means "exotic". In Mongolia, "Mongolian" means "mutton", and the Japanese avoid the whole origin issue by calling it Shabu-shabu. In New York there are some excellent, all-you-can-eat hot pot places, with all kinds of peculiar things for you to boil. Tonight's dinner was nice, and nicer still because it was familiar. Having had a diet of foreign food for the last few weeks, it was great to eat normally again! I showed a cab driver my little card, and with no trouble he got me back to my hotel.
As soon as I got in I had a call from Benjamin, who was still being a bit daggeroso. We resolved to meet the next morning to look at his proposal still nothing definite. So I spent the rest of the night reading up on what I would probably do by myself the next day. I had heard that of all the things worth seeing, the Summer Palace was probably the thing to see. I figured that Tiananmen and the Forbidden City had to be on the list, otherwise I would never forgive myself. The last item was a tour of the Hutongs, or old neighborhoods. These little alleys were being cleared away for the modern high-rise buildings in Beijing, and had a lot of character.
As it turned out, Benjamin couldn't do anything until Sunday, so I would go out on my own. I thought I might save some money and take in the scenery with a bus, but I was turning around in too many circles. The one good thing about getting confused was that I found a cart with chicken buns on the street, and got 3 of them for breakfast. I'm still a little confused, since I didn't think you found rice flour in the north, but they were good. The man selling the buns thought it was hilarious that I wanted them. If he knew something about the buns that I didn't, I'm glad we had trouble communicating. In any case, I stuck out my arm and found a taxi. Again, I needed some way to tell the driver where I was going. In Russian, I'm a moron, but in Mandarin I'm a mute. I found the page in the guide book for the Summer Palace, which had the name of the Summer Palace in Chinese (I hoped). We drove and drove, and he finally let me off where there were lots of souvenir shops a sure sign I was near something, if not where I wanted to go. There were two French guys, and if I couldn't ask in Chinese, at least I could ask in a language that wasn't English! Not only did that bolster some of my bruised self-esteem, but yes, it was the Summer Palace.
The Summer Palace has to be one of the most breathtaking things that I've ever seen. It's set around an artificial lake, and is built with symmetry and beauty. There are temples and buildings spread all over the grounds, with another lake at the back. Since it was Saturday, there were a lot of people who were out, and a large number of tourists (mostly Chinese) were taking pictures. I took a lot of pictures, since not only was it beautiful, taking pictures gives the solitary tourist something to do. Some parts you had to pay extra for -- in Beijing tourist attractions they have a way of nickel-and-diming you. I wasn't going to quibble over such small amounts, which is what they counted on, but I was constantly finding myself waiting for tickets. One of the high points was that a woman walked up to me and asked me where I was from. We had a small conversation and she told me she was from Shanghai, and was also a tourist. She said I looked like a friendly person, so she would walk up and say hello. I knew I was in the vacation mode at that point, since those things don't happen when you're on your way home from work and very self-involved.
Of course, near any tourist attraction, you find the usual riff-raff. A man asked to borrow my pen. I lent it to him, thinking he wanted to write something. It turned out, he wrote on my pen in Chinese, something to the effect of "A memento of my visit to the Summer Palace", for which, of course, he wanted to get paid. I told him he could keep the pen. He bargained, but I still didn't want it, so after 5 minutes' extra grief, he finally left me alone. As I found with the pedicab drivers at the border, people in China can be very aggressive when they want something. Later that day in Tiananmen Square, there were pedicab drivers offering to drive me 100 feet, people selling lighters, postcards, and even tickets to the Forbidden City (which was closing). No sooner did one finish harranging, but another would step up and start, so that I had a constant escort.
Tiananmen Square is nice. It has a Woodstock-like atmosphere, and is not hard to see why the students felt comfortable here. There were people taking pictures of each other, people flying kites, and more riff-raff trying to see what they could get. I had thought I might feel some ghosts here but I really couldn't. There were a lot of happy people, happy to be tourists in Beijing, happy to have their picture taken in front of Mao's portrait and other places that their friends at home would recognise. In fact, I was probably the only person taking pictures of things rather than people, and even though I had 8 rolls of film I was among the conservative ones. Several people gave me their cameras so they could all be in a photo, and the cameras were usually more expensive than mine. Not at all what I expected.
After half-an-hour in Tiananmen Square I walked over to the Forbidden City. I watched the honor guard for a while, and then stood on line for a ticket. I then waited a half-hour to leave my bag. This turned out to have been one of the biggest scams I've ever witnessed. The ticket wasn't for the Forbidden City it was for the Tiananmen gate. The only attraction is that it overlooks the square. There was a souvenir shop that sold Mao pocket watches and other tasteful memorabilia, but that was it, not counting the tourists, who were snapping pictures all over the place. After 10 minutes I was out the other side wondering whether I'd missed something. I had, in fact, since the real Forbidden City was going to close in 10 minutes.
I was pretty mad. So were a pair of Tibetan monks, who were making a scene. But, believe it or not, there was a hawker who offered me a ticket to the Forbidden City. He followed me and badgered me, and had the nerve to ask for 80 yuan for a ticket. I told him he was crazy, because even if the ticket was real, the Forbidden City was closed. "OK, 60!" he yelled. I must say I admire his determination. At this point I ran into a European-looking fellow, asked whether the Forbidden City was really closed (it was), and got into a discussion.
The fellow was Italian, and travelling for a year. He was particularly interested in Central Asia (which piqued my interest), and was currently trying to get to Urumqi. He was also in the process of applying for an Uzbek visa. We ended up going for dinner. Not very far away from Tiananmen Square is a food court which he had found the night before. It has different foods from all parts of China, with local employees wearing native dress from various places. The concept is a bit brain-damaged, but all things considered, the food wasn't bad. We chatted for a while, and then parted ways. Before going back, I sampled some of the stores and the sights. It was all very impressive, and I didn't feel at all nervous walking around at night and not knowing the language. I might be very wrong on this one, but it felt like a very happy and vibrant city. It's affluent, new, glitzy and consumerish, and perhaps some day someone will explain to me how it's also communist.
The next day was my tour with Benjamin. We had a big day planned, which started at 8AM. The first thing we did was to go on the hutong tour. Because the alleys are narrow, we took a pedicab. I have to say it was a little strange having someone pedal us around, but these things are slow enough that you see everything. Every so often we had to get out so the driver could take the cab out of a pothole. The thing about the hutongs is that you can see the plan for Chinatowns all over the world. Even though the architecture is different, this could have been New York everything takes place on the street. And it was refreshing to see a bit of real life, even though it's fast disappearing.
I was much happier doing this than walking on the Great Wall, given my two-day stay. When you tour places they always show you palaces and churches, and your vision of things gets a bit skewed. Yes, it's wonderful to see all the great achievements, but some of the most trivial achievements to me are major. When I meet someone from a new place, I always ask about their music, food and language. To me, these are forms of technology that put every human being on an equal footing regardless of how rich they or their country are, and show people's real creativity in the best light.
Throughout the the day I talked with my tour guide. Discussions ranged from the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade to computers, music, exercise, history, Chinese language, business, careers and whatever else came to mind. He's a normal 23-year-old with normal concerns, and it was interesting to hear them. Where I could, I tried to give him helpful advice with his career. Since we had the entire day and it was one-to-one, there was enough time to explain when either of us didn't find a joke funny, or wanted to explore the finer points of something. It was a great way to see Beijing, and I thought he was very nice. We've kept in touch through e-mail, which is another great leveler of the playing field.
We visited the house of Madame Sun Yat-sen, and the looked at Beihai Park, which was another royal park. It really is good to be king! Here, the emperor had the time to name all the trees, which kept his mind off less important things. I was particularly impressed with the "Marquis of Shade", whose name reminded me of a French nobleman no less decadent than the emperor. Beihai Park has a number of Buddhist shrines, and though they're interesting, I didn't take any pictures out of respect. The odd thing was that in the museum, I there was a picture of a Buddha, and I saw some tourists making devotions to the picture.
Lunch was a treat, though not for reasons of cuisine. It was in a tiny restaurant behind Beihai Park. There was one new dish that I tried, which was pine nuts, corn and cucumber in a sweetish-tasting brown sauce, and that was nice. But the best part was when one of the customers called over the waitress and showed her something floating around in the soup. She didn't care, and he made a scene and refused to pay. This is very New York-style entertainment, which I found very refreshing.
The rest of the afternoon we walked and looked at different parts of downtown Beijing. I fnally visited the Forbidden City. We saw the night-market stalls setting up (though alas, they weren't serving food yet), department stores and the hotels that I will never be able to afford. We were due for a performance at 7 at the Lao She Teahouse, right near Tienanmen Square. I even got to see the Square at night, which was very nice. I had the sense not to take night pictures without a tripod, but overruled it in the heat of the moment.
The Lao She Teahouse was great. I had thought about going to see the opera, Benjamin thought it would be too long and boring. (He didn't realize that I'd been an ethnomusicologist in an earlier life.) The teahouse was his counter-offer. Basically, what they do is present you with a bit of every kind of Chinese entertainment. You sit at a table with sweets, watermelon seeds and tea, and they present a variety show. The first act was an orchestra with a singer, the next was a woman who sang a very dramatic piece from an opera. There was a man who said a long tounge-twister of a poem (I believe it was about a bug), and a few oddball acrobatics. One act was a woman who juggled umbrellas with her feet, and another who walked on eggs without breaking them. But my favorite was a woman who placed a bit in her mouth, three flower pots on the bit, three lit candles in the flower pots, and then sang a song while she played the drum. She turned to the side to show that she was doing an honest day's work, and you could see the whole assembly in her clenched teeth. The act finished with 2 men who did an odd style of acting. One sits in front, without being able to see the other. The man in back says things, to which the one in front has to act. Benjamin told me that Ricky Martin got his start doing this, though I'd like to check into this first before shocking the world with this news.
All in all, the trip to Beijing was great, though again, I'm going to have to study Mandarin and make a return visit. The city is enormous, and I would really like to take my time.
A postcard, thoughtfully provided as a memento of the Lao-she teahouse.