Sunday, August 30, 2009

All I wanted to do was go home, part 2

When I was last in Beijing I had taken a quick trip to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City before catching a plane to Spain. I didn’t have much time and the trip was nothing more than a brisk walk in the sub-zero temperatures, a ride down the subway and the entry to the outer ring of the old palaces. It was fun but I wanted more and I figured that today I’d take in one of the other sites – The Temple of Heaven.

The map the concierge gave me showed it as a straight shot with one left turn and so I left the hotel and headed off in what I supposed to be the proper direction. Given my luck so far that day I guess should have made a plan and then done precisely the opposite of whatever I thought was correct. And as it turned out it would have been a pretty smart thing to do. But at that moment I was determined to turn things around.

The first thing I passed was a Starbucks and I considered throwing it all away for an iced Americano but I overcame that urge and planned to stop in at the conclusion of my trip. I walked on past a shopping mall fooling telling myself that it was the one I was seeing on the map. If that was true, this was going to be a short walk. It was 2:30.

A block or so down the road I found myself the Shangjiang subway station. Now this made no sense if the map was correct because it meant I was walking in the wrong direction. Luckily there were street signs here and this one was telling me that I was at the Third Ring Road which added to the confusion. Taking my bearings I decided the best course was to head back the way I had come, because clearly I had it backwards and the map was wrong – the hotel was not where it showed it to be. This was not a big surprise because the tourist maps here are often incorrect. Things are in the general area that they claim to be but often on the opposite side of the street. “Close enough” is good in horseshoes and Chinese maps.

I found a policeman a bit down the road and asked him if I was heading in the proper direction. He started out telling me it was too far to walk – everything in China is too far to walk, which makes me wonder how Mao managed to bring his army along on the Long March. I repeated that I wanted to walk and asked him if this was the correct way – he pointed down the road and said, “yes.”

I kept checking landmarks and street signs and for a while it looked as though I was going the right way. I passed under an elevated train and over a river, right where they should be. Further down the road I went by another shopping mall, this time the correct one for sure and after getting funneled into a dead end bus queue I recovered and kept moving forward. But one thing was troubling me, the CCTV building was looming on my right and I knew from my January trip that it really shouldn’t be there. And it’s hard to misplace a building, right? Of course being a world famous landmark it the map designers might have thought to include it? No on both counts. I went past a subway station that I could not find and then was disturbed to see the Shangri La Hotel off to my left where it really didn’t belong. I stopped in the shade of a construction wall (those are really handy here) and tried to orient the map relative to the hotel discovering that I had been walking in the wrong direction for the better part of an hour. It was 3:20 and thankfully the day was cool by Beijing standards.

Taking stock of my situation – the map was correct and the policeman dead wrong – I turned around and headed back. I was less bothered by the fact that I had wasted all that time covering all those blocks than I was about my feet – my socks were getting pretty sweaty and being stranded they were the only pair I had. I figured I’d deal with that one later and kept on walking, wondering if they would dry by tomorrow if I gave them a sink washing.

I once again passed the mysterious subway station and stopped – at this point it made perfect sense to just get on the tube and cut out some of the leg work. Down I went into the wonderfully air conditioned station.

The attendant helped me to negotiate the token machine which had some bad news for me – I could take a straight shot down Line 10 but the walk from the station to the Temple was about equal to what would have been my original trek had I been able to actually read and trust the map. It didn’t matter, I was on a mission and I was not about to fail. It was 3:50. The Line 10 car was pretty empty, no doubt due to the fact that it was a dead-ending spur and not a cross-town. I grabbed a seat and enjoyed the ten minute ride.

Subway stations in China have the tendency to lie directly below major intersections. This can be nice because if you’re smart you can come out and not have to cross streets to go where you want to go. Or, if you’re like me you can just pick one and exit and hope it’s the right one. I stopped for a moment to make believe I could read a sign that might have something to do with the location of the temple and picked the closest exit.

Up on the street I had two choices - left or right – and so a 50% chance of picking it. At this point I was sort of beyond caring and so I went right, figuring if I was wrong I’d run into the big highway that the map said was off to the left. I headed down the street trying to stay in shade patches as much as possible. I was in regular neighborhoods now, away from the commercial districts that I’d been walking through. People were going about their late afternoon business and every once in a while I would pass a little group of four or five wearing red armbands with gold writing that said something like “volunteer guard.” I hoped they were not there to report suspicious foreigners and they must not have been as they studiously ignored me as I wandered by.

Street signs were starting to make sense and it appeared that I had chosen the correct direction. I wandered into what must have been the sports retail section of Beijing, passing the State Olympic Committee headquarters and an endless line of stores selling tennis, badminton and running gear. Little billboards in the center median of the street advertised treadmills. Actually not treadmills, but a single treadmill since they were identical, one after another.

A check of the signs at one intersection confirmed that hope beyond hope I was heading the right way and after another block or two I could see the grounds and the golden ball at the time of the main building in the complex. But first I had to cross a major boulevard and this crosswalk happened to be managed by a crossing guard with an orange flag. She didn’t need to convince me by holding it out in front of me – the mass of cars was without a break. I stood and waited until it began to slow down in anticipation of the light change. Before it was green the mob surged and I went along with them, the crossing guard lowering her flag and telling us it was safe about the time we reached the middle of the street.

I bought a “through ticket” for 35 kuai imagining that it gave me access to things inside and not just a way in the door. It was now 5:20 and I was wondering about closing time but it really didn’t matter, I was there and I was heading in.
The first thing I noticed was the huge amount of foreigners in shorts and golf shirts wandering around. The second thing was the serenity – even today behind these walls with one of the world’s largest cities on the outside I could sense what it must have been like for the Ming and Qing emperors to be here, conducting their rituals out of the gaze of their subjects. It made me appreciate just how disconnected a monarchy must be. But the peace and quiet was wonderfully overwhelming after the way I had just spent two hours covering on foot.

There were three parallel roads leading inclined with ancient cedars and pines. Black-headed Magpie Jays were gliding from tree top to tree top, calling their raucous Jay calls. Off to the left traditional Chinese music was playing and a crowd had gathered, fan dancing ala Dalian I suspect. I headed on eventually reaching the outer walls of the main temple. Here, long covered corridors wrapped the outer walls of the temple complex - coincidentally called “The Long Corridor” according to a sign –they were crowded with people. Waiting in line or just hanging around, I was not sure until I heard the singing – small choirs were singing traditional Chinese songs and the crowds were watching them and in some cases singing along. One tune caught my ear – a throwback to my childhood, it was known then as “Midnight in Moscow” and was performed by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen. It had been a Top 40 hit in the days before the Beatles changed everything and I really liked it, being the oddball little kid that I was. It had words here though and it occurred to me that it probably was some sort of Communist era anthem, co-opted by Kenny and the boys for the western market and their notion of what jazz sounded like behind the Iron Curtain. I walked along from song to song until I reached the entrance to the main square and the notion of “through ticket” became clear – you can buy entry to the park or the park and the buildings. I gave up my first stub and went in.

One of the amazing aspects of this period of Chinese architecture was the sheer volume of empty space. The main tower stood at the center of a huge main square paved with gray stone and hemmed in by a short wall topped with shiny green tiles. The temple stood to the north and supporting buildings were due east and west. To the south another building housed giant doorways beyond which another empty square led to the next set of buildings. I wandered around taking picture and people watching which by all standards was pretty amazing. I wandered up the steps and took a look inside the building itself – a soaring, intricately painted roof was supported by massive wooden columns painted red with gold ginko leaves embossed on their surfaces. Taking a decent picture here was tough due to the number of people and their seemingly intentional movement directly in front of me each time I framed something up.

I went out through one of the main doors before I realized that it was an official exit. I turned around and snuck back in when the attendant wasn’t looking and spent some more time exploring until I figured I’d seen about all I could see. Exiting the second time I headed down the broad plaza passing by the building that was once used for the emperor to dress before moving to the temple to conduct his rituals. It had a yellow roof of a hue I’d never seen. Little girls were running around, each sporting a traditional hat that featured a giant pink chrysanthemum, no doubt for sale at the souvenir vendors up ahead. Up ahead was a round tower enclosed in a giant circle of stone. Surrendering a second tab from my ticket I went in to have a look. This one was interesting having once used to house the sacred texts that the emperor used to converse with the gods. It followed the same pattern at the main tower – support buildings to the left and right and a gate to the south that led to a tall, round stone platform used by the royal family for viewing the surrounding forest. All aligned to celestial north. A long line of people was winding up and down the stairs to see inside the main building but I decided to pass on that, choosing instead to take a break by the inside of the circular wall where people were testing its properties by standing far apart and speaking softly to each other – the wall was such a perfect concave mirror that their conversations were carried along its arc.

By now I’d had about enough culture for one day and given that I had a long walk back I decided to head in the direction of the north gate as it was a better choice than the way I had come. After getting a bit lost in the maze of cedars I found the north walk and went off in search of the exit. People were flying kites in the dwindling light and old men were running in packs along the outer wall, getting their evening exercise. In theory may path should have arced slowly to the left before joining the main road out. And it did, but it didn’t seem to be doing enough arcing. I stopped and asked an elderly man for the “chukou” or exit and he told me to keep going. I did so and a short while later I found a right turn and managed to escape the grounds.

Outside and back in the bustle I spent a lot of time checking the map and the street signs before finally concluding that I was heading the right way. A short way into my long haul though a subway station presented itself and I decided that I’d had enough walking for one day. This though was not going to be an easy one, my route involved 2 train changes and 3 different lines but I’d had it with the life of an infantryman – I was riding home.

Being 6:30 though the trains were not quite so empty and in fact they were jammed. Rush hour subways in Asia are precisely what you imagine they are and the transfers are even worse – cheek to jowl masses of humanity winding through the stations on some sort of hajj from line to line. At the last transfer I realized I was going down the same stairs I had gone down so long ago when I had tried to recover from my original spate of bad choices. And like the first time today on Line 10, the car was empty and so I had a seat opposite some Chinese who couldn’t quite figure me out, given their stares.

Once again at Shangjiang Station albeit underground this time I was presented with four exits and of course I picked the wrong one ending up having to cross 2 streets to get back on the right side as my hotel. Passing Starbucks a second time I decided it was time for a coffee.

Now refreshed, my mind returned to my socks and I figured I could add a second adventure to the day by trying to find a pair. The coffee shop was in a mall so I walked around looking for any store that might offer a pair. None of the shoe stores had any, not did the men’s stores who obviously figured that scarves in August were far more important. On the fifth floor of the main department store I found a section that advertised Columbia and North Face so I thought I’d give it a try. With my trusty iPhone in hand I asked the girl if she had any and she looked perplexed. Her friend though was quicker and she pointed to a little locked Plexiglas case that had maybe five pairs of Columbia hiking socks and said “right there” in her poutiest, dismissive Chinese. I could only see size medium so I asked the nicer of the two if she had large explaining that my feet were size 45 or 46. Footwear in China is a problem for almost all westerners, their feet are so small and so our sizes are generally not offered. She ran off to get the key to the box and having returned and opened it I could see why they were under lock and key - $30 US for one pair and $26 for the others. I said “very expensive” and she took them from me and asked me over to the register where she checked the price on the computer. A 50 kuai discount brought them down to $17, a reasonable price given the condition of the pair I was wearing.

But nothing is easy here and especially not department stores. You don’t pay for your purchases where they are; you pay for them at central cashiers. And you don’t bring the goods to the cashier, the salesperson writes a little slip that you take to the cashier. And once you pay you take your little slip, now sporting a couple of red stamps, back to the salesperson who collects it from you before handing you your purchase. It’s slow, it’s inefficient and if you have my kind of luck it’s terribly time consuming. I grabbed mine and went off to pay and had the incredible misfortune of lining up behind a young woman who had perhaps 15 little slips of her own. I watched as the cash register rounded 1400 kuai, sighing, tapping my foot and staring at the ceiling. I forgot to mention one thing - each little slip has to be stapled to the cash register tape and at this cashier station it took two girls to do that – one rang them up and handed the paper to the second one who aligned the two pieces of paper so that the first girl could staple them. Naturally the stapler ran dry about midway through the pile of receipts but at least they had refills. They returned them to the customer and she wandered off. The cash register girl started to work on my order but she and her co-conspirator realized that they still had a few left over from the girl who had just left. They stopped to discuss that for a bit but must have realized that the customer would come back if she was missing something. She tossed them aside and went back to collecting the money for my socks. I wonder how often that happens, you wander around buying things for hours and then pay in bulk and you go home with half of what you’ve paid for. How do you remember where all your stuff is?

It was dark now and after stopping at a “personal supplies store” to pick up an alternative deodorant (never being really satisfied with that spray, I opted this time for a Nivea roll-on figuring I had less of a chance of a horrific skin reaction with one of their products) I headed back to my hotel.

I ended the day alone in the executive club eating some truly excellent watermelon and some really average peanuts for dinner, along with a beer or two. I spent some time talking to the girls up there about my Chinese ability and even had a brief conversation with one in Spanish, a truly exceptional Beijing opportunity that no one should overlook.

In the final summary my day started with a clever conversation about a hyper-intelligent overweight cat and moved on to a scheduling disaster and then to taxi driver extortion and a helpful policeman without a clue but a desire to help. It ended in a sublime place from different time, some fun in the subway, a cold coffee, a clean pair of socks and a healthy dinner consisting of two major food groups, beer and fruit. I guess I’m proud that I’ve come have the ability to take a pile of lemons and turn them into lemonade but in the final tally and even after all those great little experiences I really just wanted to go home.


















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