Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Beijing Redux

We made it back to Beijing pretty much no worse for the wear, even surviving a stint in the Xi’an airport “Business Lounge” which consisted of a storefront on the main concourse rendered private via some drapes and stocked with large 1960’s Danish-American turquoise couches. The bottled water and crispy potato snacks were free, so there was no complaining on our behalf but the décor had to make one wonder about its origin. Did the Copenhagen store lose a container?

We made a quick sweaty stop at the Silk Market to close the deal on remaining items on the gift list. A few watches, a couple of bags, getting pinned in a stall while negotiating - all the regular moments. I think my kid no longer doubted me when I described the place as a madhouse. We were glad to get out and even gladder to walk a couple of blocks down the street to Tim’s Texas BBQ for a real-live American meal. I’m sure people think we’re nuts to just not dive headlong into the local cuisine but everyone should understand one thing – the Chinese food we eat in the west bears no resemblance whatsoever to what you get here. And things like custard made from clotted duck’s blood only sustain you for so long. Once in a while you need to immerse yourself back into the familiar and Tim’s did that really well with a shaved beef sandwich, steak fries and a couple of ice-cold Cokes. We only left when the Germans, arriving after a long day at their nearby embassy, raised the second hand smoke level higher than the outside Beijing air. The subway was next on the agenda and what better time to try it out than 5:00 in the evening.

You’ve seen the pictures of Asian metros and now you have our first hand report – they’re actually quite a bit more crowded than the news stories depict. While the Chinese versions do not have the attendants whose sole job is to cram more people in (as they do in Japan), they are stuffed to the point of pinning your arms to your sides. It’s always an adventure, and it’s a good adventure when you only have to ride four stops.

The evening weather was best described as “threatening”, not actually raining and not actually dry. There was a cold wind and a low ceiling and whatever was rolling in promised to be interesting in its own right. The next morning told the tale – we had found ourselves in Beijing during what would turn out to be the biggest sandstorm of the year.

Before heading out we had to fend off the hundreds of Chinese high school students who had invaded our hotel. Apparently they were attending a Harvard University Model United Nations conference and the hotel was putting them up. I can speak with some authority having been awakened a half dozen times during the night that high school students everywhere act like feral children when far from home and unsupervised. Never mind the stories you’ve heard about the polite Asians, these kids were wild and obnoxious and my floor only quieted down when I stepped outside my room in my bathrobe at 1 AM and stood in the hall tapping my watch. One of the more polite kids did apologize, in English, as he ran past with a cherished bag of McDonald’s take-out, slamming his door in the process no doubt to guarantee that I would not confiscate his French fries. Peace did finally settle onto the hallway, but the little girl upstairs from me did insist on clickity-clacking back and forth on the only wooden part of her room floor, in high heels.

At breakfast it was obvious that the weather had gone somewhere south of south. You could barely see across the street and the giant CCTV pretzel building (and its burned out companion, a victim of careless fireworks use) two blocks down the street was gone. We ate and went downstairs (once we were able to get an elevator due to overuse by the Chinese representatives of Cameroon, Zambia, Slovakia and their kin) and walked out into a world lit by light and of a color I’d never seen in my life. Everything had a pale yellow cast, even the shadows, such as they were. The wind was strong and the air smelled of dirt.

Beijing lies not far from the Gobi Desert and these storms are becoming far more common as the country gives way to drought and deforestation. While the national meteorological service would like you to believe that these clouds of blowing soil are due to a cold dry winter and an “increased dust layer accompanied by strong winds”, the reality is that overuse of the land is coming home to roost. The small storms cover most of northern China and the big ones extend to Japan, Korea and Taiwan. We had no idea that we were even one, let alone a lollapalooza.

The targets for today were Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City and whatever else we could find the time for. We took the subway again, this time with far less people and exited at the Tiananmen Square East station. Walking up the long ramp from the underground, we turned to the left figuring we’d walk across the square to Mao’s mausoleum on the off chance that the line of viewers was not too long. The light here was even more bizarre than that back by the hotel - the stairs up to the street were uncovered and seemed to be illuminated by some bright, lemon colored light from above. It was bright and dark at the same time, if you can fathom that. We went up and out into a genuinely howling sandstorm. The dust though was so fine that you really didn’t notice it the way you might during a storm at the beach. It didn’t sandblast your face. It was powdery and seemed only to cling to certain things, like Aidan’s burgundy shoes which slowly turned tan. A guard at Mao’s tomb told us that it was closed – he was resting for the day – so we turned around and headed towards the Forbidden City, into the wind, past a half-dozen bright red flags wildly whipping and a lone soldier standing at perfect attention in the middle of the concrete expanse, his back to the wind. (I would later see this same young man on the CNN web site.) I stopped to take some photos and upon reviewing them was sure that I had set the white balance in my camera improperly – the sky was orange along with everything else in the shot. That wasn’t the case though and the camera didn’t lie.

The Forbidden City is the one building (or host of buildings as is actually the case) that everyone, everywhere recognizes. The buildings are big, stately, dark red and there are a lot of them, punctuating space in giant open squares. We wandered from one to another, impressed by the sheer volume of the place. There isn’t a lot of detail to enjoy, it’s all about the panorama and that is pretty incredible. It was the first time there for both of us, so had we not been at risk for inhaling large gulps of the Gobi, we probably would have wandered around with our mouths open. Instead we pulled up our collars and went looking for the Hall of Clocks.

I had a vision of this place – a giant room with thousands of clocks from floor to ceiling, all ticking and tocking and chiming at will. It seemed to be an idea consistent with the known excesses of the former inhabitants of this place, the Ming and Qing emperors. In the end it turned out to be a modest clock museum, a collection of really ugly and odd timepieces from the 17th and 18th centuries. After the suffering we’d endured to get this far, it’s an understatement to say that I was disappointed. We wandered through the place, watching a group of women sitting in a hallway eating apples, and then headed to the door having had enough of the place and the weather. We decided to head back to the hotel to clean our ears and blow our noses and to grab a snack while this thing blew itself out.

A few hours later the sun actually appeared and all that was left of the storm was a thin layer of red dust on everything. We grabbed the subway again and headed off in the direction of the Yonghegong, the sole Tibetan lamasery in Beijing. Like so many mistruths, the place was not at the subway station that bears its name, rather a good clip down a main boulevard that was lined with shops selling incense for the worshipers. We walked and walked and finally found the entrance.

After the weather and the general official nature of the Tiananmen area, this place was an Eden. The temple itself, built by a prince during the Ming dynasty was beautiful – fantastically decorated and beautifully restored. We wandered through a nice display of artifacts and stopped for a long time to marvel at a 59 foot tall Buddha, carved from a single Sandalwood tree. He was so tall that the temple barely held him; his head far up into the rafters. A monk in burgundy stood near the base tossing long strands of white silk into gaps in the carvings at the base, some sort of ritual. We spent a lot of time here recovering from the earlier part of the day before heading out in search of the Confucian Temple which I pretended to know the whereabouts of. Luckily for me it was straight down the street I picked, demonstrating once again to my child, my unerring sense of direction and place.

While far more modest than the Yonghegong, this temple was equally as serene. There is a magical thing about temples in China – the chaos and noise of the street are left behind the moment you cross the first raised door sill. Between the gardens and the beautiful buildings, you quickly get to the point where you know you never want to leave. The contrast between the holy places here and those in Europe is stark – the great cathedrals are a mix of soaring wonder and horrible dread between the dying Christ and the dark and formidable altars. Here it’s all about light and color and peace. I don’t know much about the Confucian belief system – their artifacts were odd and complex and not like any I had seen before. The grounds consisted of one large temple structure surrounded by many smaller ones each of which held a carved stone stele on the back of a giant stone turtle, the symbol of strength and longevity. Confucianism is more of a ritual philosophy than a religion and I guess that explains this place. Whatever it was about, it was beautiful and nice place to wander and think.

Our day ended with a nice Vietnamese dinner at a restaurant I had seen reviewed in the previous day’s edition of China Daily. It turned out to be quite good and a fine cap to a great week.

They say all good things come to an end and I suppose they might. But maybe it’s better to think that all good things open the door for the next set of good things and I know that this week with my child was wonderful, and will always be one of my most cherished memories. Hopefully it will lead to more of the same. Sending her down the escalator to the big bird back home left me with a mixture of happiness for having had the time to spend and sadness to see it end. Along plenty of food for thought as I grabbed the bus to Terminal 2 and my own ride back to the north.
















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