Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Beijing Part Two

My kid’s plane was due to arrive at 2:50 so after a double breakfast (I do this when traveling in order to skip lunch) I went out to wander the streets. I had no plan so the moment I cleared the hotel entrance I found an empty bench in the shade and sat down. There were plenty of options but none terribly appealing as it was hotter than Hades despite being only 8:30. The sun, an unusual sight here in Beijing, was beating down on my head with an intense fury making me wish I had a ball cap. Even if it painted me as a western tourist dweeb. Lots of young women in China wear them, tucking their pony tail through the hole in the back but the only men you see are either chain smoking tattooed Eurotrash in cargo shantz or American frat boy lacrosse players here for a demonstration match. I didn’t fit either bill so I filed that thought while I sat there looking up and down the 3rd Ring Road.

One choice was to go and find Panjianyuan, the giant outdoor antiquities market. I’d been told about this place by friends and when I researched it I was surprised to find it was only a half mile south of my favorite hotel. It didn’t seem appealing today so I opted for the second choice – to go and find the Dadong Duck Restaurant. When my other daughter visited back in March we’d been skunked in our attempt to locate and secure a duck. I had a list of choices but they all presented challenges like their location at the center of a maze of hutong alleys which meant the taxi driver would take us as close as possible and then kick us out of the cab with a grunt and a gesture in a general direction. On one hike we’d passed what turned out to be a recommended restaurant but I didn’t know it at the time and at 3:00 in the afternoon it didn’t appear to be open. When I stopped here back in April on my way to Yunnan I had found another one (also recommended by friends, this is the way we build our experiential database here in China) by the name of Dog Doesn’t Care (why you may ask) which turned out to be pretty good. So for this trip I had a safe option. But last week another choice surfaced and we did some searching on Google Earth and determined its location. Not walking distance from the hotel, but an easy trek from the subway. Yet another friend had found it a couple of days prior to my arrival and pronounced it worth the effort. Of course it turned out that the Google Earth information was mostly wrong but that didn’t matter- I know knew where it was. And so I set that as my goal for the morning. As I stood up to walk to the subway station I was startled to find a guy about a foot away and closing, cradling one of those well known steel brief cases that knock-off watch dealers use. His sharp “Hello!” made me jump. He asked me if I wanted one, opening the case in one fluid motion as he closed the gap between us. I told him I already had a watch and took off.

At this time of day the streets are clogged but the subway traffic is reasonably light. The only crush is found in the transfer stations and that usually only lasts a couple of stops. I took Line 10 to Line 1 to Line 5 and got off at Dengshikou station. Knowing that I needed exit B, I went in its general direction but somehow missed a turn and ended up at A. Each station on the Beijing Subway has four exits, A-D and they correspond to the 4 corners of whatever intersection the station is close to. Depending on the direction of the line, you need to use some serious spatial thinking to end up on the right corner. I knew my choice would put me on the wrong side of the street, but I had no choice. I headed up the escalator and back into the sunlight. I’d followed the directions well because as planned I was directly across the street from the Regent Hotel. The Jinbao Palace, home to the restaurant was just up the street. Mission accomplished, I decided to walk in the opposite direction for a bit just to see what was about.

There is a well known retail scam in Beijing aimed at tourists that involves “students” with reasonable English that approach westerners, offering to take them to an art exhibition. Usually they’re trying to “raise money for school” or to “buy a bus ticket back to the provinces to visit their dying grandmother” but in reality they’re just trying to get you into a warehouse for the hard sell on paintings that come from one of the “art villages” down in the southern part of the country. I hadn’t walked a block before the first one approached me but she was too slow out of the blocks and I blew past just as she was saying “I’m a student.” The next attack came from a pair that fell into step with me and kicked off the conversation asking where I was from. I surprised the speaker by answering in Chinese but she absorbed that blow and asked if I worked in Beijing. The second shock came when I told her that I lived in Dalian, but she fended my parry with “Would you like to go to an art exhibition?” I laughed and said “no” and they drifted off to lick their wounds.

I’d stumbled into a pretty fancy shopping district judging from the storefronts – Channel, Bulgari, Burberry – but the real blast to my senses came when I turned the corner onto a pedestrian street that had nothing but watch stores. And I don’t mean Xiao’s Fake Watches Emporium; I mean Chopard, Blancpain, IWC, Tag Heuer, Omega, Cartier and Vacheron. I knew at once what Jesus felt during his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. Some of you know how I feel about timepieces, and for those who don’t let’s just say that the only thing keeping me from owning hundreds is my respect for my credit card balance. I slowly roamed from window to window, stopping occasionally to leave a greasy nose print on the glass. Each place was empty of customers, but staffed by smartly dressed Chinese clearly acting as the agents of Satan. I began to think that I should buy something simply because I could, but I resisted and beat a hasty retreat out of the den of iniquity and onto the main street. Hustling along and ignoring the beckoning “tick tick tick” siren’s cry, I passed one last store that specialized in smaller, even more exclusive brands.

I went back in the direction of the subway station passing the duck restaurant just to be sure. Now I was in the exclusive car district with a Ferrari and Maserati dealership across the street. My side had Lamborghini complete with a middle-aged Chinese couple discussing a bright blue one with the salesman. A little further on I passed the Aston-Martin dealership which offered three models. Thankfully it was closed. The last of them was offering lowly Mercedes, diminished by its distinguished peers. The last building of quality was the Beijing Branch of the Hong Kong Jockey’s club complete with a bronze thoroughbred being ridden to victory. From there it was back into the regular culture of the city.

I was approaching the same district I’d been in the previous night, this time from the west. Crossing the 2nd Ring Road I was on an even more Russian street than last night’s. Everything here was in that language and the Chinese street vendors even used it to call me over. Heading on I entered Ritan Park and wandered about looking at the now shabby Ming and Qing pavilions where emperors used to disembowel livestock as an offering to the Sun. Well, at least that’s how the sign put it. The park and the buildings were built starting in 1540 and refurbished under the direction of Zhou En Lai in the 1970’s. The place was beautiful as all Chinese parks are, but really not worth much of a visit.

I headed back to The Place and the giant LCD, turned off in the daytime. I wanted to stop at Starbucks for a coffee, but decided on their competitor – Costa – as it looked like their outdoor seating was completely in the shade. I ordered and the girl asked me if I wanted milk and I said no but I guess she knew better because she went ahead and put it in my cup. I didn’t feel like protesting so I grabbed a table and watched some toddlers wear their grandfather who had these amazing eyebrows – long and white cascading down into each eye like a miniature set of pointy bang - down to a sweaty heap by running and climbing all over everything in sight.

It’s always fascinating to wait by the exit for the international passengers to appear. First they looked dazed, and then there are always a few that don’t see one of the hundreds of signs being held by their pick-up drivers. Today one sad western man in a black Hawaiian shirt and black long board shorts wandered up and down the channel that serves to funnel people out. No one was there for him.

I’d staked out a spot on the opposite, less busy side than where I normally wait. It allowed me to read the luggage tags as people went by, a nice gauge as to what flight was unloaded and through customs. After an endless stream of CO89 (Continental from Newark), the occasional UA889 from SFO would appear. Then some crew members started to show up, but they’re hard to read because every airline uses navy blue. I was doing fine until some Chinese came up and took a spot to my left and began holding their signs in a way that prevented me from seeing who was coming along. I told them so and they moved only to be replaced by a second bunch. Figuring this was a losing battle; I just stood on my tiptoes and looked over the top of them. A big tour group of elderly people wearing blue baseball caps came along next. And when their tour guide started talking to them across the rail, all fifty of them stopped walking and completely ended all forward progress by the people behind them. A tall young man shouted “Let’s get moving people” to no effect. Eventually the blockage started to break and the people began to flow again allowing what must have been a semi-famous Chinese pop star and his entourage to pass next. A few dozen young Chinese girls started screaming and running and following him with their video cameras. They’d brought bunches of white balloons and were trying to hand them to him and his posse. He just looked straight ahead, his associates walking ten paces behind and flanking both sides. He must have been used to the treatment because he had a look of serenity mixed with disdain.

My kid showed up about 50 minutes after landing having been stuck in immigration. That used to be an easy stop but lately it seems like a lot of jumbo jets are showing up at the same time and thus creating chaos. Today the immigration service pulled a fast one and closed a bunch of lanes for foreigners, the opposite of what they normally do. One more of those inscrutable decisions that are oh so common here.

Thankfully the taxi queue was short and we were in a car within minutes. Unthankfully it was driven by yet another driver who did not know the hotel. This time I literally told him what roads to use and he listened. Sometimes they take offense when I try to help. I suppose I might too if I had some foreigner sitting in the backseat of my car telling me where to go in my own city. Or maybe I’d be grateful that they knew.





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