Monday, May 24, 2010

May in Beijing

Well here I am again off on an adventure. Tonight I’m sitting in the Renaissance lounge in Beijing, waiting for my eldest to arrive (tomorrow.) The main difference between this trip and the last is the temperature – it’s summertime here in Northern China and it’s pushing 90. What’s interesting is that just across the Bohai Sea where I live it’s still cold and rainy and we’re waiting for spring to arrive.

The hotel is crowded with airline people tonight. Normally they spend their layover at the JW Marriott, a much fancier hotel that is closer to the airport. But tonight they’re downscale because Hillary Clinton is in town for strategic talks with the Chinese government and her contingent of 200 took over that hotel. So tonight I have the opportunity to listen to pilots talk about routes and overtime and where they’ve spent the night. One is sitting across the room running down his wife to a female colleague, and I’m wondering where that might be heading. It can’t be good for a guy to describe his wife as an “eating machine” who can’t get up in the morning to his friends. I imagine the life of a traveling airline employee must be lonely and rife with dangerous opportunities. I imagine there are a lot of troubled marriages in River City.

I arrived and checked in amid dozens of pilots and flight attendants milling around the lobby. Fifteen minutes into my stay I had a call from the Accounts Manager who invited me for coffee as she is working on getting this hotel certified as an approved location for my company. I agreed and went up to the lounge to catch up on the news from home – I was worried about the brush fire that was consuming the forest in the south side of my town. She was late and I went to the desk girl to make sure that there had not been a communication mishap but halfway into explaining the situation she showed up and we made our introductions. She made one of those funny noises that Chinese women often make indicating that I was not what she was expecting. It wasn’t as bad as the time the girl in the lounge at another hotel broke into hysterical nervous laughter after taking my picture. We sat down and chatted and she presented me with a nice pocket sized notebook and pen as a token of the hotel’s appreciation for my business. She gave me a business card and promised to give me better room rates in the future. She left to return to a business meeting and I went back to my Thai fish cakes.

I hung around drinking club soda until the sun started to dip behind buildings and then went out for a walk deciding tonight to find a short route to a restaurant district that some friends had told me about. It was rush hour and while still hot, the desert climate of this place made it just comfortable enough for a brisk walk into an unbroken flow of Chinese heading home from work. I felt like a salmon, making my way upstream. I passed the China World complex and the CCTV building, its burned out neighbor had had some work done on it since I last walked by in April. The charred skin was removed from the south side and you could see hundreds of tiny offices each with a red wall. I wondered how much damage they’d seen and if they would have to strip the whole place down to the bones.

Walking along, I had two guys in front of me and one of them threw a used newspaper into the basket of a parked bicycle. The second guy scooped it up instantly, rolled it and swatted a tree as he walked past. He was an interesting character – shiny silver suit, fancy hairdo; clearly a guy who thinks he’s on the rise. As he passed a young woman in a purple shirt, he mumbled some pick-up lines and she steadfastly ignored him as they walked in tandem. He responded to being ignored with something along the lines of “Right, you’re not interested in me?” I considered for moment asking him where he got off talking to my girlfriend but thought the better of it. I passed them and kept on.

I was trying to get a feel for how close a certain subway station was to my intended destination and after 30 minutes of walking I found it and turned left, heading inland from the Eastern Third Ring Road. The neighborhoods changed instantly from busy, grimy working class Chinese to upscale quiet and leafy. I had only a vague idea of where to go and when I came to the first main street I took a right turn. In doing so I noticed a western couple in t-shirts and shorts who jogged to the left over to a closed street. He had a guidebook in his hand and I wondered if they might have better intelligence on this place than I did but I stuck to my plan and headed north until I saw a well known major street up ahead and knew that I was a bit too far in that direction. I took a left and another left at the next main intersection and found the street I was looking for.

Ritan Park is in the center of the Chaoyang district and is a former site of the Temple of the Sun, built in 1540 during the Ming Dynasty. It’s also the center of the embassy district and this became clear when the signs on the businesses switched to Russian. I now know that “ресторан” is their word for “restaurant”, it being boldly displayed in neon on the front of just about every building. The district reminded me quite a bit of the French Concession in Shanghai, a district full of old architecture and beautiful Plane Trees. There were quite few foreigners on the street; I picked up Spanish, Italian and of course Russian as I passed through the wakes of conversations. Walking past the North Korean embassy I wondered what was being said about them across town and my government officials tried to convince the Chinese that the Peoples Republic of Korea are the bandits that they are. I found the place I was looking for, a modern building with ten or so restaurants – Turkish, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Chinese. I wandered around the complex filing away thoughts for future visit, even discovering one with the same name as an old favorite of mine in Corrales. The Desert Rose here though is Turkish, so I doubt that there will be a green chile chimichanga on their menu. Nor those great Mason jar glasses of lemonade that they were known for. I still remember one of my first dates with My Lovely Wife when the glacial mass of ice in her jar broke loose, pouring the contents down the front of her shirt.

I headed back the way I came, this time diverting a bit to find a clear path through The Place, a fancy mall with a giant LCD screen overhead. The display shows thousands of gold coins - treasure on a sea floor patrolled by 20 foot long green fish. I stopped and bought a coffee at Starbucks and went outside to take a couple of pictures of the display and managed to clumsily trip twice as I stepped down off of a 4” curb. On my third pass I noticed the “Watch your step” sign.

It was getting dark and I wasn’t relishing the walk ahead of me so I left The Place heading back the way I came and quickly found my way to the subway station. As it turned out the couple I’d seen earlier had gone the right way, I guess I’ll learn to trust tourists in the future.

The subway was still busy even though it was 7:40 but not body to body crammed as it often is. I rode two stations down the line – you really appreciate how far you walk when you cover the same distance in a subway at a high rate of speed. Walking never seems to take much time, but when you’re riding and it takes 15 minutes, you know just how far you’ve hoofed it. I left the station, took a shortcut through the mall next door and came upstairs for a glass of wine and a little writing. An evening well spent.

Tomorrow I’ll kill a couple of hours walking around and making one of those “name signs” so that my kid will be equal parts embarrassed and impressed. I’ll catch the subway out to the airport at midday and settle in at The Only Starbucks On Earth With Table Service and wait for her plane to land and for her to show up. You have to go early, because you simply never know when an international flight will show up and you want to make sure that there is a friendly face in the throng at the door where the passengers emerge.

And then we’re off for another spin around China.



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