Saturday, June 19, 2010

One final day in Beijing, a boring hiatus and a ride back home

Ending a trip with a loved one is very tough, and it's even harder when you have to put them on a plane and in turn, get on a plane yourself to somewhere else. Outside of long distance romances, vacations generally end with a pile of dirty laundry and a stack of mail to sort. When you meet someone in a foreign land, spend a week roaming around and then head in separate directions, the finality of it hits home harder.

Gwynn and I caught a cab and spent an hour in the Beijing rush hour traffic arriving at the airport with plenty of time. I snuck her through the status line, this time without any question about her carry-on and backpack (the agent noting on her boarding pass that the backpack was “not full”) and we went downstairs to Starbucks where I tried to prove once again to another skeptic that it had table service. When Aidan and I were there in March, I'd been proved a liar and this time would be no different; while a gal in an apron did show up just as we were finishing, she was busing tables and not taking orders. I was grudgingly granted that she might “someday” be taking orders but still I had no proof. I'm starting to suspect that the service begins after noon, when the volume of travelers reaches its peak.

It was getting close to the witching hour so we headed back upstairs and I sent her off to catch the train to the international terminal. It's such a funny feeling for a parent seeing your baby, all grown up, walking off towards a plane that will ferry her 7000 miles distant. They don't prepare you for that in Lamaze class. We made an agreement that she would send me a text message when the plane was leaving and I went back down to Starbucks for another coffee.

I had My Lovely Wife watching Flight Tracker and we would talk every once in a while. There seemed to be a delay - precisely the reason I booked my trip 4 hours after her departure. There is nothing worse than trying to deal with a cancelled flight in this country if you have never done it before. I have and I wouldn't wish it on anyone, let alone someone just ending their first trip. I sat and drank my Americano and waited for the message that never came. My Lovely Wife reported that the tracker information had not changed and so an hour after the supposed departure I went back upstairs stood in the status line and asked the agent if the plane had left. She asked, "Unaccompanied minor traveling alone?" and I said "Yes, something like that." She confirmed that the plane was in the air. I went downstairs and started looking for the bus to the other terminal where I would be catching my flight home.

The old Beijing airport is still in service and can be reached from the new one via a special subway or a shuttle bus. In the olden, pre-2008 Olympics days, it was where I arrived and departed on every trip I took. The new airport opened just before the athletes came and today serves almost all of the international traffic. It was a wonderful day for me no longer having to use the old facility, because it was chaotic. The lines were long and disorganized and the entry into the international area was through a single door in a giant blue wall. That choke point always created a violent mob of people trying to squeeze through. And the worst of it was coming in from Dalian, landing at the old terminal and taking the bus to the new one. These buses are not built for how they're intended to be used. Instead of designing something that catered to people with multiple pieces of luggage (think the rental car shuttles at our airports), these are old tour buses with a couple of rows of seats removed. Boarding and un-boarding are exercises in stupidity with everyone pushing and shoving and trying to get out the door. And so when I finally figured this out, I never again used a domestic airline that required me to switch terminals going to or coming from the US.

Today, the new one is by and large underutilized and so a dream for travelers like me who appreciate a minimum amount of static when mentally preparing to spend the next 24 hours crossing the globe. Domestic flights though are limited to Air China and since I was not on that carrier I had no choice but to catch the bus to the old one. I did make a half-hearted attempt at using the subway, but I was unable to find a reduced fare ticket - the standard rate for the ride all the way into the city was all that was offered. And I wasn't about to spend 4 whole dollars when I could ride for free. Of course in China, the old adage "you get what you pay for" rings true with just about every decision that involves money.

There was a bus waiting when I got there and it was about 1/2 full. I boarded and carried my bag to the back since the luggage bins were completely full. In any other country lack of storage space on airport shuttle might be construed as a reason to close the door and get going. Not here, here it's far more important to fill those remaining 5 seats than it is to make it safe and easy for your patrons. This driver had clearly been told to wait until there were no empties, because that's just what we did. With the door open on the hottest day yet. Every person who got on looked around and made preparations to stand. The driver would yell at them to sit down. When we got down to one last seat - the one my suitcase was in, I prayed we would go but a lone man came out of the terminal and headed for the door. He stepped in, took a look around and grabbed the overhead rail. The bus driver yelled at him as well and so he started the climb up the stairs to the back; I grabbed my bag, lifted it up on my lap and waved him into the spot. We settled in for the trip.

Beyond riding for a half hour with an aluminum carry-on bag under my chin, the rest of my day was easy. I hung around the waiting area, ate a chocolate bar and eavesdropped on a couple of American also heading up north. One was bragging loudly about getting help with his Chinese language studies "from the young ladies" which I think is what every single expat man in China seems to be about. I moved out of earshot and boarded when the announcement finally came. It was an easy hour in the air and Jiang was waiting for me when I arrived. With a hot take-out course of rabbit legs and Sichuan green beans.

I only had a week or so of work before heading back out for a trip to the US - horse babysitting season was once again upon me. I wandered through the days not terribly focused, thinking instead of the great trip I'd just had and about making preparations for the next one. The latter required some thinking because my assignment here is starting to wind down and I must maximize my travel home in order to bring as many of my valuables back as I can. For this leg I decided on one of my computers.

There was one interesting event while I was biding my time - the government decided to turn off the television for all the foreigners. I got up one morning and found I had no signal when I tried to start my day as I always do with the BBC. Having a satellite system, this is nothing unusual but it did seem odd when it was still not working at the end of the day. That evening I discovered that a friend was having the same problem and he'd been told that everyone on an alien work permit was in the same boat. Seems that foreigners do not have the same satellite receiver that the locals do, and that our relocation consultants were going to have to "negotiate with all the landlords" about the price increase that the government-owned satellite company was demanding. Statements like that can be made in China without irony. Ten seconds of thought told me that this was going to be a long process - there are perhaps 200 expat families with our company alone, and almost everyone has their own landlord. But the relocation company said that was the process, and so I left Dalian with a dead system and no prospect for its repair. Honestly though, aside from the BBC, I never used it all that much.

Having had my fair share of travel hiccups heading for home from this godforsaken outpost on the Yellow Sea, I now leave mid-afternoon on the day before and spend the night in Beijing. I stay at my favorite hotel and get up for the trip to the airport at a reasonable time. If I try to do it all in one day, it means leaving my apartment at 6 AM for an 8:30 flight that might just get me there in time to check in before they close the gate at 11:00. I've missed that connection enough times to adjust my behavior, and for $180 I get to spend a peaceful night not thinking about any of it. And so this is now my standard. I got out of town without a hitch, grabbed my bag and went looking for a taxi.

I've reported before how cabbies here don't seem to know where the Renaissance Capital Hotel is despite having a Chinese language business card that gives them the address. I've trained myself to give directions in Chinese - 5th Ring Road to Jintong Expressway to 4th Ring Road to the Toghuihe exit, take that to the 3rd Ring Road, turn left and go 1 kilometer. Sometimes they're glad to have the help. Other times they get mad at me and correct my logic. This time when I told the driver that I could tell him how to get there, he laughed and shook his head and repeated the part where I said "I've been there many times." I did get there even though he took the slow way, contrary to my well-planned route. I think he was punishing me.

I guess I've reached the status of "regular" at this hotel because the girls behind the desk greeted me by name as I exited the elevator. It's nice and even nicer when they personally deliver a chilled Perrier to my door 15 minutes after I've checked in. Even funnier was the fact that I ended up in the same room that Gwynn had on our last leg the week before. And even funnier than that was bumping into the couple that had been next door to her. I asked if they had left and returned or if they were still there. The man told me they'd been there for 16 nights which precisely put book ends on our trip.

After spending a bit of time in the lounge drinking a club soda and making a meal of their appetizers I decided to take a walk to the Starbucks that is next door to the counterfeit market on Jianguomen Road. About a mile to a mile and a half, it's a nice way to get out and get some air once the sun is no longer up and capable of frying your brain. It's also nice to have a walk in late rush hour Beijing, the sights and sounds are well worth the sweat you work up.

The coffee shop was full of foreigners just as it always is trying their best to act important and worldly. Hunched over their laptops, talking loudly on their phones, I suppose it’s no different here than it is anywhere. Except that you don’t see the Chinese doing it. I paid the girl with the traditional two handed Chinese method of giving the cash, but she surprisingly just threw my change down on the counter. The Chinese girl in line behind me smiled and nodded at the obvious affront. I had it in mind to sit outside and people watch, but the tables were all consumed with smokers so I decided instead to enjoy my drink on a slow walk home. This is a pretty fancy part of the city, being close to all the foreign embassies and so there is a lot of nice shopping and chic restaurants. I walked past a very upscale Pizza Hut which in China is saying something. I know I've told the tales before of maĆ®tre’s d and velvet ropes but this one was fancy enough to merit a genuine distinction - valet parking with a Ferrari California prominently parked in the number one spot. It was so shockingly discordant that I walked right by before it registered but coming to my senses, I managed to grasp the enormity of the moment and went back for a couple of photographs.

As I was nearing my hotel a woman on a bicycle in the bike lane on the very busy Ring Road pulled alongside me and started to talk. I wasn't quite sure what she was after so I did my best to understand but finally just kept going ahead. At an intersection she pulled across my path and stopped. She reached in her bike basket and pulled out a bag. In it was a collection of homemade porno DVD's and she was trying to sell them to me. I got a good laugh out of that one and kindly thanked her but declined. She smiled and rode on.

I've grown quite accustomed to getting business class upgrades these past few years, but the availability of them dried up when the economy began to recover and companies willing to pay for their employee's wellbeing started to pay full fare. It's never a good sign when my upgrade has not cleared by the time I check in, and sure enough it wasn't on this day. But I asked at the gate and lo and behold I'd hit the jackpot again - upstairs seating on the big bird. It was only after saying "hello" to flight attendant I recognized from my last trip and "son of a gun" to the couple that had been next door to me at the hotel that I realized my prize came with a price - I had a backwards facing seat. When United refurbished the business cabins on their 747's they installed forward and backwards facing pods – more seating in the same space. The upside was a lie-flat bed, the downside; well I wasn't sure if there was one. At least not until the plane took off and I was reminded of a trip I took to the Denver 6 Flags with Gwynn. A trip on which I learned on multiple high speed roller coasters that my inner ear (and by association my stomach) didn't like moving in that manner. Sure enough as we rose and put the Capital Airport behind us, all I could think of was that nauseating swinging Viking boat at Cliff's Amusement Park in Albuquerque where I swore I'd never do it again. Thankfully my desire to vomit ceased once we reached cruising altitude. And I was fine all the way until landing when I had to grit my teeth and stare at the floor because glancing out my row mate's window and seeing the Earth swaying from side to side brought the sensation right back.

I managed to make it home more or less on time after sitting in the lounge in SFO for four tedious hours and then on the tarmac for an one more. My Lovely Wife was dutifully waiting for me and we caught up over our traditional dinner at Flying Star, Pasta Pomodora for her and a Rancher's Melt for me.

And for now I'm settled into a life of desert domesticity at least for the next month - feeding horses and riding my bike in the morning while working China hours in the evening. I’ve sent My Lovely Wife off to the jungles of the Southeast and now it’s just me and Ted. I got to see a crystal clear waxing crescent moon setting over the trees out back and I rescued a snake from my neighbor’s dog by putting it in a tree. Don’t ask, the mechanics of that were even odder than you can imagine. It’s good to be home.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Beijing Part Five - A Day at the Zoo

My daughter Aidan’s trip back in March was constrained by real-world responsibilities. Not so much my work – no one seems to care if I’m around these days – but rather by her graduate school schedule. There was an extra day in the mix but we agreed that it was probably in her best interest to have a day back in the US before going back to school. And on our last day, she and I of course woke up to the biggest orange sandstorm of the year and so our time was even further reduced. Gwynn did not have this problem, her school year was over and so the constraint fell more to my schedule. But, we were able to take one extra day, and that day was dedicated to the zoo.

Both of my kids are “zoo people” and I’ll admit that I am one too. While I think that they are certainly not the best thing I the world for the animals, they are what they are and not going to them isn’t going to make them go away. Rather I think our patronage allows the zoo management to make the best of the fact of their existence. More money can equal better care and conditions, at least in the right hands. I’ve been to zoos all over the US and to several in China. In general our zoos are okay. In general Chinese zoos range from okay (Shanghai) to deplorable (Dandong) to inexplicable (the Harbin Siberian Tiger Preserve.) Until Gwynn proposed the visit, I didn’t even know that Beijing had a zoo, and an aquarium to boot (world’s largest “inland”, of course). I did the research in the guide book assuming that they couldn’t be too far off base with something as basic as a zoo but of course they were, taking a snarky approach about “teaching children that shrimp don’t have to swim in garlic sauce” and by missing the subway station that is right outside the main entrance. I’ll give them the latter, the subway around here changes hourly.

We decided to treat ourselves to a taxi, having ridden far too many miles below ground on this trip. After 7 days, the last two roasting in the capital city, the thought of sitting for the ride to the other side of town was very appealing. The route took us through the heart of the city, even allowing us to sit a long time in bumper to bumper traffic in the center of Tiananmen Square. Our destination was just beyond the historic district and was originally the wild animal park of the last empress. It took about an hour, we paid and went in.

The main attraction naturally is the collection of Giant Pandas and most of the people we walked in with headed straight there. We opted to take the long route and so went off to the left just inside the entrance. The first thing that struck me was the beauty of the grounds – shady winding asphalt lanes neatly framed in brick. And the roads were spotless. Overhead tall, leafy trees provided enough shade to make the walk cool and friendly. There were not many patrons in this part of the park, mostly elderly sitting on benches visiting in the morning light. We toured the Reptile House and honestly the worst thing you could say about it was that the building was a bit shabby. The animals though had roomy, clean cages with clear water and no trash.

The Penguin exhibit was closed so we went on passing a large lake teeming with native waterfowl. The herd of Zebras was right up against the rail fence that formed their enclosure. They were so calm and tame that you could scratch them behind the ears. As we walked away a young child started screaming and I guess that it was probably due to a mishandled attempt to feed one of them.

The apes and their kin had nice outdoor pens stocked with trees and ropes. Coming around the bend we stopped to watch a couple of Asian Elephants work over their breakfast. On the far side of their house, the most amazing thing came into sight – a place where everyone could hand feed two of them. The guard told me to go to the ticket office where I surrendered 10 kuai ($1.50) and we were handed two large armloads of bamboo. We took a spot down on the end and the fun began. I was able at first to let one of them slobber on my hand as I put a bunch into its trunk. On the second pass I was able to put my hand fully around its trunk as it took another bunch. What an amazing thing that trunk – you could feel the strength, power and dexterity as it curled around the bamboo and shoved the pile in its mouth. It liked the leaves and didn’t care for the stems so it delicately stripped off the good parts and spit out the bad. At this point I didn’t care much about the black and white star attractions; I was in love with these two guys.

A few more stops at this and that and we had made our way around to the back of the Panda section. Here I’ll digress for a moment to talk about Chinese behavior – it was pretty bad. It was not uncommon to see men pounding on the glass of enclosures to get a rise out of the animals. One stood there banging with his umbrella, much to the delight of his young son – another lout generation in the works. It was annoying and embarrassing at the same time, and it got worse inside the Panda house. Unfortunately they were not outside so seeing them meant fighting our way up to the windows and elbowing people aside. It was hot, it stunk and it was not much fun. Once in view of the big bears we found that most of the people hogging the glass were not even looking in, they were standing there in true Chinese fashion having their picture taken by someone on the outside of the mob. This is true of everywhere I’ve been in this country – the thing they came to see takes a weak second to taking each other’s pictures every ten seconds. While I don’t care too much about such cultural nuances, it did make it really hard for those of us that had come to see the bears. I took far pictures than I normally would have simply because I knew so many would be ruined by the jostling and the reflections of faces and clothing in the windows. I waited for 10 minutes on my last pass for the girl in front of me to stop reading her text messages from a perfect vantage point. In a country where I have first hand come to know that personal space is totally non-existent, this was a new level of rudeness. I suppose in the end that the sight of that big plush toy shoving bamboo in its mouth was worth the battle, but it seemed a tall price to pay at the moment.

It was a short walk to the aquarium which was very, very nice. You start in a rainforest and move to a shoreline. From there to a coral reef and then up an escalator that passes through the bottom the big tank to an overlook down into sharks and turtles. Aquariums took an interesting design turn in the last 25 years with Monterrey and Georgia, and this one was right in their league. As we walked past the dolphin tank, a grandfather lifted up the grandchild he was minding, split open his pants and let him pee on the floor. Gwynn was a bit shocked, for me it’s just another one in a list of thousands. The urinary habits of the Chinese are appalling by our western standards. If we see a guy standing by the side of a busy street peeing on the curb in New Mexico, it’s noteworthy. We assume he’s drunk or mentally disabled. I see that ten times on every commute. No bushes, no standing behind the car. Just standing there with the car door open, peeing on the road, stream and all. Children here are generally not tucked into diapers - they wear special pants with a giant split from the front to the back. They need to go – whoever is minding them opens the split and makes them squat. No matter where, although I will say it’s normally outside. If it’s more than a pee, the parent will spread a plastic bag on the ground under the kid. On this day though, the blue polished floor of the aquarium was fair game. I once saw a mother instruct her child to let go between the rows in the theater where I attend classical music concerts. Outside in the zoo, once it got crowded you basically walk past puddle after puddle in spite of the fact that there are public bathrooms every ten yards.

We did note that the better dressed children were in diapers and riding in nice strollers. I suspect that the emerging Chinese middle class sees this al fresco bodily function behavior to be a thing of the past. At least I hope so.

The biggest unexplained oddity of the day though was the huge number of little girls with shaved heads. Cute little things in bright pink clothes with a dome that had clearly just seen a straight razor. Accompanying them were their slightly older cousins with hair perhaps two inches long, the product of a recent removal. I theorized that the Chinese do this in the belief that it will make their hair grow back in thicker, and I confirmed this subsequently with a coworker. The same class divide played itself out here too – the wealthier baby girls had a full head.

The thing that finally drove us back to the cabs was the huge crowd of Chinese schoolchildren that were visiting the park. They were nothing like the little automatons we’ve seen on TV, neatly lined up and standing silently in their little Cub Scout neckerchiefs and beanies. These kids were wild, and the din was only made worse by the teachers that stood there screaming at them. Outside it would have been bad enough, inside the darkened, low ceilinged room of an aquarium, it was intolerable. We left and made our way to the taxi stand, fully gorged on our lessons in Chinese culture for the day.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Beiing Part Four - We Return

We had a couple of days left on this grand tour and we planned to make the most of them. Problem was the Beijing weather had a different idea. It’s an odd thing here to have days of crystal blue skies but we somehow were allowed one after another. And the price of that clarity was a hot Beifang (literally place in the north part of China) sun beating down on our heads.

My driver Jiang and I often talk about the weather and specifically how it is up here in the north. While we in the west hear about the sandstorms in the country’s capital, for whatever reason we’re inclined to think of them as aberrations. Jiang though has told me repeatedly that Beijing sits in a desert and what you hear about is consistent with how it should be. Back in March when my daughter Aidan and I got caught in the worst sandstorm of the year it was reported as an unusual event. Months afterwards I read in the local news that it had nothing to do with the fact that the Gobi is slowly creeping across the north of China towards the Pacific Ocean. Rather, in the report it was laid at the doorstep of some sort of odd combination of a dry winter and low temperatures and loose soil and an oddball wind pattern. It had nothing to do with generations of deforestation, land abuse and the weather patterns that are no really changing. However, if you think of Beijing the way Jiang describes it, a towering wall of blowing orange sand inexorably converging on the city should be expected, it’s a desert after all. And if you consider that the average early summer day in any desert is darn hot, well then what we had when we hauled ourselves out of the subway station at the Temple of Heaven should have been expected.

I came up to the lounge at 7:30 to meet my daughter for breakfast. Federico the floor manager asked me to come over to the window – for once in a hundred days you could see the mountains to the west of the city. Up the Third Ring Row, the CCTV pretzel stood starkly clear against its background of high rises. The view from the 24th floor was like none I had seen on any of my past visits - every building was outlined in sharp clear light; we were clearly in for a special day. There were clouds but they were not obscuring anything. Rather they were providing a nice fluffy white counterpoint to a sharp blue sky. I knew this meant a hot day, but leaving the hotel at 8:30 we had some hope – the sky had still mixed clouds that were regularly filtering the sun; the temperature was mild and there was a breeze to boot. We rode the subway across town and down south to the Tiantan exit and emerged into weather that you would expect at midday in a more brutal climate. It was 9:30 AM.

The Temple of Heaven is my favorite monumental park in the city. The tall, circular tower known by the flowery name of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is simply so striking and placed so perfectly in the center of a large empty square that it’s hard to come away unmoved by the beauty and the emptiness. We paid for our tickets and walked into the already crowded park. On one side of the path a marching band was playing anthems; on the other couples were ballroom dancing, a typical day in a Chinese urban park. Unlike people in the cities of the west, the Chinese strongly value group participation in places like this. I can’t think of a single time of day in any season when the park I was in lacked some sort of social undertaking. From the early morning exercising elderly and the tea drinking bird keepers to the evening fan dancers, something is always going on. As we reached the outermost buildings the covered walkways leading to the inner gates were packed with people singing, playing traditional instruments and belly dancing. I’ve been this spot once before and it’s the same thing every time – Chinese entertaining themselves with music and dance, westerners taking videos.

The tower is surrounded by perhaps two acres of paved space which is bordered by a low gray stone wall topped with shiny green ceramic tiles. It stands on a circular platform of gray, carved stone. There are four stairways, one at each of the cardinal points that lead from the ground level up to the tower itself. Dividing the staircases into two lanes are intricately carved marble slabs depicting stories from the imperial mythology – mountains crested in clouds leading to dragons floating in the heavens. The general lack of color in the surrounding environment draws your eye directly to the intricate blue, green, white and salmon paintings on the beams and rafters that support the blue tile roofs.

We walked fully around the square before climbing the stairs for a look inside. Like most Ming and Qing dynasty ceremonial structures, the details on the inside do not close to those on the buildings. Here were pieces of simple wooden furniture and altars for the rites. The only thing that grabs your eye here are the oversized but delicate gold inlay peony flowers that decorate the red floors and pillars. Beautiful and subtle.

We walked on through the next gate stopping to take a photo of the view back through the open doors. You have to wait for the loitering people to get out of your shot, but when it’s clear the perspective is stunning – the tower seems greatly increased in size when viewed through the simple archways. There is a long plaza that connects this end of the temple complex to the other. Between the two is a single building with a blinding yellow roof where the emperor changed into his ceremonial garb for the rituals. At the far end of the plaza stands another, shorter tower called the Imperial Vault of Heaven and it is in turn surrounded by the Echo Wall which is one of those wonderfully amusing constructions where you can whisper at any spot and a person yards down the way can hear you. On the way in we passed the 9 Dragon Tree, and ancient cypress that today was surrounded by people holding their hands up with their palms facing it. I don’t know why and I didn’t ask.

There was a long line of people waiting to file past the open windows of the Vault so being fully committed to the tourist experience, we joined in. The throng was probably 8 wide people wide but it narrowed as we ascended a set of stairs. Somehow we divided an older man from his wife – he was endlessly jostling us and she kept turning around to talk to him. I’d finally had it so I told him if it was so important that he be 18” further along, we would get out of his way. He was stunned by my tone and my language but we parted and he moved through. The view inside the Vault was only slightly more interesting than its neighbor’s up the way. As we went down the stairs on the far side, the rude man was still in tow behind his wife who was clearly displeased with him for who knows what reason. He would try and walk alongside her; she’d pick up the speed to maintain the distance between them.

The last stop in the complex is the Circular Mound Altar where the emperor would pray for good weather. It wasn’t much to see, simply stone platforms similar to those the hold the beautiful tower. At the center was a round marble disk with a slightly convex surface, the point (I assume) where the emperor once stood. Today the Chinese were lined up to have their picture taken standing on it – a human conveyor of photographer and subject, each stepping up for the shot and then peeling off to the side.

As we walked down the first set of stairs I found I’d walked in front of a woman having her picture taken. I apologized but as I walked past her husband lightly grabbed my arm and began that well-known pantomime – I want a picture of your kid. I agreed and Gwynn walked back up the stairs and posed with him. As were saying goodbye, he asked if I would pose with his wife and so we began the process a second time. They were very grateful and cordial so I stopped for a moment and explained who we were and why we were there and as we were talking I heard a passing woman tell her friends “That foreigner speaks Chinese.” The interest in us continues to baffle me – Chinese speaking westerners are very, very common in Beijing. I suppose it’s possible that these people doing the asking are not from the city; rather they might be visitors just like we are. And do we might be a novelty worth investigating. I can only imagine Chinese families across the country sitting down to look at the photos from their trip and proudly pointing us out, standing on the stairs with their loved ones.

It had really warmed up by the time we caught the subway to our next stop, the Forbidden City. Emerging back into the light at Tiananmen East I was struck by the heat and the incredible number of people filing into the main gate. But more interesting was the light – the sky and the sun conspired to make photograph look like a postcard, with those garish colors so common on the cards we would pick up on the trips of my childhood. We debated for a bit about subjecting ourselves to the place and decided in the end that we were here and so we should go inside. The line for tickets was not horrible, but a man with obviously mental health issues was. He was aggressively trying to get patrons to buy the cheap maps he was selling. The people in the line would say “no” and he would force the map into their hands, which only made them more adamant. He never sold one while I was watching and I was glad that he didn’t see me.

On the one hand, the Forbidden City is just a giant collection of the brightly decorated buildings you see at every site. The colors are impressive but what gets you here is the enormity of the space. The distance between the various halls is huge and the point that gets made is the incredible disparity between the imperial court and the peasants outside these walls. The people lived their lives in densely crowded hutongs – gray stone slums that packed themselves up against the outer ramparts. Inside was another world – empty, under populated and serene. It’s no wonder that when the royals fell, they fell hard.

I came away with one thought as we walked through from one end to another – I need to come back here and wander around the outer rings. I’ve never been outside the main avenues and I am sure that there are far more interesting things to be seen in the nooks and crannies.

After a cab ride across town and a nice western lunch we grabbed the subway for one last stop, the Lama Temple, or Yonghe Gong. The construction of this complex was begun in 1694. Originally the residence for court eunuchs, it later served as the residence of Prince Yin Zhen who went on to become emperor. His successor converted the buildings into a monastery for Tibetan and Mongolian monks and today it remains one of the most sacred sites for the Geluk sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

Ending a busy day in a temple is always a good idea because the serenity washed away the stress and exhaustion of wandering around. We strolled down the lanes, visited the display of 16th and 17th century gold Buddhas and stopped to stand in awe of the 60’ tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha which is said to be carved from a single piece of white sandalwood. It’s hard to believe that one tree became that Buddha, but a plaque from the Guinness Book of Records says it’s so.

Rather than suffer another hour in the subway, we grabbed a cab and took a nice breezy ride back to our hotel. It was a day well spent, wandering along the axis of the city from south to north and in doing so tracing the entire history of two dynasties. But now we were hot and tired and in search of nothing more imperial than a cold club soda and a late afternoon in the hotel lounge.