My days here often start out with a plan. And while my plans are usually pretty well thought out, they rarely go the way I expect them to. Today was no exception and although this list seemed pretty straightforward -
- Set aside a weekday to visit the Forbidden City and thus avoid the crowds:
- Get up
- Grab the subway to Tiananmen
- Scour the remaining niches of the Forbidden City
- Visit Behai Park and see the Bai Ta (White Dagoba)
- Find the fancy shopping district at Wangfanjian
- Back to the hotel
- Evening walk
- Write a blog
Things came apart almost from the start.
The first three were no problem and were completed according to schedule. Number 4, well I thought about this and decided that I’d prefer to take a cab. The subway is wonderful but at rush hour tends to be a bit less so. So I thought a cab might be an easier way to start a day of walking.
There is a funny thing about Chinese cab drivers – if they don’t want to go where you want to go, they yell at you until you get the message and get out of their car. I learned this fact early in my travels here, starting in Shanghai when time and time again I’d wait for a cab at the hotel, one would show up, the doorman would give him my destination and he’d drive away. I never could reconcile why someone who is paid to keep fares in the car would turn even one down. Too close? Too hard? Who even knows? Yesterday when I handed the hotel business card to the cabbie at the airport he looked and laughed but he took me. But when I got out at the hotel and a person waiting for a ride started getting into his car, he asked where they wanted to go, shook his head, got in and drove away.
While I love this hotel, the cab situation is a bit off kilter. They don’t come down the drive and cycle through, the doorman has to run down to the street and ask them to come in. I went out front and stood around but he did not take the cue until a second guy came out with instructions in his hand. I figured it would all work out – it always does – and so I just waited until one appeared that was delivering someone to the hotel. His party paid and exited and I told him where I wanted to go. He went into a long explanation in Chinese that left me in the dust. A young woman waiting with some westerners asked if I needed help, I told her to take the cab and I’d get another. By now the doorman returned and asked me if I needed one. I told him where I was going and he ran back down the driveway to try for another. One appeared, he ran back, I got in, the doorman explained where I was going and the driver started yelling and told me to get out. The doorman and I gave this cab to the next person in line.
Finally one showed up who was willing only after some negotiation to the effect that he would take me most of the way there. It’s true that it’s difficult to drop someone off around Tiananmen Square – the streets are lined with fences to discourage cars from stopping. But it’s not so bad that I should be refused a ride. I’m more than willing to walk a bit and I told this driver that and so off we went. He took a very strange route, winding through old hutong lanes and new apartment block streets but eventually we got back out on the main drag and went on to Tiananmen. For reasons only known to cab drivers he insisted on taking a special side lane for buses and cabs despite the fact that it was slower and the main street was hardly busy. I don’t tell these guys how to drive - I just sit back and let them do what they want. A half hour or so later and true to his word he dropped me a few blocks past the Forbidden City; I paid and started the walk back.
It was surprisingly hot for 9 o’clock and I knew right then that the heat was going to be the defining factor for the day. I was very surprised to see just how mobbed the street was – far more people than I had ever seen here before, even on weekends. The queue to go in the only entrance was almost like one of those rampaging crowds that results in dozens of people being trampled to death. I fell into the flow and almost lost my eye to umbrella spokes four or five times before I was able to put myself ahead of the sun-scared women. I chuckled to think that I had thought it was hot before I got into the middle of 500 individual heat sources. Just when I thought I’d give up and simply die, we crested the bridge over the outer moat and I was able to get into full stride and put some distance between me and the rest.
It was worth the sprint to get to the ticket office before everyone else so I made full use of the genetic advantage I had over these folks, putting my longer legs to work. The ticket queue didn’t seem bad, but I naturally chose the wrong line. I’ve spoken before of the tendency of the Chinese to have to negotiate with ticket sellers over some small point of order that always results in me having to wait. I have no idea what there is to discuss – the price is posted, you give your money and you take your ticket. It’s never that way and invariably the most loquacious seem to end up at the head of my line. I stood there watching as the other three lines turned over what seemed like 21 times while I was advancing three feet every 15 minutes. Eventually I got to the head, elbowed someone out of the way, got my pass and worked my way back out. Oh yes, it should be noted that the ticket queue here has no exit – once you pay you have to force your way across the other 5 lines to get out.
My plan for today was to avoid the center line of the City and visit the sides. I took the first open gate and found myself in peace and calm – the walk led through the Imperial Garden to the Hall of Ceramics. Where you could literally hear the hum of thousands of people talking in the center plazas, the only sounds here were the buzzing of countless cicadas and Magpies chattering in the pines. I knew at once that I had made the right choice.
Chinese ceramics are an amazing art form and the collection here was superb. Spanning 3000 years, the oldest look uncannily like the pottery of our Pueblo Tribes and the newest like what we have come to expect – delicate blues, vivid peaches and milky whites. I wandered around a bit stopping to admire an orange Tang horse with telltale white spots on its rump and some beautiful vases covered with what must have been tens of thousands of tiny Chinese characters. The place was empty, it was cool and dark and the goods were a feast for the eyes.
My second objective was the Nine Dragon Screen that Gywnn and I had chosen to forego on our visit in May. Today I found it after making a fool of myself by asking the ticket taker at the Hall of Treasure where it stood in plain sight about 30 yards beyond where I was standing. He laughed when he pointed. It turns out that there are three such screens in China and I had just seen the best preserved version on my trip to Datong. Prior to reading the sign in front of this one, I thought that there were two. Lo and behold the third was right across the street in Beihai Park, my afternoon destination. My quest was thus extended. These screens are quite remarkable constructed of glazed ceramic tile and formerly serving as the protection (from evil spirits) barrier at the door of some imperial personage. This one was quite beautiful built in 1756 and well preserved.
I had one funny moment walking down the lanes on the west side. A youngish Chinese woman asked me if I had been to the Great Wall. It should be noted that just about anyone who speaks to you here has some sort of angle – and this one’s was trying to get me to buy an expensive trip out to see the wall. Her plan came to a screeching halt when I responded in Chinese that I had been there three times before. She was completely dumbfounded and I made it even worse when I went on to explain that I was from Dalian and therefore a Dongbei Ren (the Chinese term for people from the Northeast). She replied that she was from Beijing, stammering in Chinese which made me think that I had thrown her such a curveball that she was no longer sure what her native language was. She said “Goodbye” and wandered off towards her next victim.
The rest of the morning was spent fighting the now enlarged crowds and trying to spend as much time as possible in the galleries where the air conditioning was strong. I reviewed my map and realized that I had visited everything that was currently open so about noon I took my leave and headed out the north gate towards Beihai Park.
It was now very hot in the street and I was starting to wonder whether I had the resolve to continue my exploration. But I went on, buying a ticket at the entrance gate and heading in, only to be brought up short by the biggest pond full of Lotus plants that I had ever seen. They seemed to extend into infinity. Clearly past their blooming prime, there were still a few flowers to be seen – bright pink and white against the unbroken sea of green.
My goal of the day, the Bai Ta or White Dagoba towered on a central hill off to the left. It was built as a reliquary for Buddhist scriptures and the remains of revered monks sometime in the 15th century. Destroyed by an earthquake in 1679, it was completely restored in 1976. I took one look and knew by its position that I was not going to be seeing it up close – there was no way in this heat that I was going to climb that hill. I took a few shots and decided that they would have to do.
I followed a path around the Lotus pond hoping to find a sign leading to the Beihai version of the Nine Dragon Screen but finding none decided to give up my quest and find a place in the shade to rest a bit before heading out to the subway. I figured I would see it in the future on some trip when it was not so hot. Remarkably I found a bench under a towering willow tree which I immediately grabbed. I sat there as a grandfather held his young grandson up in the air so that he could pee on the tree.
And that was when she arrived.
There are two well known scams in China and they both involve lonely single people. In the first, a young woman approaches you and tells you that she’s an artist and invites you to a gallery. You go, you look around and you find you cannot leave until you buy a haul of overpriced factory produced paintings. The second involves tea – you’re approached by a young woman who invites you to go have tea with her and before you can leave you’re presented with a bill for 1000 kuai. This stuff is well known to those of us who make it a point to travel here, but it’s always surprising to hear just how many people fall for both of them.
I was sitting there enjoying the breeze when an attractive young woman came and sat down beside me. There was nothing unusual about this – bench space in the shade is highly valued and this being a socialist country, every inch of it is up for grabs. I said hello in Chinese and left it at that. After a few minutes of silence she asked me to take her photograph with her camera and I agreed. She posed a few times, critiqued my style (she wanted to be in the center of the picture, I explained that the right 1/3 was more aesthetically correct) and we returned to silence. She started a second conversation asking why I was there and where I was from and we had a little conversation about homes and families and travel. I mentioned the Nine Dragon Screen and she asked me if I wanted to go. Sensing an opportunity to complete my quest I said “fine”. She asked a passing park cleaning person where it was and off we went.
It turned out to be a long trip, punctuated by yet another case of Chinese Mapping – walk twenty yards and ask someone where to go. Of course she never asked “how far”, only where it was. It turned out to be far around the other side of the lake and by now I was in for a pound so we walked on stopping here and there to refine our directions. We talked about his and that and every once in a while the mention of a traditional tea service popped into the conversation. I ignored these lead balloons and changed the subject each time it came up. She was from Mao’s hometown, I was from America. She was shocked at how old my children were because I looked so young, she was traveling alone. She wanted to know how often I saw my wife; I wanted to know what she did for a living. Her favorite television show was Prison Break, I loved the Chinese people. She thought Americans were creative.
We stopped in a temple along the way where she gave a pen to an old man who asked about me. I told him my story and he said something about being Russian. I told him I wasn’t but that wasn’t his point – he wanted me to know that he spoke Russian. We parted with “Dasvidania” which made both of us laugh.
Eventually we found our way to the screen. I went about taking my pictures and she made me take a couple of her; we were apparently now on closer terms because she handed me her purse to hold each time. The Beihai screen was quite beautiful, nicer than the one I’d seen earlier but not quite as nice as the one in Datong despite having two sides (or 18 dragons.) Leaving there we walked along the lake, she staying mostly in the shade and under her umbrella. We talked about this and that. As we neared the exit, she asked a young girl to take our picture with the lake and the Dagoba in the background. She was closing in for the kill.
The traditional tea service came up once again and I deflected, telling her that I was heading off to an upscale shopping street to try and find a Starbucks. She said something to the effect that I must prefer coffee and I replied that “yes”, I was not much of a tea drinker. As we left the park she asked the exit guard where the subway station was; I told her that I was in fact heading there but it was far away. She said that she wanted to take the bus; I told her I was heading on and thus her afternoon of trying to set me up came to an end. We bid a fond adieu at the bus stop and I headed on into the rest of my plan - a long walk in the heat, a sweaty ride in the subway and a cold shower to cap the afternoon.