Wednesday, September 22, 2010

One last autumn afternoon in Beijing

I decided before leaving Dalian for the last time that I would spend a couple of days in Beijing since I knew it was unlikely I would return. Over the course of my many visits, I’ve grown to really like the city, the kind of affection you get when you come to know a place – how to get around, what to do and where to go. They say there is comfort in routines and it’s true; if you can get yourself in a pattern in a place, it allows you to embrace it in a better way.

I chose the 22nd of September to leave for a couple of reasons. First of all it was the beginning of the Mid-Autumn national holiday and those days are great for traveling in China. We’ve all seen the media coverage of the throngs of Chinese trying to get somewhere, but those are always in the days leading up or following the actual holidays. The concept of “holiday” is a bit different here – often workers disappear for a month or more at a time and everything from the local store to the staff in your factory is affected. I suppose it’s no different in the US (aside from the flexible number of days) – Thanksgiving Day is great to be at the airport. The lines are short, the seats are empty and you’re pretty much guaranteed of no delays, barring some unfortunate weather. My second reason for leaving on that day was that it would get me out of my now stripped apartment and away from the not so great hotel across the street. If I had to cool my heels for a couple of days waiting for the big bird home, it may as well be in a place I enjoyed. And I did have time to kill because the downside of traveling over these holidays is that lots of Chinese take up the seats on the once-per-day flight to San Francisco. Because of this I was unable to find anything before the 24th.

As I rode over on the plane an article about a recent spate of Beijing traffic jams caught my eye and I was surprised to see that the 22nd had been declared a voluntary “No Car” day. “Great” I thought, it will be an interesting experiment to see just how fast the normal 45 minute drive in from the airport will be. Sure enough, once in the cab and on the way, the major arterials were empty – we made such great time from the Airport Expressway to the 3rd Ring Road that I thought a record was in the making. Now I don’t like going this way, I much prefer a route that uses the 4th Ring Road and a quick little expressway by the name of Jintong which leads to a fast surface street that dumps out right by the hotel. Because it’s a better route, I trained myself to tell the cabbies the precise directions – “Cóng zhèlǐ dào dōng sì huán lù dào jīngtōng kuàisù dào tōnghuìhé bēilù zài dōng sān huán lù zuǒ guǎi ránhòu yī gōnglǐ” which translates as “From here go to the 4th Ring Road, then the Jingtong Expressway, then the Tonghui River North Road and when you get to the 3rd Ring Road turn left and go one kilometer. It sounds easy I’m sure, but trust me it’s a mouthful to remember. The advantage of going my way is that you don’t get bogged down in traffic on the 3rd Ring Road which is pretty busy, all the time. My way is sort of a cross-country route that avoids the traffic centers until the last minute; that last kilometer in other words. However, I wasn’t driving and this guy had a plan and just as I knew it would, his plan came crashing down the minute we left the Airport Expressway. “No Car Day”- I guess the Beijingese drivers hadn’t read the English version of China Daily. We went from rabbit fast to turtle slow almost immediately, and for the next hour (on a piece of the route that normally takes 15 minutes) we inched and crawled and made bad choices in trying to advance ourselves in the jam. I sat in the back smiling at the young women in the buses that would come up next to us; some of them smiled back, some glared and looked away. One or two ratted me out to their boyfriends who took over the glaring. We crawled along, first passing the still burned out CCTV skyscraper and then sat and stared at the hotel that was getting ever so much bigger as we slowly neared it. When he didn’t take the appropriate exit I got even more worried but he explained that the surface road below was even worse and I verified it with a quick look. We drove past the hotel and he opted for the exit in front of the mall next door which is never a good option. It means one of those oddities of traffic where your lane merges to the right across four lanes that are merging to the left. Today though there were only two because the two closest to the sidewalk were choked with cars parked at every imaginable angle to the curb. I should have mentioned that the biggest thing about Mid-Autumn Festival is the sharing of the Moon Cake, those tasteless blobs of paste filled with a disgusting salty fermented duck egg. And like holiday shoppers everywhere, some people just wait until the last moment. They’re on their way to their Auntie’s house and they realize that they forgot to buy their Moon Cakes yesterday. So they pull up their BMW at the Viva Mall in Chaoyang, and with no regard to their effect on the universe, they abandon it with its butt end into the traffic while they run in to pick up a case of those delectable delights. Now this would be bad enough in any American city, but it takes on a whole new dimension in a place with 5 million cars on the road. Needless to say it took a solid hour to drive the remaining ½ mile around the block to the hotel. As I left the cab, another fare started to climb in but the driver told him to “get lost”, I think he had had enough for the day.

After checking in I took a long walk to the Xiushui Market to get a couple more strands of pearls from my favorite pearl-seller Miss Shelly, a couple of pairs of fake Raybans and two counterfeit watches, one for me and one for the kid. If this was to be my final visit, I figured I had to make my farewells with my favorite vendors. I stopped for a sliced beef sandwich at Tim’s Texas Bar-B-Q and had an interesting conversation with the waitress who was on her break and sitting behind me with her husband and baby boy. The boy was bundled up in the manner that all Chinese children are bundled with what looks like thick cotton batting and in spite of the fact that it was 80 degrees outside and not far below that in the restaurant. The boy was a sweat ball. She explained that because of the holiday the boy’s daycare was closed and so he was hanging out with dad while she tended to the few people that were coming in to eat. I told her that the boy was quite handsome. She pondered my comment for moment and replied “Unfortunately he takes after his father.”

After a coffee at Starbucks I took a leisurely late afternoon walk back to the hotel. The holiday had largely cleared the streets and the setting sun created nice, golden patterns on the side of the skyscrapers I was passing. I saw the world’s loneliest McDonalds deliveryman riding his moped down the wrong side of the street, having dropped his goods at one of the tall buildings where someone must have been unfortunate enough to be working. It was a glorious afternoon – blue sky, warm temperatures and no crowds – about all you can ask for in this city.

I spent a few hours in the lounge planning my next steps; when you’re alone and not a party animal the evenings sometimes require some thinking. I like the lounge because I can have snacks for dinner and I don’t need to go hunting and gathering for a restaurant alone. Many nights this year have been spent at this one particular table, eating chicken wings and tempura yams, staring out the window, drinking white wine, listening to their Brazil-techno music and chit-chatting with the girls who work the desk. From this vantage in the evening, there is a building on the eastern horizon that is a veritable psychedelic lightshow once 8 PM rolls around - crazy colors and patterns that go on and on until perhaps 10 PM. I’ve sat there alone, with both of my kids and multiple co-workers discussing the place and wondering what it was. Entertainment district? Shopping mall? Tonight I decided it was time to find out. I asked one of the girls if she knew and told her I was going to walk there. I got the answer I expected – when it comes to walking in this country, the reply is always “Oh that’s too far.” Walking is something for countryside peasants, not gentile city dwellers. I grabbed my bag and my camera took a good look at the route and headed out the door.

It was dark now but the traffic on the main roads was still horrible. An almost full moon was about 1/3 up in the clear sky above the horizon, actually able to be seen for a change. There were a lot of people coming and going in the neighborhoods, many with the traditional red Moon Cake shopping bags. I passed (of all things) the Beijing Super 8 Motel and pondered how many nights I had spent in those downscale domiciles while off on my birding trips of yore. To think I used to be a Premium Member. Sometimes walking the streets in the big Chinese cities is a challenge because there are few streetlights, the sidewalks tend to disappear and there are always a lot of obstacles like missing sewer grates and extension cords. I came out of the neighborhoods near the hotel without ending up on the ground and so considered myself lucky.

I crossed a big boulevard lined with fancy apartment buildings – tall stone structures with a big Italian Renaissance gazebo on their roofs, illuminated in yellow and blue. It was not yet 8 and the lightshow building had not turned on so I was flying a bit by wire, not completely sure where I was going. I took a long walk down a very dark street that curved off to the left before meeting a slightly less dark but just as abandoned residential street. In the US or just about any other city in the world you’d be out of your mind to walk in places like this alone. But here, I’ve never had a moment of fear.

Turning right I continued on and just as the clock struck 8, the crazy light appeared before me. Of course the building was on the far side of one of the Ring Roads and it took a lot of maneuvers before I was able to get under and over it to the correct side of the frontage road.

There were three buildings, two tall ones on the ends and one lower one in the middle, not a “district” at all. Each was ringed with what must have been thousands of LED light ropes capable of giving off a full spectrum of colors. From afar it had looked like a random set of flashing lights, but up close I could see a pattern. There were two female figures and they were doing “Choosies”, that childhood game we used to use to pick sides in sports or decide who had to pay for Cokes at the corner store. You and your opponent would pick odds or evens, you’d put your fist behind your back and then you’d say, “Once, twice, thrice, SHOOT” and depending on how many fingers were “thrown”, someone would win. I didn’t know it as a kid but that little activity is an ancient game, common in Rome where it was known as micare digitis - to flash the fingers. There is even a Roman proverb which goes along the lines of “he is honest enough to play micare in the dark.” Over the course of the intervening millennia the name has morphed into Morra and today it is a common gambling game in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia under a variety of names. Naturally, the Chinese have their version known as huáquán or “fist quarrel.” So here was a building using a rainbow of lights to show two simple outline-people doing huáquán and with each win, the building changed colors.

I took a lot of photos much to the amusement of passersby who must see the building every night and consider it common. When the street cleared and the security guard disappeared inside, I crept through the trees out front and got a better vantage. It turned out to be nothing more than an office building by the name of Beijing Golden Tower - an average edifice with a quotidian name but with a wonderful means of drawing attention to itself. I mean, it had lured me into walking a couple of miles in the dark.

Mission accomplished I headed back to the hotel, taking about the same route but this time avoiding the completely unlit street, if only to have some better things to look at. Not much was going on, just people walking their dogs and visiting in front of the apartment blocks. I stopped to check out a couple of bicycle stores that I happened to pass. Back at the Ring Road the traffic was still bad. I crossed over on the elevated pedestrian bridge and rounded the corner to the hotel and there I met Li Mei who wanted to know if I was interested in a “massagee”. I told her “no” and started to continue on but she expounded on the offer and told me what she really had in mind was “massagee-sex”. I laughed and said “No thanks” but she handed me her business card at waist level below the potted plant so that the hotel doormen would not see the transaction. It wasn’t clear if she was the actual purveyor or the Director of Sales but I decided not to ask for clarification. I thanked her again and smiling, I went inside.
































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