Sunday, March 27, 2011

A weekend in Beijing

We decided to spend our days in the capital city riding the subway to a few of the canonical spots. I’d hoped that the trains would not be mobbed (it being after the morning rush on a Saturday) but of course I was wrong – My Lovely Wife’s first exposure to public transportation in China was a cheek to jowl mob on the train from Guomao to Tiananmen East. While not how I wanted it to be, at least it was authentic.
Our initial day here broke down into a handful of experiences. While it’s always fun to think and talk in detail about the sites we visit, sometimes there are general themes that are more interesting. “Meta Stories” if you will. Here are a few:

• The Myth of Subway Travel. I’m a big fan of subway travel, it’s easy, it’s fast and you never have to sit in traffic. I even have an application on my iPhone that lets me plot a station by station and line by line route. It doesn’t tell you if there is room on the cars, but at least you have an idea of how long it will take. Part of the myth is that it doesn’t wear you down but this trip proved that this really is untrue – subway travel is great as long as you don’t have to transfer. The Beijing system is incredible, it’s easy to get to just about anywhere in a reasonably short period of time But if you want to leave from Wangfujing and head to the Lama Temple, that route requires three transfers and each one requires a mile of walking and a thousand stairs. At the end of a day of leisurely travel, you’re bone tired and wishing for a seat. Naturally seats are rarely available and when they are, you’re one stop away from home.


• Being a Westerner. I’ve had my picture taken a thousand times in China and I’m used to being stared at. I never fully understood why this is the case, particularly in big cities like Beijing where there are hundreds of thousands of expats and even more tourists. My favorite Xi’an guide Lily explained the pictures – people like to brag to their friends that they met and spent time with foreigners, often embellishing the story to make it sound as though it was a joint day out in the country. Well, despite all the attention I’ve received none of it prepared me for the constant attention My Lovely Wife received. Between men outright staring, women discussing her finer points amongst themselves and people walking into lamp poles, we found ourselves in a maelstrom of gawking. I suddenly knew exactly how Lindsey Lohan feels. The subway was the worst, with people all around us (and below us too) sneaking looks and furtively turning the other way when caught. The best was a group of three – two women and one man who got on the car and stood in front of us. The women were goggle-eyed. The man bemused. The older and shorter of the two women looked up at My Lovely Wife and made a hand motion indicating altitude. I looked at her and said, “Ta hen gao” – she’s very tall. The women were instantly mortified, a state that the man found quite humorous. While they continued with their comments, my comment forced them to whisper behind cupped hands lest I get in on the conversation. When we got off ahead of them and My Lovely Wife said, “Zaijian”, I thought they would die.


• The Hall of Clocks. I’ve been to the Forbidden City five times now, covering just about all of the nooks and crannies. Before my visit last year with my daughter Aidan, I’d done some research about the place and decided to visit a couple of the more obscure spots. The Hall of Clocks was one of these. I’d formed a mind’s eye opinion of the place – a large hall with thousands of clocks ticking and chiming, sort of an Alice in Wonderland spot. When we arrived we were first greeted by a throng of Chinese women squatting in the entry corridor eating oranges and apples and throwing and spitting the peels on the floor. Atypical museum behavior. When we discovered what the Hall really was – a somewhat shabby display of the gaudiest relics of late 18th and 19th century Europe purchased en masse by an emperor who wanted everything western, we were kind of let down. We spent most of our short time there shaking our heads and laughing at ourselves for being so romantic in our expectations. On this trip, My Lovely Wife actually made me spend time exploring the objects and sure enough, it turned out to be pretty interesting. Not cool in the way I wanted it to be and not up to what I’d expected, but very nice in a completely different manner. When I took the time to actually read the notes and peer at the tiny robots and decorations, an engaging history of clock making emerged. I’ll admit I took her there to have a second laugh, and now I have to say I was the one who was really surprised. When at the end of the day I asked her what her favorite site was and she said, “The Hall”, I was happy to hear it. Not quite ready to say it was mine though.


• Olympics Venue. I guess it’s true that you see things through different eyes when you visit places with different people. It was certainly the case with the Hall of Clocks. My first visit to the Olympics Venue was freezing, bleak and depressing and I couldn’t wait to get back on the subway after a couple of required photographs. The Water Cube was in the process of being converted to a mall and the Bird’s Nest was filthy. The promenade was lined with artificial Christmas trees and Barbie’s Christmas Village didn’t belong there in any way shape or form. This time, it was better and we actually got to go into the Water Cube where we were regaled with the sight of hundreds of pasty white Chinese in bathing suits enjoying themselves in the newly opened water park. There were dancing girls on stage and a giant screen TV and people waving long skinny balloons while bobbing in the giant wave pool. How one could stand on the observation platform and not love every minute of that was beyond me. Across the hall though, the diving pool remained and we sat in the stands and just let the spirit of the games wash over us. The overall visit was redemption – you could still feel the positive energy of the sport. And not even the scalper trying to sell me the 30 kuai ticket for 200 or the half hour walk it took to escape the Cube could take that away.


• Yonghegong Lama Temple. The only thing I can say about this place is that if you ever travel to Beijing, you must come here. A visit here takes all the noise and bustle and crowding and staring and washes it all away. A leisurely stroll through here and you can almost bear the thought of getting crammed into a subway car again.


• Face Bar. If it’s possible for a restaurant to be emblematic of your experience in a foreign country, this is it. I have so many wonderful memories of their restaurant in Shanghai. It’s the place I interviewed my replacement and good friend Ben. I remember wondering how so skinny a guy could put away so much food. It’s where I lost my Green Curry Duck to my friend Matt who grabbed it off the tray and dug in before I could rightfully lay claim. My mate Keith told me that it was so romantic that you’d have to be a complete lout to bring a date there and not “get lucky.” And over all it was the one restaurant that was worth bearing a long taxi ride in Shanghai traffic for. From the ground of the Ruijin Hotel to the colonial mansion that housed it, the Face Bar was the one place we always looked forward to. And it was no surprise that Beijing’s version was just as special. In spite of all those great recollections, I never felt it was complete until I finally escorted My Lovely Wife to a wonderful dinner. It was empty, quiet and the staff was as capable as ever. I had my classic Gimlet and again ordered Green Curry Duck. This time I got it as she is not interested in spicy food. We ate and drank and stared into each other’s eyes and if this is to be the end of my relationship with China’s capital, I’m glad I was able to have it end on that note.






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