Tuesday, December 1, 2009

China Notes Part V

Day 11 - Beijing Forbidden City

By the time the lights turned on just shy of 6 am, the day had started to feel like three separate days given only yesterday morning I had been in Xi'an at the Terracotta Warriors and now I was in Beijing. There was a very long queue for taxis at the train station. Some people in the very back of the line (50 people behind us) jumped out of line as the taxis were arriving, and would stop them and get in cutting in front of everyone. No one said a word. China apparently is a land of contracdictions. The seemingly endless amount of patience to restore the historic bronze figures and wait to open the burial chamber went out the window when waiting in line for a taxi. No one yelled at the people jumping queue which falls in line with saving face, yet we witnessed countless loud arguments between individuals, again seemingly a contradiction. Our tour operator provided us with a little guidebook, and during times like that, waiting in an endless line with people spitting everywhere it provided a little mantra for us westerners "This is China." It also provided some explanation for the lack of respect for the queue (in my opinion). When you are 1 in a billion, you have to speak for yourself because no one else will. I can't help but wonder if there is a little more to it. After all there is an entire generation of only children coming of age, the apple of their parent's eye. Anyway, I certainly can't understand the intricacies of the Chinese culture after only a few weeks.




After a quick breakfast at the hotel, and chucking the bags in a luggage lock-up (our rooms weren't ready) we headed to the Forbidden City. This is the place that is featured throughout the film The Last Emperor. We were given another local guide, who was knowledgable albeit a bit too quiet. She would have been fine, had her voice not been overwhelmed by the guides of the larger tour groups with their megaphones. I was amazed at how busy it was, but was told that it was actually a small crowd. You see these places in books, on television, or in movies, but I had no idea of the enormity of it. China is the first place I've been where I didn't think "Oh, it's smaller than I thought it would be", but instead thought "My God, it's massive."

The Forbidden City was built during the Ming Dynasty 400 years ago, and remained in use till the last Qing dynasty till the 1920s. It was built for the emporer, empress, concubines, and eunichs. It seems whenever you come across these sort of extravagant, ornate, royal palaces and residences, it is a signal the end is near, like Versaille in France. Not necessarily the generation that builds them, but the ones that grow up in their walls. The last emperor was actually the grand nephew of the empress dowager, who had started out as another nameless concubine, till she bore the emperor's son. With the deaths of the emperor\empress, the son was made emperor, but was too young to rule, so she came to power. This emperor dubiously died at 17 of smallpox and was replaced by her nephew, coincidentally, also, too young to rule. Finally, after that nephew also died dubiously, the grand nephew was enthroned.

Yellow is the official color of royalty and is everywhere in the city



This was the crowd cramming to see the Emperor's throne roomJust a few thousand of my closest friends.

Across from the Forbidden City was Tianamen square. We were asked by the guide well in advance, not to pose inappropriate questions to him about the square (e.g. the infamous tank photograph). There were a number of plain clothes security people lurking about. Probably doubled since the square was being readied for the 60th birthday celebrations of the People's Republic of China.

Our guide explaining things while two strangers listen in in the very back.



I'd stand as rigidly if the Chairman was looking over my shoulder.

Already getting the good seats for the show...

The Final Group Shot
The view back at the room.

That night a group of us went to see the Kung Fu performance show. No videoing or photography was allowed during the show, so I have nothing to show of it. It was the exact opposite of the acrobats in Shanghai though. Where the acrobats were rough around the edges, the kung fu show was extremely polished. It was interesting to watch the different techniques, but not as fun as the acrobats. Afterwards we took a taxi out to the Olympic stadium to look at the Bird's Nest and Water Cube. They were really pretty neat to look at, very creative buildings. We got there just before the lights out. The power bill must be extraordinary.

video

Day 12 - The Great Rabbit Proof Fence

The next day we headed out extremely early for the Great Wall. We went to a section of the wall that was a 3 hour drive from Beijing, which mean there would be fewer tourists. As I understand, the one closer to Beijing is complete with McDonalds and Starbucks. The Australians in the group called the great wall China's Rabbit Proof Fence. The wall has existed off and on for several thousands of years, the first emperor Qin even being credited with building the original. The way it stands now, the way we see it on postcards, was actually built during the Ming Dynasty (what a surprise!). I actually am making all this up, and Ming is the only dynasty I could come up with. The section of the wall we went to had spectacular views, but it was hard going slogging it up the many thousands of steps. Luckily the yellow mountain had prepared me for the hike.


For their morning exercise routine, the local women follow the tourists up to the end of the section, carrying bags of books and trinkets for us to buy. There seemed to be two for every few people. I did my best to give no indication that I was interested in anything they had or wanted their help, choosing to ignore them for the most part. They generally respected this on the way up, allowing me some moments of peaceful introspection, tracing the spine of the wall along the ridges, seemingly going on forever. However, when we reached the end of the line, the books came out and the hassling began. The more adamant in selling something to me they became, the more adamant I was in not purchasing anything. A new woman, who had not followed us on the way up, appeared out of nowhere and became my shadow - "Look, your friend buy book, you buy." After following me down two flights of steps, I finally caved and bought something cheap. She was not happy with me in the least, and after a few more tries to get me to buy something more expensive, she gave up (mumbling what was probably a curse). Only to be replaced by someone else for the rest of the way down. I was even mid-step on a very steep bit of stairs and felt someone grabbing my arm - "Postcard?" I snapped back "I'm walking down the steps." After that I was left mostly alone, but still followed. That came close to ruining my Great Wall experience. Luckily the way up was quite enjoyable.


There were dozens of centipedes crawling along this section of the Great Wall, and I'm not entirely sure why. I could almost hear the laughter of ancient sentry men as they initiated new grunts by dropping them down their backs...maybe not, but some things rarely change.



Sometimes security guards are a bit like babies, they can sleep anywhere.

Not having gotten enough of salespeople, we stopped at the Pearl Market in Beijing on the way back. The sales people were pushy, and grabbed me as I walked past. I was tired of it by then, but the difference between these sales people and the women on the wall was I went to the market, and went there to shop. I went to the wall to see the wall, not to shop. I probably could have resolved it sooner, had I just bought a book at the end of the line. Or they would have tried to get me to buy more. I do feel bad, because it is how they earn a living, and while I'm by no means as wealthy as they probably think I was, I did travel to China. They probably had never traveled outside their province, let alone the country. This was perhaps my biggest struggle with China. I have never traveled anywhere where I felt more like a walking dollar sign (or yuan sign). I suppose in some ways it is to be expected. After all, as soon as any westerner had stepped foot in China, they've done nothing but buy their goods and wares. But, boy, are there some really persistent sales people, extremely patient. Maybe I should have just stood in a taxi queue.

That night was the last dinner, and we had Peking Duck. I had been waiting the whole trip for that meal, and was not disappointed.

Day 13 Imperial Gardens

Dan and I woke up the next morning to our 7 am call for "Massage." I answered the phone, and told them no thanks, being a bit surprised because the phone call usually came at 8 in the evening. Dan, jokingly said "Why did you tell them no, I ordered that for this morning."

We all met down in the lobby that morning to catch taxi rides to the Summer Palace. We had to split up into three different taxis. We all ended up in different entrances, so our overly ambitious plan to tour the gardens ensemble did not work out. Our taxi ride took almost an hour, with the taxi driver really angry that we didn't understand his Mandarin.



The palace brings a whole new meaning to extravagance and the phrase "Because I can." for example when someone asks - "Why would you have a boat made entirely of marble?"

"Because I can."






After wandering around the gardens for the morning, I decided to head to the Jinshang gardens directly across from the Forbidden City, providing a nice bird's eye view of the complex. Jinshang is perhaps the yin to the Summer Palace's yang, or vice versa, if I may permitted to use the metaphor. Where the summer palace is royal opulent indulgences, bordering on the insane, Jingshan offers peaceful harmony. While the crowds gathered at the top for the fantastic, although hazy, views of the Forbidden City and Beijing, there are many quiet corners to sit and listen to the crickets chirping, musicians practicing, or the occasional English-speaking tourist asking their guide if they eat snake. Still, yellow tiles everywhere give away that this garden used to be an exclusive one. The last Ming emperor, fled the Forbidden City during a revolt and hung himself at the top.

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Day 14 - Beijing Capital Museum

I took a much needed sleep in on this day, and then in the afternoon headed over to the Capital Museum. This was a fantastic museum, including a brief history of the city of Beijing and its role throughout the centuries as city to capital city.

Day 15 - Attempt to See Mao

I woke up with the start of a cold, but determined to go see the Chairman Mao in all his formaldehyde glory. By the time I got there (7:30) a line had formed all the way around the building, filled with bus loads of tourists. I didn't bring my camera because you couldn't take it inside and it had to be locked up in another building. I weighed my options of not seeing Mao or stand in line for hours under the sun with a cold. I chose the former. I'm actually glad I did, because I went to a shopping area before the stores opened and found a place on the second floor so I could look out on the pedestrian mall from the window. As I sat there I watched about 20 or so store clerks file out of their store and line up. They started with what looked like patty cake which transitioned into a synchronized clap routine. Some of the clerks were a bit lackluster, but most were right into it, and all knew the routine. Then they marched, quite literally, back into the store.

Day 16 - Flight back home

I took a taxi early in the morning and watched the sun rise over Beijing as we headed to the airport. China was perhaps the hardest place I've traveled in, and am glad I went with Geckos. I'm sure my experience would be different outside the tourist areas. I can definitely say I have a fondness for Chinese art and architecture, and would go back given the opportunity.

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