Day 2 - Where the Chinese government conspires to keep us from Peking Duck.

A correction to yesterday's post. Cheyenne informs me that the Panda's name is Panda-na. Not Pandaman. You say Beijing, I say Peking, you say ChongQing, I say ChungKing, let's call the whole thing off.

Yesterday (Friday in China time), we walked through the heart of Beijing and covered close to 5 miles. We started at 10am and ended at about 2:30pm. The umbrella stroller we purchased saved us a lot of headaches along the way, although we ended up carrying Cheyenne in the stroller up and down the steps throughout the Forbidden City. The ADA would be horrified with that place.

We started at the South of Tiananment square. The square is huge, and as we were reminded over and over again, it is the largest public square in the world. Mao's tomb and the Monument to the People are in the center of the square, and our guide pointed them out to us as we walked past them.

I asked why there was a huge line of people, and our guide said it was "a line of Chinese people going inside". I'm guessing the government doesn't want to encourage tours of foreigners to go inside Mao's tomb, but I pressed the issue, and our guide said we could go inside also. So, we left all our bags and cameras with the guide and we packed into a very long line of Chinese people that stretched across the square. While there were quite a few groups of non-Chinese people in the square, we were the only non-Chinese people in the line. The line wound around to the front of the mausoleum, and there was a stand where you could buy plastic-wrapped bouquets of silk flowers. Quite a few people jumped out of the line to purchase them. As we walked up the steps to the tomb, there was a sign in Chinese and English telling us to Be Quiet and Remove Our Hats. The guy behind me was talking on a cell phone as he stepped in, and a woman in a uniform literally ran over to us and slap him on the back of the head. He quickly put the cell phone away. Inside the first room was a marble sculpture of a seated Chairman Mao in a Lincoln Memorial pose. Behind him was a 50'x40' embroidery of water and lily pads. The line followed along the outside wall of the room, and in front of the statue was a huge display of plastic wrapped silk flowers. As people in the line added more flowers, a woman in a uniform arranged the flowers in lines according to color. We assumed it was to make it easier to pick them up and take them back to the flower booth for tomorrow's tourists. Inside the next room was Mao under glass. The line split into two parts and went on either side of the glass chamber that contained the casket. The casket was on a large platform, that from what I read, it is lowered into a refrigerated room below every night. Mao looked like a wax replica of Mao. Several guards were placed along the line, and their entire job was waving their arms and rushing everyone throught the room. After the room with the glass casket was the gift shop. It was there that we found that everything goes better with Mao. Watches, shot glasses, framed pictures, everything that could possibly have Mao on it. After we rejoined our tour guide, she asked us how we felt about visiting Mao's tomb. I didn't feel anything really, just a slightly creepy feeling. The funny thing about visiting the tomb was the reactions of the Chinese people. No one was visibly sad. They put flowers on the grave in a somber manner, but didn't display any signs of real emotion.

After exiting the tomb, we went North through the Tian An gate into the Forbidden City. I should have been prepared for the Forbidden city. I read a lot about it before we went, but I was still awed by the sheer size of it. It takes up 200 acres. Think about that for a while. 200 acres of courtyards and marble bridges and ornamental walkways and buildings all sharing the same architecture and motifs. We heard explanations of what the buildings were for, but it all ran together very quickly, because of the vast number of buildings that all look the same. Heavily ornamental with gorgeous paintings and carvings. But after a half mile of walking through it, it was a little more than we could handle. I totally recommend seeing it, but comprehension of the area was beyond me.

A tea shop was set up beyond the north end of the City, and we were shown how to serve and drink the most popular forms of Chinese tea. This was followed by a trip to the adjoining tea gift shop where we could buy "the very tea we just drank". Very convient.

Later in the afternoon, we went on a 'hutong' tour. A 'hutong' is an alleyway, and it describes the narrow alleyways and courtyards that made up Beijing 25 years ago. However, large sections of Beijing have been ripped out and replaced with apartment building. A truly amazing amount of construction is going on in Beijing and all of it is skyscrapers and apartment buildings. The government basically made a section of Beijing an 'historical district' to keep people from ripping out more hutongs in favor of the modern buildings. When you hear stories about Beijing's winding streets with no names or house numbers, this is only referring to hutongs. The rest of Beijing looks like Detroit or Chicago.

Our tour started with a rickshaw ride down some rather boring streets with brick and cement walls on either side of the street. We ended up at a grade school for the deaf. They brought us into a classroom and started telling us about the school while the teacher tried to teach her pupils. The kids were pre-K and most had hearing aids with implants that entered their skull a little above their ears. We were one of many tour groups going through the school and the children seemed a little distracted. We asked how often they had tours coming into their classrooms and the guides laughed a little, and said 'not all the time'.

The next stop on the rickshaw ride took us into someone's house. Literally. We met Mr. and Mrs. Ju in their Hutong and sat with several other groups packed into their living room to hear about them and their family. (They were charming. They are retired, and their son just got married and moved out.) Then we walked through their kitchen, bedroom and storage room. I didn't go through the cupboards, but it felt like that was the next step in "Getting to know the Ju's". It was a basically clean house, but it definitely felt like a house in a developing nation that just got indoor plumbing.

We got back onto our rickshaw (good ol' #3), and after a brief traffic jam he took off again. This time we started seeing people doing day-to-day tasks as we whisked by on the rickshaw. We saw school children playing in the alleys, and old men smoking on the side of the road. Our driver was starting to pick up speed so we only saw a glimpse of each "image of Beijing", and it started getting difficult to take it all in. Then our rickshaw turned onto a wider street by the river, and he started really going to town. There were groups of old men on their haunches playing Mah Jong, construction workers moving piles of lumber and bricks by hand, a line of schoolchildren in yellow kerchiefs marching in a line. Everything seemed like a Disney-fied version of what China looks like, but we didn't have enough time to appreciate it because the driver kept going faster. He narrowly avoided colliding with a woman on her bicycle as we flew over a bridge and into a street market. The colors got brighter as the street got narrower and as more people crowded our careening rickshaw on both sides. There were women selling fabric, and soft drinks, and cabobs full of meat. Beggars with deformed and mangled limbs "crab walked" across the paving stones in front of our wheels. Turkish men sold figs and dates pressed into cakes the size of card tables. Tiny stores selling brightly colored kites and toys and musical instruments. And then like the boat ride in the original Willie Wonka, it just stopped. Our rickshaw passed through an arch and we were back on a normal city street in Beijing. Our pulses were racing. We didn't ever think we would crash, it was just a sensory overload that we haven't felt in a long time.

After the rickshaw ride, we scaled a long set of stairs up into the "Drum Tower", which was used to keep time amongst all the towers in the city before portable time pieces were available. Before climbing the tower, Cheyenne impressed us with some spontaneous Tai-Chi moves. She had an odd smile on her face like she knew this would "wierd us out". She honestly looked like she was doing Tai-Chi. An art she has never seen before.

Our guide then got a call on her cell phone and asked if we wanted to go to the "Silk Factory". "Factory" being the key word that really means "government-owned tourist trap". We were supposed to get a Peking duck dinner and it was already after 6. But someone said "Sure", so we went. Lisa and I stayed in the van. Apparently, the silk factory was closing down, but the startled employees turned the lights back on and quickly explained how they made silk. The group was hurried into the shopping side of the factory, where they could buy "the very type of garment that they just saw constructed". No one bought anything and the lights were being turned off as they walked out the door.

Now it was 6:30, and we had a two hour trip through traffic back to the hotel. We never got our Peking duck dinner. And I ate a bag of Lay's "Italian Red Meat" flavored potato chips. I have no idea why we had to go to the Drum tower or the Silk factory instead of eating dinner, but as someone in our group quoted from the movie, "Forget it, it's just Chinatown".

1 comment:

Uberlander said...

I've been reading "Red Scarf Girl" which is a memoir of a girl growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Amazing how what you are seeing are the things she is talking about. From her alley, to her dedication to serving Mao, etc. Kevin, you have done an amazing job of relaying the overload of images for us. This will be amazing for the girls to read when they are older.