Beijing Day 3: In the Footsteps of Ghosts

It is hot. Hot and humid – the air is just thick with moisture, and the pollution adds an additional haze to the haze of heat.

We have a late start to accommodate Dad’s new time zone. We eat at the hotel (NOTE: If you can avoid buffets at nice hotels, do so. Our meal was outrageously priced for what we got, and I imagine it was solely because we were staying at a Marriott brand hotel). Our first stops are Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. There is a press of people outside the turnstile, as the security guards are implementing an ID policy and only letting people in one at a time. The bottleneck is intense, with people shoving each other, jockeying for inches of space. I look nervously at my Dad, who hasn’t had to deal with this sort of shoving in a long time.  If I had not already been living in China, I would have called the whole vacation off based solely on my experiences in this morning rush.

He handles it better than I do, actually. I warned him ahead of time, yet I’m the one growing progressively darker as all semblance of personal space disappears. There’s a fat man behind me, shirt rolled up under his armpits.  He uses his protruding belly to try and nudge me forward when he thinks I’m not moving. After fifteen minutes of his incessant rubbing and not so gentle shoving, I decide to push back. Playing stupid, I stand still and inch myself forward slowly, taking pleasure in his obvious annoyance. All I can think of is how disgusting it is to have a stranger wiping fat sweat on your shirt. I get knocked about a little because I’m short, and people are screaming at each other, at each imagined slight. But we cannot help but move forward, and through the turnstile to the plaza.

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Tienanmen Square is impressive in scope – a vast flatness of concrete surrounded by massive Party buildings. It is full of pride and patriotism. But it is just that – a giant plaza. There is nothing to really do save take pictures framed by the buildings. Ted, our guide, skirts the political issues embedded in the history of the location, noting only that the infamous demonstration happened. He couples this with a funny story about country boys misunderstanding Chairman Mao during a different speech. I bite my tongue.

We continue on to the Forbidden City. The scope is again, impressive – the sheer size of everything is only matched by the sheer number of people present.  Everything is big.  But there is this strange hollowness to the Forbidden City. It’s like all the people moving through don’t matter. Big buildings have that effect sometimes, but this place reeks of indifference. Notre Dame feels old and full of souls. The Forbidden City could care less whether you walk its halls or not. That is probably because it was built to keep people away.  It was built for a man and his harem, not for crowds. Still, the yellow tiled roofs are pretty, and I like the personal gardens and the tiny little hallways which offshoot from the main paths. The detail work is wonderful and present throughout the giant space.

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The heat does not relent, and we’re flagging by lunch. We find our driver and head to the pre-arranged restaurant.  It’s a tawdry thing, our tour package lunch. It’s westernized Chinese food – a strange sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, and what I think is General Tso’s chicken.  Overhead a CD of sad saxophone music plays dreary covers of movie themes. It’s laughably bad, and so we laugh. This is “safe” food for us – non-threatening and bland so as not to offend.  Having eaten hot pot for months, it’s a stark contrast. Even if I hadn’t been living in China, I was still really disappointed with what they thought we would want to eat. Why not just give us McDonalds?

Next is the Summer Palace – where the Empress Cixi chose to live. She was the original “Dragon Lady” and our guide tells stories of frivolous spending, cuckolding, and executions. She built a giant marble boat just to have a giant marble boat (it does not move – just a symbol). The Summer Palace is beautiful as well, set on a lake that is partially man made. There are elegant bridges and long wooden porches. It’s beautiful, but so humid.

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I tried to buy a milk tea, and after some confusion was given a piping hot milk tea. My guide laughed at me and patronizingly said to let him handle such things in the future. I was properly knocked off my perch. I do understand his attitude, though. I was in a snitty mood all day, uncomfortable in the heat. I had told him earlier I did not really want to hear the history of a rock (literally, I shooed him along after seven minutes of a story about an argument over a giant rock that had been moved from one place to another). I had little patience for Ted’s upsell of a rickshaw ride. I had declined it on the original itinerary, and now I get to do so in person.  He was probably hoping for some opportunity to remind me who was the tourist.

 

Ok, so the rock is bad luck because one guy wanted it, but then it cost so much to get it to the space he had the courtyard built around it, and then he went bankrupt, and was killed for...you know what, I really just want to move out of the sun please....

Ok, so the rock is bad luck because one guy wanted it, but then it cost so much to get it to the space he had the courtyard built around it, and then he went bankrupt, and was killed for…you know what, I really just want to move out of the sun please….

 

Again, I don’t feel particularly welcomed by the architecture or the landscape.  If I had to make a comparison, it would have to be Versailles. While not as big as these palaces, it is so opulent it is off-putting (especially when you consider how everyone else was living at the time). There are beautiful scenes – picturesque, grand, elegant – but it’s also aloof. I feel like I’m walking halls filled with nothing but ghosts, even though I’m being pressed by people. I feel inconsequential.  And that is the point of these buildings – to make us feel like we don’t matter. We are but a conglomeration of shadows, the living and the dead just stirring dust forever on the flagstones.

It’s like looking at jewelry in a museum – it’s a removed beauty.

By the end of the tour day, Dad and I are exhausted. The oppressive heat and humidity sapped my energy, and I am content to stay in that night and eat satay at the bar.

Tomorrow it’s the Wall, and climbing.  Tonight it’s cushioned pillows and sleep.

 

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A practical boat

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An impractical boat

 

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Beijing Day 1 & 2: Confucius Says…

Off from Chengdu! Zaijian, Sichuan Province – hello Beijing! Landing in Beijing, I’m reminded of my first impression of China – the smoggy cloud covering the ground greets me, and I regret my loss of facemask. The second thing to hit me is the heat – it’s hot and humid, in oppressive waves that get me sweating almost before I reach my luggage.

I meet my tour contact, who in this case I will call Ted, who drives me to the hotel my Dad booked. It’s ritzier than any place I have stayed at to date, save for the Marriott Champs-Elysee (again, not my booking) – the JW Marriott Beijing. There is a fleet of attendants to take my bags, guide me to check-in, and generally ensure that I don’t feel any anxiety about being abroad in a foreign country.

Enjoying feeling posh, I don’t tell them I’ve been in their country for four months, and allow myself to be pampered all the way up to my comfortable room. There’s a dragon fruit in the fruit bowl, and chocolate dim sum. The Marriott in Beijing smells exactly like the Marriott in Indianapolis – that’s what hits me the strongest. They must use the same shampoo, or the same air filters, or something.

That is my first day – travel, checking in, settling on a plan of action for the next day. I turn up the A/C, put on a fluffy robe, and watch HBO in peace.

Morning and a horrendously overpriced buffet later (I’ve been spoiled in Wenjiang, spending 10rmb a day on a meal), I’m off walking, umbrella in hand. I have a day to myself, which I use to learn the Subway system. In Shanghai I took the advice of the jetsetters and relied on inexpensive taxis. But I want to learn a Metro, and the Beijing Metro has the pull of cheap travel. 2rmb for a ticket, with unlimited transfers. Imagine that – basically a quarter for wherever you want to go! Pressed like sardines, and not a ton of ventilation – I recommend avoiding rush hours. So off I go, to my first stop, the Lama temple:

The Lama temple is home to a large Buddha statue that has the distinction of being in the Guinness Book of World Records for being carved from a single giant piece of sandalwood. That sounds promising and familiar. By this point I’ve seen quite a few temples, so when I see the green avenue leading to the gates of the first hall, it’s calming.

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I recommend visiting this temple. It’s not very large, but it’s full of character. You can feel the history in each of the buildings, and it’s pleasant to watch the monks go about their business, spinning and praying at the prayer wheels at the behest of the practitioners. They also sit in the corners and look at their cell phones – they are not afraid of bringing in modernity to their lives, though it’s done in singular, small things like the phones.

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And the Buddha – it’s been awhile since I’ve seen something so beautiful. I think the Golden Summit at the peak of Emei mountain was the last time where I was in awe of something. This would be the second. It’s not just the height of the statue, though it is tall. It’s the serene grandeur – Buddha draped in long swaths of yellow fabric, staring at everything around it, but focused on nothing. The air is muffled and full of incense. It’s improbably peaceful in such a hectic city. Up unto seeing this statue I have adhered strictly to the tenants of each Buddhist temple, specifically that you cannot take photos inside the temple.

 

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I make up for my indiscretion by putting a larger than normal donation in the temple box. Worth it for a memory worth remembering.

My second stop, just up the street, is the Confucius temple. It’s one of the very few sites in China where people make offerings to a man instead of a deity. I think the best Christian comparison would be how I pray to the Saints to help carry my prayers. I think that would make Confucius the patron saint of Education, and being generally egalitarian about work.

There are very few people at the temple – I don’t think it’s as famous or popular a tourist stop as some of the other places in Beijing. So entering the space, there are two groups ahead of me, walking in schools like fish behind a high-flying flag. I give them space, and wander through the giant steles alone. It’s creepy, how empty it all feels. Stoic huts house dragon turtles, carrying faded stone carvings with names and dates no one reads. I always felt a strange resonance with the dragon turtles here – carrying things forever. Now I feel a little bad for them.  A chipmunk goes scurrying around the bases of the huts, looking for food. It’s strange because I know that there are millions of people outside the walls, that the city spreads and spreads and is packed with souls. But there are none here, not in the front of Confucius’ school.

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The museum is similarly deserted – a single soul wanders reading the plaques. The museum is nothing but sunshine and pro-China quotes, positing Confucius as the progenitor of all education systems in the world.

There are more people at the actual tomb of Confucius – his statue is festooned with red tags. Each tag has the name of student and school, or student and graduation year. The tags are prayers to Confucius, hoping he’ll inspire them (or maybe inspire their teachers to be generous). It’s a pretty area, and again I’d say if you are looking for a place that is not as crowded as the Forbidden City, but still has some interesting history, spend an afternoon at the Lama and Confucius temples.

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Before heading back, I stop at the Silk Market – but that’s another post.

Then I meet Ted, and we go to collect my Parent. Now, the “official” tour of Beijing can begin!