Jul 30, 2007

big red

It's hot in Beijing and everywhere I go I leave a paper trail. The local hawkers play 'hunt down and accost the tourist' as easy as following the limp wadded paper scraps piling up behind me like soggy bread crumbs; ripped subway chits, taxi receipts, concierge cards and ticket stubs marking my admittance to everything from the Beijing Opera to the Great Wall cable car at Mutianyu spill out of my purse each time I reach in.

I left friends with soothing aloe wishes in Seoul after a weekend spent in an unrelenting sunshine blaze at the Mud Festival. By the end, Sam had turned a distressing shade of lobstery-red from the very points of his toes all the way to his hairline. Surveying his damage on the cramped and exhaustingly-late train ride back from the beach, I still don't know how I only managed to get off with a few swaths of go-away-tomorrow pink along my bikini lines.

The Boryeong Mud Fest is an event that couldn't be as worthwhile without good company. Luckily for me (especially in light of another month spent on the backside of a mountain in no-foreigner's Korea), along with Sam good company came in spades, as plentiful for those in a party mood as the bucketload-o-shellfish restos and the free-flowing beer along the beach.

Six of us internationals shacked up in the well-enough named 'Drama' hotel (thanks, Deb), snug under shared blankets and comforted with stolen pillows from the couch in the lobby.

Apart from three or so hours floating on a rented tube in the midst of a few hundred similarly positioned mixed Koreans and foreigners, when the relaxation I had so hoped for actually took its opportunity, the weekend seemed to go by in that slow-fast pace where you think you have time, but you've really run out -- when yesterday seems like a week ago but, "didn't I just get off this train?"

It was a beaut of a weekend and there are pictures, but that's another post.

Beijing certainly slows things down even more for me after Boryeong, as I choose to forgo a watch.

Six days in China's Capital, five spent walking across its center -- the bullseye of an ever-expanding ring. Its outer edges are a moving wall of Chinese humanity that no longer knows whether it's looking inward towards Mao's mausoleum at Beijing's geographical heart, or outward toward quite the opposite. Billboards advertise life outside the city, a little slice of zen for new commuters with highway-bound 'Geelys' who want to feng shui-balance metro business with the space beyond, but who ever heard of burbs in China?

I read somewhere that all you used to hear on the streets of Beijing was the roaring whisper of hundreds of thousands of bicycles, and that the communist-purist Chairman probably spins on his slab of marble when the mausoleum closes for the night.

Day 1: Wangfujing and BeiHai Park

I touch down in China Wednesday afternoon and pass through the relatively lax but crowded immigration at the airport. The first sight I'm greeted with is a group of eight or so Austrians in full lederhosen. Beijing automatically feels many times more cosmopolitan than Seoul and it's immediately clear to me that I'm a rarity, not because I'm white, but because I'm the most basic kind of white - North American. Europeans are the name of the day in Beijing, especially the Eastern Euros packed tightly in line all around me. I listen to the babel of a myriad of languages, none of them English.

I drop my bags at the luxurious China World, which is to be home base for three of five nights, and take the subway five stops into the center to Wangfujing, Beijing's famous shopping street.

Dior and Tiffany next to Ten Fu's Tea. For as long as I can stand not to buy anything, I'm in surrealist shopper paradise. I leave the bustling pedestrian broadway, cross the Donghuamen Night Market. Its food stalls are empty but stand ready to heat up dabing (steamed buns), Mongol/Muslim infusion lamb kebabs la (spicy) or bula (not) depending on your taste and tiny candied scorpions or deep-fried delights and sichuan hot plates. I pass through the East gate of the Forbidden City and hold my breath as I cross in front of the southern entrance, the 'Meridian Gate', staring straight ahead not daring to let my eyes have their fill of imperial China just yet.

I stumble across a bar named 'What?' along the western wall just outside the opposite gate and decide it's my place -- I'll be back on Saturday evening.

Northwest of the Forbidden City, Beihai Park feels one part amusement two parts history. A several-tonne blue jade urn is the centerpiece, the massive sole survivor from Kublai Khan's reign. In the shadow of a towering white pagoda, under twisting Cyprus trees and staring at the lazy carved dragons churning their way around the bowl in detailed splendor, I'm easily transported.

I stop along the lake to watch an elderly man gently practicing caligraphy on the stone road under the willows, waltzing with his meter-long brush, dipping it in and out of a tin can of water and returning it to the pathway with long curling strokes as languid and captivating as a flashing koi in a pond. Wish I could read it.

The lily pads of Beihai
At the top of the islet in Beihai, Beijing behind me
note: I apologize for low-fi pic quality, but I did Beijing with a disposable cam.
This is all you get!

My friend is detained in Shanghai overnight. Check-in is arranged regardless, and I pull back the drapes in a huge suite overlooking the hollow spears and iron struts of the soon-to-be new headquarters of China Central Television. It'll be the tallest building in Beijing. Besides these few towering monsters, Beijing's skyline is as demur as a long silk sleeve, but her ambitions are palatable. In no time at all the selfsame view will reach glimmering, more startling heights.

Day 2: Tiananmen and the Forbidden City

I'm beginning to love the Underground Dragon, Beijing's sprawling metro, reminiscent of the TTC in its [non]complexity (go east, go west, go up, loop back) and just as damned hot and crowded.

Tiananmen is boiling. There's no shade. It's the largest open square in the world. I could fry rice on the stone. Mao Zedong's mausoleum is closed for dead-guy upkeep, so I'm forced to skip the ritualistic 'filing past the body' and settle for pausing to stare at his wonderfully turgid expression in the infamous (and very Kim Il-Sung-y?) portrait tribute on Tiananmen Gate.

Far-away Gate
I love this, because we both look like goofs trying to pull off a nice picture even though we were forced into this by her parents. They also took several shots with their own camera.
It would not be the last time a Chinese family would ask me to pose for pictures with their kids.
Apparently the posing-with-a-white-person shots are de riguer for Chinese tourists visiting their own capital to prove, in fact, that they'd been there.

I don an 'auto-guide' -- a GPS one-eared mini-tour headset, and step up to the gate I passed the day before, let out that breath I was holding and wait for Roger Moore.

At least my guide book said my 'auto-guide' would be the voice of Roger Moore. Liars! Instead it's a purring Chinese woman. I pretend it's Michelle Yeoh and all is forgiven.

The Imperial Palace, aka the Palace Museum, aka the Forbidden City was isolated from the world beyond its gates for over 500 years (death penalty for uninviteds). It's now so far gone in the other direction, it's happily violated daily by thousands and thousands of tourists (not to mention tarps, scaffolding and scores of renovation/restoration equipment currently in the rush to beautify for the Olympic games).

Still, it knocks me over.

It's hard to put this, but it seems like I've seen so many good rip-offs of China that even all the verifiable authenticity still set off Disneyland cliché alarms in my head.

"You can't be serious, golden dragons? Concubine palaces? Bas-relief Chinese characters and blue and yellow tile? Aren't you going a little *over the top*....?"

While listening to the purring possibly-Michelle Yeoh spell out hidden meanings and intricate details I resolve to nickname my next washroom, "The Palace of Heavenly Purity."

Day 3: Temple of Heaven Park

If the last two days had me stuck in the tourist trap, Temple of Heaven Park is my relief.

Before 9am, it's Beijing's retired workers' playground. Over 350 hectares of squat juniper forest cover and long grass. It's the place to come to see large groups seamlessly practicing Tai Chi in slow liquid unison. Small men swinging largish ping-pong-type paddles keeping bobbing balls aloft to music, a dance-partnership between man and object. And little old ladies with swords.

I sit and listen to off the cuff choir practice, watch tango lessons and find shade.

Then I fall down the stairs of the ceremonial marble 'round altar' and bruise my ass. Best bruise I've had since I fell down that ravine snowboarding back in high school -- I took a picture later with my cell phone. No you can't see it.

The Temple of Heaven itself, what the park is named for, is Beijing's iconic structure. It's not original of course (really, those giant timbers were brought over from Oregon for the current incarnation back in the 1800s), but still imposing.

I end the evening watching the angry Chinese hosts of heaven getting pissed at the Monkey King (Sun Wukong) for drinking all the Dowager Empress's wine and trying to kick his monkey butt back down to earth to no avail. Don't you know the monkey always wins? Beijing Opera is truly a theater of the eyes, with acrobatics thrown in for good measure.

I couldn't get a picture in the dark terraced theater (very much like a Chinese version of The Globe), but this one of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, on wiki is actually from the same show I saw.

Day 4: The Great Wall

I bid adieu to my friend at the China World and board a tour bus to the Mutianyu section of The Great Wall.

We pass the soon-to-be Olympic Village, National Swimming Center ('the cube') and the Olympic Stadium ('the bird's nest') en route.

Before too long, a cable car tosses me out at a parapet on the Great Wall.

I'm awestruck. This is the Great Wall, the one and only. There is no other!

I sit on the stairs where the breeze filters through small defense gaps and take in the scope of it, shaming myself for only being able to climb about the equivalent of about a mile and a half.

These stairs go straight up.

Looks almost like I'm alone here -- the Great Wall at Mutianyu is known for its sparse crowds.

I crash land back at my new diggs for the first night, a tried tested and true international hostelling spot, meet some friendly Germans and head back to 'What?' across Tiananmen in the warm dark. I'm treated to a Chinese alt jazz/funk band while a handsome German regails me with stories of pissoirs in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam and his awful realization of the most notorious and noxious toilets on the planet: those in China.

Kites everywhere in the square. Honestly, it's magical. They stretch up into the night, some even disappearing as they trail off into the ever-present haze hanging over the city.

The hutongs (alleyways) come alive in the duskiness with food stalls, open doors, vendors and party-goers. Go ahead and buy jade for a dollar, eat like a king for fifty cents or feel like a million just to be there.

Day 5: I just walk.

I go out the door, pick up some fresh produce to go exploring the culturally significant remains of Beijing's hutong life.

These alleyways crisscross the center of Beijing and they're hundreds of years old. But as goes progress, they're fading into history at the rate of 10,000 homes a year, not that I actually see any hutong homes; they're hidden just out of view behind large round red double doors. But the Beijing I both imagined and could never have imagined is here, snaking in and out of the open doorways and tight squeezes.

I pass a wheelbarrow, home to two bunnies munching cabbage and peering wide eyed at me. A little boy screams excitedly as I approach and hides behind his mother's skirt as she and I laugh. Gurgling babies waddle haphazardly away from stair-perched communities of mothers in standard Chinese baby uniform -- assless baby chaps -- not necessitating a concern for helping out with potty time. I'm engulfed by incense clouds at a temple with an 18 meter-high Budda statue reputed to be carved from a single piece of sandalwood. The smells make me dizzily peaceful. I can't find washrooms that have walls or even sinks for that matter. I am physically stopped and heavily abused by street hawkers who want me to purchase fireworks, t-shirts or oddities calling, "cheapa for you! I givea discount friend! Lady, you lookie, you come my store!" I watch fresh chive-stuffed dumplings steam on a contraption off the back of an old man's bike. I'm invited to play hacky sack with what seems to be a cross between a tiny set of symbols, a badminton birdie and a beanbag being kicked with expert over-the-shoulder skills by a group of middle-aged women ("hello, you try?"). I dodge the big barrel-gutted Chinamen in their wide-open snoopy-print pyjamas, beers in one hand and cellphones in the other or shirts pulled up to their armpits in personal air conditioning mode -- I stifle laughter, but it's me everyone is staring at.

I close out my last night with a cheaper-than-cheap watery Yanjing beer (official beer of the 2008 Olympics) at picnic table down the hutong behind our hostel with fellow travelers.

A few taxi, plane, subway and bus rides plus a short sprint later, I'm back in the mountains.

Chinatown will never be the same.


Sam said...

That was a fun sunburn. I thought I got stared at before, but all bets are off when the token foreigner is suddenly bright-red and shuffling down the street like a leper who shit himself, because every step is agony for the burned feet.

It sounds like you had such an amazing time. I really like the pictures too. Probably more than if you had used a digital.

I'm curious to see how the Mud ones turned out too.

Your last paragraph sums up the madness of old-new crazy-calm so well.

Did you sample a scorpion?

riley said...

I didn't, Sam. A girl only has to be SO brave when there's no one around to show off to ;) Shouldn't scorpion candy be a shared experience? "Hey, remember that awful scorpion shit we ate that time?"

Actually, who knows, may have tasted awesome and then I'd eventually be searching Toronto markets for bugs.

Mud pictures to follow...

Sam said...

"Remember when we fell in love between bites of stinger and abdomen?"

riley said...

yer gross.

liza said...

Beautiful post. I love the way your hair looks in the close up photo... wait, did I turn into a girl when you were away?

riley said...

if you're going by liza now, er, yes.

Gorbalicious said...

I think it's b/c I was on the phone with my mom talking about haying. That's right, the act of making hay. Which made me think of my grandmother, who used to call me "Liza Lou" (note the middle name that is also not mine), and I guess that's why I wrote it. Remember when I used to write different names on the other blog? Huh? And you didn't seem to think it was weird? Huh?

riley said...

yer weird period.

I LOVE hay!

you better be looking for apartments.

lisa said...

I am, but I'm back to thinking October 1st since I'm leaving for NS on Friday for at least 2 weeks.

Check out viewit. There are lots of places for Sept 1st that I bet you won't all be gone. One with a huge basement rec room! PARTAY!