Sunday, May 31, 2009

5/31 Forbidden City all to ourselves

Although the Beijing sun rose at about 4:30, and it was fairly light at 6, we decided to sleep in a bit longer. It turned out we overslept until about 8, so we got a late start to go to Tsinghua University. The first cab driver declined to take us and we never could guess at the reason. It took a few moments to find a driver who agreed to take us. The traffic was awful, since many people had been expected to work on Sunday because, after all, they had all had a three day vacation for the Dragon Boat festival (which I discovered was an official holiday tradition for all of only two years). It was indeed celebrated more vigorously down south where we had been a few days earlier. The fare was high (Y61), since the written Chinese characters I'd given the driver for directions sent us to the wrong gate, again, and I called Alex and had her talk with the nice driver, who told me "That's cool" in English. Not being able to use simple phrases in the local language like "Sorry about that" or "Excuse me" or "How's it going" or "Where can I wash my hands" makes a person feel impotent.

We felt like we'd met the days expectations of us after checking in at the foreign student dorm's front desk and showing our passports (our passports had never been through such a rigorous two weeks as they did while we were in China). Alex was video conferencing with Jamie as we walked into her Apartment 644. It was Jamie's Saturday night at about 9 pm, and she was telling us about how she was handling being alone just fine until Amanda would be off work and home at about 2 am. I did a few quick things on e-mail and we grabbed a cab for the Olympic Park
near the National Stadium (the Bird's Nest Stadium). The driver took us to the northernmost park entrance, which rarely was used by anybody, since the subway only ran to the southern entrance to the park. We were fine, because we'd hoped to be able to walk through the entire park, which only nine months after the Olympics was already beginning to be reclaimed by nature. It was very empty, something which could be rarely said about anything within Beijing's city limits. We explored a large deck overlooking a chain of interconnected ponds. As you'd expect to find in any part of the world, the koi heard us coming and all congregated near us in the hopes that we'd toss out a snack or two. A token older woman was performing tai chi in the shade behind us, and continued her ritual by the water's edge without word. It was wonderfully peaceful. As we walked southward, we did begin to see more people, mostly locals, who'd come to appreciate the varied flowering shrubs and trees. Several electric vehicles shuttled small groups from here to there, but the most memorable pair was a grandpa and his grandson strolling along with a fishing pole. He was singing a folksong in his most beautiful, loving voice as they walked over a bridge together, oblivious to the "foreign devils" watching them. I wish I'd pulled out the camera, but as had happened in so many other instances during our trip, I didn't want to intrude on something without a better understanding of its importance to my subjects. I've lost some great shots because of this sensitivity, but I feel good knowing why they went uncaptured.

After a bit of confusion (silly us, believing the park signage directing us to the south exit might be accurate), we successfully made our way past the much more grand southern entrance and the vendors (absent at the north gate) and after a few photos with the Bird's Nest Stadium as backdrop, entered the subway, still sparkling from its Olympic debut. We boarded our private car and I photographed through the open doors in each direction to the other sparsely occupied cars. In all, there may have been a dozen people on the 12:30
departure on Line 8 heading south. As Alex had warned us, that didn't last but a few stops, and by the time we'd transferred to two different lines, we'd been standing like sardines with the other thousands of early afternoon commuters. Alex wanted us to experience one of her favorite lunch places, even though it meant that we'd have to buy a few more subway tickets afterward to continue on, but we felt we could afford the additional 2 yuan. The featured treat was the "dessert" of purple rice stuffed into a hollowed out pineapple which capped off another of our very good stir fry meals. We never identified the intermittent mystery sound, which could have simply been the main burner from the kitchen stoves, but sounded more like a fire breathing dragon at an amusement park. Back on the subway, we rode to the Forbidden City / Tiananmen Square exit and started another marathon walk.

Alex amusingly kept track of each category of vendor as we were approached, again having reminded me specifically not to make eye contact or acknowledge them in any fashion. She walked with purpose past the menagerie to the innermost ticket booth, where we bought three tickets to enter the Forbidden City. We made for the national pottery collection, which was spectacular (the fact that it was air conditioned was an added bonus). I'd never seen as many six thousand year old vases and vessels which looked to be in such good shape. We lost track of time, and suddenly were faced with the fact that all would be closing in about 40 minutes. So we continued deeper and deeper into the realm of royalty, noting as we progressed the ubiquitous appearance of substantial thresholds, just like those we'd seen at every other archeological site in China. It seems the ancient Chinese didn't want to admit anybody who couldn't step over and clear an 8" wooden beam. Again, we felt eerily alone, for unlike even Alex's prior experience there, there were very few people within the Forbidden City (and later at Tiananmen Square, except for military sorts and a bunch of people who were likely plain clothes security people). The Forbidden City was virtually empty, with the exception of a couple of small tourist groups and a few stragglers like ourselves. [It reminded me of how Ghirardelli Square felt in March, 2003. We found very few people while on a visit there too. Turns out 450 Iraq war protestors had been arrested a couple of days earlier, so things had become very quiet in San Francisco. With the 20th anniversary of the uprising at Tiananmen on June 4, and recent media control and police supervision of the plaza by Chinese authorities, the explanation for how few people were there on May 31 might be self-evident.] We took photos as if we were private guests and didn't try to explain our good fortune. I'm hesitant to post the photos with my typical honest captions until Alex arrives home at the end of June.

Speaking of good fortune, did I mention how many lanes of traffic (4 of cars and 3 of buses and taxis) in each direction separated the Forbidden City and Tiananmen? [This was the fourteen lane street where the famous "tank man" stood to block passage of the army tanks.] Fortunately, there were pedestrian subways so that nobody had to cross the street, though pedestrian/vehicle challenges seemed to work safely everywhere else in China. We called Steven and needed to find a bus in order to meet up with him. After I noticed a dozen painted aisles on the sidewalk with (apparently) bus numbers for each lane, I suggested to Alex that we ask one of the many microphoned bus announcers standing at attention how we might best achieve our destination. She was very helpful, and before we could find the correct number on the sidewalk, we saw Bus 81 pulling in front of the many other buses curbside. We made a frantic dash to jump on, and conveniently I had a Y1 note for each of us. We stood all the way and luckily noticed that we'd reached our cross street, so we jumped off. Many of the conspicuous, large green and white street signs in this part of Beijing which Westerners might assume give you the cross street instead feature a vertical arrow which then indicates what street you are already traveling on. Upon reflection, it was a useful device for those of us who weren't sure if we were indeed traveling north or east. The signs for the cross streets were less noticeable, but I credit Alex for preventing us from taking the bus back to the Great Wall.

Alex wanted to walk along the north boundary of the Forbidden City in order to show us the moat which originally surrounded the entire complex (but was no longer visible from the main entrance). I couldn't help but imagine the multiple lines of defense which would have made a successful attack throughout most of history all but impossible. I pictured archers with powerful crossbows on top of the walls within the moat, and was fairly confident that few people had been crazy enough to even try to scale the smooth sides after a midnight swim. A couple of rickshaw drivers with broken, but decent, English tried very hard to convince us to hire them, but I remembered one of the few phrases Alex taught me and said "gwong y gwong" which elicited a laugh and him saying "Just want to stroll, huh?"

That was exactly what we wanted, so they let us pass. Near the midway point of the northern border we crossed the street, heading north again, up yet another street to the entrance to a great park where we met Steven, who had just ridden his bicycle from work. We entered the very popular park and were greeted first by a display of miniature Gingko trees, done bonsai style, in various shaped planters. As we gwong y gwonged, we passed a number of musicians, some sitting alone playing stringed instruments (the Chinese erhu) and others just singing away a capella. Three older men had their own karaoke set up and were leading a group of seventy or so older park guests in a patriotic song in memory of fallen soldiers, according to Steven. It was an example of another of the countless things that you just don't see any more in the US, except in old musicals starring Bob Hope or Bing Crosby. These people all had soft, melodic voices, which together had some volume, but not a one had the distinctive growl of Beijing Mandarin. We were a little discouraged that Steven wanted us to yet again climb more stairs to ascend to the top of the temple, from which all of Beijing could be seen. Apparently, when the moat around the Forbidden City was built, all the dirt was piled on top of an old Mongol conqueror’s tomb, thus creating this wonderful hill and another opportunity for future tourists to climb steps. It was another one of Alex and Steven's recommendations which was top notch. We got to see the sunset on an atypically clear day over the capital city, and got a bird's eye view to the south over the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

We trekked back down, swearing once again that we would not climb any more tombs, walls, temples, or towers on this trip, and passed five older folks kicking a hackey sack badminton birdie back and forth as gracefully as dancers. They'd laugh at the person who infrequently missed the return or kicked it poorly. It was again very peaceful, and helped me to understand how this culture could make such a big deal about drinking some hot tea.

We found Steven's bicycle locked among countless others, and after kindly refusing more post cards and books (of which we never bought any), we walked towards the most anticipated dinner of our entire visit at the Hot Pot Restaurant which has
a more formal name I can't recall. Lots of red and gold and wood and copper, and an entourage of Chinese businessmen entertaining a treasured guest donning a white suit, white shoes, and white beard, all of whom passed us on their way into the separate and very private dining room, right out of a Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre black and white film. The four of us each had what seemed to be our own personal waitress, each with a plastic embossed name tag with Chinese characters and then the English "No" and her number. [I'd grown to like the Anglicized names like "Sophie" or "Nancy" or "Wendy" or "Annabel" or "Jerry" which most of the service folk we'd met had adopted, and was a little offended that I'd have to ask Number 619 to again fill my tiny glass with beer from the bottle sitting right next to me or scoop fat from my individual copper bundt pot of boiling water which I'd been parboiling various offerings of meat, vegetables, fungi, and tofu.] But I still smiled at each of them, No one and all, since they too seemed so pleased to be doing their duties and attentive to our every need or desire. The crazy thing was that tips are not expected, nor does anyone seem to give them. The service comes because it's expected as part of the job. And they really seem eager to do their jobs well. I still can't answer if it's because of the culture, or because they know that there are probably ten more Chinese who would love to have their jobs if they don't do it well. But it was a good meal, and like all others we ate with Steven, we never left hungry. Steven insisted on picking up the tab, and after some hesitation, we graciously accepted. Turned out to be the one time in history that he underestimated the tab, but he refused to accept anything from us. So I like to think that I took care of the tip.

Steven also presented us with a wonderful parting memento, Natural China, a book of beautiful nature photography published by his own Nature Conservancy, to remember our time with him and with Alex. I'd often wondered, watching Steven and Alex walking on ahead of us during various times around Beijing, how things work---that Steven and Alex end up, if only for a brief period, on the other side of our planet to create memories together, in much the same way that Amanda's and Bryan's lives overlapped for a time in Portland. It made me wonder what coincidences might be held in our future and thankful for those that we'd already enjoyed. And I thought of how I'd been able to witness all of it so far, and realized that I needed to write about it as well as photograph it in an attempt to really get as much flavor out of it as possible. So I guess that's my excuse for writing so much about things which other people could probably have said more concisely. [Ironically, my journal of our trip to China might be the one time where I could have simply and appropriately said, "The food is good."]

Parting with Steven was easy because he looked so happy. He had matured into a really neat guy and one with whom I was very proud to have shared our lives. Plus, I knew he'd be visited in a few months by Bryan's family as well as his mom and Tom, and that we'd see him again over Christmas back in Tulsa. Parting with Alex was much more difficult, even though I knew we'd see her in just a few weeks. She came back to the Doubletree to see our room and to spend a little more time together, but both she and Karen started to get really tired really quickly. I walked Alex down to her taxi, a bit of small talk to delay saying the important things we really wanted to say, and then just as her tears had welled up, I was able to croak out how much I really loved her, which is easier to print on a Valentine's coffee cup than it is to say as you're motioning to a Chinese taxi driver to take away one of the most important gifts of your life. I knew it was futile, but I still assessed the cabbie and memorized his license number as she quickly climbed into the front seat and headed off into the darkness. But I also knew that if she could handle Beijing, she can handle anything which life might throw at her. It made the trip back to 1539 more manageable, and I felt good.

Depart Beijing

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