Saturday, September 09, 2006

Beijing - Longer

Since I am now an expert on China, some comments are on order.

I spent several weeks in the south of the country in 1986, and I wasn't exactly struck by the welcoming warmth of the people. Moreover, when I was literally dying of altitude sickness in Lhasa, not a single Han Chinese person there could give a tenth of a flying fig about my collapse in the lobby of the best hotel in town. Needless to say, I assumed that this was all a function of a long dysfunctional Chinese culture.

So I blew off the rest of China and headed for Taiwan. Where the people were some of the outright friendliest people I have ever seen. So I revised my hypothesis and concluded that my problems on the mainland were the result of forty years of Communism.

I am pleased to report that this hypothesis appears correct. Although no one stops you on the street to shake your hand, there do seem to be a fair sprinkling of smiles and acknowledgements. I have heard that life in the boondocks is much more xenophobic, and it was clear to us when we were sitting around someplace and a tour bus disgorged a load of country bumpkins that those folk live a much, much poorer life. But the more China prospers, the happier the people seem to get. Go figure.

China is also a very safe place to be in. There is no paranoia when standing at the ATM. The cab drivers are all scrupulously honest. Nobody is going to beat you up or rape you.

On the other hand, if you don't speak or read Chinese, you're kind of out of luck, because they certainly don't speak or read English. And there's no way you can phonetically give them directions or anything, because a word like 'hamingmen' to them sounds nothing like any conceivable way you could try to pronounce it. The country is nice enough to have street and subway signs in Roman lettering, and if you go into McDonald's you can usually find someone who understands 'coffee', but in most instances you're on your own.

Still in all, I'm finding it easy to get around. At least it's not like Arabic countries, where even the numbers aren't arabic numerals.

And a first note on usage: For all its leap into the 21st century, it's really hard to find any internet cafes in China. I actually found it easier to do so in Guinea-Bissau and the Congo, both places without even a pretense of an electrical grid. Not only that, but when you do find them, the connections aren't that good.

Anyhow, back to the travelogue:

Friday night we both slept for about 12 hours, and we didn't get started for the Forbidden City until after 11. By now we had learned our Beijing scale walking lesson and we were taking cabs and the subway everywhere.

My first disappointment was that, once you walk all the long, tiring way up Tienamien Square, there's a giant street of traffic between it and the FC. Not only that, but the giant poster of Mao really wasn't all that giant.

Then you walk a ways, pay your money, and keep walking. As you enter, right up ahead is the giant Gate of Harmonious Under Construction. Past that is the Hall of Supreme Under Construction. And off to the side is the Giant Pavilion of Under Construction.

When you get past all that, you are presented with more cobblestoned courtyards and one story building after one story building which are all the same: Russet red walls, yellowish-orange pagoda type roofs, green and blue geometrical designs in between. Inside each building were either the uncomfortable chairs and divans that they all sat in, or some museumish exhibit. And I know that if it weren't for museums then tourists would have nothing to do, but if I see one more drawing instrument of Liu Shi Tsu, court official of Emperor Xanchi (1644-1875)....

Sumi wanted to stop at the Starbucks inside the Forbidden City, so while we sat and shared a Cafe Americano, I reflected on what an incredibly status-based civilization China had been for several thousand years. I concluded that our hunger for status is either some deep-rooted human need or else some kind of game that we have made up so as to keep us all from having to deal with the deeper questions of existence.

And both Sumi and I independently decided that it would have probably been better all around for them to keep this all Forbidden. At least then our imaginations of the unknown would have made it all exciting.

So it was back to the modern Beijing, over to the ancient Drum Tower, and a quick walk through the much-hyped hudongs, or traditional alleyways of everyday living, that are supposed to be charming but that struck both of us as nothing more than substandard housing. Then sampling street food, some of it good, some of it bad, and all of it greasy and salty. Finally, a hunt for an internet.

And here's a second usage note: Please forgive any spelling errors or switching of tenses, etc. This is all being done extremely on the fly!