April 11, 2006
China - Monday
Woken up early again today by youngsters who haven't made the time adjustment, though the clock is definitely creeping in the right direction. After a little fortification with coffee, I made a first venture outside, this time to a little fruit and vegetable stand that sets up in the alley around the corner from the apartment building. The goal was some fruit and maybe eggs. The eggs are piled (stacked?) in what we know as milk crates; you pick out the ones you want and put them in a plastic bag. I didn't have the slightest idea what this might cost. From the way that she wouldn't look at me, I guessed that the girl in the little hut either wasn't used to dealing with foreigners or didn't particularly want to. But she did take the produce and weigh it, and told me (in Chinese, of course) the cost. I took out a 100-yuan bill (about $12.50), handed it to her, and hoped for the best. She counted out change and handed it back to me: 95 yuan. So four apples and two oranges and half-dozen eggs had come to about 65 cents US. (Bob added later that even so, that was the almost certainly a special foreigner price.) Two lessons, though, which we hope will carry us through: one, you can transact business with people without sharing so much as a word with them; and two, you can trust most people to be honest with money, such as for example handing them in your ignorance 20 times the price of a purchase and having them make change.
Check with me in a week about this.
Today's all-day goal was the Forbidden City. Short of the Great Wall, this is the big one of Beijing tourism -- the guidebook says 2 million visitors a year. Our plan went like this. We learned to sound out the name of the Forbidden City in Chinese (Gu Gong), which we were then to recite to a taxi driver. Bob equipped us with a spare cell phone for which we were to purchase a SIMM card. We would spend the day touristing, then when it was time to go home, give him a call on the now-functional cell phone and he'd tell our taxi driver how to get us home.
In spite of not quite working, this worked out quite well.
Phase 1 went flawlessly. We flagged down a taxi and said Gu Gong at the guy, and he nodded. In we clambered and off we went. Our driver knew not a word of English, thus matching our Chinese. Conversation was out of the question, although along the way he sang to himself pleasantly while we chattered our foreign talk. As we approached, he momentarily forgot that we were retarded and was apparently pointing out either sights or important information he thought we should have, to which we could respond with little more than "Yes, I see!" and "Thank you very much," in English, of course. When he dropped us off, we fared slightly better in that he used the international symbol for "go around over there to the left," which was clear enough. Xiexie.
As we regrouped at the main entrance, we encountered the first of what would be several instances of a phenomenon we had read about in the guidebook: people who wanted to practice English. A woman struck up conversation with us. She seemed nice enough and her English was quite good, but we were wary, probably more than warranted in this case, so we kind of shortchanged her, oh, well. (I must say that the level of English we encounter here is way better than what I experienced in Japan last year, both in grammar and accent.)
The Forbidden City was swarming with tourists and especially with tour groups, all led by people holding up flags -- either tour group flags or national flags. (I was passed by a big group following a Mexican tricolor and listened to them jabbering in Spanish, which to me personally captured something quintessential about world tourism.) We didn't do a formal tour, and instead rented the audio-tour thing, which were little boxes that we slung around our boxes and plugged into one ear.
Tour groups, Forbidden City
We then joined the hordes for a slow-motion stampede through the Forbidden City. I felt the lack of my knowledge of Chinese dynasties; everything we've encountered so far uses the dynasties (Ming, Qing, etc.) as shorthand for eras, as we might use a term like "Elizabethan" or "Victorian." Our audio tour, which wasn't bad at all, used this shorthand to describe the buildings we visited. The most spectacular of the palaces (Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests) is currently undergoing renovation, so we were unable to obey our virtual tourguide's urgings to admire the columns of the palace, for example. In fact, the entire Forbidden City is undergoing renovation, and it was only in occasional spots where we could see little bits of finished renovation that suggested how beautiful the palaces once looked and will again.
We made it through the scripted part of the tour, landing in the inner courtyard where we could visit the "garden of scarlet snow" and the intricately eroded boulders that were termed "wood-into-stone." (I must say that the Chinese have a way with naming.) Our guidebook notes that although the most popular route is to tour through the center of the Forbidden City, not to visit the Western and Eastern axes "would be a mistake." The Western axis is closed -- more renovation -- but the Eastern axis beckoned. Ok, then.
And indeed, our casual stroll through some of the smaller courtyards was well worthwhile. The Forbidden City is huge -- the term "city" is not inappropriate -- and we were effectively wandering alleyways that once were sidestreets of the imperial residence. We found all sorts of things -- exhibits of jade pieces, tucked-away gardens, small bits of restoration with vibrant new lacquer.
Forbidden City, Nine-dragon Wall
Forbidden City courtyard
At one point we emerged into one of the larger squares right next to -- tada! -- a Starbucks, which I believe is the only penetration of evil corporations into the Forbidden City. Naturally, we stopped and indulged, which pause also gave us opportunity for a turn around the gift shop, how handy. Which was surprisingly un-gouging. There again we met someone who was "practicing her English," the trademark giveaway for which, I now know, is when they ask "Where are you from?" This particular interaction had a more obvious commercial bent, as after a few moments of conversation, she was urging me to visit the gallery tucked behind the gift shop, an offer I declined. I later saw her going further afield into the square, buttonholing tourists and attempting to shepherd them into the gift shop. I learned later that she's an art student trying to steer business to the gallery.
Forbidden City Starbucks
After doing my touristical duty at the gift shop, I wanted an interlude with the guidebook, so I parked myself outside the Starbucks and was treated to the experience of watching every single Westerner stop and take a photo of the Starbucks sign. Many before going in, of course.
All in all, it was a great experience, in both big and small ways. Big, as in, if you want a sense of how grand the Chinese empire was, get a gander at the Forbidden City. Small, as in, the experience went smoothly including -- and I feel compelled to note this -- that the bathroom situation was excellent: many facilities, conveniently located, spotless.
About then we were getting in need of some lunch. We headed south toward the exit, which opens through Tiananmen Gate onto Tiananmen Square. We thought vaguely we might be able to stumble across a restaurant or something. Bad bet, as it turns out. Tiananmen is ... well, it's a big (in fact, the biggest) public square. As our guidebook warns, however, there isn't much there, other than the giganto portrait of Mao that hangs over Tiananmen Gate at the north end of the square. We were a little too hungry to undertake the lengthy walk it would have required to cross the square and the visit the mausoleum of the Great Helmsman, although Sarah was morbidly curious about the apparently wretched job they'd done embalming the great leader -- there's a wax replica, it is said, just in case the pickle job wasn't up to the standards of, say, Lenin's remains.
Without a 100% firm idea of where we were going, we headed up a sidestreet that paralleled the palace, with a notion of food and the SIMM card. A lot of shops advertised in English (batteries, film, and so on). Sarah stopped at one that offered "memory cards" and had an interchange that went roughly like this: Sarah says "SIMM card?" and the Chinese ladies look confused. "SIMM card?" again, this time miming a cell phone. "Ahhh!," say the ladies, "SIMM card!" Sarah and the ladies smile at one another, pleased with their ability to communicate. Then the ladies shake their heads "No," and everyone laughs again.
For as close as these places were to the Forbidden City, they were way down market, which I supposed was a reflection of the fact that we saw virtually no tourists on this street. Presumably all their custom came from either locals or maybe Chinese tourists. We were walking up the street and passed by a guy standing in the doorway of his little hole-in-the-wall restaurant who at exactly the right second took the lid off a bamboo basket of steamed hum bow. Oh, man. We piled into his four-table place and he put a stack of three baskets on out table, with about 10 cute little buns in each one. We devoured them, even in spite of the fact that the girls are not so adept with chopsticks and had to kind of stab them. They sure were good, though. We had no idea what we might be spending, other than that it was sure to be a bargain. When we got ready to leave, he got out a pad of paper and carefully wrote "30" on it. So it was $2.75 US for 30 little hum bow buns.
Alleyway, Forbidden City in background
When we met up with a big boulevard again, we sat ourselves down to work out where we were, hampered somewhat by the lack of comprehensive maps in the guidebook. (A Germanic-sounding couple leaned over and asked "Do you know where you are?" to which we could answer in the affirmative; our problem at that exact second was figuring out where we needed to go.) We sorted it out, though, and then dodging the gallery of bicycle-rickshaw drivers offering us rides and one particularly persistent would-be tour guide, we flagged down a taxi, and showed him the address on a card and a crude line we'd drawn on one of our guidebook maps. He conveyed that he could do that thing, and steered us through the seemingly perpetual rush hour to home.
There's a lot of traffic, although probably not as much as a city of this size should have. But the traffic rules are roughly what they are in, say, Mexico City. Traffic runs on the right, except when that's not convenient. Red lights mean stop, unless that isn't convenient. Pedestrian have the right of way inasmuch as they stay the hell out of the way of cars. My particular favorite is that people turn from any lane to any lane, across any number of lanes of traffic (occupied) if they need to. Defensive driving is raised to a high art, since cars and people can spring out at you at any second. You would think there would be accidents every 100 yards (er, meters) but we haven't seen one yet.
After another nap -- vacation is all about sleep -- we rolled out to a local Chinese restaurant for dinner. Bob reeled off a bunch of Chinese and stuff appeared, the centerpiece of which was a fish which we had seen a few minutes earlier flapping on a plate for inspection, and which now appeared fried in batter under a sweet sauce. I appreciate the freshness, but in reality I don't really want to look dinner in the eye.
And that was pretty much it for day 2.