Saturday, August 13, 2005

More from our man in Beijing, China.

Bill decides to take in the sites on Saturday. His description is a bit long, but worth reading if you've never been to China and find this sort of thing interesting:

Well, it’s about 4 on Sat afternoon, and I’ve returned to the hotel for protein and a rest. Actually, I’ve been out and about for the last 7 hours and was afraid I was going to experience heatstroke. Literally, my arms were tingling and it was spreading to my back and neck. That’s when I decided to grab a cab back to the hotel. For you see, while it’s only in the 80s temperature. It must be nearly 100% humidity. I do get a morning paper in English – well it’s about 10 pages or so and has mainly “interesting” news from remote regions of China, but that’s a whole nother story – anyway the paper this morning warned that people were collapsing from the extreme humidity, and I saw plenty of them.

I woke up this morning at nearly 6 AM – a record, and pretty remarkable since I was in bed before 8 PM – I guess two beers is all I needed to get a good night’s sleep. I watched a stupid movie on HBO, and left around 9 AM. I have to admit a bit of apprehension on venturing out on my own. Stopped at an ATM and withdrew money with my US Bank card – have no idea how much RMB1,000 is – actually there’s 8 RMB to the dollar, so this was about 125 dollars. Anyway, I was thinking about stopping for breakfast, but that dinner last night of Tsingtao and Pringles was still giving me enough energy to start walking towards Tiananmen Square. Passed a KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and a slew of Chinese restaurants (a sign for a Justine’s Restaurant touted “Feel Fine Dining”). I went in what I think was a department store – but Harrah’s it was not. It was chock full of little booths, and as near as I could tell each booth was someone else’s stuff – all kinds of jackets, shirts, jeans, etc. in no particular order. English speaking sales people being very pushy and trying to get me to buy their wares. But it was typical Western-style clothes. Nothing special.

A few blocks later I went in what was much more like a typical mall. There was a McDonald’s and it was right at 10 AM – they were changing all the signs from breakfast to lunch menu, so I walked around the mall a bit (the Volkswagen dealership in the middle of the mall I thought was an interesting touch), then headed back to Mickey-D’s. I had only walked for an hour or so, and I was already ready to sit in some AC at McDs. There was some weird kind of pita-like bread stuffed sandwich, and spicy hot wings, I went with the standard double cheeseburger, Diet Coke (actually Coke Light) and fries. The English speaking manager jumped to wait on me and not have me wait in line, so I ordered the No. 9. The fries were classic McD’s, but the burger was just a touch odd. Not bad, just a little different, and I can’t put my finger on how. I sat and observed the people for a while. Their was a large older teenage girl sitting by herself and reading. As near as I could tell, some guy tried to pick her up, but to no avail. Then a young girl sat at the table next to me. Her boyfriend brought her an ice cream cone while he waited for their order. He was on cloud 9 and obviously trying to impress this chick. Watching them was a real treat and made me realize the universality of humanity for some strange reason.

After I ate, I finished walking through the mall. Looked at disposable cameras but decided against it. Also looked at digital cameras at the Sony store, but they were still $300 for the cheapest (I think) so I passed.

Eventually made my way to Tiannaman Square and the swelling mass of Chinese humanity was overwhelming. At the south end of the square is Mao’s mausoleum, but I elected not to go pay my respects. His quite large picture, however, was hanging over the entrance to the Forbidden City on the north side, where I was. Big government buildings of some kind were on the east and west side, with about a thousand Chinese flags everywhere.

I decided to try and make my way to the Forbidden City, and just got with the mass of folks heading that way. Went over a small bridge over a moat-like stream and went through the gate in the pagoda-like building – the first of MANY.

In the first courtyard, I tried to figure out where to buy a ticket. Only saw venders selling who knows what, so made my way through the next pagoda-like building into yet another courtyard. In there, English-speaking “guides” tried to get me to hire them, but eventually I found where you bought tickets. There were people EVERYWHERE! Then I saw the audio-tour booth – I had read last week on an internet site that the English version, narrated by Roger Moore, was worth it. It was a much shorter line, with only one or two ahead of me, so I went there first instead of getting behind the 100s in the ticket line. Fortunately, I could not only get the audio-guide but also my ticket. I thought this was a great move, and so I got in line to get through the gate in the next pagoda-like building, gave my ticket to the guy and showed him my audio ticket – he really didn’t care and just pushed me along. When I got into the next courtyard, I saw a guy who looked Western and he had on his audio thing, so I asked him where he got it. Yep, there was another booth in the previous courtyard so I had to head back out. I kept asking folks if I could get back in with my ticket, but nobody seemed to care. While standing in line for the audio, I was listening to the folks ahead of me, and they were discussing how they were NOT going to give them their passport as a deposit for the audio gear. That didn’t sound like a good idea to me either. Then a guy, who looked like anyone else visiting (as opposed to most “officials” who always were some type of uniform) comes up to me and another guy and asks for our tickets. We give them to him, and he asks for our passports. We balk. Then he says you can leave RMB100. That sounds better but WHO is this guy and will I really get my audio gear, much less my money back. Then he says we can leave our hotel room key. That sounds best, but I have this vision of him emptying my room while I’m touring. He thinks I’m with the other guy, and I almost got by not giving him anything, but the other guy finally clears him up and I have to give him my room key. Then me and the other guy are concerned that he’ll be able to keep us separate and he won’t get my key and vice versa at the end of the tour. I’m more interested in trying to find out how I’ll get it back since I want to exit on the north side, which must be a mile away and not wind my way back through the site (another tip from the internet). He keeps reassuring us, but I figure I’ll be spending an hour later in the day explaining to the folks at the China World Hotel how I need another key, but we get the audio set and I head back in. I decide to wait in the long line that’s going to the same guy who let me in earlier. While it took awhile, eventually I get up and he looks at my ticket (which he already ripped half off) and waves me through.

Roger [Moore] and I made our way alternating from one courtyard to palace to courtyard, with him explaining all the details. But it was a mass of humanity and almost impossible to get up and look at some of the details. I thought one of the most interesting things was that the 3 or 4 “external” palaces where the emperor’s met dignitaries (as opposed to the internal ones where they actually lived) were elevated on these three levels of limestone placing them up about 50 feet or so. And all around the three tiers are 11,000 limestone gargoyle like drains for rainwater. Roger says it’s a beautiful sight to watch the water pour out of each as it makes it way down during a rainfall. Almost makes me wish it would rain.

The buildings of the Forbidden City were originally built by the Ming Dynasty in the early 1400s. I was expecting much older. They’ve all been burned down and rebuilt several times but always exactly like before.

The far end of the tour were the private gardens. These were pretty nice. Lot’s of cypress trees and weirdly eroded limestone piles. At one place was a human-built mountain of these rocks with a small pagoda-like building at the top. During some festival, each year in the fall I think, the Emperor and Empress would ascend the mountain and spend the night of two…somethings. Anyway, it was cool.

At the north side I found where to turn in my audio set and sure enough got my room key back. I walked over a huge mote and then the traffic hits you pretty hard, although the relief from the mass of humanity was good. There was another pagoda building atop a small hill across the street, so I made my way over there. I couldn’t decide if I should go in, and then I started getting hit up by a bicycle rickshaw guy. Against my better judgment, I decide to go with the guy to the Temple of Drums and Bells. I negotiated him down to RMB15 each way (only to discover later he meant RMB50!). Anyway, instead of heading straight there, we head down the side streets and take a tour of the hutongs. My map tells me that this is interconnecting, winding old laneways and buildings that are fast being replaced by modern housing. Although the map and hotel room mags say this is a good tour, I have to admit quite a bit of apprehension as I head down these NARROW streets. I keep thinking he’s going to go into a deadend and that will be the end of me! But as long as I keep seeing kids and others walking around I feel okay, but everyone once in a while, gulp! Then we’ll pass a police station and I’ll think, this is okay. He explains how to tell the rank of the officials that built or lived in each building by the different doorways (number of steps and number of “things” sticking out over the top of the doorway, as well as the type of statue on each side of the door). Some of the lanes are barely narrow enough for the bike to make it through, and in others we occasionally run into cars. There were nice restaurants interspersed with pretty disgusting hovels, with what passes for a stove near the door, and it was just too weird to describe. When we finally had to pass over a big street, I saw the only other white folks, but they were lost and only spoke some European language and not English.

I saw where Mao lived in 1919 and other “things”. I noticed that there was only public restrooms, about one on every block or so. Eventually I figured out these were the only restrooms for the folks on the block – weird. And occasionally smelly. Hundreds of stores all around. I really liked the one full of live chickens in cages!

Eventually we got to the Drum Tower. It was pretty cool looking. I had to pay RMB20 to get in, and then we went up 70 of the largest stone steps up this narrow stairway. I wasn’t sure I would make it to the top, and I sure wasn’t looking forward to coming down. But the whole area at the top was full of the coolest, biggest, horizontal drums, including what they say was the largest in the world. There was a water-powered timepiece at the top, and they would beat out the time for the emperor, who’s palaces were about a mile or so south. I looked at tall the drums and waited for the 2 PM show, which was UNBELIEVAB LE! Two persons beating drums on each side of a main drummer. NICE!

Then we made our way down – it wasn’t too bad. Went outside and walked down a narrow street – I think my “guide” said it was the oldest street in Beijing. But it was pretty nice, lots of bars and restaurants and stores. We winded around and went past a lake where you can rent a boat. Very interesting. Then back to the rickshaw and back towards the Forbidden City. That’s where I got into an argument about the final price. I didn’t like it, but actually I didn’t mind paying what I did – a combination of US $ and RMB that I think was about $50. Too much but all in all worth it, but I did not like the way this guy behaved – and I thought he was such a nice guy too.

I originally was going to go through a park, but that’s when my arms started tingling. I tried a couple of times to get a cab, but I didn’t know if I’d have enough RMB so I was apprehensive. Finally, as the tingling spread, I decided to take a chance and figured I could always get more RMB at the hotel if I didn’t have enough. But in actuality, it was only RMB25 (or a little over $3) to get back. Of course, that made me realize how much I got ripped off by the rickshaw guy, but in reality for all the sweating he had to do peddling me around, he deserved it. I just wish he’d been more forthright upfront – and after I thought I had it all negotiated too!

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