Monday, March 27, 2006

Beijing, China's Head Office

I had built myself up to dislike this town as I had associated it with two things that greatly annoy me; high levels of pollution and dictatorial governments. These were both present in abundance but my reaction so far has been a slight wheeze and brief bursts of internally suppressed anger. Beyond that I am rather enjoying the place and I was surprised that there is an energy that I thought would be in Shanghai but failed to discern. So what's in this place that makes breathing in little amounts of the Gobi desert worthwhile?

One of the really interesting activities in Beijing is to stroll around the hutongs. The hutongs are century old neighborhoods crammed with one storey houses around a courtyard. Originally designed for one family these were rearranged by the commies to house 5. The plumbing facilities are still communal so I guess that makes for strange neighbourhood meetings. They are mainly inhabited by old people who spend most of their time outside indulging in quiet pastimes such as mahjong or, apparently, sitting and watching. Like a lot of nice things in China, they are under threat. They are being torn down left right and centre to make place for glitzier stuff and Olympic related crap. The authorities have sort of caught on that they are popular with tourists and have responded by maintaining a couple that they couldn't resist transforming into sanitized tourist traps. The really nice ones are marked for the bulldozer and I have been told that if you spot one that is surrounded by billboards you had better dive in as it's not long for this world. Some might be saved but the combination of real estate developers' zeal and the legendary corruption of Chinese officials makes this unkilely.

Another highlight was the Great Wall. I happened to do a touristy restored portion of it but this doesn't bother me much as I will surely be able to find some more derelict and secluded portions. The thing is 4000 miles long and even Chinese tour groups cannot occupy that much space. It is a fantastic sight and a good reminder of how advanced the Chinese were. The wall was already being used when Hadrian built his to ward off violent Scots, a feeling shared by all bartenders in London. The main differnce is that the Great Wall is truly a feat of engineering and logistics whereas Hadrian's looks like something to keep in sheep. I particularly enjoyed the sight of large groups of people going through the many towers of the wall. This is fun to watch as the things were constructed specifically to make this difficult by bottlenecking attackers and reducing whatever numerical advantage they had to fuck all. Combined with the locals' inability to queue or give way it makes for great entertainment until you try and get through yourself.

Of course one cannot go to Beijing and not see the Forbidden City. For half a millenia the privilege of walking around this place this was mainly for royals or eunuchs. Now that the entry requirement of having good bloodlines or your testicles in a varnished box is gone, all may enter for a small fee and indeed all do. Many a website will give a much better description that I can so I won't really bother but suffice to say it was quite amazing. Films like the Last Emperor do render it better but Bertolucci did not have scaffolding and the sound of jackhammers to contend with. The whole place is being beautified for 2008 so that it looks really good for the swarms of foreigners who will come to see athletes choke on Beijing's truly foul air.

The downer with the Forbidden City is that you get to it by walking along Tiananmen Square. It's insanely large as only states who love military parades can build and has got Mao's mausoleum on one side and the Forbidden City on the other. It has a monument to the glory of the people or whatever in the middle and is lined by sick looking trees, soldiers standing at atttention at seemingly random spots and annoying touts who want you to see their art gallery. The downer bit is that I couldn't help looking down the side streets and wondering if this was one where students were slaughtered.

My last pick of historical things to recommend is the park around the Temple of Heaven. The temples are only really great if you haven't spent a good month seeing one after the other but the park is great fun. As you enter you see a panel with a whole bunch of forbidden signs. Some of these are reasonable such as a ban on littering, fires and motorbikes but I was somewhat intrigued by the ones that portrayed rifles and trumpets. I know the latter is targeted specifically at trumpets and not music in general as I spent a few hours watching groups of people cluster around musicians (not trumpeters) and join in on a singalong of nationalist ditties. What also caught my eye was old people making strange calisthenics at random moments. This is not Tai Chi but obedience to the recommendation of doctors to do a specific gestures so many times a day.

More contemporary sightseeing can be done in the numerous markets of the town. Some of these were replete with an incoherent jumble of stuff that went from the sublime to the ugly and sometimes the abject. The Ugly is the massive sculptures on sale. These vary from small budhas to 7 feet high stone lions, demons etc. Who buys this crap is a mystery and I was told most of them are destined to decorate businesses but I think a few of them do end up in homes especially the lottery winner schlock like cherubs atop tigers or what looked like a 2 ton statue of Jeanne D'arc. The Abject I found amongst the vendors of Bolshie nostalgia. Some of these were amusing in a kitschy sort of way but a few items were downright macabre. The prize for bad taste must go to small porcelain figurines of a screaming Red Guard with red book in one hand and pistol in another looming behind a bound man with a dunce cap on his head. These little gems of interior decoration seem to commemorate the obscene humiliation of the victims of the Cultural Revolutiuon before they were shipped off to jail or killed for being an intellectual or something.

Overall, my favourite market moment was watching the sale of caged singing crickets. What made this remarkable is that the buyers seem to be looking for a specific sound to grace their home as the vendor gives them a tube-like contrapion that allows customers to listen to the song of an individual cricket. I thought of buying one but I think my dorm mates find my snoring annoying as it is without adding a chirping locust to the din.

Food and booze are also very good in this city. I had held off eating duck elsewhere as I wanted to eat Pekin duck in Pekin. A group of like-minded gastronomes was quickly rounded up and we all went to a small place in a unlit back alley that had a great rep. The rep was confirmed as the waiting room/very narrow hallway was decorated with photos of prestigious patrons such as ministers and diplomats. I personnaly reckon a few of the people in the pictures must have been chancers as Geoff Hoon is already tricky to indentify but the ambassador of Peru is outright impossible. As we waited we could look at the duck oven and the rows of glistening birds slowly becoming succulent. The roasting is ended by the removal of the fat in the bird. One guy takes the now crimson bird and removes the cork in it's arse upon which a gush of hot fat drains out of the duck into a massive basin. Really appetising.

The alcohol fix was much the same as many other cities with the exception that you can haggle the price of beer in Beijing. The touts will drop the price of bevvies until you agree to walk into their bar but you still have to go through the rigmarole of pretending to leave as they try to renege on the deal by putting silly conditions on the price such as they only meant alcohol free beer or it doesn't count if you sit on the couch. You eventually get your beers at the agreed price and it makes for a pleasant bonding experience with fellow bar cruisers as unified responses are the key to good bartering on this deal. The bad side of boozing in Beijing is the end of evening rice wine that American students are fond to buy and want the whole dorm to share. It's fucking vile and gives you crippling hangovers but it always seems like a great idea at 3AM.

My experience of Beijing was heightened by my best mooch so far. Through a friend I got into contact with a couple of French expats who decided to welcome my scruffy self for the weekend in their splendid home. I got to live better than a backpacker ever does and better than I would anyway. They enjoyed their perks but were smart enough to click that it wouldn't last and therefore would be spared the shock of going back to the home country which is apparently a common problem with their peers. They have also limited their forays into the closeted world of the expense accounbt crowd and have done a lot of exploring and indulging in weird habits like learning the language. This meant that I had the rare pleasure of getting a knowledgeable guide without being dragged to a jade factory run by their cousin. I feel like a very blessed parasite.

Anyways, I will soon have to leave this fine city at my regret. I will wash my cashmere jumper and thermals and head oop north mayhaps to peer across borders at North Korea or Russia.

Take care,



Post a Comment

<< Home