A Slightly “Off” Day

In Paris I lived next to Napoleon (he rests in his “bathtub” under the dome of Les Invalides), in Beijing I’m living next to Mao (his body is frozen and can be visited at the Mao Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square). Given my proximity, I followed my Chengdu pattern of waking up at 9 and writing in bed until noon. However, when I finally promenaded my way to the Mao Memorial, I found out that the Chairman only receives visitors until noon. Slightly annoyed, I moved onto the Great Hall of People to do my obligatory tour of visiting the seat of government of every country I visit. Unfortunately, the policeman standing erect at the corner told me the Great Hall is closed for visits today…even though it’s rarely ever closed. Just as I was about to leave and feeling disappointed, the policeman told me to take off my sunglasses. In my head, I was thinking “Chinese men are shameless about picking up women. Even the police would do anything to get a look at you!” However, in a square where people have seen less-than-agreeable outcomes for disobedience, I wasn’t about to argue. So I took off my sunglasses and flashed him my best smile. Only when I was walking away did I realize he might have been checking whether my sunglasses was a recording device. Upon realizing this, I started walking away…faster.
After entrusting numerous strangers with my camera in the hope of a Penning an Image-worthy photo (The trick? Pick people with cameras. The more professional-looking ones, the better. First, these people probably wouldn’t need to run off with my camera. Second, they likely take better photos. Ideally, I’d find an iPhone user so I wouldn’t get someone stabbing his or her finger madly at the touch screen), I climbed the Tiananmen Square building from whose balcony P.R.C.’s independence was announced. There, I saw an exhibit about the building and its role in Chinese politics over the centuries. It was interesting to note the arrangement of Chinese political elites for ceremonial photos taken on the balcony. I could follow the rise of Xi Jinping, the man who is expected to become the next leader of the Communist Party of China later this year (and on whom I did a project at Sciences Po a few months ago), based on how far he stood from the centre of the photo.
I must admit spontaneity in traveling doesn’t work as well in a city with must-see sights that operate on a schedule, especially when you don’t have a guide book, a travel app or even any Internet research in your back pocket. I thought I’d take my sweet time getting the perfect shot on the balcony because I didn’t think I had enough time to go anywhere else at that point (I took such a sweet long time that the police on guard were looking at me suspiciously) but when I hit the Forbidden City (didn’t realize it was so close), I found out I could’ve visited it at a leisurely pace had I not taken so long before. Not wanting to rush such an important sight, I turned into a park near by to save the City for another day. There, for the same reason, I took my sweet time again, walking through a matchmaking market where elderly women sat behind sheets of paper filled with the vitals of single men and women. Then, I read some excellent posters about love, relationships and family courtesy of the Beijing family planning department.
When I came out the park, I thought I’d visit the National Theatre nearby, a futuristic glass blob floating on a vast, shallow, man-made lake behind the Great Hall of People. Unfortunately, again, I got there 10 minutes after the last ticket sale.
I decided to call it quits and head to Wangfujin Street, the oldest shopping district in Beijing (and therefore, likely the oldest in the country). After all, China’s more conscious about moneymaking than any of the capitalist countries I’ve been to recently and here the shops don’t close until at least 10. Instead of braving the Beijing rush hour commute (Effe has told me to forget it because I’d never squeeze on), I decided to walk the two stops to the other side of the Square. In the middle of the world’s largest public square (read: no shelter), the sky which looked like it’s been holding back tears all day finally decided to give into its emotions. I smugly dug into my bag for the “Lightest but most wind-resistant Fulton ever made!” as people around me scurried into the underground passage for shelter. I’m unhappy to report that the British Queen-endorsed umbrella had nothing on the Beijing wind that blow so much Siberian sand into the city every year. One gust broke a spoke on the umbrella and the next caused the broken spoke to pierce a hole into the canvas. The rest of the story involved Rose and her little zebra print umbrella being tossed around like a play thing to the wind in Tiananmen Square.
When I finally made it to Wangfujian Street, I was drenched and shivering (Beijing’s much cooler in comparison to Chengdu and definitely than Shenzhen). I ran into the first Chinese fast food joint I saw (hey, at least I didn’t settle for McDonald’s. However, Chinese McDonald’s serve their cheeseburgers with soy milk). After I had a little food in my stomach and let water drip off of me. I decided that a tourists’ map would be a good investment then I spent the rest of the time eating candied crabapple on a stick while watching vendors dunk sticks of still-twitching scorpions into hot boiling oil. Afterwards, I was too tired to walk the few kilometres back to the hostel and I ended up having to switch three metro lines.
When I arrived alone at this less-than-welcoming hostel/hotel on my birthday, I was feeling really down despite the spanning views the hotel bar had of Tiananmen Square. I felt like I’d have been happier in Shenzhen and even Chengdu. Then I realize all this melancholy came from unfamiliarity with the city and this could only be resolved with me “conquering” it. So far Beijing is putting up a fight but if a dragon was that easy to tame, it wouldn’t be as fun.
Luckily, I specialize in conquests.

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