The stereotype goes that Chinese tourists arrive in big tour busses and are let loose at major sights for half-an-hour of wild picture taking before being whisked off to somewhere else. Running on the adrenaline and confidence that comes from having conquered the Great Wall, I spent the next two days ripping through Beijing proper.
I baked under the sun in the humongous square in front of Bird’s Nest until I got the perfect picture of it. I also clambered among the seats in the stadium itself before getting my hands on a real Olympics torch in the Water Cube. I went to THE bar district of Beijing where haute couture flagship stores stood on the other side of the wall to a very Communist military hospital. Young Chinese dressed in very attitude-y outfits draped themselves on patio chairs, artfully exuding the perfect touch of morose while sipping ¥60 cocktails. Across the street, a middle-age working man squatted at the curb and slurped his dinner out of a chipped ceramic bowl. Intercultural couples were everywhere. Short, balding Caucasian men gave me “The Look” while their even shorter Chinese girlfriends threw me a different kind of look. Groups that were entirely Chinese looked down at me because I wasn’t dressed “self-expressive” enough. Groups that were foreign pushed passed me like I was just one of the billion black-haired, black-eyed Chinese with no individual identity of my own. On the rare occasions that any of the two groups took notice of me, I received reproachful looks as if I were just another Chinese girl “on the prowl” for a foreign boyfriend. I was more than happy to escape this area that used to be no more than a dusty village but is selling its soul to become the next Greenwich Village.
A few blocks over, the blinding display of Dior was replaced by a truly hectic market scene. Vendors agilely flipped flatbread over their makeshift stoves while hollering on the top of their lungs about the quality of their food. Patrons calmly ate at seating areas that spilled onto the street while mopeds transporting meter-high stacks of crates squeezed past them, coming within a hair to their backs. I was tempted by a stand selling skewers cooked in a bubbling bath of red chili sauce. It was highly questionable to eat skewers that came out of plastic bags on the ground, then rinsed in a tub that probably has as much soot from the street as it does sauce. But I looked at the young brunet eagerly tearing into her skewer at the other end of the table and said to myself “Oh what the hell.” I later toured the new CCTV tower while running what turned out to be my most memorable meal in China.
The next day, I paid my respects at the Mao Memorial (his body is frozen but can be viewed every morning when Tiananmen Square isn’t being used for special purposes). I even bought a bouquet that was probably resold soon after I laid it on the altar. The Chairman’s face looked orange under the somber lighting, like he was lit from within. I didn’t have time to reach a conclusion before the guards shuffled my group out.
Unfortunate for my intense desire to visit the Great Hall of People, it was closed to the public until well after my departure (all the “-stan” countries were in Beijing for some kind of accord named, strangely, after Shanghai). I cried with regret at this news and begged the guard to tell me when they started closing the Hall. I would’ve agonized in pain if I found out it was open during the first few days I was in Beijing. He was about to respond but I interjected: “Please tell me it wasn’t Wednesday. I only arrived on Wednesday!”. The guard stumbled a little but quickly composed himself, “It was closed starting Tuesday…It really is a shame that you missed it by one day.” Now, I’d like to thank the guard for his cooperation.
After drying my tears, I caught the next tour of the National Theatre of China. It is an expansive modern building behind the Great Hall of People and diagonally across from Tiananmen Square. The building looked like a glass glob floating in an infinity pool of depths unique for each province. The Theatre has the world’s largest indoor space and a floor covered by marble from all over China. The three individual halls (for theatre, ballet and orchestra) have silk-covered walls and seat backs of different heights to maximize the acoustics. Inline with international practice, the Theatre even offers performances at minimal price to ensure all citizens have access to culture. I am a big fan of live performances. My collection of framed programs and ticket stubs from all the performances I’ve ever been to is one of my most prized possessions.
From the present, back to the past. I rushed across the street to the Forbidden City. I walked with reverence the same path emperors of centuries past walked. I imagined what must have been on their minds and that of their counsellors when they paced the court and sighed at the weight of governing such an immense territory. I imagined the sound of pounding hoofs resonating between the palace walls as messengers rushed to deliver news fresh off of the Great Wall. I spent much of my childhood watching TV shows about the Chinese imperial life with my grand aunt. It’s only recently that I realized how this may have influenced my current direction in life. Contrary to what I first thought, I didn’t just “fall” into it, the seed was planted long ago.
The City’s endless golden roof was indeed impressive, even if it was less grandiose than it seemed when I first saw it on TV as a child. Nevertheless, I still eagerly looked for the place where the elderly empress held court behind bamboo curtains on behalf of her grandson the emperor, because women weren’t formally allowed to be involved in national affairs. I tapped my fingers together devilishly when I heard the story about the same empress ordering a concubine to be pushed into a well because she supported her husband against the empress in changing the governance system to one comparable to what Canada has. That is, the royal family has all the formal power and enjoys the associated privileges (Butters, feel free to jump in and correct me in the technicalities) but the hard work and the penalties of governing are left to the elected executives. The most spectacular battles take place in the mind and the heart.
My favourite memory however, was getting caught in a summer storm in the City. The sky has been holding back tears all day, the rolling clouds darkening just like an interlude on TV before the audience sees a menacing plan being strategized in a corner of the City. With one roaring thunder, the rain came down in pounding buckets. The goblets of water bounced on the ground to calf-height while their cousins swiped horizontally in sheets. The mythical animals on the edge of the roofs solemnly braved the weather, their concentration reflecting the importance of the building they protected. Whether they are tearing up from torment or drooling with greed depended upon whether the observer is on the winning or losing side of the perennial struggle for power.
Tourists sought shelter under passageways and in souvenir shops, but the wind still brought in the rain and the next gust glued wet, cold clothes against the limbs. I decided to continue onto my next destination instead of waiting for an undetermined amount of time until the rain died down. I splashed across the Forbidden City, exalting in having the place to myself while others looked on longingly from their hiding place. Most tourists would kill for the perfect weather but I treasure experiencing what usually only the people who actually lived there would experience. Life isn’t all coronations, prosperous nations and triumphant returns from the battle field.
After the tempest, I went to the North Sea park that I have studied when I was in primary school. I sat by the lake and watched the Indian-inspired white tower atop the island glow in the setting sun; the sparkling droplets of rain that collected on the waterlily leaves quiver in the breeze; and a man doing calligraphy on the boardwalk by dipping his mop-sized brush into a bucket of water. I took myself to the only restaurant in the country authorized to serve the former imperial menu and had a ¥10 dessert (the cheapest offering) while taking a pass on the 16 course ¥6,000 dinner (I was uh…dieting).