Forbidden Ramblings: 26 July 2006 (Wednesday)


Beijing is a foggy, misty, polluted and rambling city that alternates between making me nostalgic for my former home city of Hong Kong and making me crave the simplicity of Gir life in Mongolia. It is modern, chaotic, communist and distinctly capitalist. Beijing is a surreal anachronism of various economic and social theories, and yet it seems to work. My first task was to wake up this morning, I failed. Scott had not made it into Downtown Backpackers as planned. Robin and I took a cab from the airport and when he pointed to his place and I said “so you said it was close to where you live”, he answered yes. We then proceeded to sit in the taxi for another ten minutes. I knew then that there was no way Scott would have found it. Heck, I would have been screwed had it not been for Robin!

Alighting from the cab we immediately announced our arrival to Beijing by setting off a nearby car alarm. We then rushed into the dimly lit narrow alley of a Hutong. Hutongs are ghettos of alleys and dwellings. Many are being torn down but others, like the one housing the hostel, were being preserved. The locals were wandering around and there was even a road crew still working at 10pm. I trusted fate and was rewarded; Downtown Backpackers had one single room available for exactly the time I would be in Beijing. Thanks Robin!

Scott, meanwhile, had given up his quest to find the hostel and instead retired to the Grand Hyatt where he had planned to hole up in for most of the trip anyway. We chatted by phone and made plans to meet in the morning to check out Tienanmen Square, Forbidden City and do a bike tour of the Hutongs. Well, like I said, my first failure of the day was not waking up. My second mistake was trusting a local about distances and travel times.

“How far is Tienanmen Square?” I asked the helpful receptionist who was booking my train tickets to Shanghai.

“Not far, 15 minutes by cab.”

Thirty-five minutes later in the cab, I was a good deal later than I had intended. When I arrived at the hotel, no amount of paging could rouse Scott to magically appear at reception. I assumed he had already left for Tienanmen Square so off I went.

I had only ever seen the famous square on television and only really during the infamous Tienanmen Square massacre when I was becoming politically active during my childhood in Hong Kong. For that reason alone, I have special feelings and emotions for the Square. What I found there was not what I had expected. The area was teeming with thousands of people, mostly Chinese tourists likely from different parts of China. Under the stern, fatherly stare of Mao Tse Tung at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, vendors hawked their wares, children screamed at mothers and thousands of photos were being clicked. Along one side of the Square, a solid half-kilometre line of people stood waiting to see the preserved corpse of Mao in his mausoleum. A short time after arriving my phone rang: Scott was still at the hotel, it was sheer comedy. We arranged to meet at the Square and I decide to stand still. That was my next mistake of this day.

I was immediately accosted by parents, grandparents, children and more. All wanted to take my photo. Yes the foreign-looking freak curse had come to haunt me here in China. I can honestly say that I have had my photo taken at least a dozen times — “strike a pose, nothing to it!” I was also accosted by “art students” who were supposedly having an art show nearby. It turned out that Scott had also been accosted on his way to the Square and we both made our way to the art show – more to get away from the constant harping at tourists and the dismal weather than anything else.

However, this is China, where it seems everyone wants to sell themselves or something to you. We attracted yet another “art student” who attached himself to us like a leech. He was very persistent in showing us and selling the art. We did end up buying some artwork, but I think we were “had”. Oh well. What follows is a short guide on haggling in China.

“How much is that?” Innocent, wide-eyed tourist.

“500 Yuan each, 2000 Yuan for all four.” Very-well-prepared shopkeep.

“How about 500 for all four?” Not-so-innocent tourist.

“No No! Is too cheap! 1500!” Wheedling shopkeep.

“Never mind then.” Walking-away tourist.

“Okay 900, special price for you!” Running-after shopkeep.

“Never mind!” Slightly-faster-walking tourist.

“Okay okay, 500! All four! Come back!”

Having bought more art than I knew how to carry, we were walking towards the Forbidden City when Scott ran into a couple of Irish girls he had met on the plane from Mongolia. They were dental students from Dublin, Nessa and Jenny. Having decided that there was more safety in numbers we entered the Forbidden City together.

The Forbidden City was the Imperial residence for over 600 years. It comprises of 9,999 rooms and is a half room smaller than the palace of the Jade Emperor in Heaven. The complex is a rambling affair. Armed with wireless guides which were rather annoying in having disembodied voices hail us out of the blue as we came near something, we wandered around in the now dismal rain. There were gates to Impressive Prowess, Supreme Harmony and Medium Harmony, though I didn’t see any directions to Lesser Harmony. There were halls to Mental Cultivation and the ever endearing Palace of Abstinence (a place I avoided at all costs). I suspected that the sewers at the Forbidden City were called the Halls of Eternal Fragrance (at least it sounded better than the Hall of Moving Smells). After a few hours we were all tired and the four of us were convinced to get rickshaws to Houhai Lake for lunch. I felt extremely sorry for the rickshaw driver who had to take Scott and my sorry arses.

We walked around Houhai lake until starvation forced us to sit in a nameless but serviceable restaurant. We then discovered one of Robin’s suggestions for bars: the Drum and Bell Pub. It stands between, and how odd is this, the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. To buy drinks, however, one needs money. So began our quest for an ATM. It’s a mysterious beast which truly should not be a rarity in a city of 15 million. However, we might as well have been searching for a four-leafed clover being held by a well-hidden leprechaun. The first bank we found was a joyous sight. The Microsoft Windows error message resulting from Jenny’s attempt to use it and its subsequent hardware failure was a bit discouraging. I used my Mandarin phrase book to ask for a bank to which an old Chinese guy burst into laughter and pointed at his 3-year-old daughter. I may have accidentally asked the man to buy his daughter.

We persevered and finally escaped with money. At the pub we drank and played more drinking games, tasted many drinks, listened to the one CD of Norah Jones skipping around their CD Player for way too long and I was hit on by a very effeminate bartender (why me?). Finally we hit a Chinese restaurant for supper.

On the menu were such delicacies as “Roast Lamp” (Nessa — “It may come in different shades!”) and “Duck Paws” (mmm, yummy). Luckily for us, the restaurant seemed to be out of most things on the menu, instead we were finally given one page to order from. Having stuffed ourselves, I left the others and walked back to the hostel. So here I sit about to go to bed. I have just run into Yannis from the Irkutsk-Ulaanbaatar train! What a small world hosteling can be. Sarah is supposedly arriving by plane tomorrow and Scott and I are going to wake up early and be driven to a remote section of the Great Wall. As for the Irish girls, we shall hopefully see them on Friday night for some drinks and fun, hopefully with Robin.

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