Chu-Seok, time to give thanks for more time off. Work’s been a bitch, my attitude, not much different from that of a bitch. Ideas of communism in my mind, little research on where I was going, the stage set for the unknown.
Expecting a thorough going over (like the figurative lube and plastic gloves I experienced at Japanese customs, arrive 1PM and breeze through all stages of immigration in 10 minutes and come out to KFC and Starbucks. Bus ride reveals to me numerous Audis and VeeDubs. Oh, Communism, what’s happened to you? Selling out to The Man, as it seems.
The Beijing Lotus Hostel is located west of city’s center amidst hutong, areas of sprawling one-storey houses that create a series of alleyways. Though these charmingly raw areas are rapidly disappearing due to the construction boom that accompanies a strong economy, my penchant for these out of the way areas is protected for future vagabonds by some government decree to save parts of them. This doesn’t really help the residents, when they deal with cancer-causing agents day in, day out. According to one NY Times article (Aug. 26, 2007) in a series about China’s rapid growth, there are also major—but all too typical—problems that face a nation that industrializes too fast: pollution. According to the article, the north suffers from a water shortage where nearly half the population is without clean drinking water. The cancer rate has skyrocketed in the last ten years. Also, a red tide of toxic algae has made it impossible for sea life to survive in certain coastal areas. Not only is there a problem in China, but its pollution affects its neighbors. Seoul—and even as far south as Busan—which is often engulfed in clouds of yellow dust from the ever-expanding Gobi Desert, also suffers from the acid rain produced by massive industrialization. Poisonous particulates also fall on the cities as distant as Tokyo and Los Angeles (though that last fact is doubtful in its veracity; besides, I am sure those cities have pollution problems of their own).
A welcome respite from the dirt and the furious pace in the days to come, the Beijing Lotus Hostel—and its crawling-vine courtyard, full-service kitchen and nice, cheap rooms ($95 US=713 yuan=four nights in a private double sans bathroom)—provides a good place to nap before venturing out. Around four, I walk toward the Houhai area, encountering a guitar player in a street underpass, masses on bikes—their lane as big as the ones set aside for cars. Still adjusting my cerebral currency converter, I pay 375 CNY ($50 US) for some choice green tea; the bright side is that I got an unused portion that I will be able to one day share and compare with Jeju green tea. Li, an early twenties woman from lower Mongolia studying Chinese history in Beijing, introduces herself. We walk around the lake while we are accosted by those wanting to sell postcards or rides on the back of a bike. Many clubs and restaurants seem a good way to ease into the Beijing lifestyle. Later, back under the underpass, the guitar player’s post was now taken by a prostrate youngster—about seven or eight or ten—bowing rapidly for the spare yuan. This kind of abjectness occurs in this communist country while above on the street, people are driving around in Audis and VWs and even Buicks. What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?
Back at hostel to meet Amanda and Colin then again to Houhai for dinner; this area is a fairly foreigner-friendly area which is all the energy I could muster after a couple hours of sleep and travel all day. Enjoyed a little down time, some nice weather and descent food while sharing first impressions with Colin and Amanda. A drunken middle aged man had passed out and then was dry heaving, making a general scene as we leave. Some things never change. Amanda told of a comment that one of the workers at the hostel made, where do you live. Korea. Oh, Korea. That’s the worst country in Asia. And, on the way home, as Amanda related this story, poverty, women weeping, sad couple, a woman trying to stop a bleeding nose and other things that are only slight variations on a sad theme. Familiar smell of stale piss, circumstance or luck goes into the situations people find themselves in. Or self-loathing? Whatever the case, if certain things never change, certainly the variations were worth investigating.
Next day, 25 minute $4 (32 CNY) cab ride, we went to Panjiayuan Market (also known as the Dirt (cheap) Market) to take a look at what this place has to offer. A row of furniture stores, the men on 3 wheel bicycles sleeping but ready at a moment’s notice to take your purchases where you need. We came upon a massive yard filled with Buddha statues and other Buddhist figures, somehow the urban Buddhas, in the company of commerce and thriving city, calm came. Also, it was nice to be traveling with people who were like-minded in pace and scope of adventuring. We cruised and bought a few things at the stalls and covered areas that were hawking everything from tapestries and decent artwork to shoulder bags, watches, winding alarm clocks with big red stars and images of Mao. Haggling off up to six times below the asking price. It’s expected.
Back to the hostel for a nap, rent some bikes around 4 and cruise to Tiananmen Square, folded into the traffic of bicycles and cars, we embrace a strange effortlessness in negotiating our way through the strange patterns of getting here and there, only to be described as an interpretive dance to a jazz piece. Tienamen is bustling as we are constantly approached by those selling postcards that picture a Beijing with blue skies—I had yet to see it, grey smog dominated the sky—but cruise around, observing the people, admiring the vast open space in the middle of the city, the massive hall built for Mao, a Mao-soleum if you will. We think we should catch a viewing of his body, see what the hubbub is about, seeing a dead person, a god as far as the Chinese (government) is concerned. Lucky there are still ancient sights to see after his “Cultural Revolution” where all that was old was considered bad. As people gathered to watch the lowering of the Chinese flag in pomp and circumstance beneath the twilit sky of the preceding Asian sunset, Amanda and I sit on the Square as Colin snaps photos and people—most likely from the Chinese countryside—treat us like stars, no fewer than six or seven groups of people—including a grandmother and her three grandchildren—come up to have their picture taken with us. Off to food street, have spicy shwarma and look at scorpions and seahorses (yes, seahorses) on sticks. Off to sleep early, the Wall awaited the next day.
Up the next day for a three and a half hour bus ride to Simtai, a section of The Wall less populated by the masses of. It was about two times as far as other sections of The Wall, but well worth the trip for someone looking to escape the beaten path for a breath of unique experience—as I am often looking for. When we get there, Colin and Amanda decided not to go on the 10k hike along the top of The Wall to Simitai. So, off with a group of about 15, each went at his own pace. After the initial ascent, I paired off with a fella from New Zealand, Callum. A sinewy, muscular man of 34, was able to outscramble me in most steep parts, but I kept pace. Occasionally, we’d stop for a drink of water or a banana and a talk. Amidst the breath-taking views and astonishment at the steep angles of The Wall—not to mention, the incessant hawkers—we spoke of travel and fractions of the past and glimpses of the future. We also commented on how the crowd had thinned out, being that we were well ahead of any others who had undertaken the hike. Unless I went deep into the western portions of The Wall, I doubt I could have gotten a glimpse of an unpopulated portion of this massive engineering feat that has been left, so far as I could tell, in its normal state of decay; many times, portions of brick and stone were loose and a careful step and watchful eye was needed. Some areas, there was a seventy degree incline on the steps and the ascent or descent, yet I still saw a few septuagenarians gingerly yet bravely take on the challenge. Through their spirit, I remember Granny Kelly who, no doubt, would have hiked that Wall. She and her tenacity were definitely with me; often, her spirit has inspired, helped me through or simply co-existed with me through this Asia Experience.
Amongst the ideas talked about, Callum and I discussed a goal-oriented life. I often have felt such pressure from visible and invisible and powerful forces to walk a certain path at a certain pace—get a job, get married, have kids, get a house—and this seems “the plan” that people my age pursue. However, the fact that I don’t have that and that I failed at an attempt at that has led to much disappointment. So, as Callum said, why not have a direction rather a goal? Having a direction allows for some deviation in reaching a point, whereas a goal sets a time limit, thus forcing its pursuer to eschew preceding desires. Some may be thinking, “Time to grow the fuck up, Nick.” Let it not be mistaken, that house and all the accoutrement are still desirable, but this direction-based idea has affected my outlook, perhaps given words to a definition that I have been working through for a few years. It has also allowed me to feel less alone on its meandering path, knowing that there are others who live a good life without all the “essentials” that are thrust upon the definition of success.
Certain paths are more quickly traveled than others, I guess. Callum and I finished the 10k hike in about ninety minutes, about two hours ahead of the allotted time. We eventually made our way back to Beijing, my body tired, my mind and spirit fully revitalized on the ancient ruins of The Wall—a feeling I don’t anticipate leaving me for quite some time. This is a good thing. My attitude toward being here in East Asia was definitely at a low point recently, feeling too tired to meet new people and too tired to continue to plan future international adventures, too tired to continue on the path outside societal norms. I somehow opened myself up to meeting people again—Callum from NZ, Meagan and Michelle and Gilbert (teachers in Korea) from eastern Canada. The thing that gets a little tiresome is having to say goodbye so often. But, generally speaking, the foreign travelers and teachers seem to have a direction rather than a goal. This is not always the case out here, unfortunately, because some great people I have known out here have gone back to the path with a goal. Yet there are others who find boredom back home and are fixing to head out again.
The next day, Colin and Amanda and I head for Mao’s early viewing, but Amanda forgot her passport. Maybe I could go later while they were meeting up with their friend Pat. In the meantime, we went to the Forbidden City, of which I was skeptical, having heard from the people I met the previous day that the scaffolding and green shrouds of Olympic preparatory renovation was off-putting. Though this was definitely the case, we found our way to some outer sections of The City for a few photos with Colin’s spiffy camera. In these areas it was a little easier to imagine what life may have been like over the 500 years of Ming and Qing rulers who inhabited this place; I have since learned of American involvement in China’s economic development in the early 20th century, wanting to force the doors open for trade of many, including European countries. The culmination of US assertion in the China trade theater occurred at the front gates of the Forbidden City when 2,500 sailors and marines saved diplomats who were about to be overtaken in the Forbidden City by 20,000 peasants in the Boxer Rebellion. Anyhow, the vast open spaces of the main tourist path are impressive, but having visited the outer regions allowed for much better rumination on the history that happened there.
Through the photo shoots and meandering, we missed our meeting time with Pat and the afternoon viewing of The Chairman. So off to the Temple of Heaven were we. Impressive architecture and the dwindling crowds in the main attraction of the park allowed a few ponderings of this former spiritual center of ancient Peking. Along the way, we meet up with Pat and his friends and decide on Peking duck for dinner. We split up into two cabs thinking we’d end up at the same restaurant. No dice. Forty minutes standing at a rush hour intersection of ballet to John Coltrane scrambled eggs—what it means or how it works is a mystery—without total disaster; the bikes, taxis, cars, busses and pedestrians effortlessly find their way, honking liberally with no anger but with certain purpose, all narrowly missing each other, striking just the right balance of chaos and form. The entire city (when not locked in maddening traffic) gets around like this.
Finally Colin, Amanda and I make it to one of the duck restaurants and encounter some of the best service I have ever seen—definitely a far cry from what we’d seen up to that point—where even the bird’s certificate was shown to us and read while that same bird was sliced, diced, presented. And soon we’re eating the rich skin, dark meat and liver-textured brain of Peking Daffy. Requirements for Asian travel: in Japan, eat Nemo; in Peking, eat Daffy; in communist country, see the Father of said country, chilled, neither shaken nor stirred. After sumptuousness, another attempt would be made the next day to see Mao.
Colin and Amanda gone the next morning back to The Country. Breakfast with Pat and off to another trap: summer palace, a place where the Empress Dowager Cixi entertained and attempted to cajole the greedy western pigs who were after her country’s natural industrial goodies, a massive area around a lake with numerous structures—including a three tiered opera stage that made me think of Uncle Dave— none of which are more than a hundred years old due to French-Anglo pyromania in the Opium War, another time when white trash pushed around an antiquated Chinese imperial army for rights to trade, not to mention the privilege to chase that rascally dragon in the comfort of Paris, London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Berlin, St. Petersburg opium dens. I was tired of the crowds by that point, stifling my imagination of what it was like back in other times. I suppose that wandering up Machu Picchu, trekking the jungles of Viet Nam or stopping in little towns along the Trans-Siberian Railroad might allow for a little more reflection. Alas, my imagination about dead deep-frozen communist Fathers will have to suffice until I am on my way out of Ho Chi Minh City and into the jungles. Having misread the matinee times for the Mao Motionless Dance, the seeing of sights was complete. I went off to the airport.