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Published: November 29th 2011
Apparently they practice mid-day siesta here in Beijing as well.
I am in Beijing, my first experience with Asia. I have only a couple of days here before I embark on the Trans-Siberian railway. What to do first? I decide to let fate guide me. Incredibly, fate really likes sightseeing, so I saw quite a bit.
Pollution hangs over the city like a curtain, leaving a chalky film in your throat. Did a volcano erupt nearby? All the vehicles are covered in a thick layer of soot, and absolutely everyone is a chain smoker. Forget that one-child policy, lung cancer may be the new population control. The forced chaos of Beijing keeps everything orderly, yet oddly uneasy - there are surveillance cameras everywhere, and just as many police. I find myself strangely vigilant, but when I realize how easy it is to navigate this city by taxi, subway, bus and rickshaw...and for fairly cheap, I stand down.
Tiananmen Square was swarming with officials because a dignitary (Vladimir Putin) happens to be in town, so fate guides me across the street to the Forbidden City, and me and about a million other people spent the morning strolling through it. My Engrish guide kept us on a strict schedule, rambling off
Pink Floyd, Suck On It
All and all it's just another brick in the wall.
facts before thrusting his General Lee flag with a pink skull and crossbones into the air (there’s always gotta be a rebel), and marching us troops onward.
The Forbidden City is if not anything else, massive. Built in 1406, it housed twenty-four Emperors from the Ming to the Qing dynasty. The whole palace complex is about 178 acres and is surrounded by an 8 metre high red wall, with a moat. The sheer massiveness of it was not lost on me, and I’m pretty sure I went in and out of all 999 structures, or at least my feet say so.
Here in Beijing, I am particularly aware that my personal space has become severely compromised, I’ve been the unwillingly witness to blatant nose-picking on three separate occasions, and as I stare over a sea of black hair, I am now the tallest. My afternoon is spent at the breathtaking Summer Palace, leisurely walking the grounds and queuing up to enjoy a dragon boat ride out onto the lake. Beijing must be stifling during the summers and if I were Empress Cixi, I too would have ordered a gigantic lake be dug so that I could have a
Yonghe Buddhist Temple
Housing a spectacular 3 stories tall statue made of sandalwood, I was blown away.
breezy cool spot to lounge and embezzle funds, all the while being carried around by eunuchs.
To round out my day, I visit the Temple of Heaven, again massive! Three kilometres of gardens constructed back in 1406 so that the Emperor had a place to hold annual ceremonies to pray for a good harvest. A woman in a blue dress drifts by as I’m trying to line up a shot, my cheap camera doing an excellent job of not capturing the moment. I also tour a factory where they produce silk. The process of confiscating silk from cocoon fascinating but demonstrations are rushed, the end result obvious - get the tourists to buy as much silk as you can in ten minutes. I escape with my wallet intact.
Taxi drivers carried on with what I can liken to only-child syndrome, having a full-on hissy fit every time I’d lean in and show them a card of where I wanted to go. I’m sorry, aren’t you supposed to drive…people…to different destinations…at some point…during your day? Ogling was also something I hadn’t anticipated. If I was eating dumplings in a local shop I’d look up to see several men drop-jaw
Old Hutong District
Loved wandering the old hutongs and checking out daily life as it unfolded around me.
gawking at me. On the subway, I was unceremoniously groped. When I approached a group of chain-smoking taxi drivers to get a fare, one actually reached out in an attempt to grab a boob, which was met with a swift karate chop and few choice swear words. What the hell!
A few years back I had read that Beijing tore down centuries-old Hutongs (districts) to make room for the 2008 Olympics, and I was outraged. I hoped there were some left. Successfully located, I walking around for hours, then hired a rickshaw to blissfully drift me through the back alleys and narrow streets as I watch everyday life unfold at every turn. A random grandmother vehemently waves me into her tiny courtyard, we couldn’t communicate but she introduces me to a few loitering relatives while pouring me tea. She chats away to herself while she toddled through her garden. I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on, but after a few group photos, everyone was happy and all smiles as I left. Down the street, I had to stop at a little café with a sandwich board that said “Really Fucking Good Coffee.” I suspect the translator was
Kabobs of Another Kind
Starfish on a stick, and scorpions impaled but still alive and wriggling? auuug.
having a bit of a laugh.
This Hutong district was located near a beautiful three lake park of Shichahai which I strolled through. Fate then led me to the Drum and Bell towers. Both had been originally built as musical instruments & for telling time in 1272, the bell is made of 63 tons of copper...and can be probably heard at my house in Canada. There were Buddhist Temples everywhere, but I ended up at the Lama Yonghe where incense hangs thick in the air, inside, a three-story high statue of Maitreya that knocked my socks off. Not lost on me, the peaceful surroundings and a sense of absolute calmness that enveloped my soul. Glorious.
I returned to Tiananmen Square after the dignitary hoopla dissipated, the slab of gigantic concrete that will forever be known to us Westerners as the place where a lone student stood in front of a tank back in 1989 all in the name of Democracy. But, I’m told it actually didn’t happen here. What? I sheepishly Google this little tidbit and learn more about the significance of T. Square.
Mao, a man with obvious size issues, used this square to display his
Forbidden City Entranceway
Do not block entrance, I'm pretty sure the sign says.
military force to the outside world, he wanted spectacular shows that could hold 500,000 of his peoples at a time. I remember seeing this on TV and being rightly impressed. The entire nation grieved his death in 1975, and they all file through his mausoleum daily. Tiananmen was actually a gate built back in 1415 for the Forbidden City, and then the square was designed in 1451. No one really knows what happened to Tank Man, or how many people were killed in 1989. If you ask any tour guide, they will agree that warning shots were fired but inequitably assert that the bullets ricocheted off buildings ‘accidentally’ hitting thousands of the students. Oh, well, that doesn't seem so bad then.
One unforeseen hazard for me being alone in Beijing was the amount of times I would be accosted by gangs of relatives, insisting I be in their family photo. Maybe they saw me as a weakling tourist that strayed too far from her herd, but I couldn’t walk three steps without being surrounded by aunties and grandfathers, all coaxing me to pose with them. Ninety year old Granny would even throw up a peace sign, to
Lizard on a Stick
This critter saw what was coming judging from his expression
my astonishment. Perhaps I am famous here and don’t know it? That dodgy home video I made a few years back…
Food in Beijing was convenient and tasty, I mainly ate at the small stalls where I saw locals queued up, pointing and consuming items I still can’t identify. I did find a modern grocery store so I could get some provisions for the train and also located the Silk Market a gigantic six-floor shopping center of knockoff hell…I was only three floors in before my anxiety reached maximum capacity. For me, I’d rather lick toilet bowls than shop. On the contrary there was this outdoor Night Market I stumbled across. Various bugs and creatures impaled on sticks highly entertaining. It was nice to wander around trying out food I couldn’t distinguish, but I also found myself in strange circumstances when I sat in a café with a bunch of Asian gangland members who comfortably accepted me, this Lady-Boy appears out of nowhere and starts belting out Chinese opera while no one paid him any attention. Weird.
What can I say about the Great Wall of China? Without the risk of sounding ridiculous, I’ll use some cheesy 70's
I have no idea why this woman wanted to show me these gourds in her garden but I went along with it.
superhero interjections. Kaapow! Zing! Blam! Kazow! The Mutianyu portion of the Wall was fantastic! Tick off another ‘World Wonder’ I am beyond delighted. Not only did I have a lovely crisp autumn day, birds singing and the sun desperately trying to break through the pollution, I opted to hike up the stairs to reach the wall instead of taking the handy cable car, and I was able to meander for hours listening to the very silence and beauty of such an amazing engineering feat, before being inundated by busloads of tourists.
When I finally met up with my travel group for the Trans Siberian Railway journey, I was not disappointed. A bunch of fun-loving Australians, I exhaled gleefully. By far the best nation to travel with, Canadians and Australians get along famously, probably because we are wayward cousins of Her Majesty’s Prisoners. Sorry Brits. After a fantastic dinner of Peking Duck we scramble by subway to get to a Beijing Acrobats show. Somehow we end up in the middle of a college basketball team who invite us out drinking, but we need to be up early to catch our train. Okay, maybe one drink, I remember saying. It seemed
Don't you just feel more peaceful looking at this picture. It was indeed a beautiful walk to the Buddhist Temple
a reasonable compromise at the time, who knew Beijing had a rocking nightclub scene?
The Beijing Railway Station bustles with that sleepy energy a hangover cannot widely tolerate, we arrive early to catch the train to Ulaanbaatar. Everyone eats a last minute McDonald’s breakfast sandwich like we will never see food again. In a perfect world, a few more weeks to explore Beijing would have been ideal, but I already know I will return to China.
Don't tell my lungs.
*Chickity China the Chinese chicken you have a drumstick and your brain stops tickin,' watchin' X-Files with no lights on, we're dans la maison, I hope the Smoking Man's in this one like Harrison Ford, I'm getting frantic, like Sting I'm tantric, like Snickers, guaranteed to satisfy, like Kurasawa I make mad films, okay, I don't make films but if I did they'd have a Samurai, gonna get a set a' better clubs, gonna find the kind with tiny nubs just so my irons aren't always flying off the back-swing, gotta get in tune with Sailor Moon, 'cause the cartoon has got the boom anime babes that make me think the wrong thing. Courtesy of
Lady in Blue
Capturing the already lovely Temple of Heaven scene when a lady in a blue dress drifts by.
the Barenaked Ladies.
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