Saturday morning, 27 September
The sky in Beijing has been soupy gray ever since our arrival on Thursday afternoon, almost a twilight world, a bit like the colorless world of Lois Lowry's The Giver, or Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche, punctuated with bright red Chinese flags, almost blinding against the gray.
News flash! The dawn is breaking on our third day, with small pink clouds in a sky that hints of blue. From our eighth floor window I see buildings that h ave heretofore been invisible soaring into the sky, and there is a low mountain range on the northwestern horizon. It is still gray, but there is hope.
Friday. 26 September, 2014
While enjoying a plentiful buffet breakfast, we watched through the window as cyclists bearing parents, children, and all manner of goods sped past in the bike lane beside the automobile traffic. It was still early when we set out on foot to explore and get our bearings. The estimated 10-minute walk to the East Gate of the Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan), took us longer as I stopped frequently to look and take pictures of my first views of Beijing.
After awhile we left the wide avenues, and wandered into a small alley, into one of the hutongs, old neighborhoods with traditional small houses no more than 1 or two stories, some in total disrepair, and others renovated. On a market street I watched a woman frying twisted bread sticks in a vat of grease, and saw many unfamiliar fruits and vegetables. Most arresting was a mesh bag stuffed with layers of large green frogs which stared at me with their bulging eyes, their sides heaving.
We wandered with delight through a labyrinth of quiet lanes, through both run down and renovated stretches. There were frequent toilets and bath houses for men and women as many of these houses had no plumbing, although some of the renovated streets had water and sewer lines. We met a man who spoke excellent English, who introduced us to his beautiful elderly mother. We shook her hand. She lived in one of the renovated houses. "Only old people live here," he told us. "And that house belongs to a very rich man." He pointed down the street. The unrenovated houses have no kitchens and no running water.
I was fascinated by the interesting curved gray roof tiles, and the curves of the roofs themselves. We watched construction on one busy street, where scores of yellow-hatted workmen mixed and hauled cement, rebuilt walls, and placed tiles on roofs. New windows were stacked, ready to insert. All the construction was in the old style, but with new materials.
Eventually we exited the hutongs just south of Tiananmen Square, onto a busy, touristy set of pedestrian shopping streets called Quiamen. We watched through a window as a man In a fancy headdress cooked noodles in a huge steaming vat, and another made dumplings. We ended up eating there: a delicious huge bowl of noodles with mixed ingredients and a somewhat less successful bowl of hot and sour soup. ( more hot than sour). We passed a Starbucks, a McDonalds, and a Hagen Daz. But one small cone in the Hagan Daz cost 36 yuan (more than our lunch dishes -- about $6 -- so we left without buying.
We walked around the ancient enormous gates and circled underground to cross the huge streets south of Tiananmen Square, where we had to go through yet another underground passage with security to get into the square itself. Under one gate was a brass marker for mile zeros, pointing in all four directions -- the beginning of all the highways in China.
The vast square, filled with families and people of all ages, some sitting right on the
pavement to picnic, certainly conveyed the impression that this could be the center of the world, and that it was a great center of ancient and modern power. I loved the look of the Chinese people. Women of all ages mainly wore practical, sensible footwear and clothing, no nonsense, attractive haircuts, and had such amiable and intelligent faces that they looked like people with whom I'd love to be friends, if only I could speak Chinese.
Red carpets were being rolled out on a viewing platform for the upcoming national holiday, the anniversary of the 1949 revolution. I was irresistibly drawn to an enormous sculpture of a red bowl of colorful flowers, whose petals rippled in the breeze. I don't know if this is a permanent item, or temporary birthday bouquet.
The gates of the Forbidden City beckoned to the north, hung with a portrait of Mao, but knowing we'd be back, and that we had a long walk back to the hotel, we didn't go farther, but headed back through the increasingly warm afternoon. We had walked almost constantly, except for our noodle lunch stop, for about six hours.
Showers and a brief rest felt great. Julia and Jim were checking in when we returned to the lobby for me to check email on a slow and intermittent wifi connection, and for Kent to find a very expensive and disappointing small bottle of beer.
In the evening we met everyone: Caren's warm and welcoming parents, the bridal couple (Careen and Andy), Jim, Laura, and Carrie (father and sisters of Andy -- mother Julia-Lulu begged off for tiredness), groomsmen Todd with wife Angie, and Mike and Jeff -- all from Minneapolis except for Caren's parents and Kent and me -- for an amazing dinner at a private Yunnan hotel, where we were treated to more food than we could eat, including huge bowls of soup into which ingredients were mixed on the spot, and the highlight for me, this flat blackened, spicy whole fish, grilled on a skewer (I didn't see any head, though), that was a bit of a challenge to eat. Most of the bones, however (all but the very biggest) were so pulverized by the heat that they crumbled and presented no danger. In fact they were delicious.
The promise of sunshine was fulfilled, making it a fine day to tour the Summer Palace, to which we traveled with our guide in a comfortable van. We drove past what seemed like endless shiny new high rise buildings, along wide impressive boulevards, some lined with planted flowers and red lanterns, and all crowded with new, expensive cars. It seemed that if I put every huge modern skyscraper city I'd ever seen together, it would not be bigger than Beijing. I can believe that the world's future belongs to China.
We climbed to the highest temple on the artificially created mountain, took a boat on the huge constructed lake, and mingled with crowds enjoying the lovely day. We saw presents given to Dowager Empress Cixi, about whom we are reading in a book picked up at Costco! I was struck by the elaborate artifice of this supposedly natural place, and thought of the story of the emperor and the nightingale. On the way to lunch back near The Temple of Heaven, we experienced traffic gridlock. I studied the Chinese characters on storefronts, looking for patterns, and I determined that I would like to learn at least a few. We talked softball with Jim.
After lunch around what was becoming the familiar round table with a huge glass lazy susan in the middle, we visited the lovely Temple of Heaven. Again, there were crowds. I enjoyed the exhibits on the history of the temple and the rites that were once carried out there. We finished at a tea house where we sampled Oolong, purity, jasmine, and "baby tea" made with dried fruits. Later while some of the others went to an acrobatic performance, Kent read, and I spent a frustrating hour downloading VPN software, and struggling with the slow and intermittent internet in the hotel lobby. We finished with dinner at a unpretentious little hole in the wall restaurant near the hotel, no lazy Susan this time, just a crowded and chaotic square table.
When we returned to our room I fell asleep still in my clothes.