Bedouin Boys Take Beijing Belly Out & Beer in Hand
Notes from my Journal Dated July 28th-30th, 2016
After a more than stellar first week adventuring through Japan from Tokyo's sci-fi cityscapes to Kyoto's ancient oriental culture, Raphael and I were headed to 中国 -- China! Yeah Baby! As I passed through customs into the People's Socialist Republic of China, thoughts of my first Chinese class a decade ago flashed through my mind. Back then the idea of actually traveling to China seemed like a Dalinian surrealist depiction of my future. When I first signed up for Chinese language class in 8th grade--more to be in a class with friends than legitimate interest--I had no idea that this small choice would lead to such atavistic adventures as walking along the Great Wall or through the Forbidden City, gorging on buffet-like meals of Chinese food with everything from Hot Pot to Kung Pao Canine (I jest?), gazing at Shanghai's skyline from a rooftop bar with some of the New Orleans Pelicans dancers, chasing a tuk-tuk driver through the nighttime streets by cab to recover a lost phone, even hearing Chinese DJs spin vinyl 90s California Hip-Hop at an underground shelter. Before I get ahead of myself here, let's rewind the clock to Beijing.
Beijing, Peking, China. Home to more than 21 million people. The epicenter of Chinese culture: The Forbidden City--former home of the vaulted Chairman Mao; Tian'AnMen Square--where the historically famous photo of a man standing up to a procession of tanks in 1989 during the student protests took place; intricate and beautiful Buddhist Temples like the Temple of Heaven Park which President Nixon visited on his trip to China; the famous Bird's Nest stadium built for the 2008 summer Olympics; and so so much more. Beijing was bustling with life on every street corner, down every alley, around every bend. It was all bizarre and captivating, so foreign and so exciting.
Raphael and I touched down in Beijing in the early evening, descending through the sky's murky shroud of smog. As we exited the airport looking for a bus into the city we were blasted with the sweltering city air. About 90 degrees and 90% humidity. We didn't stand a chance. In just five minutes, we felt more like puddles than people. The air-conditioned charter bus for the hour ride into Beijing city was a needed cooldown before we would be dropped into China's capital. Our first reaction to Beijing was unbearable heat coupled with incredibly mediocre air quality.
No amount of classes could have prepared me for the full effect of the culture, which literally stared us straight in the face after we transferred from our charter bus onto a local city bus towards our hostel. The bus was packed like a can of sardines. We squished in with our bulky backpacks towards the middle and were greeted with a chorus of whooping and phlegmy coughs, uncovered sneezes, loogies hocked to the ground, and the contemplative, curious stares of the locals. We were the only foreigners and only white people on the bus. I felt like a zoo animal on display--more than a hundred eyes on me--a white tiger at the Beijing Zoo. Meeting their gazes, most stood still and transfixed, not averting their eyes as many are apt to do in America. I couldn't help but wonder what it was about us that captivated them--our curly or long hair, status as foreigners, skin color, genuine curiosity, or something else I am entirely unaware of.
Out we went, weaving our way through the crowded streets towards the Red Lantern House. The heat and humidity pressed down on us sapping our energy and melting our minds into putty. The walk back as a general blur with sharp images and memories saliently coming to the forefront. A man hovering over the dragonfruits in a fruit store chiefing on a cigarette using the produce as his ashtray. Old men sitting in the streets playing Chinese Chess while downing Tsingtaos and puffing away on cigs. Music stores housing violins, cellos, string keyboards, guitars, wood flutes and more. Piles of garbage taller than me accumulated in the street, even blocking some bike lanes. Alternating the garbage scent were wafting aromas of Chinese cuisine--the Sichuan spice, garlic, ginger--as we passed by mom and pop family restaurants. We found our hostel and checked in to set our bags down. The place had an eclectic charm to it: red lanterns, a large koi pond, countless fish tanks, cluttered bookcases with both American & Chinese reads, and other hoarded objects stowed haphazardly around.
At this hour of the evening, most restaurants were closing down or nigh deserted, yet we managed to find a local family-run canting (餐厅) that had no idea we were about to put on a clinical gorge and eat like complete assholes. I'm unsure at what point I mangled the dollar to Chinese yuan conversion rate, but I nevertheless managed to convert the approximately 1 Dollar $:6.5Yuan/RMB rate into a 1$:17RMB rate leading to an absolute over-ordering of food. Pointing throughout the menu to our waitress, and saying this and that in Mandarin, I ordered us each a fried rice dish, a noodle plate to split, a sour (bone-in, just the way Americans want it!) Chicken soup, incredibly over zesty lime & pepper beef, and large Tsingtaos. All in all, a meal quite comparably to a family dinner at home, except this time it was for two. When I got to Chicken soup, the waitress flipped closed her order notepad, not realizing we were a little more than halfway through the order. Still the garlic Chicken and beef with veggies and beer. She couldn't stifle her giggles as we continually added item on item to our order. Silly gluttonous Americans; we looked the part and played the part. The joke would soon be on her though. Each dish arrived as ready: the fried rices and den the spicy noodle soup and den the noodles and den the sweet & sour pork and den the garlic chicken and den the table was jam-packed with entrees. From the moment the first dish touched table Raphael and I were vacuuming up the food with the earnest of a street dog eating a luxurious handout. As we continued our marathon of gluttony, the other customers started filing out the restaurant until we were the sole eating survivors. We continued to gorge as the staff started and soon enough finished their closing duties before sitting down at a table next to us for a card game...and sideways glances and giggles marveling at our stomach capacities. They may have been the ones laughing at our over-ordering, but we were the ones laughing now as we pillaged our plates 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes past their closing time. Now we truly were eating like assholes. Time to go. As we eventually finished up and got the check, the joke was once again restored back to us as I discovered the mathematical misconception of the conversion rate I mentioned earlier. What I originally thought was a $10 feast turned out to be $30. Still a bargain, just not what we thought we were bargaining for. Bellies full, wallets lighter than expected, I said thank you to the family for letting us eat past their closing and we sauntered back to our hostel for a well-earned night's rest before a trip to the Great Wall of China early the next morning.
The next morning we awoke early--a pleasant and jet-lagged 745 am wake-up call--for a surprisingly familiar Western breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast before stepping out into the sultry morning heat and into an unmarked van, getting shuttled away on our trip to the MuTianYu section of the Great Wall of China.
Sitting shotgun, I watched our driver navigate the freeways of Beijing cutting through the early morning fog. Wrong. This was no fog. This was no morning marine layer. This was not the June gloom that blanketed the skies of Laguna Beach in the summers throughout my life growing up. This was pure and unadulterated smog, filthy brown smog blanketing the skies of Beijing. Our caravan slogged through the smog for nearly an hour before we breached the dirty cloud that encapsulated Beijing into more remote and rural China. Looking out the window I saw rolling green hills shrouded in fog, or was it more of the same? Were we far enough from Beijing to escape the pollution or did the bubble of grime extend throughout the expansive countryside too? I cannot claim to have the answer for certain, but the brown-hue of the air seemed to give way to a more gentle and soft grey, more reminiscent of those June gloom mornings by the beach. Exiting the van, we headed up the MuTianYu village hill towards the rickety gondola that would carry us through the morning smog-mist (smist) into the primordial beyond.
This seems as good a place as any to unload an avalanche of information about the Great Wall. The Wall was originally conceived in the third century B.C. as a barrier to non-Chinese nomads during the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty in a united China. Under Emperor Qin Shi Huang's orders, a plan to fortify and connect the Wall into one unified structure stretching 10,000 Li's (one Li = approx. 1/3 mile) was undertaken, undeniably the biggest architectural project a civilization had taken on since the construction of the Pyramids of Egypt. A bastion of soldiers, convicts, and commoners worked on the construction of the project building the structure up into the sky anywhere from 15ish feet to 50 feet at the towers and barracks. Tens and likely hundreds of thousands of whom allegedly perished in the construction and were buried in the Wall itself. However, after the fall of the Qin Dynasty in the 2nd century B.C., the Wall fell in and out of states of disrepair as new dynasties emerged from the Han Dynasty to the rule of Genghis Khan [time?]. Land and territories were fought over and re-divided, and those in power did not always have the same emphasis on repairs, maintenance, or expansion of the Wall. It wasn't until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that most of the wall's construction, much of which is what remains standing today, took place. Starting towards the back end of the 15th century, the Chinese Emperor relocated the country's capital to Beijing and placed a strong emphasis on Chinese construction from the Wall to everyday cultural sites, resulting in a renaissance of Chinese culture. Most expert estimates in recent years hold that China's Great Wall stretches over 5,500 miles, though China's Administration of Cultural Heritage claims the wall is over 13,000 miles long. Myth (falsely) holds that The Great Wall is the only man-made object visible from space (debunked by NASA). Still, the myth speaks to the immensity of such a man-made project. A peacock puffing its feathers? Perhaps, perhaps not.
While not a foolproof barrier to preventing foreign invaders, the Wall certainly functioned as a psychological barrier separating Chinese society from the external world. Sounds familiar...a great wall, nay, a (legitimately) tremendous wall separating a society from designated "undesirable" outsiders. I digress, today The Great Wall of China has long since served its psychological purpose and is a rightly a major tourist destination, arguably one of the top 10 tourist destinations in the world. It's estimated that over 10 million visitors make the trek to see The Great Wall of China yearly, with the Badaling section being the most popular spot. The MuTianYu section, which was the locale of my experience, is in the next tier of most popular sections of the Wall to visit. Built in 1368 under the imperial guidance of General Xu Da, MuTianYu was the basecamp for the military defense of China's ancient capital and hosts a number of looming guard towers, closed air embrasures, open air ramparts, and lush scenery.
When it comes to describing The Great Wall of China to you beyond this barrage of history I hit a wall. I can write plenty of informational words stretching up and down the margins of this page just as the Wall stretched out to the margins of the Chinese horizon, but this only tells the history and features of the leviathan that is the Great Wall, lamentably missing out on the real experience traversing the ramparts of MuTianYu.
Like a skier ascending to the top of a snow covered mountain, walkers along the Great Wall may be sent via a rickety chair-lift to its summit--or walk up (ha). A chairlift--the convenient, scenic, and the lazy man's option--is more than just a transportation method, it is an indicator of the level of tourism the MuTianYu section of the Great Wall receives. Just this one section receives enough commercial activity to warrant an airborne ascension to its parapets, an ascension that provides a stellar view of the Wall snaking off to the East and West and disappearing into the misty horizons. The fog blanket wrapped the Wall in mystery, in more ways than one.
Despite the fog layer blanketing us from the sun's gaze, however, the heat and humidity were no less pressing than in urban Beijing. Within minutes it was like it felt like I had jumped in a pool; I was a puddle of sweat. My shirt was stuck to me, had to come off. Raphael and I laboriously trudged east from watch tower 14, moving like sloths up and down the ramparts all the way to watch tower 11. We stopped inside intensive watch towers to look out and be in the "shade." We stopped at more elevated scenic points that provided views of long stretches of the wall and sights of wild sections of the leviathan overgrown with foliage. We even stopped momentarily on a curved and slightly graduated bend totally exposed and naked of any other tourists. I felt like the only human on the Wall for miles and miles. An illusion, I know; but it didn't make me feel any less like I had just time traveled centuries back. I could've been the first user post construction, a medieval guardian, walking the same stop as Nixon or Chariman Mao or Kobe Bryant. Former imaginational musings had become reality as I walked along The Great Wall of China alone (if only briefly). Among the short steps I took at this one particular section, what stories and secrets were held captive in these stones? Who else had walked these steps atop this wonder of the ancient world? How long ago had they done it? For what purpose did they find themselves atop the Great Wall of China?
My introspective musings were interrupted with a hilariously naive and booming comment from Raphael looking thoughtfully into the distance at the segment of the Wall below us from where we had just come, "Look at all those humans, like ants, crawling up and down. What is this, a wall for ants?!?!?" As we stood shirtless doubling over with laughter, we captured the attention of a group of female Spanish tourists in their forties who asked for a picture with us and mumbled some Spanish about "los hermanos hermosos." Humor and hijinx ensued.
We didn't feel like walking down to the village below through the blistering Chinese heat and humidity? Take a toboggan ride down. So we opted for the tourist trap, the commercialized, and undoubtedly more enticing option. The wall has become a twisted consumerized pleasure. Ride the chairlift up and toboggan down. Get your knick-knacks, trinkets, or even a beer & cig atop the Wall--because there's no dodging this commercial enterprise. Ah, yes, of some of this I am guilty. A beer and cigarette at the tourist trap on top of the Great Wall of China as Raphael and I reminisce on our great voyage? Where do I sign? Sitting back overlooking the "valley" below and The Wall snaking off into the distance I felt present. I felt like life was telling me something that I did not quite understand, something I would later, after returning home, understand: my life is meant to be lived for moments of pure presence like that. It was more than wanderlust. It was a personal calling. The Great Wall of China, to me, was not just another brick in the wall. It was the first of many foundational stones placed in the Great Wall that will be my life.
After only seeing one mere section of the ancient behemoth snaking its way up, down, and through the hillsides and fading into the horizons to the East and West, so do I generalize that description to its entirety? No, I'll hit you with an avalanche of historical information. Then I'll follow that with a personal anecdotal experience. Next comes the encouragement to check out my limited gallery of photos of the Great Wall of China to see what it looks like--for yourself or to put pictures to my story. And I'll also tell you what some other tourists were overheard saying: "it's a very good wall really, I dunno about great though." A shame really, you can't teach a rock it has a brain. Can't make a rock appreciate centuries, even millenia, of history; a personal experience most people could only dream of; photos to share with friends and family that prove the memory walking on the Great Wall of China was not only a dream; even a narcissistic and unbeatable Instagram for the vapid and narcissistic. Is all this adequate to describe the Great Wall of China with mere words? I leave that up to you, along with this juxtaposing philosophical statement from Chairman Mao Zedong: "He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man."
After a long, tiresome, historic morning wandering the Great Wall of China, what was my bodies natural response? Sleep and food. Sleep found its way to me on the van ride back to the city. Food found its way to my belly back in Beijing. A short jaunt around Beijing's city streets, and Raphael and I arrived at JingZun Peking Duck restaurant to once again gorge. Sweet and sour pork, Kung Pao Chicken, fried and steamed rice, dumplings, Peking Duck (not really), and of course some ice cold Tsingtaos. Did we over-order? Next question.
Appetites and egos satisfied, we meandered from JingZun to TianAn'Men Square with impeccable timing, what some might call fate, others"divine providence." At the end of Tian'An'Men Square across the street from the Forbidden City a Chinese flapped back and forth through the wind. Engulfed by a crowd 360 degrees around, there appeared to be some sort of processional ceremony in progress. A squadron of military men, perhaps 40ish, decked out in full regalia were standing at attention in front of the crowd, at the base of the flag.
After craning our necks over the dense but not so tall crowd--one of the few times I can say I had the aerial advantage--we decided to take off back to the hostel and decompress. A long day would need a long night's rest.
July 30th, 2016
The next morning we awoke and packed our backpacks, departing from The Red Lantern House to gallavant through The Forbidden City--紫禁城 (Zǐjìn Chéng)--before our train to Shanghai. Another dose of Chinese culture coming at us live from the historically secret city housing the celestial throne of past Chinese emperors, the Chinese Versailles Palace. Another dose of historical info coming at you live as I hit you with the facts.
The Forbidden City, located in the heart of Beijing city, was the heart of Beijing, and China, for nearly half a millenium. A museum today--receiving tens of thousands of visitors daily, The Forbidden City was the former home to Chinese Emperors dating back as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368), who coincidentally were responsible for much of the construction of The Great Wall of China--starting to sense a theme for their obsequious propensity for opulence.
We entered the expansive grounds of The Forbidden City through Zhongshan Park indulging in some greenery before entering the city within a city. We passed on winding and cobbled paths beside ornate displays of pink and white peonies (the former national flower of China), bright yellow and red chrysanthemums, and pink lotus pads; under solitary and twisting cypress tree guardians, whispering willows, and thick Chinese wisteria trees. We ventured through hand-crafted gazebos painted in hues of imperial Chinese red and gold and bedecked with painted scenes of birds flying and around pavilions hanging with red lanterns swaying in the light breeze. The scenery provided a backdrop for contemplative thought, though not stellar photography conditions due to the blanket of misty smog. Between the beauty and the cardio, we passed through most of the garden in silence & sweat and across Tongzi Moat where we bought tickets into the heart of the city within a city.
Entry acquired, we passed under the main entrance, the Meridien Gate (Wumen) into the interior of The Forbidden City. I sarcastically noted that this city was "not so forbidden"--what a dad joke--and instantly recalled memories of that unappreciative tourist on the "very good wall of China." Time to reframe my thinking before exploring this iconic cultural jungle. Fortunately, and also unfortunately, my mind was distracted as I had become a puddle once again. Between the backpack, 90 degree heat, 90% humidity, and poor air quality the outdoors were an open-air sauna. The Beijing belly made an appearance again, as I rolled my sweaty shirt up to my sternum where it held glued in place by my perspiration. Mind reframed, certainly with the help of the wide angle view of main courtyard with the Golden Stream (not a euphemism) snaking through and the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the grand entrance to the outer courtyard. The Gate of Supreme Harmony stood towering across the outer courtyard under a double-pitch golden yellow tiled roof, the dignified and respect-bearing color of the Imperial family); supported by colors painted China red symbolizing nationalistic hope; and ornamented with patterned paintings of dragons and phoenixes, symbols of the emperor and empress respectively. Between the colors and the ornamentations, the Gate of Supreme Harmony--as well as every other terrace, pavilion, great hall, etc are designed with symbolic meaning to represent the ruling Imperial family and emperor in addition to red (in more ways than one) and yellow China. Standing atop a small footbridge over the Golden Stream Raphael and I snapped some photos through our lenses, shocked at the immensity of it all; after all, this was but a mere gate, within an expansive courtyard, within a palatial city, within a district in Beijing, within the city of Beijing, in the country of China. The gate, viewed through a universal and galactic lens, is but an infinitesimal speck in our universe--which may be part of a multiverse--yet here we stood amongst this city within a city. I felt like an ant in much the same way I did atop the Great Wall of China. It's mind-bending how perspective works like that.
We migrated from our central footbridge towards the Southeast corner of the outer courtyard up a small flight of stairs onto the eastern marble terrace for a more aerial perspective of the opulence. We traversed north along the ramparts stopping periodically on the way to soak in the 360 views. To our left the "Sea of Flagstones"--the Court of the Imperial Palace--was solitary and still, unburdened with the traffic of tourism leaving the Sea as though an ancient dynastic emperor of China was roaming himself. The golden yellowish orange roofs stretched all directions adorning the topsides of the many imperial and opulent halls, pavilions, and buildings. To our right, The Magnificent Gate and Hall of Literary Glory (former residence of crown princes, pottery gallery today) stood somberly. At the end of the ramparts the guard tower offered a window into the design of The Forbidden City. From blueprints to replica animals real and fake that adorned roof corners throughout the palace. Much like my experience atop the Great Wall of China, I could barely comprehend how such an extensively opulent, intricate, symmetrical palace could have been created and realized centuries ago by the Ming and Qing dynasties.
After traversing the entirety of the east ramparts, we slowly headed down a ramp nearby the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Elevated on a three tiered terrace, the Hall of Supreme Harmony stands tall and proud aligned on the central axis of the palace complex (and old Beijing city) with perfect symmetry as the highest point in the entire Forbidden City grounds to signify its status, in case the name did not do that already. Balance and geomancy, relating back to traditional Confucian culture, played a critical role in the architecture and design of the grounds. The Hall of Supreme Harmony was grand and opulent, more than a suitable stomping grounds for an imperial emperor to hold court and throw lavish ceremonies and parties (weddings, enthronements, etc).
Sadly, the designers of The Forbidden City could not have possibly envisioned the tens of thousands of tourists daily that would be making The Forbidden City a daily stomping grounds for culture and history. Balance, geomancy, symmetry, and shit. Yes, you read that correctly, shit. Of all the forbidden things in The Forbidden City, apparently taking a shit in public isn't one of them. At the bottom of the three-tiered stairs on the northern side of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Raphael and I captured the building and moment through our lenses, but not before seeing two young boys half-heartedly shielded by their father dropping trow within feet of us. Lovely. Remember that public bus I started on in Beijing, where social norms typical to an American did not exist: spitting on the ground, coughing and sneezing without covering your mouth, staring for prolonged periods at others, lack of personal space? After that experience I should not have been surprised at someone taking a shit in the heart of Beijing's, and China's, imperial epicenter. Yet I was beyond flabbergasted in the moment at the juxtaposition between the uncanny architecture/cultural significance of the Hall of Supreme Harmony and a human taking a literal shit on it. In retrospect, I cannot think of a better way to explain Beijing. A beautiful, opulent, and regal ceremonial hall with a storied history and purpose dating back to dynastic China--a symbol of Beijing's deep and longstanding history and culture--overlaid with the banal everyday Chinese life in 2016.
Hanging around the Halls of Harmony (Supreme, Complete, Preserved), we decided to sit down and relax for a hot second. Raph went to the bathroom somewhere--a legitimate bathroom might I add--and I sipped on a ice coffee hoping to fight back the rising tide of perspiration to no avail. After seeing more than one little fucker taking a dump within our eyesight we moved on north towards the Hall of Preserved Harmony. We made it under the roofed pavilion just as the rain started coming down. 90 degrees and 90% humidity....and now rain. Lovely. I looked at Raph and expectantly suggested that we get out of this oppressive heat and now rain. Although we could wander The Forbidden City all day, it was time to make moves to Shanghai.
We exited to the East, back across the moat, and meandered down the busy tourist trap streets forming a perimeter around The Forbidden City's exterior walls. There were stores offering knick-knacks to take home to friends and family, regal Chinese pipes stalls conjuring images of opium dens. Through the tourist trap we continued, navigating through the masses down to the subway where we could catch a short tube ride to the train station. After waiting in an enormously long line and working through a ticket purchase with my limited Mandarin we were bound for Shanghai on the next train. Sitting on the train, writing in my journal. I also couldn't help but think that Beijing was mesmerizing and full of culture, though not necessarily calling for my immediate return.
Beijing was beautiful, bustling with vibrant life, and unbearably hot and humid. It was everything I expected it to be. It was overcrowded, polluted, dirty. It was also more than expected. It was real, beautiful, raw, wild, and culturally eye-opening. Life done atavistically, yeah baby. The culture--between the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and street life--was absolutely enchanting, especially with my background studying Mandarin. Despite the abnormal social customs (at least to a Westerner), the Chinese people were receptive to WaiGuoRen, or foreigners, and incredibly raw and real in their interactions, opening up to outsiders about their lives, city, and country and genuinely curious about our life in America. Two days in Beijing was and was not enough time there. I saw a wonder of the ancient world and the former residence of the venerated Chairman Mao, but I missed out on seeing the Bird's Nest, famed Buddhist Temples like the Temple of Light, HouHai Lakes, 798 Art District, and the vibrant night markets of Beijing. But at this juncture it was time to head and to Shanghai. Would I go back to Beijing? Perhaps, but there's so much more China was ready to offer me elsewhere.