In the morning, over the simple breakfast on offer, Frank Lee had the same question. “Ah, how ever DID you find this place?”
“You said you wanted to stay in a hutong, and this is a hutong, and it was cheap.”
“I said I wanted to SEE a hutong, not STAY in one.”
“Oh.” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutong)
There was no questioning the authenticity of the place. It was an ancient home of eight rooms, each with ornate wooden carved windows and doors nestled around a covered courtyard, with a grand tree thrusting out of its tiled floor and exploding through the glass ceiling. Our room was small, but clean, with a decently firm bed. Our host Mark, with whom we had corresponded by email, spoke English well. He and the two other staff were friendly, responsive and helpful. How much could one expect for $95 a night?
There was free wifi, but neither of could get on Facebook or Google. After much cursing we surmised that this was not a failure of the hotel, but the intention of the wary government. I was shocked to discover that without Google and Facebook I was an antisocial imbecile. Most problematic, Google Maps was unavailable, as was any site that USED Google Maps – which is just about every site there is. We would spend much time in the next few days relying on “maps” (colourful folding pieces of paper with diagrams, remember them?), and even worse, Yahoo!, which I’m quite certain nobody remembers. Did they get bought by the Party?
A sign over our toilet said “Please put toilet paper in trash can”, which grossed me out, quite frankly. I translated this as “Please do not put excessive amounts of toilet paper in the toilet.” The room provided insufficient floor space to stretch, and no comfy chair for relaxation. The wall of windows facing the common courtyard provided limited privacy, and more auditory sharing than is helpful or healthy. There was no phone, no mini-bar, no TV, no radio, no in-room safe or even front office safe for valuables, hell, there was in fact no way to lock the room AT ALL.
We pondered whether we could tolerate four more nights of authenticity.
As we left, Mark assured us our stuff was “completely safe”, which strangely enough conveyed a modicum of comfort. I knew that crime was very low in Beijing, not least because those accused of crimes often and promptly ended up with government provided, family financed bullets through their heads. Thus petty crime of the sort that spoils vacations is rare. On the other hand this fact leads to the rather disturbing realisation that in a place where all crimes are capital offenses, any criminal is likely to be a frantically desperate human being. I made a mental note that while the second last thing I wanted was to be pick-pocketed, the absolute last thing I wanted was to CATCH somebody pick-pocketing me.
Saturday’s objective was to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. But first we had to figure out where on earth we had landed.
By daylight, the neighbourhood revealed itself. The comically narrow streets were lined by medieval buildings with crumbling concrete facades that disguised the solidly middle-class goings-on of the residents inside. I concluded anyplace looks dubious when deserted at one o’clock in the morning. Now, construction workers, shopkeepers, commuters and street cleaners hustled about. Bicycles plied by carefully, some carrying payloads the size of a grand piano. Where they fit, cars and trucks joined the mayhem, sometimes passing in opposite directions with millimetres to spare. Here was another ancient city coming to grips with a middle class honeymoon with cars – a phenomenon the new world largely dodged, and from which Europe may never recover.
Reaching the district’s main shopping street, modern Beijing asserted itself once again with familiar brands from Gucci to Pizza Hut interspersed with the local retail establishments. It took about an hour to walk to Tiananmen Square, including a stop at the Beijing Concert Hall where we bought tickets to a Sunday night symphony concert. At least, we were pretty sure that’s what we bought, as the posted calendar had a picture of a symphony orchestra on Sunday. For the benefit of the box office ticket seller, I pointed at this with enthusiasm, handed over about $50, and walked away with tickets that were sure to admit us to something involving a guy with a baton somewhere on 2014-08-31 at 19:30. We would see (and, I hoped, hear).
Entering Tiananmen Square we were subject to the first of what would be many security checkpoints, involving the sort of search that is part of daily life in Beijing. And London. And New York.
Speaking of New York, the security line reminded me that the Chinese are not great queuers, preferring instead to push and shove, and cut the line. I truly enjoy this aspect of their culture, as it comes naturally to me, and it is a pleasure to be in a place where being pushy is rewarded. The level of personal acceptance I get from the Chinese has pleased me in the past, and it did again today. Pardon the stereotype, but I suppose being round-faced and cross-eyed may help.
When it comes to business, the Chinese, like New Yorkers, get to the point, without much ceremony or messing about. I revel in watching the undiscerning condescension of some westerners about such behaviour, ironically labelling it as “rude” when it is the westerners who are applying their foreign standards to their hosts. Now that’s rude!
Physically, Tiananmen Square itself is but a massive (3 sq km?) collection of paving stones supporting a hundred thousand souvenir hawkers and foreign language tour guides. Culturally, historically, and emotionally it is the epicentre of modern China, with the Great Hall of the People (congress) on its western edge, the National Museum on the east, Mao’s tomb on the south, and the Forbidden City on the north. We circumnavigated the place, pausing only to absorb the gravity of the place, and to note that the Chairman Himself would be aroused from refrigeration for viewing on Sunday at 7am. Oh, and to take ten zillion photographs. Unfortunately, gravity is not photogenic. We headed for the more aesthetically material Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City reminded me how much the Chinese and the Americans have in common, despite both being loath to admit it. The name itself — Forbidden City – is straight out of Hollywood (if anything can be straight out of Hollywood). Atop each grandiose staircase I kept expecting to see Carol Channing belting out a spoof of Miss Saigon.
Both the Chinese and Americans are hopelessly commercial about almost everything. They eat dinner at 6 pm, and retire early. They feed popcorn to children and farm animals alike. Most striking, though, is the comfortable and confident Americaness with which the Chinese parade their Chineseness. It never seems to occur to either of these peoples that there is any way but their way.
Notably, within the Forbidden City walls generations of emperors spent their entire lives cloistered from their people while their generals plotted to isolate the country as a whole from the world with more walls. It is easy to see how one could spend a lifetime in the Forbidden City – there’s an awful lot to see and do, particularly if one is permitted to retain one’s testicles.
Wondering through temples and squares named for Peace and Tranquillity and Harmony and Unity it was difficult to overlook the chaos. I marvelled at the English tourists who begged the unrelenting throng to pause so they could photograph themselves alone in front of the Imperial Palace, lest their friends at home think there were other people in China.
We had lunch inside the walls at a basic but decent restaurant, comfortably seated outdoors. We squeezed into the remaining two plastic chairs at a plastic table for eight with six younger Chinese tourists who felt no need to acknowledge the strangers with whom they sat elbow-to-elbow. Eventually they left without as much as a nod. Three generations of a pleasant Chinese family replaced them, ignoring us in the same manner. Interesting.
The Forbidden City is not an easy place to get out of, which may explain the Emperors’ proclivity for sticking around. We spent twenty minutes searching for the exit, picking up on the way a pack of talkative Austrian backpackers who shared our yearning to enter the next stage of existence outside the walls. It took a group effort to locate the North Gate, where we parted company.
Across the street we paid a token fee to enter Jinshan Park whose hilltop temple promised excellent views of the Forbidden City and much of Beijing from on high. Unfortunately, not all promises can be kept, as the afternoon had brought in the notorious Beijing smog. I am pleased to report that the air quality problems in Beijing have been exaggerated. Other than burning eyes, a sore throat, minor chest discomfort and visibility limited to half a kilometre, it is hardly noticeable. Certainly the air quality is no worse than Pittsburgh or London at the height of the industrial revolution, or, say, Bophal on a bad day.
We started back towards our hotel through beautiful BeiHai Park, built around a manmade lake, busy this Saturday afternoon with paddle boats colliding like dodgems. Surprisingly, our hutong was almost as hard to find in the daylight as at night. Confusing, those hutongs!
Overwhelmed by such authenticity, we had a look online for alternatives, but were frustrated time and again by internet blockage. We headed out again on foot to nearby Financial Street, billed as “China’s Wall Street”, where we felt certain there would be less authentic accommodation.
There, less than a kilometre away, we found that the planners had unceremoniously bulldozed several square miles of hutongs, replacing them with what is best described as “Atlanta”—a soulless place of glass and steel demarcated by manicured terraces under teetering bank logos. Sure enough, the Westin, the Intercontinental, and the Ritz Carlton beckoned – at five hundred dollars a night – and up!
Suddenly, I remembered how important authenticity was to me. We returned to our hutong, finding it without difficulty this time. Our belongings were secure, the beer cheap, and, oddly enough, the room much more comfortable. The place was really growing on me.