It would be difficult to survive five days in Beijing without eating duck, which is both omnipresent and excellent, so it is a mystery to me why anyone would want to. Saturday evening our host suggested a local restaurant named Hui Feng which specialised in roast duckling. We ordered up a storm, about six dishes, one being an entire duck’s worth of Peking Duck. Marvellous! The ducks are big, here, too, so we had enough food for a family of ten.
In preparation for dining in Beijing, I had learned two important Chinese phrases phonetically: “May I have some hot chili sauce?” and “Where’s the toilet?” The staff was puzzled, and perhaps a bit offended, when, confusing the two phrases, I pointed to a plate of dumplings while demanding to know the locale of the toilet. Some of the other diners were entertained by our enormous appetites and creative chopstick techniques. We were entertained by the bug zapper over the door from the kitchen which intermittently sent insects to a cracking, fiery demise; very American. The whole banquet came in under $50.
Early to bed and early to rise, Sunday morning we headed out before breakfast, dangerously coffeeless, to see Chairman Mao arisen from his wintry tomb. It had rained overnight, which oddly enough did not clear the smog, but added mist and fog to the haze.
Early Sunday morning is a lovely time in Beijing, perhaps the quietest time of the week, the streets being populated by a few elderly folks out for a stroll or tai chi, and an occasional fitness freak. Not surprisingly, more than a few were accompanied by their dogs – and even less surprisingly, most often of the Pekinese breed.
The walk took us by the Beijing Performing Arts Centre, an immense half-egg structure on the back side of the Great Hall of the People. Around it, well groomed young men marched in military style, in rows of three, one group of perhaps a hundred, each dressed in a crisp white shirt and navy blue trousers. On first sight I thought there might be a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in town, but these lads brandished no bibles, and Beijing seems an unlikely recipient of such patronage.
Mao’s Tomb was a pretty straight-forward affair, still uncrowded on our arrival just before 8 am, but with a constant line of viewers filing in. The only catch was that no cameras or bags whatsoever were allowed in. We took turns going through while the other watched the bag, but that only took about ten minutes each.
The viewing line, an uncharacteristically ordered single-file queue, was well monitored by grim looking soldiers who assured that each mourner kept a move-on. Just before ascending the steps of the tomb, many visitors purchased yellow flowers wrapped in cellophane on offer (daffodils, maybe?). Just before seeing the remains, these were deposited into a pile, the overflow being hustled back downstairs for resale (I hope).
Mao himself looked really good for a guy who’d been dead for forty years. There’s some controversy as to whether these are actual remains, which is something of a bizarre controversy, since after 40 years they are at best artificially preserved to an absurd degree. Regardless, many of those passing were sincerely moved. As for me, the older I get the fewer nice things I have to say about any “great” men, and Mao was one of the “greatest”, no matter how you look at it. I will say that Madame Toussoud would have been very impressed, and that he looks a lot more like John Boehner than I would have guessed.
We realised that we hadn’t had any coffee yet – and there was a McDonalds McCafe’. Guilty. In defence, I point out that we only bought coffee, carrying in the egg and bacon pockets purchased from the “Beijing Breakfast” franchised mobile street vendor outside. At one-third the cost, I will add. And they were yummy. I went back and bought another.
Heading for the South Beijing Train Station to purchase tickets for a Wednesday bullet train to Qingdao, we stumbled upon a WalMart, which we inspected with interest. I can confirm that the Chinese sell the same crap to each other in the Beijing WalMart as they do to Americans in American WalMarts — perhaps worse. We took the chance to stock up on cheap Chilean wine.
After long walk made longer by a lengthy official motorcade, we got to the South Beijing Train Station. In the middle of the ticket purchase, a woman decided to cut in front of me, sliding her card under the glass separating us from the ticket seller while issuing demands. She couldn’t have known I’d played hockey in my younger days, and thus she may be missing some teeth now. Travel tip: cold water rinses the blood from a shirtsleeve quite well. The ticket seller thoroughly enjoyed the event, and while I can’t remember her exact words to the woman, they no doubt translated as “You had it coming, honey.” I do enjoy the Chinese.
In the afternoon we mastered the subway system, which is safe, clean, cheap (35¢ to any destination we went) and a stunningly fast way to get about town. Each time we entered the subway there was a security search, cursory and quick but included officers, metal detectors and x-ray machines. I hadn’t seen this in any other subway system, but expect it will become the norm worldwide, if it hasn’t already. Each time we descended onto a station platform a train arrived in seconds, if it wasn’t already there. The worst case was when we saw our train depart as we got to the platform – but the next was along exactly three minutes later. One of the benefits of a having megacity-sized population is that it makes sense to have the trains run so often that it really works. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would drive in this city – but then for me driving is always a last resort. Even so, I imagine Beijing’s growing middle classes aspire to the prestige of automotive domination, rather than the efficiency of it.
The so-called “Silk Market” is renowned as ground-zero for brand name “knock-offs” – fakes, usually but not always of low-quality. Outside young ladies hawked “Louis Vuitton” handbags at three for $20, which is what Frank Lee paid for his “Oakley” sunglasses inside the eight floor market, a labyrinth shopping mall.
As for me, I ended up in the web of an optician with a scanning machine to determine the prescription of any lens presented. I had them scan two pairs of my glasses with nearly identical lenses. They came back with distinctly different results, one suggesting the centre of my left eyeball was several miles west of our current location. I decided I’d wait until I got home to have my personal optometrist ascertain the proximity of my left eyeball.
Nevertheless, I bargained hard to pay $30 for a pair of wire frames of my favourite brand, “generic”. Walking away twice before getting to my price, I pissed off the young lady selling them to me. While I must admit to a knack for pissing off salespeople, it seems in the bargaining episodes, either one leaves the salesperson angry, or pays more than one need to. This is not really a choice, in my view.
The Sunday night symphony tickets turned out to be for a children’s concert. This struck me as odd for 7:30 pm on a Sunday, particularly since the school year was scheduled to commence in the morning. The full eighty piece orchestra played well, the opening half a series of Tchaikovsky favourites, edited to fit the attention span of an eight-year-old.
The kids, I realised, were all products of China’s longstanding one-child-only policy. One might expect this to have created generations of spoilt brats. By the same token, it also may have begat generations of well-adjusted and secure kids who got all the love and attention popular psychology could suggest.
In any case, there was a considerable din throughout the performance, giving me an idea as to what symphonic music might have been like back in the pre-Mahler days when patrons were allowed to enjoy a concert with chit-chat and ice cream.
At one point an infant far too young to be there gave a bloodcurdling scream that actually stopped the orchestra for a moment. The conductor, smiling in disbelief, turned to locate the source. The parents were taken out and shot in perfect coordination with a snare drum’s rim shot so as to prevent further disruption. I do enjoy the Chinese.
I came to realise these concerts had been going on every Sunday night since June. Clearly, the orchestra, the parents, and the kids had had enough of each other. School was re-commencing none too soon!
The second half featured a piece reminiscent of the stuff Richard Rodgers wrote for the Victory at Sea film series: grandiose fanfares evoking heroic and emotional images of the purity and honour of farmers and labourers underscored by random outbursts from an incomprehensible narrator. We left.
All in all, it was an enlightening cultural event.
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