Monday, July 09, 2007

Beijing: 20 Years Later

Wow. Beijing is extremely overwhelming. First of all, everything is ten miles away from everything else. My map makes things look like they are centimeters away when they are in fact a 15 minute cab ride. 20 years ago, it was bicycles and watermelon stands as far as the eye could see. Now, it's cars, Starbucks, Ferrari dealers, and pollution as far as the eye can see.

Several things 'due for completion' in 2006 are not complete. Huge sections of the Forbidden City are scaffolded off for restoration. Mao's mausoleum is closed. This is a city madly preparing for 2008, and based on what I've seen, it's going to be tight.

I also remember being able to go into places. At the Forbidden City, you don't set foot inside any of the buildings except the ones which have been turned into museums of vases or clocks. I have teased my traveling companions that 20 years ago, I got to sit in the imperial thrones. While this is an exaggeration, I know I must have been inside.

Ome thing that hasn't changed is the fascination amongst Chinese tourists (probably making their first trip to Beijing from way outside) with white people. When the first group of girls approached me and asked "take picture?", I reached for their camera thinking they wanted me to snap theirs; instead, they passed it off to another friend, crowded around me, and added me forever to their personal photo collections. By the time the fifth person did this to us, we knew the drill. I am traveling with one very blonde girl and one Indian girl, which no doubt adds to our appeal. One woman had me snap the picture with them, since presumably I'm the least exotic of the three.

Last night we had Peking Duck, but instead of it being in an old traditional restaurant, we were in a restaurant so hip I could've been in San Francisco or New York. It was phenomenal, but then I could eat pretty much anything if it was first drizzled with hoisin sauce.

So far, we have seen Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heavenly Peace, the Lama Temple (formerly the biggest Buddha or biggest wooden Buddha or something in the world, but we hear that record is no longer), and the Pearl Market. At the Pearl Market, I used my now finely honed haggling skills to acquire 7 (!) necklaces, three pairs of earrings, and one bracelet, none of them for more than $9. We are told the pearls there are all real though of dubious quality, and I'm not sure everything I have is a real pearl. I am sure my jade and coral are fake, but since I paid so little it hardly matters. It was exhausting and fun and since I own next to no jewelry, I feel like spending that little to pick up that many fun things was worth it. I got to really haggle there, and used my new favorite approach: the walk-away. This is met with yelling, arm grabbing, and "please lady, best price, best price, no more bargain, make a friend!" And when I stick my ground, I usually get it for what I want to pay, which is no doubt still profitable for them. One time I walked away and she didn't budge and I realized that I was leaving something I wanted over $1, so I went back and paid it.

Our other shopping was at the supposed best antiques market we went to on Sunday. I have no idea if the little statues I picked up were antiques, but they were cheap enough to be worth it, and suitably heavy that I will probably end up regretting the purchase anyhow. And I picked up my favorite souvenir of the entire three and a half weeks there: my Mao clock. When you wind it up, the little communist girl waves her hand to tick off the seconds, as several images of Mao look proudly at her. This is going to be the centerpiece of my new decorating scheme.

Tomorrow, I'm off to a wall climb organized by 9 guys who already trekked in Tibet. I cried when I was on the Wall 20 years ago (a fed up little girl who had enough of the heat and the crowds), and I have a sinking feeling I may do a repeat performance this time.

Viva Beijing!


Post a Comment

<< Home