Monday, September 29, 2008

Beijing, Beijing, Wo Ai Beijing

The Olympic theme song is quite a catchy tune once you hear it pumped out of loudspeakers a few hundred times. Also, note that is it pronounced Beijing and not Beixing. Thank you.

As I arrived from a fairly short plane ride from Shanghai, for once I was happy to see the effects of mass tourism. In preparation for the Olympic games, Beijing recently added subway lines around the city, improved the English signage and supposedly trained many of the taxi drivers in basic English phrases, though I couldn't manage to extract one word of English from any of the ones that I encountered. I came into the city more excited than I was for Shanghai, as this is home of a few of the great cultural offerings of China. I took the subway straight from the airport, walked 20 minutes with my heavy bags to my hostel and then made my way just 10 minutes away to the edge of the Forbidden City. This massive, walled complex is the former home of the emperors and elite of the Chinese capital, and it now serves as one of the top tourist attractions in the country. Walking alongside the wide moat, I passed just under the wispy green leaves of the innumerable willow trees lining the sidewalk just outside of the high stone wall separating the common city from the "Forbidden" sector. After about 15 minutes of winding my way around the beautiful border, I found my way to the front of the enclosure and the beginnings of the tourist hordes. Through the first gate lies majestic views of the outside of the palaces within the walls, covered in decorative shingles, intricate woodwork and traditional style buildings. On the other side of the concrete square, a tree lined walkway and another gate leads to a second large square full of people, soldiers and vendors. I followed the masses through the last arched entranceway, passed through a dark corridor and emerged on the other side with a vast cement square in front of me and a massive portrait of Mao Zedong just above me. I was at the much-pictured end of Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world, famous for both the tourist draw and the killings that may or may not have taken place in 1989. I crossed a small stone arched bridge and turned around for another view, seeing a 40 or 50 foot Mao painting staring right back at me, fronted by a few stoic, immovable guards standing at attention. Not only a sight for foreigners, the vast majority of people here are actually Chinese tourists coming to see the bastion of their country and government. In a place as well-known as this, I was surprised to see so few Westerners around.

Unfortunately, as evening was setting in, so I didn't have time to tour the complex, so I instead crossed under the wide boulevard to Tiananmen Square. Thousands of people crowded the massive concrete field, stretching in all directions, eventually bordered by imposing government buildings. I think I read something about the square being as large as 600 football fields, often holding over a million people for parades and celebrations. Content to just watch the people pass by, I found an empty spot of concrete and sat down, staring at the passerbys, as many of them did the same to me. As darkness set in, I headed down the main road back to my hostel, getting cut off by a "friendly" guy who happened to speak English. Knowing the scam, I wasn't too thrilled to stop by his art studio, but it literally was on the way back, so I couldn't say no. His jovial mood eventually changed after I repeatedly told him that I would not be buying anything, and he even tried to pass the sale off not as a transaction, but an investment to friendship. I explained to him that a true friend would not charge another for the right to be their friend, and he stubbornly let me go. Not knowing where to go, I fortuitously headed back to the Square, finding a plaza full of lights and colors. The temples of the Forbidden City were all intricately lined with white Christmas lights, giving a magical appearance to the buildings. The government building and some statues in the Square also had similar light schemes, and the place looked even more impressive at night. Not to be outdone, a few minutes later, a water show emerged from the moat, shooting off jets in every direction, colored with red, blue or green lights.

Quite impressed, I finished off my first evening with a trip to Wangfujing Food Street, a tourist market full of typical and eccentric food, anything from noodle bowls and dumplings to skewers of any kind of animal or insect that you could desire. Live scorpions, three per skewer, squirmed on the wooden poles, drawing quite a bit of attention but very few takers. Next to them were centipedes, spiders, cocoons, starfish, seahorses, snakes and much more. Some even claimed to have dog meat, but I didn't want to verify that for myself. Deciding to skip the adventure for one night, I opted for a safe, cheap bowl of noodles and headed back, delighted by my first day in Beijing.

(Walking along the edge of the Forbidden City. Not forbidden.)

(Me and Mao.)

(The stern soldier guarding the portrait and posing for pictures at the same time. Talented Chinese.)

(The temples are even more beautiful at night. It's like every day is Christmas here.)

(And then there's a water show? Could this place get any better.)

(She and her friend wanted a picture with me, so I gave them my camera as well. Then they ran off with it, but I don't think it was a scam. No, that last part didn't happen. Sarcasm is so much easier in person than via a blog.)

(Scorpion on a stick? Anyone?)

(More mystery meat of Wangfujing Street.)

Welcome to China - Shanghai

For once, my journey did not begin with an excrutiating flight or hours of layovers in random cities. Thanks to a great deal from Delta, I found a non-stop flight from Atlanta to Shanghai, so it was something that I could not pass up. I even had an exit row seat, meaning that I had infinite legroom and the ability to easily get up and around. Nonetheless, a nearly 16 hour flight is never 'fun,' but it didn't seem all that bad. I got through customs easily (after a fairly lengthy process of obtaining my visa before I left the US), and I boarded the Maglev train, a connecting train to the subway system. This, however, is no ordinary train. For about $7, it takes you from the airport to the downtown area in about 8 minutes, reaching speeds of up to 430km/hr (~260mph). We whizzed past the suburban districts and soon hit the subway station. Getting off the subway at my stop, the fact that I was truly in China hit me. Surrounded by the hanging signs and billboards in completely foreign characters of the popular Nanjing Road, I was definitely in a faraway land. I tried to learn a tiny bit of Mandarin before the trip, but I basically got lazy and learned almost nothing, which should not come as too much of a shock for those of you who know me.

After walking in a few circles, I finally found my way to the hostel, hidden away down an alley of local shops and food stands - one conveniently located just outside the entrance. I immediately set down my bags and went out to savor the last few hours of daylight and to fight off the 12 hour time difference. Within minutes I was gazing upon the Huangpu River, splitting Shanghai into the old (Puxi) and new sections (Pudong). Running along the near side of the river, I followed the pedestrian walkway and adjacent street in an area called the Bund. Shanghai grew up not as a typical Chinese city but as a foreign concession, meaning that it brought in buildings, workers and trade from other countries, and this stretch is supposed to be the historic sector with Western influenced buildings and monuments. Now, however, it mostly serves as a locale for strolling tourists and the accompanying scam artists/salesmen. Many people try to sell you their overpriced works of traditional Chinese art, all using the same story about being in town for an art exhibition on its final day, coming from their university where they study art/calligraphy and English. At first, it seems innocent enough when they want to practice their language skills, but the routine grows old fast, and you soon learn to keep walking when you hear the familiar, "Hello, where are you from?" Despite its problems, one of the best parts of the Bund is the view across the river to the futuristic skyline of Pudong, a testament to the hugely powerful capitalist feel of this city that is supposedly Communist. After a few days in the country, I really don't think they quite grasp the idea of this type of government. So many people and businesses here are grabbing for every possible dollar, and it seems as though the government is fine with it, only invoking its supreme power in times of martial law and suppression of human rights.

Rising from the water, the Oriental Pearl Tower stands like a sort of bulbous rocket ship, composed of a pyramid-type base, a narrow building within and two massive balls near the bottom and middle of the tower, all in all coming up to something like 1,000 feet tall. Surrounded by other massive corporations and hotels and the Jinmao Tower (the tallest building in China at around 1,300 ft.), this futuristic city view often epitomizes Shanghai, and I was impressed to see it so quickly into my journey. Unfortunately, the sky was overcast (as I found to be the case the whole time), mostly a result of the pollution and not actually the weather, but there were a few fleeting moments of sunshine. I eventually had my fill of the majestic view, so I moved on to my next tourist destination - back to Nanjing Road. Just after dusk, this jungle of pedestrians, neon lights and signs looked a bit overwhelming, but it's a great place for a walk and people watching. Somehow, the vendors recognized me as a foreigner, perhaps due to the hair, eyes, skin tone, complete lack of language skills or maybe just the fact that I am a head taller than many of the locals. So, I was often approached by some representatives who simply ask "DVD, Rolex, bag?" After saying no, they then altruistically ask what you do want, ready to give you anything the city has to offer. Nearing the end of the pedestrian maze, I simply had a seat on a bench and enjoyed the commotion. On my way back to the hostel after a long day, I was greeted by two nice young locals who seemed to be interested in conversation, though they eventually asked if I wanted to go get something to eat or drink, probably hoping to work another popular scheme of taking you to places that charge outrageous prices to foreigners. Either way, I didn't have the energy to find out, and I was ready for bed after about 30 hours without sleeping.

During my next few days in the city, I walked around much of central Shanghai, taking in the peaceful Renmin Park, a grassy area with some ponds, lily pads and pagoda type scenery, and "Old Town", a hugely popular tourist area with shops that are all designed to look like ancient Chinese architecture, though none are really that old. Well, maybe the McDonalds with the shingled roof and pagoda style building. Still fighting the language barrier, I made do with easy food where I was able to point to the menu or street vendors, including a great breakfast made of eggs folded into a sort of omelette, filled with onions, cilantro and chili sauce, all for about a dollar. I also made my way through the French Concession, a prettier part of town filled with cafes and tree-lined avenues. My most important mission, however, was finding the elusive black market. During my first quest, heavy rain and my 2 hour reluctance to buy a $3 umbrella kept me under an overhang of a building for quite a while, but I fared better that evening. I found a few sellers who took me to some local shops and eventually realized that I wanted to see the market, a large industrial building across another river and away from the tourist sites. Here I found two or three stories of shops,all clamoring for my business. I intentionally came on the trip to China without any jackets, so this was exactly what I was hoping to find. I just browsed the first day (which is quite hard to do), and I eventually had to bargain hard for the two fake jackets that I chose, as you often end up paying 30 or 40% of the price that is originally offered. Other than the impressive skyline and the excitement of walking up and down Nanjing Road, I wasn't too thrilled with Shanghai, but with the good airfare, it proved a good entrance point into this sprawling country, and I was soon on the next flight to Beijing, making my way North.

(The Shanghai skyline and me.)

(The Oriental Pearl Tower, engulfed by some wonderful smog.)

(Scary dragons were all over the place.)

(I was given quite a welcome upon arriving at the Bund.)

(A tranquil scene from Renmin Park.)

(Not so tranquil at Nanjing Street. If I had to guess, I'd say that all two of the three people in the front of the picture are saying some combination of "Bag. DVD. Rolex.")

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