Breakneck Beijing 2009

Beijing.

A city of contrasts…

… thus begins every travel essay ever written. Ever. This is the way Ancient Rome welcomed visitors from Florida two thousand years ago; “lo, ye wearer of white belts and Bermuda shorts, bear witness to the splendid slaughter of Christians! Rome – a city of contrasts.” Rest assured the Romans spoke in the Middle English tongue.

Day 1, Thursday October 1
It’s hard not to get excited about a trip when flying out of Incheon International (인천국제공항). Korea boasts a lot of “world class” and world’s greatest/longest/fastest/hardest attractions and facilities – kimchi, the KT Express, COEX Aquarium, ajumas and soju cocktails all come to mind – but Incheon actually lives up to the billing. Sparking facilities, efficient systems, adequate transportation routes and trace elements of konglish make jaunts in and out of the Morning Calm hassle-free. This is what you need when setting out for Communist China.

But I digress. I promise to spare you the socio-political commentary and delve into the heart of this voyage.

Eventually.

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Incheon rolling sidewalks. 500km long and counting.

My flight was originally scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday morning, but due to the massing of masses in the capital for the 60th anniversary of Communist Repression (celebrate good times! Yah! Come on!), my flight was bumped to 12:30. Fine and dandy – I caught a few hours sleep before popping up to the airport on the express bus from Osan. I clear customs in record time (no deep cavity search this time!), and settle in for a relaxing 90 minute excursion over the Yellow Sea.

Predictably, my flight is delayed on the tarmac more than an hour and a half, so by the time I land in Beijing it’s nearly 4 p.m. local time and I’m so frazzled that not even Horatio Caine can shake me out of my funk (everyone in the world needs an Ipod touch, by the way). Bad omens mounting on top of bad omens, I hit immigration hard and fast to get the inevitable over with. I negotiate the crowds with deft skill, my passport in one hand, Swine Flu Acceptance Speech in the other, and make the counter. The customs agent, young and pretty, surely hiding a heart of stone cold communism, looks at me, smiles and asks where I’m from. “Toronto by way of Seoul,” I tell her, sure that the ruse is over. She tells me she went to school at the University of Toronto, that Niagara Falls is romantic and Algonquin Park is majestic and wishes me a safe trip. I stare at her for a moment, not sure what exactly she means by that, suspecting that Algonquin is Chinese code for cavity search. But no sirens go off, no guns are drawn and I am handed my passport. The exit, unassuming, unguarded, is near. Once again, Homeland Security has screwed with our heads so severely that we truly believe a single wrong answer at the airport will result in harsh probing. Harsh, steel probing. At least that’s what I’ve been led to believe. Screw you, Paul Greengrass.

Digression:
Tom – my intrepid travel partner/fellow expat – and I booked separate flights into Beijing because one or both of us are lazy. We planned to meet on the ground, though we didn’t really specify a time or location. Simple, in theory, though things turned out to be more difficult to pull off in practice, the busiest holiday of the year in Beijing interfering and all that. Did you know that Korean cell phones will only work in Korea? Same goes for most Korean bank cards. I didn’t. Take care of these things before you leave the country, ladies and gentlemen. My Canadian Blackberry does little good tucked in a drawer in my room in Osan. Tom and I did not plan for these things – or anything, really.

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Here’s a quarter.

I spend two hours scanning the flight boards at Beijing Capital. I have Tom’s flight information written down on a napkin, but how reliable are flight numbers, really? My own flight changed names three times before I hit the tarmac. I spend a great deal of time sampling the best that Beijing Starbucks has to offer. A grande in Korea is a Grande in Toronto is a Grande in Beijing. And they are all nine dollars.

Interesting fact: Flights from Air Koryo Korean Airways (formerly Chosŏn Minhang (조선민항) routinely fly in and out of Beijing Capital to Pyeongyang. Air Koryo also flies into Toronto. There’s something about that that’s wholly unsettling. Banned from flying into the European Union and the USA because the airline does not meet a number of airline safety standards, Toronto’s Pearson International welcomes, with open arms, a fleet that the Wright Brother’s would be embarrassed to command. I watch a number of the Air Koryo flights taxi in and hope to catch at least a glimpse of Kim Jong-Il as he deftly maneuvers his air bus. You didn’t know Kim Jong-Il could fly? He can. He can also kill leopards with his bare hands and once impregnated Janet Jackson simply by singing the North Korean national anthem.

While scouring an airport for lost souls you’re invariably likely to run into someone you recognize. I’ve run into people who went to Laurier all over the world – on a beach in the Bahamas, on a mountain in Jeju. It happens. It only bothers me when I can’t place the face I recognize. Standing impatiently amidst stacks of battered travel gear housing hundreds of thousands of dollars of musical equipment, displeased [to say the least] with their Chinese guides, I spy Bret Michaels – I’ve seen commercials for his VH1 show, I guess – and decide to strike up a conversation with his band. My 90 minute flight has turned into a five hour adventure, so I’m starting to look a bit like a haggard rockstar myself.

I chat it up with Scotti Hill – a Wikipedia search tells me that he’s the co-guitarist for Skid Row, not Poison, and that the Haggard One is Johnny Solinger, not Bret Michaels. Same hair, same cowboy hat. Forgive my mistake. Scotti invites me to the band’s Friday gig and asks me to bring my gear; I’m loaded with camera equipment and look like a Japanese tourist. I tell him that I’d love to, that a photo shoot with heavy metal rockstars in a foreign city is on my list of things to do, and we part ways with an awkward handshake (I don’t know the secret code). I leave the band to their travel predicament; it’s good to see that even rich and formerly famous Rock Gods have trouble pulling a cab on a holiday in China.

I give up on Tom and decide to cab it into the city. With quotes ranging from ridiculous to you slimy bastard, I decide on a bus instead. En route, I meet a friendly American couple who teach in Korea. We decide that three is company, and set out to grab a bite and some drinks and, if we can, a glimpse of Tiananmen and the 60th Anniversary celebration that we can hear thundering 5km away.

A quick note on taxis.
I had heard, from numerous people, that the taxi is the public transport of choice for foreign folks visiting Beijing. Most drivers speak a little English – they have their dictionaries from the Olympic Games handy – and rides to and fro are cheap as chips. Popular opinion holds that the subway is crowded and not user-friendly and that buses are a good way to get lost and/or crushed.

Balderdash.

The subway system is clean, efficient, ultra modern and the buses run like clockwork and at half the speed of the death canisters that roar through the streets of Korea. The taxis are a whole other matter. My new American friends and I hit the taxi stand just outside the airport drop and work our way through the drivers. Not one of them will turn on the meter for us, and we’re quoted a number of insane prices to get to the hotel. Not knowing exactly where we are, we finally agree on a 100 RMB (about $20 bucks) fare. The drive takes less than two minutes. I could easily throw a baseball from the taxi stand to the entrance to the hotel and I don’t have a strong arm. The first and last time I plant my foolish ass in the back of a cab in China.

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Beijing Metro. Safe and comfortable. As long as you don’t mind the assault rifles.

My first taste of real Beijing is a stroll around Jingshan Park (景山公园), a bohemian little hotspot alive with noodle-chomping locals, hacky sack shagging foreign beatniks and a trillion camera totting tourists. Alas, we don’t spend much time here. We’re famished, and I still haven’t found my hotel. For fear of taxi hooliganism we jump on a bus [in the wrong direction], jump out when it feels like we’re in Mongolia and settle on an American hotel buffet for dinner. The beer is Chinese, though, so that makes it authentic. I think. It could have been Budweiser. During dinner we watch the military parade at Tiananmen via the 70-inch Panasonic television hung on the wall. We’re only 2km away, but there’s no way to get closer. Beijing celebrations for the people: not open to the public. I’m already wishing I were back at the park.

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Nope. This isn’t scary. Not. At. All.

The subway.
I am no stranger to the subway. Like a tramp criss-crossing the Midwest, I ride the rails of Seoul Metro daily, my comings and goings dictated by the muffled voice of the conductor, the pushy old ladies and the signs in Konglish. I’m working on a book, that’s how much time I spend on the subway. Beijing Metro is, in many ways, the spitting image of the Seoul system. Stops are announced in English, the young are expected to concede their seats to the old (I never do; I like to feign injuries and cling to my seat with aplomb) and almost everyone is asleep. Security, though, is tight. You could sneak a bomb in a beer keg onto the Seoul Metro and no one would notice. Not in Beijing. Here you slide your gear through the x-ray machine before you climb aboard. Invasion of privacy? Whatever. At least no one is going to Jack Bauer our ass on the rails. This must be what it’s like to go to high school in America.

On my own, my new friends working their way northward to their own hotel, I step out onto the platform of what I believe to be Beijing Railway Station (北京站). Immediately I am underwhelmed; I expected a little more pomp and circumstance from the city’s oldest station. Instead, it’s as sterile as Osan College Station, the three-year-old junction planted in the center of my modern suburbia back on the peninsula. There’s a reason for this.

I’m tired. I want to find the hotel. I’m anxious. I don’t know where Tom is. There’s no one in the station. The exit is chained and locked. Ill omens to anyone paying attention, but I figure it’s late; everyone else is under state-enforced curfew, so the city is mine!

Not so much.

I turn tail and work my way to the opposite end of the station. I’m greeted on the platform by the business end of two assault rifles, aimed at my face by severe looking SWAT officers, and three members of the military. Without weapons, the military forces are twice as scary as the SWAT soldiers. They shout at me, wave me over, lead me out of the station and stuff me into the back of a Hyundai police cruiser. Looking out the window, I realize my mistake. I’m a stop away from Beijing Railway, at restricted access Hepingxiqiao Station, Line 5. No time to plead my case; the hurricane is upon me. This happens fast. Scary fast. Abducted-in-broad-daylight-in-the-movies fast. I’m wishing now I had done a few things differently. Written a will. Been nicer to people. Packed a clean pair of underpants.

Sitting in the clean, bright cell at the station – I won’t go quite so far as to call it cozy, but it’s not Tropic Thunder, either – I watch the police banter back and forth over what to do with me. I have long joked about crawling out of an opium den ala Alan Quartermain and spending a night in a Chinese prison, but I was only half joking. I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever be let out of this place. Not that it’s that bad. I’ve had a coffee, some orange slices and a piece of cake. But my god, the bureaucracy. Chinese water torture would honestly be a welcome reprieve from this. Finally, after nearly 90 minutes of bickering, I meet a police captain, a man I refer to in my mind as The Disapearer. Knowing the Chinese are renowned for their efficiency, I place the over/under on the decision to execute me by firing squad at 10 minutes. Now I’m just like Rambo, being interrogated by the Viet Kong in First Blood: Part 2. If they hit me with leeches or electrodes of any sort, I will sing like a canary. Nuclear codes, the position of the hostiles, anything they want to hear. ANYTHING.

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I keep getting older. They stay the same age.

Things don’t go as badly as I expect them to. After the interrogation I sign a few “official” documents about my trespassing and largess and have my passport copied 200 times. I am not a terrorist, I am not carrying explosive, and I am not here to take down the regime. Then it’s picture time. I figure it’s going to be a mugshot and I’m going to get flagged at customs on the way out on Monday, but when The Disapearer throws up the peace sign and a big grin I feel like I’ll be ok. With his arm around my shoulder he barks at his minions and within minutes I’m back in the police cruiser en route to the hotel, which I wouldn’t have been allowed to get to on my own for all the security at Beijing Railway. Bonus? There’s an air of trepidation as I enter the hotel. They know who they’re dealing with. I’m a hardened criminal. Hard as steel. Got my stars in the joint.

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The hotel staff dress funny in Beijing.

I sorta kinda forgot all about Tom during my ordeal and I’m trying to track my friend down via the internet when he wanders in – Tom, you’ll remember, is the friend I was supposed to meet at the airport what feels like a week ago. He’s met with his own trials on this journey, including a rerouted flight to an indiscriminate international destination, but that’s a story for him to tell. Unpacked and relaxed, we head out on the town for Second Supper. The theme of this week being, of course, excess.

We finally find an authentic eatery off the Laoqianju Hutong northwest of Beijing Station. We enter to cold shoulders, indifference and wary glances. Our pretty waitress who would rather be anywhere else in the world right now slams down a 50 page menu and takes our drink order. We’ve heard nothing but good things about Tsingtao, but this place only serves up Snow brew. Snow has a 15% stake in the Chinese beer market, is smooth and crisp and even tastes good coming out of old dirty bottles with rusty caps. Served up in chipped, gnarled glasses, it’s a delight. Authentico! We jab at the pictures on the menu and we’re served something that vaguely hints at meat meets newspaper shreds in a heavy molasses. I watch a man dunk his feet into the dish washing tub and without missing a beat the woman scrubbing porcelain wipes down his peds before returning to the dishes. A man to my right burps, his friend farts and they both laugh. Suddenly full, we pay our bill and make haste for the comfort of our hotel room at the Zhong An, where 57 channels of thundering state propaganda await.

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I went to University. I know what catfood looks like. You can’t fool me.

Beijing Hotel Television
Channel 7 features Looney Tunes (in Chinese, and dubbed in Chinese) on loop. Heavily edited, they’re still something to see. The blackface crows, Bugs the cross dresser and Daffy the Nazi are all present. I suppose this is where the episodes go when they’re no longer deemed acceptable for North American viewing audiences. The other channels are a mix of state-first propaganda, athletics and coverage of the 60th. At least Korea has the Discover Channel. Gosh.

Day 2, Friday October 2
We went to bed without setting alarms, believing in the myth of the internal clock and trusting that eight Chinese beers (low alcoholic content, 3.2%!) won’t have any negative effect on our ability to wake. Yet it’s noon now, and half the day is gone. Not a big deal if it’s Monday and you’re late for work, but this is Beijing, and I haven’t seen much more than the inside of the airport and a jail cell. We shake free the cobwebs, throw down some instant coffee and make haste drag our carcasses down to the lobby. We plot some of our comings and goings for the next few days with the Zhong An booking agent; a night out with the acrobats and a long, long bus ride to The Great Wall at Simatai, where we can finally become real men. While plotting our adventures, we also come to realize that the air in Beijing really messes with Korean cell phones. It’s not noon. It’s 8:00 am, and we’re up ridiculously early. What to do now?

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The Night Market; catering to foreign expectations since 1991.

Wangfujin, The Night Market (王府井)
Wangfujin is one of those “authentic” spaces, a place that seems built to accommodate tourism from the ground up. Thousands of hawkers pushing the same junk on you for miles in the same direction – how many times can you ask “where’s it made?” and snicker at the answer and have it remain funny? Our destination on this morning is Tian’anmen Square (天安门广场), so we meander through the Night Market (during the day, how rebellious), haggle over some Ray Ban shades, snap photos of the scorpion/starfish/lizard skewers and begin the search for a crystal ball – a tool I intend to use to bust up a friend’s photographic good time – with no luck. I make a few portraits, Tom is pulled out of the alley to pose with a half dozen pretty Chinese girls (I’m not jealous… not jealous at all) and finally, an hour and 2km later, we pop out the western exit of the market and take the long, slow route towards the Forbidden City. In other words, we get very, very lost.

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Scorpions are high in protein and a source of 17 essesntial nutrients. I’m not so sure about the seahorse.

It has been said that 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing, though I’m not exactly sure of the context this was first used or if Chinese landmarks were a part of the equation at the time of print. When Tom and I do finally arrive at The Gate of Heavenly Peace, we’re thrilled and disappointed at once to see the place crawling with people. The causeway is an undulating mass of humanity for hundreds of meters, people lining up to line up, camera shutters snapping everywhere, constantly, unrelenting, unending. I’m happy to join the fracas – it adds a little character to the photos, I figure – though Tom is anxious to jaunt across the square itself. Like a slow boat on the Mekong, we snakes through the crowds, underground through the serpentine connection tunnels and up onto the square itself. We clear another security checkpoint and join the masses who are, sadly, more interested in the gaudy floats and exhibition pieces than they are the towering monoliths, though I suppose the Monument to the People’s Heroes (人民英雄纪念碑) and the Great Hall of the People (人民大会堂) are just as extravagant in their own way. We want to kneel before the sacred remains of Mao, bask in the iconography of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and retrace the bloody steps of the 1989 protestors (we don’t say this out loud), but we can’t. Everything is closed. We settle for photos of soldiers and floats and the crowds, but it’s just not the same.

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You want to see more than the gate. Buy a map. For the love of God, buy a map.

The Forbidden City (紫禁城)
Visited by seven trillion people (approx.) every year, The Forbidden City is on every list of Things to See Before I Die ever written. Tom and I, being logistically challenged, manage to see about 1/10 of it. I have included a map so that you may see just how stupid we are for yourself. Don’t make our mistakes.

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A. Meridian Gate
B. Gate of Divine Might
C. West Glorious Gate
D. East Glorious Gate
E. Corner towers
F. Gate of Supreme Harmony
G. Hall of Supreme Harmony
H. Hall of Military Eminence
J. Hall of Literary Glory
K. Southern Three Places
L. Palace of Heavenly Purity
M. Imperial garden
N. Hall of Mental Cultivation
O. Palace of Tranquil Longevity

We enter through the Meridian Gate (午门) and are immediately distracted by the massing of soldiers to the east. We head in this direction – it is off the beaten path, through a wooded area and unmarked – thus initiating our Forbidden Palace folly. We encounter all manner of things unimpressive; a food court, a tourism/souvenir kiosk, a picnic pagoda and soldiers on their lunch break. Unimpressed, though undaunted, we make our way north, past the East Glorious Gate (it is glorious!) and towards the Hall of Literary Glory. It is not long before we are lost again. I desperately want to make some photos from Jingshan Hill north of the Forbidden City, but we can’t seem to escape the maze. The city has shrunk around us; we now believe that it is much smaller than it really is. Trusting our instincts, something boys like us should not do, we follow the stream westbound and out of the palace at the West Glorious Gate (soooo glorious!). And that’s that. The Forbidden City, tackled in 30 minutes or less. If you want my advice, and after reading this last paragraph I don’t know why you would, I would get yourself a map if and when you take on Beijing. You might get to see a few things.

We hit Beichang Street Beichang Street (北昌街) and stroll under the canopy of overhanging trees with the intention of finding some grub. It’s been a long day of wandering aimlessly – and we’re going hard on a belly full of Chinese McDonald’s. The rickshaws roar by and after passing on the first dozen I decide it’s time to go quadripedal. Tom has his reservations – he doesn’t want to get scammed, and who can blame him – but I don’t want to continue using my legs. We flag the next driver and he skids to a stop, rickety apple cart bouncing wildly behind his three-speed. We ram ourselves into the back and our driver raises an eyebrow. It’s hot out, maybe 28 degrees, and there’s sweat at the thin man’s temples. He’s just now realizing what he’s got himself into. Tom and I are both over six feet tall and on the northern side of 200 pounds. It’s a miracle that he can move us, let alone do it with any speed. But away we go, northbound on Beichang, racing for the horizon.

Sort of.

A few seconds of peddling furiously and the rube is set in motion. A second driver pulls up alongside our cart and Tom is unceremoniously dumped into his wagon. We’re not so naïve to think that they’re not going to try and stick it to us now, but we don’t really care. We’re roaring down dirty back alleys a major thoroughfare of Beijing, snapping photos and shooting videos under a high noon sun. Who cares how much this is going to cost. Not a chance in hell it’s going to be the three yuan as previously agreed upon, but I don’t care. I’m not afraid to play hardball with a Chinese rickshaw consortium. Unless they have knives.

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Speeding through the streets of Beijing in a rickshaw is really the only way to do it.

We pull over at Tuancheng (团城), near the Northwest Corner. In a flash the drivers are demanding that we pay – they’re not being rude yet, but their aggression is a tactic that must rattle most of their customers into ponying up the dough immediately. We don’t fall for it. I fish in my pocket for the agreed upon fair; three yuan. 60 cents, give or take a penny. My driver throws a fit. He pulls out a fare card that clearly states the ride the price as 300 yuan. I haven’t seen this card before. I would have been insane to get into the cart for 300 yuan. So I stand firm. He negotiates. Meanwhile, Tom’s driver is pulling the same stunt, only he doesn’t have a fare card. He peels back the mat on the floor of his cart to show the listed price. God forbid they ever put anything in plain sight…

Unfazed, I stand firm. A short conversation between myself and 100 pounds of rickshaw moving power:

Driver: “300 RMB!”
Me: “Three.”
Driver: “250 RMB! That good price!”
Me: “Three.”
Driver: “Come on, man! Give me 200.”
Me: “I will give you three.”

Tom has already handed over 10 yuan, so I guess now is as good a time as any to stop playing with these guys and move along. “Look, we agreed on the price before we got into the cart. Take your money now, or you’re getting nothing,” I say, walking away. Our drivers follow us, aggressive now, shouting and pleading their case. They demand their restitution, grab our arms and bags in an attempt to spin us face to face and intimidate us into submission. It’s not fun anymore, and it’s starting to fray my nerves. “Fine. Let’s go see what the police have to say about this,” I say, taking a real chance, pointing at the SWAT team on the corner. For all I know, the cops are at the head of this rickshaw conspiratorial dragon.

These cops standing on the corner with their bean bag shotguns and assault rifles, they aren’t in on the game. As soon as we mention the police the drivers back off. They’re furious still, shouting and swearing at us in what English they know, but they are out of our personal space. They snatch the three yuan from our outstretched hands and scurry off to their rickshaws. Victory is sweet.

I feel for the other foreign folk we see sucked into the rickshaw trap jaw. It happens all over the city, all day every day. We watch a family of six, split into three separate carts, shoot in and out of traffic on the north of the Forbidden City. Will that father really be willing to engage in the same kind of fierce battle in front of his kids that we had to endure? It seems unlikely. Six people, three carts, 1,200 yuan. That’s a lot of green, any way you shake it. You could have bought a new Chinese supercar straight off the assembly line for that price. Or a Ford. A spring time sales event!

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He had a “shop” he wanted to show us where he sells “art,” all we had to do was “follow” him back to his “shop” where we’d be “served” tea and other “things” while we “shopped” for said “art.”

We lunch at a busy little place on Jingshan Front Street (景山前街). We select the restaurants we dine at according to a very particular doctrine. As foodies of the world, we do our best to avoid places with other foreigners; glazed, rock hard examples of the entrees in display cases; anywhere that’s too clean; places with a mascot. We go four for four at our little eatery and settle in for a long overdue lunch at a joint that doubles as a souvenir shop. I refuse to eat in a restaurant that doesn’t sell sweet and sour pork and brass Buddha statues. We’re all the way across town, but we don’t have to be back to the hotel for our ride to the theatre until 4:00 p.m. That means there’s plenty of time for a beer.

We threw down a few bottles of Tsingtao, a medley of chicken and cashews, some noodles and a peppercorn dish that incapacitates my mouth for thirty minutes. I don’t like peppercorns. I didn’t order peppercorns. Tom, with a stomach built from old iron panels dredged up from wreckage on the sea floor, doesn’t like eating peppercorns. Introduce me to someone that likes peppercorns and I’ll give you a dollar.

Chinese Lavatories.
I’ve seen plenty of rank whiz holes in Korea, but the Morning Calm can’t shake a stick at the Republic. Sure, a hole in the ground is a hole in the ground, but finding it in total darkness, tripping over sacks of rice (a good place to store your grains, I suppose) and catching yourself on rusty garden tools makes for one hell of an adventure to the co-ed urine receptacle. No, this is not the community bathroom in some dirty back alley in an ancient hutong. This is the public restroom at the otherwise pleasant restaurant we’re lunching at. If you want my advice, hold it while you’re in Beijing. Just wait to go to the bathroom until you get back to where you came from. A day, a week, a year. You can do it. You want to do it. You don’t even want to read my review on the facilities in the hutongs.

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A single, bare bulb illuminates my favorite Beijing bathroom.

Southbound and Down.
We need to get back to our hotel. We’ve got a little more than an hour to make it across town, and under ordinary circumstances there’d really be no problem. But the taxis aren’t stopping for anyone (when they do it’s Gouge Town, population: foreign idiot) and half of the side streets are still closed for the celebrations. The only option we have is to hump it on foot. So we do. Half cocked and stuffed full of MSG, we hit the mean streets yet again. Keep in mind as you read this that a ride across town to our hotel, even in a slow car in rough traffic, would take less than 20 minutes.

Naturally, we head off in the wrong direction. We know we need to turn right. We want to turn right. But every street southbound is closed off. So we head east, and east, and east. Finally, we come to a stretch of road open in every direction. The only problem is that there are too many directions. The road has the same name from the center of the compass at least six different ways. Perhaps this is the center of the universe, perhaps it is the apex of hell. You’ll forgive us then if we don’t go the right way. You’ll remember that we wanted south. We end of taking SWW. Not smart. Not even a little.

As the Crow Flies.
I am famed for my navigational expertise. World renowned. Legendary. I have a particular penchant for navigating by landmarks as I see them. It’s much easier than using a map. Once, back in high school, a friend and I were on our way to the Sky Dome to see a Toronto Argonauts game. We didn’t bother with mapquest. We didn’t stop and ask for directions. We took it upon ourselves to use the CN Tower as a marker and worked our way south on Highway 400 towards Lake Ontario. How lost can you get in Toronto, right? I mean, there’s a lake at the bottom. You can’t go too far.

Three hours later, lost in Scarborough and out of gas, we had listened to most of the game on the radio. It was a bad idea then. Navigating Beijing by the clock tower next to Beijing Railway Station is a bad idea now. I digress.

When the clock tower finally comes into view it’s 3:59 p.m., we’re exhausted, filthy and sick of the city streets. We’ve been on two buses that went the wrong way, worked through the crowds at Tiananmen twice [by accident] and nearly been run down by every form of motorized transport on the planet. We figure that we’re going to be holding up the entire operation back at the hotel so we work on our excuses en route, but when we crash the threshold we’re told to relax, that we have plenty of time before we have to leave. Our driver is having a beer, so he must not be too worried. I’m a little disappointed. Like Indiana Jones running from the gigantic boulder only to find out it’s made from Styrofoam.

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A lot like Joseph. A little like CATS. Take from that whatever you like.

Beijing Acrobatics.
Our driver delivers us to the theatre, fetches our tickets and shoves us into line with the rest of the patrons. We stock up on beer and snacks in the lobby and saunter down to the front row. VIP, folks. The rest of the foreign section is populated with Korean vacationers traveling with a tour group. We make small talk with the out-of-towners, a little English here, a little Korean there, share some cookies and beer (thank god they didn’t smuggle any soju off the peninsula) and I set up my photography equipment while the curtain slowly reveals the spandex-clad performers. Over the next two hours I will be told to put away my camera a dozen times. It gets so bad that the usher refuses to leave her station to wave at me and instead uses a penlight, aimed at my eyes. My retinas may be irrevocably damaged, but I made some excellent photos.

The show is a cross between a bad Fraggle Rock nightmare and a Lord of the Rings musical starring only Golem. At times creepy, always incomprehensible yet somehow beautiful and terrific, it’s everything I expected the Chinese theatre to be, even if this isn’t the largest or most elaborate production of all time. It’s the first time since my incarceration that I wish we had some opium think I’m on drugs. Oddly feminine men draped in spandex hoola hoop their way across the stage three at a time. Women with muscles bigger than mine – and more facial hair – climb stacks of chairs towards the ceiling because they can. A man dressed as a turtle does what turtles do and stands on a stack of six orange cylinders while two of his friends, also dressed as turtles, tease him. A woman balances a candelabra on her face. I know the last one doesn’t seem that strange considering, but it was.

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I remember this scene from The Devil’s Advocate. It’s the same costume Pacino wears when he reveals to Reeves that he’s the Devil.

We’re the only white faces in the audience so we figure it’s only a matter of time before one of us is called up on stage. Since my lap is home to about 20 pounds of photo equipment, it’s Tom that draws the short straw. Ushered up on stage during the Streetcar Named Desire segment, Tom is told to try and a lift a gigantic flower pot that a burly young woman has been spinning on her feet. But he can’t do it. It takes seven men to do it, to hoist it in the air and balance it on her feet. It takes nine men to get the thing in the air with Tom inside. This is the only time during the show I’m free to snap photos at my leisure, so check out the evidence. That’s real fear in the man’s eyes.

The show comes to an end with a cobbled together showcase of the key performers (they trot out and repeat their feats momentarily) and the curtains close. Immediately the Chinese constituency clogs the isles and kicks down the doors as if John Wilkes Booth has just popped his head over the balcony to say hello. I’ve read about the mass exodus phenomenon in travel guides, but I never knew a reason for it until now. Immediately after the show the acrobats turn from lithe, limber high wire death-defying magicians into exit-blocking junk hawkers. They swarm the Koreans, peddling their wares furiously. They’re selling DVDs, CDs, masks, sashes, hats, bobbles, trinkets, first born children, the Cup of Christ, Indy’s whip. Anything and everything they can get their hands on. I’m sure I see someone exchange a handful of yuan for a fire extinguisher, but in the mêlée I can’t quite be sure. Impervious, Tom and I take it in; we’ve already got a bag of junk from Tom’s flower pot extravaganza and neither of us need a kitchen sink. The Koreans, though, they’re flustered. Out come the wallets. You really have to admire the aggressive shock and awe tactics of the Chinese. I wouldn’t mind getting in on the action and consider selling some of my photos back to the performers, but Tom wants to leave. Next time.

When our driver dropped us off at the theatre he told us the best way to return to the hotel was to “go in the general direction of south, towards Beijing Station.” Since we already played that game all morning, we’re a little trepidatious. And when we see the spotlights waving at the sky further north, we throw plans to the wind. We have an idea what’s in that direction, but we don’t really know. And that’s the Beijing that we want to explore. We also left our maps at the hotel, so we don’t really have another choice.

We know we’re going the right way because the traffic signs start making sense, billboards are in English and cab drivers are willing to pick us up. We cross the street northbound and enter – through a large security checkpoint, of course – the Olympic Green. Tom’s not very happy about all this. It’s not the park itself. The park is beautiful. Epic in it’s colossality. He’s upset because I have a tripod with me. And a big camera. And some big lenses. We’re going to be out late.

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The bird’s nest, as it appears. No camera trickery whatsoever.

Olympic Green, as anyone who was alive in 2008 knows, is a magnificently gaudy impressive expanse of sterile buildings north of the central core of the city. The Bird’s Nest and the National Aquatics Center are rightly the main attractions. I make photos of the National Stadium until Tom threatens to dump me into the pond before we move on for some meandering. Quizzically, this place feels as wide open as it looks. It’s less crowded than other parts of the city, though there seems to be more to see and do here. The only place that’s unbearably crowded is the Aquatics Center pavilion; the magic fountains attract kids and their shutterbug parents like honey does the fly. I take pictures here, too.

We move along. The fairgrounds, a thrown-together addition to the Green seemingly built to cash in on the bustling crowds, are unnervingly empty, as if a George Romero film is about to be shot and we’re the only ones who don’t know that zombies are going to crack our skulls. In Korea this place would be crawling with kids fired up on squid jerky, people testing their strength on the outdoor punching bags and couples heading to the singing rooms. But not here in stoic-ville. Most people are content to keep to themselves, stroll along on their own. The Ferris Wheel is spinning, though. So that gets made into a photo, too. I’m not sure what type of feeling a rider-less, spinning Ferris Wheel is supposed to illicit within the Chinese people, and I suppose I’ll never know. It’s not like me to speculate.

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National Stadium, the Ferris wheel and some really, really expensive buildings.

We walk. A long way. For a long time. Bejing doesn’t mark their subway system like most cities in the world. It’s like one big secret around here. Signs are covered by shrubbery, posted behind parked vans, turned to face the sky. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and we don’t, you’re kind of up the Yangtze. We ask a half dozen people how to get to the nearest station and choose from the eleven different directions we’ve been given. Somehow, thankfully, we find the tube and rocket south.

I think the Chinese go to bed early. This seems to stand in the face of the bright lights big city policy, but everything in this berg is closed before midnight. Or maybe it’s the soldiers and their large weapons killing the buzz. We decide against the mutton/horse/human meat we were fed last night and take on new digs; a clean, well lit little place with a walkway of 10,000 little red lanterns lighting the night. The sweet and sour pork is a highlight – perhaps the best I’ve had in my life. Think squares of lean pork braised in a sweet, tangy sauce… I could eat it all day. It’s a nice preface and stomach coater for the duckfest that is to come. We sample cashews and chicken (again), braised beef strips in a soy sauce, noodles and Yangjin beer. I don’t know why Tsingtao gets all the hype. Yangjin is where it’s at in the Chinese brew world. Are you listening, Korea? China can brew reasonable beverages. Why can’t you?

The most interesting feature here is the ambiance. Throughout dinner one of our hosts sits at an adjacent table smoking and listening to classic Bryan Adams songs through the tiny speakers on her cell phone. Not that I’m complaining. I’m always down for a little nostalgia, and the Summer of ’69 is a very good vintage.

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The most delicious sweet and sour pork in the history of the world. I would go back for a weekend just to eat at this restaurant. I’m not kidding.

Day 3, Saturday October 3
My alarm goes off at 7am, Monday through Friday. I get up at 8:15. What do I do with those 75 minutes in between? I hit the snooze alarm. What should I be doing? I should be out jogging, like I tell myself I’m going to do every single night before I go to bed. On the off occasion I do find myself outside before the sun comes up, it’s not because I found myself zealous enough to lace my sneakers and pound the pavement. It’s more likely sleepwalking gone awry. I often wake up in the middle of the street not wearing pants. Suffice to say, I am not much of a morning person.

We have to be up even earlier than the crows today. The alarm goes off at 6:15. It’s not as difficult to wrench myself out of bed as I thought it was going to be. The prospect of a three hour bus ride – more time to sleep – is quite inviting. I jump in the shower and pack my gear, pour myself a coffee then wait for Tom to finish his business. And then, and then…

And you’re asking yourself, “who gives a f—?”

No. One. These mundane details are unimportant. These are the things many of us do before we set out for the day. Even a day earmarked for the Great Wall of China. I’m telling you about the things I do do because they do not include the things I don’t do. If you follow me. For example, I don’t root through all the junk I’ve collected so far on this trip looking for a note from the office staff written on a napkin that I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for. A note telling me and my “party” that we’re due in the lobby at 6:15, not 6:45. I find the note only because it’s tucked under my battery charger. As good a place as any to hide a note…

The staff isn’t the least bit fazed that we’ve missed the bus. They ask us with casual nonchalance to sit, to wait a moment, while they continue counting the cash that’s been dumped on them over the weekend by their foreign contingent. We’re perturbed, but not because we’re out a whack of said cash – the trip to the wall is a relatively cheap one – but because we were anxious to spend a day doing something other than wandering around the city on foot. Personally, I’m devastated that we won’t get to rock the highway in the comfy bus. I have transportation sleep apnea and I would have had my head bobbing in about 35 seconds. These dreams shattered, depression sets in.

We were dangerously close to seeing the Great Wall in postcard format only.

Of course, we’re a couple of whiners. The bus driver, waiting around the corner for us, expecting us to be late anyway, comes back to the hotel to fetch us and loads us into his horseless wagon. The excitement of the day begins to drape over the scene. The music starts, the engine roars. We’re off… to another hotel. We do this five more times. It’s the other side of 9:00 a.m. when we find the highway, and no one has been able to sleep, thanks to the herky jerky route our driver has taken through the entire city. So in my roundabout way, this section has been a lesson for all those intending to travel by chartered bus in Beijing; find out where your bus will be stopping last before making for the country, and meet the driver there. You don’t want to test weekend traffic in one of the biggest cities in the world in a gigantic bus driven by a man with a patch over one eye. You just don’t.

A rough start doesn’t generally mean much in the scheme of things. We met some great people on the way out of town, the way it begins giving us something to connect over. There’s your obligatory American tourists/students that no one really wants to talk to, the girl in sandals that is going to shred her feet to bits and the boyfriend who complains about everything from the softness of the seats to the price of the wicker hats being sold by the hawkers. There’s the hungover European backpackers – they don’t say much now, but they’ll perk up ‘round tipple time. Ivo, the legendary Dutchman whom will later become our guide to the bright lights of the dirty dirty, and finally Jamie and Diane, an energetic couple from Florida here scouting out the city and the country in anticipation of a permanent move across the pond. We wax poetic with our new comrades as the mountains creep in and envelop us without realizing it we’ve traded the oppressive confines of the city for the rugged, ragged countryside. It’s difficult to put into words how drastic, how quickly this change comes about.

The Great Wall of China.
I’ll spare you some of the vague generalities here. This is the Great Wall. Besides the Pyramids of Egypt, likely the most famous structure in the world. I’m not a poet and I’m not going to do proper justice to the ragged, unchanged countryside. The hypnotic, undulating slopes of the meters-wide wall. Not eve going to try. This place must be experienced. What I can offer you are some travel tips to make your adventure more efficient and memorable.
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Tips that could save your life.

 Do not do Balading. The people that tell you that this is the section of the wall to visit from Beijing are liars or working for a travel company. Crowds are never fun. Crowds at the Great Wall are doubly troubling, as are the hawkers. Hawkers are prevalent everywhere, but at Balading they seem to fall out of the sky and into your wallet.
 Don’t book your trip in advance. This is common sense. Save yourself 10-50% booking in person where they’re room the haggle rather than over the internet.
 If touring the Wall from Beijing do the (what section did we do?). Take the info from the photos.
 At (our place) Take the cable car to the “starting gate.” You need to experience this for yourself. I took the cart up on my own to snap photos and was struck by the beauty of the rugged landscape as my line of sight crested the ridge of the mountain plain. The turrets (?) come into view, the sun bathes the spires in golden light, and 3,000 years of history is upon you in an instant. Until I lean against the door of my car and realize that there is no latch. No hook. It swings open, I stagger and shake but do not fall out to my death. I’m glad. Don’t do this.

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Fact: 7 scenes from the blockbuster film “Sin City” were filmed at The Great Wall.

The trek from the cable car drop at ? to the zipline output over the lake is nearly 10km, but the route is smooth and easy in most places – there’s a little scrambling to be had, but anyone with a little outdoor spirit in them isn’t going to have a problem. We do the stretch in sneakers and shorts expecting a more onerous ordeal but you could do it leisurely in sandals if you wanted to. Along the way we’re accosted by all manner of hawker – of course we are – men and women claiming to be farmers living off the land while they try to sell us cans of cola at a 400% markup. I’m not interested in their wares, least of all their repackaged water, so I compromise; for the same price I’ll let them keep their drinks as long as I can snap a few photos. This works out well for everyone in the end, and I make some of my favorite photos of the trip up on the wall, my camera in one hand and my flash in the other, blinding Chinese wall crawlers with fill light. Ecotourism at its finest. Don’t leave a footprint.

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Caption nominees include: Puffy; Puff Daddy; Puff the Magic Dragon; Puffster; Homeless Man

I spend an inordinate amount of time looking for tools, trinkets or toys to ground my photos with foreground elements. Everyone and their uncle has a photo of the Wall. I want mine to be different. I find my differentiator in the form of a lonely, battle worn and broken shovel. I carry the shovel for over an hour in the pursuit of the right shot, but it eludes me for the longest time. Eventually I add a dirty glove to my toolkit and feel a step closer to the photo of photos. Authenticity is everything.

We run into the snarling maw of a zealous hawker at an outpost 3/4 through our trip. Her spies have been sending word ahead of our troupe of the one that walks with the shovel, and she is ready for us. A walkie talkie in one hand and a clipboard in the other she feigns authority when she tries to wrestle my shovel from my hands. I’m not having it at first, refusing to give up on the photo that has not made its way into my camera, but she is relentless. She refuses to allow our party to pass unless I hand over the shovel. I don’t know why she wants it. I don’t think she knows, either. But she is the Queen of the Checkpoint, and I have no recourse. I’m not a pour loser, but I do lay 1000 curses upon her children’s children’s children.

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The shovel. Truly man’s best friend.

The only time we feel crowded on the wall is when we’re waiting in line to tempt fate and take the zipline over the lake.

It doesn’t look safe, doesn’t sound safe, but my lord does it look fun. You know the proprietors of Zip Land aren’t worried about safety they announce to the crowd “if you want to go faster, add two or three people to your harness!” while a sign posted nearby depicts a skull and crossbones over the image of two riders bound together. Really, what do they care? Repeat business is likely not the hallmark of the Great Wall tourism industry. At any rate, we don’t tempt fate on this day; Ivo, Tom and I bound together would likely bring the whole mess crumbling into the water, so we single shot it over the river.

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Goodbye, Great Wall. Now that we are real men I appreciate you even more.

The boys and I are the first members of our group – and the tail end of our tour troupe – to make it to the dinning hall. Quickly, veraciously, we scarf down the food. Between three of us we demolish what was set out for eight, polish off a half dozen beers and settle into our seats on the bus for the long trip home. It’s during this time that I bear witness to the only particularly impressive sunset that I’ll see in China – from a speeding bus on the highway. Somehow, someway, that seems fitting for Beijing.

We’re dropped off outside the Llama temple and we take in its goodness from the outside. Forgive me if I cant get fully geeked up about temples, but I’ve seen my share in the last year and a half and when it all comes down to it, a temple is a temple the same way a beach is a beach. Only you cant get naked inside a temple. Or you shouldn’t. That’d be terrible for your karma. What I do like to frequent is a place that sells duck and or sweet and sour pork. So the five of us set out – myself, Tom, Ivo, Diane and Jamie – after ditching some of the excess creeper baggage, southbound to the hopping (?) district to get our food on. Ivo cracks out the moon cake, we pour back the beer and cut loose.

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Ivo and the Mooncake. The name of my next alt. rock band.

People let their guard down when they travel, and there’s no better way to make new friends than over a shared smorgasbord of the very best meal a city has to offer. We’re from different regions, different continents, but that only makes things interesting. Ivo, who gives the Dos Equis spokesman a run for most interesting man in the world, tells us about a life spent crusading for workers’ rights in SE Asia; adventures in Thailand, Cambodia, Loas et al. that only serve to fuel my desire to travel constantly, unending. Post dinner, Denise and Jamie head home to prep for their trip to the gorge (I’m jealous of this adventure, too) and we head off for what Ivo has promised to be the best massage China has to offer. Tom has his reservations about this, but I’m ready to go. I’m not going to ask for a happy ending, but I’m not going to spoil their party if it happens, either.*

* Joking. I swear to god I’m joking.

The Chinese Massage.
Paint flakes off the moist, worm holed walls. Spores of mold dot the ceiling. There’s a heavy smoke on the air, like the early morning fog of an overburdened shipyard. You set foot on the creaky floorboards with caution. A woman draped in a red shall peers over her shoulder at you from behind the frame of a beaten door. Old men in dusty overalls toss cards on an apple crate, cigarettes hanging limp from their mouths, dirty glasses and a broken bottle on the floor beside them. Somewhere down the hall, a phone goes unanswered…

This is the massage parlour the movies have conditioned me to expect. The one we get is run more like a four-star hotel than the Maison Derrier. From the lobby staffed with cheerful, helpful young woman (all talking on headsets to fifteen people at once) to the marble staircases and private lounges, the (NAME) is first class through and through. The place is even family friendly; mom and dad can enjoy a rubdown or a hot mud bath while little Billy and Sally play in the kid’s entertainment hall. Somehow, this is a little disappointing. Filth has a little more character.

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The Ultimates version of Dr. Fish. Dr. Fish on steroids.

We’re led to our room – a spacious, grand parlour with three reclining leather chairs and the largest television in China – and settle in for our trip to relaxation town. We have our choice of 1001 beverages, but we all go for green tea. Don’t eat the sprouts and you’ll be fine. Our masseuses leave us to soak for 15 minutes and we do, sinking into our comfortable chairs and reminiscing about a day climbing the Great Wall. Sitting here, in this heady atmosphere, my feet in a bucket of scalding warm water, sipping green tea, watching highlights from the military parade (of course) on TV, it’s almost difficult to remember. The girls return and beat our feet and calved into submission for 90 minutes – 30 minutes free! – their hands as adept at doling out torture as their small leather hammers. But they work wonders on our tired feet, on our shin splints. They don’t speak a word of English though communication goes on unabated. Ivo, though, our veteran travel partner, charms them with the “little Chinese that he knows…” His modesty clearly baseless, as the man speaks as much as any of the three girls. Leave it to the Euros to understate things. Sadly, these things must end. We recover our dirty socks and shoes, surely a crime, and pay our bill. Expecting a king’s ransom we hand over a peasant’s pittance; 88 RMB for the experience. Immediately we book a return trip for tomorrow night.

Day 4, Sunday October 4
We’re up early on the International Day of the Backyard BBQ, hoping that the world of Beijing is a quieter, more easily navigated space. At the desk we order a pair of Armstrong specials, but our speed machines leave a little to be desired – even for the deposit of 300 RMB. Tom’s bike shoots springs into his ass every time he hits a bump and mine has a wonky pedal that’s about to fly off – while we’re 40km from the hotel, no doubt – but they have baskets and bells and that’s all you need at the end of the day. We’re blending in with the homegrowns now, indiscernible from the rest of the Chinese population. We weave in an out of traffic like we’re pixels in a Frogger sim, dodging buses, rickshaws, angry women, SWAT soldiers. We are acclimated.
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Tom rides a lot slower than I do. A lot slower.

The first time we saw (glitzy area) we were racing through en route to the hotel, late to meet the acrobats. We decide to give it a more thorough walkthrough this morning, parking tossing our bikes on a heap with a thousand others beforehand. Neither Tom nor I are shopaholics. We kind of hate it, in fact. But we like to barter and haggle and watch other people spend too much money on junk, so we persist. Immediately we realize the main strip isn’t the place to experience Beijing. Vendors of Louis Vuitton, Nike and Feragamo aren’t exactly native China, so we leave the mid-range to upscale shopping to the people with too much money and too few brains for the heart of the matter, the huttongs west of the strip. The shopping district here is as alive and bustling as Wangfujin, though foreign visitors are more prevalent. You are safe in assuming that this means a substantial price increase for goods and services; a scorpion on a stick in Wangfujin sets you back a measly 5 yuan. Here? Double that. I don’t know how I’m going to get my protein with these exorbitant prices…

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Glitz, glamor and portraits of the police at the market.

We continue our individual searches for junk. Tom’s still after a tea set and I will do just about anything for a glass orb of power, though I won’t pay a lot for it. I do have my limits. And a little bit of dignity. In the end we leave with a few trinkets, the hallmark a silk Chinese shirt that I’ll never wear. We corral our bikes for further adventuring and head south in the “general direction” of the Temple of Heaven.

The Temple of Heaven. Eventually.
We have bikes, to hell with maps. We meander south on our one-gear racers, off the main drag and into a gated hutong community somewhere between Heaven and Tiananmen. More of the “Beijing we wanted to see,” though this is becoming a cliché in and of itself now.

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Blistering sun and ten trillion temples. A deadly combination.

We discover quickly that this place doesn’t get a lot of outside visitors or we’re not supposed to be here, as we’re greeted with the same sort of general disinterest usually reserved for the streets of Seoul. The streets are dirty, buildings decrepit. But that authenticity you want, that realness that’s feigned at the markets, it’s here. It’s dripping down the old brick walls of the burned out communal toilets. It’s the men playing cards on the corner, the women drying vegetables on planks strew across drums of still water. It’s the gigantic Persian cat strutting down the alley that’s gathered a crowd of children. It’s the sweet smell of fresh oil sizzling in old skillets. It’s all these things, and we claim each one in turn as a memory as we rocket along.

Our trek through the Temple of Heaven begins with a security forces photo shoot at the Palace of Abstinence (宫禁欲). Before Beijing I had heard that Chinese forces are notoriously difficult to photograph. In short, they will pound you with heavy sticks if you stick a camera in their faces. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are most of the guys willing to stand in for a photo, they are more than happy to check out my work post-snap and stand in for a second if it doesn’t feel right. That, my friends, is how you serve and protect.

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Serving. Protecting. Generally being awesome.

After observing abstinence we find a map and begin criss-crossing the grounds. We are determined not to miss what the Temple of Heaven has to offer the same way we missed 99% of The Forbidden City. We stroll slowly through the garden, through the beautifully planned and manicured forests, past men and women practicing Tai chi chuan (太极拳), past the old folks trading crickets, past the hawkers and past the kids flying kites.

We climb the Circular Mound Altar (圜丘坛) and feel a little guilty that we just don’t get it. We don’t understand enough of the history to know why people are clamoring over this little mound at the top of the steps, why there are a million photographs being taken here, why old women are crying and why children are quiet. I know, like anyone else who can read, that past emperors prayed here for favorable weather, but there’s certainly more to the story. I’ll be back in Seoul when I finally sort that story out. I won’t spoil it for you here.
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Awkward smiles. The hallmark of good travel photography.

After the Circular Mound we traverse the Vermilion Steps Bridge on our way to The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿). We make more photos here under the scorching early afternoon sun, most of them including a member of the military forces in some incantation or other. It’s here that we run into the unexpected; a man (American) and a woman (Chinese) have just been wed somewhere in the city and they’ve come to the temple to take photos post-nuptials. The groom, sweating under his heavy tux and looking like he’s been run roughshod, strikes up a conversation with me while the bride goes over the logistics of the shoot with the photographer and her team of maids. They’re from LA and in the film business, he tells me. A long way from home, they’re heading back tomorrow morning before setting off for Hawaii for their honeymoon. I start to see why the man is frazzled; I’d be cantankerous if the month ahead included sunny LA and the white sand of Hawaii’s tropical islands…

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I was served up a crash course in wedding photography. I did not pass.

Anyway, the photographer, “one of the best in the city,” I’m told, begins shooting the couple in front of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests with his 50mm lens and on-camera flash. For those not well versed in the world of off-camera portrait photography you won’t really understand why this makes me so man. For those that are… you understand my hurt all too well. I make a few photos of my own and wonder if I can charge a fraction of the $9,000 this clown is charging the couple for prints before joining Tom at the precipice to look out over the city. It really is a beautiful skyline when the crop dusters blow the clouds and smog to Venus.

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“Don’t worry, kids. Take all the pictures you want. Grandpa is going to rest over here for a while.” – genius

We make a few stops on our way out of the complex. First we collect in the temple’s dustbowl, The Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇), a place with more foreign photographers per square foot than anywhere else on the planet. Interesting close up? Sure, if you’re a sucker for temples. Getting close enough to appreciate anything here, though, without getting knocked over or pushed down the slippery marble steps, is a whole other matter. We don’t spend a lot of time here before moving on the to The Rose Garden (玫瑰园), where the practitioners of Tai chi are out in force. I take a few photos of the roses here, because it seems like something you do in the Rose Garden. But don’t let the marketing machine fool you; there are maybe 50 roses strewn about the place. Slightly underwhelming by grandiose Chinese standards. The people, though, they’re fantastic here. The Rose Garden at the Temple of Heaven is easily the third most chill place in Beijing. You can work out the other two.

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The Rose Garden. High on the elderly. Lacking in roses.

We hook up with our bikes once again and set out in search of more hutong action. We’ve heard rumors of the bombastic spaces where silk is shorn from great towers of fabric by tiny acrobats, where snakes are skinned live for your boot-adorning pleasure, where you can buy any herbal medicine ever concocted as long as it contains a tiger’s tooth or macaw’s maw, but we haven’t found it yet. So after an hour and a half biking in circles – we find ourselves at Ritan Park and the Ferrari dealership more than once – we settle in for lunch at a nice little café north-east of The Forbidden City. It’s at this nice little café where we meet a pair of “hardened” foreign expats – American’s, I assume – that put on those all too familiar airs. Allow me to offer a traveling tip; if you live somewhere for an extended period of time and allow yourself to become jaded and believe that you know everything about everything, try and keep this attitude to yourself. When I ask you, politely, what they serve at the restaurant, and you reply “food,” I am going to think you are an asshole, no matter how cool you think you are. When I roll my eyes, crack a joke to lighten the mood and ask how the food tastes and you reply, “like food,” you deserve a kick in the teeth. Or perhaps I’m just too sensitive.

After lunch – it was another big one, I’ll spare you the details – we finally rumble into Di’anmen Inner Street (地安门内大街) with ten trillion other foreign shopper/diners/cravers of decent coffee. The shopping here is eclectic, though overtly commercialized; it’s more than disheartening to find that the charming, “hand crafted” leather journals and notebooks sold in one little boutique are the same ones sold in every other boutique along the strip. About the only thing that isn’t packed and sold off to proprietors along the road is the aggressively non-Chinese vibe spilling out of Ned’s Place out onto the street. If you find yourself perusing the shops along Di-anmen someday, you owe it to yourself to stop in and grab a beer with the Kiwi’s who will almost certainly be watching a rugby match on the big screen while dressed in their All Black uniforms. Not kidding.

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Everyone needs a teapot. You should have a teapot. For the love of God please buy a teapot.

We buy ironic t-shirts “I climbed the Great Wall!” boxes of matches, notebooks (I know, I know…), and Chinese hooch. Tom finally finds a tea shop to his liking, so while he’s busy haggling I make my way over to the strips only thrift shop in search of a used Chinese film camera. Whenever I do things like this I can’t help but think of Jaffar from Aladdin singing Jewel in the Rough. Or however it goes. The thrift shop has a few things of interest, including slabs of jade and battered and beaten Mao trinkets, but since the proprietor styles himself somewhat of an antique collector and not a junk mover the prices are exorbitant. I don’t find a camera, either, so I spent most of the time photographing the owner’s prized crickets. He tells me they sing differently than other crickets, and that’s why they are so special. I don’t have the heart to tell him that they are grasshoppers.

Our last stop on Di’anmen (after the tattoo parlor where we come dangerously close to making some bad decisions) we settle in at the Tibet Café, one of those fabulously relaxed spaces I mentioned. The Chinese seem to avoid it, and since raucous Ned’s Place is thumping with rugby and stout ale across the road, most of the foreign contingent miss it, too. We order up some yak jerky, yak tea (I guess the milk is from a yak? Not sure how that works…) and I sample Tibet Beer. Tibet beer which is bottled in China. Sigh. But while the beer is Chinese and the tea is horrible the ambience is indeed relaxing. So relaxing that I forget my entire bag of junk when we leave. It’s a crying shame when a man is forced to carry an empty communist satchel around Beijing. Crying shame.

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Everyone needs a kite. More than you need a teapot, at any rate.

We do Beihai Park (北海公园) by bicycle, bringing my trip full circle. Despite the proliferation of tourists, sadistic rickshaw drivers and peacocking tea-room girls Beihai is an awesome place with a million things to do. If I didn’t have all my camera equipment strapped into the basket of my bike I would join the old folks for a swim across the channel or get in some intense kite flying time with the kids scurrying between the waterfront restaurants. You owe it to yourself to do a half day here – preferably as the sun goes down. Get yourself a patio seat and a bottle of wine and watch the sun glow over Qiónghuá Island (琼华). Sometimes the crowds don’t seem so bad.

There’s a heaviness rolling in with the dusk air but photography at Beihai is a bust; there’s really no way to get a good angle on the sun. We work south again, joining the other tourists, all ten million of them, to photograph the Northwest Corner Tower at The Forbidden City. I try to work in a little originality, though. I snap off my frames while trying to balance the bike along the cobblestone path. It’s not a talent thing per se, but it’s something. From here we jet back towards Tiananmen – the traffic is horrendous as people clamor over one another to get to the South Gate for the Full Moon Party, but we make a good old time of bobbing and weaving out of traffic. Allow me to reiterate something; if you visit Beijing, you need to rent a bicycle. Not a car. Not a helicopter. A bike. Hit the pavement.

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Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

We dine at the Night Market, but it’s not the best idea either of us have ever had. We had no idea that Wangfujin is the biggest night time tourist destination in the city. Trying to get a table anywhere is next to impossible. This is particularly crushing to Tom, who had his heart set on dining at Quanjude (全聚德) and stuffing his face full of duck. Our substitute is a cafeteria style eatery just south of the major night market itself. The duck, the corn soup, the sweet and sour pork and the glazed chicken are all a disappointment. Even the beer tastes a little too watery here. Not the best way to dine on my last full night in Beijing. Plan ahead.

We’re feeling a little down after dinner, upset that we couldn’t get a table at a nice restaurant and even more harangued that we missed our full-body session at the massage parlor. Until we remember that we don’t know how to tell time. We make our appointment with time to spare and the night is salvaged from the pits of despair by the single greatest massage in the history of the world.

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The eighth best 20 dollar cocktail I’ve ever had. I don’t think that’s something to brag about.

Day 5, Monday October 5
Up and after it on my last day in Beijing. Pack up, steal as many toiletries as we can get our hands on, check out, pick up our deposit and check Tom into a hotel across the street (he has one night left in the city before he’s off to Hawaii. Jerk.). We take one more crack at Wangfujin and finally cash in. Tom’s going to get his duck, and eat it, too.

Quanjude, the most famous of the famous Peking Duck restaurants in Beijing, sells two million roast ducks and serves five million customers annually. A three hour (??!) wait for dinner on Sunday night is a 10 minute pittance Monday at 11 a.m. Why? Because no one eats roast duck for breakfast. Unless you’re Tom and I. Then you have two.

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If anyone knows the name of the crazy Swedish chef from The Muppets, insert joke here.

Our chef wheels the bird out to our table on his stainless, impeccably clean cart and takes it to pieces before our eyes. Glistening, golden, fat-drenched duck for brunch. A note on the menu says that there’s very little “bad fat” in the duck served at Quanjude, but we know that can’t be true. But even if it were, the mashed potatoes, creamed corn soup, pork and chicken sides more than make up for it. It is the breakfast of champions. It goes down well with beer. It is a heart attack in the making. Good thing we got a lot of exercise yesterday.

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Back to the Night Market to dine on scorpions. You know you wanna.

The rest of the day’s events are trivial. I buy some hooch to replace what I lost yesterday, though it’ll be confiscated at the airport. I don’t replace my Great Wall t-shirts. The hurt is just too much. Tom and I part ways early in the afternoon; he’s off to get swindled by the tea house girls/hookers while I’m off to Beijing Railway Station to transfer to the airport line. Five dollars for a ticket and no cab drivers to deal with. It’s a no brainer.

Just like Beijing. Put it on your list.

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8 thoughts on “Breakneck Beijing 2009

  1. so i just started reading your travel account (which is brilliant, by the way. “This must be what it’s like to go to high school in America” is an awesome line.) though the size is daunting, I’ll take in parts.

    maybe i’d just dense, but is there a way to add this to my own blogroll? does wordpress requires you have to have something in the margin that lets me do it?

    in any case, beautiful work.

  2. ok. how many months later, and i’ve finished the beijing entry. very entertaining. and gorgeous photos (something about that b/w great wall silhouette hits me just right.) so much of your story sounds a lot like my experience in beijing, so it was really fun to read.

    so thanks!

  3. Air Koryo has never flown into the Toronto International Airport. Where did you find this out? They also do not have an office in Toronto. (Wikipedia is, ahem, wrong.) Air Koryo has never flown into North America, and definitely not into Toronto.

    • Craig – I understand when someone can’t tell when someone else is joking over the WWW, but come on… let’s get serious here.

      “I watch a number of the Air Koryo flights taxi in and hope to catch at least a glimpse of Kim Jong-Il as he deftly maneuvers his air bus. You didn’t know Kim Jong-Il could fly? He can.”

      That quote should have given it away. Thank you for checking out the post, though. It’s a heroic act to make it through that China post!

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