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China, November 19-24, 2006


Sunday, 19 November 2006

Yesterday I walked all day long, through hutongs, the remaining old courtyard houses and alleys that have barely hung on through the constant demolition to make way for the building of skyscrapers. The city feels so much newer than when I was here in 2000, and which wasn’t long ago, though on China’s pace of development, it was an eternity. Walking along a main road by Wangfujing (a Times Square-esque pedestrian ‘mall’ close to Tiananmen), I was approached by students twice, who were excited to speak English, and invited me to come view their art exhibition. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but decided when the second group of students came up to me that I would check it out. I’m still not sure whether it was legitimate or not, perhaps a wholesaler was having these students claim that they had created this art and had only one day in the year to display it, four levels underground in a kind-of hotel. It was clear they were targeting tourists since when I first got there and was walking around with my new friend, ‘Maisie,’ an East-coast sounding tourist was shouting, “Why do they keep asking to show me this art??? Did they want to show you the art, too?” It could have been a Beijing scam, and the prices were ridiculously high, but it was fun to look, and I got to ask Maisie and her friends how to get to the other places I wanted to go later in the afternoon, including the Hongqiao Pearl Market.

I navigated two bus lines from where I was, I am now a veteran of the Yantai bus system which is just a larger scale of the transport that I take everyday. I found the market that friends who used to live in Beijing had recommended and it was a total bonanza; five levels of a huge warehouse space packed full of everything imaginable—food, meat, and live fish (sharks!) on the bottom floor; fake/pirated/stolen designer clothing, bags, suits, and electronics; and then the upper floors held Chinese art and ceramics, and tons of varying levels of quality jewelers—stores filled with strands of pearls upon pearls that they will string while you wait. I went to one that had been particularly recommended that boasted pictures of Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Laura Bush, and many other political figures on the walls, posing with the owner in the store. It was fun to spend time there, talking to the salespeople in Chinese and sifting through their incredibly endless merchandise, trying to pretend that my Chinese skills could keep me on par with local bargaining.

The bargaining bazaar had me constantly thinking about negotiation; it’s the epitome of positional bargaining, anchoring, digging in your heels and walking away, saying, “I will pay no more,” to cries of “But I lose money!” and even, for the dramatic vendors, “You make me want to die!” which I did hear a few times. I’m not sure how I could raise the idea of interests v. positions in such a context. But, the legitimacy aspect was ever present: you want some standard price, you don’t want to hear anyone else around you getting a lower price, or feel duped when you move on to another stall and they start at a lower price than you spent minutes trying to haggle to. I had almost as much fun listening to other Westerners around me bargaining as I did looking at everything. I was also aware of my own smug attitude: that coming from Yantai made me not feel like the foreigner that everyone thought I was. The price you begin bargaining with completely changes the minute you respond to vendors in Chinese. It was an exhausting and fun-filled afternoon, and I spent a few hours there just looking at everything and people-watching on both sides. 

Last night I remembered the impetus Dan Green had given us three Fellows this past summer, saying, whenever you feel awkward or apprehensive about something outside of your comfort zone, think of the Fellowship as your reason to just do it. So, curious as I was about the Beijing yuppie club scene (which I had heard was booming along with the burgeoning middle class as a result of development), I decided to head out alone to a place I had picked from my guidebook. Club Mix was bathed in pink light when my taxi pulled up, and I had many second thoughts about going in solo, but by the end of my purposefully brief evening, I was so glad I had gone. The people watching was really entertaining and worth the full fare of admission, and being there alone wasn’t a big deal, as I spent most of the time walking around looking at the different rooms and checking out the different varieties of American hip-hop and pop. So, I may not have reached the second level of going out on my own with the purpose of really forging relationships with strangers, but I made the first step of satisfying my curiosity by going to a club by myself.

The next morning, I woke up early to get to a long day of sightseeing in the Forbidden City and Tiananmen. Pictured: Approaching the Forbidden City from the back, in the pollution haze. . I spent hours walking around the endless perimeter and courtyards filled with the chambers of various levels of concubines, studies looking out on gardens where the emperor could write poetry, etc. It is the world’s largest palace complex, 720,000 sq. meters, and has 9,999 buildings, and a history of 500 years of emperors ruling from its interior during the Ming and Qing dynasties, beginning with its construction in 1420. It’s incredible to think about the construction of such a massive place that long ago. They claim that it took one million workers for the compulsory hard labor over the decade and a half that it took to build it.

It is an overwhelming place to be as a tourist in so many senses—it is so massive you will never see everything thoroughly in one day, the architecture and design is so detailed and ornate that your eyes become dulled in their awe of the rooftop decorations and the stone carvings in the door frames, and I was wishing that I had some of my Chinese history professors with me to supplement the minimal information that’s available in the Palace Museum’s (what the Forbidden City is now called) exhibits and what I knew from my book. However, it was all still very interesting and you can get lost in there thinking about the history of it all.

Me in front of one of many recently refurbished rooftops. Olympic preparations are well underway in most tourist venues!

In front of the inner-outer gate. Strict restrictions on who could enter and exit from which archway meant sure execution for commoners if they ever tried to enter, and severe flogging for court officials if they used the wrong archway of the five. Red and yellow dominate in the palace, red being the Chinese favorite color for happiness, and yellow being the color reserved for the power of the Emperor; commoners could be executed for wearing yellow during the dynastic years.

When I moved outside the palace walls to Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace), this Chinese icon was just as staggering as when I was here before, and the portrait of Mao was just as big. Once again, the bridges leading out of the gate were restricted for certain occasions and emperor’s use only. The emperor used to stand atop the gate and issue his heavenly decrees to court officials waiting on their knees outside this massive gate to receive his written word in the gilded mouth of a phoenix sculpture. It is difficult now to think about the society actually being run this way, and not too long ago in China’s history, emperors were still in charge. When I walked out to the square itself, it was dwarfing to stand in the middle and feel like it stretches for ever, and think about how terrifying it would be to see tanks here, with all the cold gray around, in the stone square, the columns of the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum, and Mao’s Mausoleum on all sides. Of course, in front of the National Museum they have the countdown to the Olympics. They are already SO excited about it coming to Beijing, and I cannot imagine how they will possibly fit all of the people here. It is a relief to be visiting these places again not in the summer, so that most of the tourist traffic is only domestic. In addition to all of the historic attractions, the square was full of great people watching, including some really adorable children.

Monday, 20 November 2006

Today I woke up early for a tour of the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. As was characteristic of the seeming tendency of everyone in Beijing being eager to sell something, our first stop, rather than either of these two places, was a jade factory. It was a total tourist trap, with a parking lot off the highway out of Beijing filled with huge coach buses, and endless counters of jade ware. We immediately had a compulsory tour in which a salesperson cornered each person in the group and put an expensive jade bangle on our wrists, which isn’t the easiest thing to take off (good sales technique…). I didn’t buy anything, but enjoyed checking out the ‘Superfine Hall’ before we proceeded to the Ming Tombs.

When I was here before, I also visited the Ming Tombs but had a completely different experience. I remembered a long, massive walkway lined with huge stone statues of animals, and that was nowhere to be found. Very disorienting. In any event, the Ming tombs hold the mausoleums for the 13 emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). One of the main halls employed amazing interlocking wooden architecture with huge lofted ceilings that didn’t use any nails or bolts, which was completely awe-inspiring, considering how big the structure is and how long ago it was built. A few other interesting aspects of the Tombs were the grates opening down to the mausoleums below, left open so the emperor’s souls could travel freely from their tombs to tian or heaven, and the ancient bricks that have remained throughout multiple restorations of the Tombs which still have the mason’s name and the date on them, so that if any of his workmanship was flawed, there was a very apparent source of accountability.

From the Ming Tombs, we proceeded to another sales pitch stop, at a Chinese herbal medicine clinic. The whole thing was sort of creepy, with these people in white lab coats coming in to a room full of seated tourists, asking for volunteers to do a diagnostic test by looking at your tongue and feeling your pulse, but also so contrived that it was funny. I am curious to try acupuncture while I’m here, but this place felt so much like a hoax and not the traditional experience I’m looking for.

We eventually headed out to Badaling, the closest section of the Great Wall to Beijing, and therefore the most overrun with hawkers and tourists. I decided to still go because I was hoping that in this part of the “slack season” (as it is amusingly called on many ticket booth signs) it wouldn’t be quite as bad — it was and it wasn’t. Since I was last here, this section of the Wall seems to have fallen prey to many modern conveniences which feel so out of place there; a gondola, a tramway that obscures the view into the distance while you’re climbing the wall, and a mega sign advertising the 2008 Olympics. These changes were a little disappointing, and always fill me with the urgency to go out and see all the great places that my mind still pictures as untouched before they are disrupted by so many people and technological influences. But in spite of all this, the Wall was still amazing. I’ve heard conflicting things about whether or not it really is the only man made thing you can see from space, but when you’re climbing it, it certainly feels like you should be able to. It just goes on forever. It boggles my mind to think about the time and pain that went into building it along the winding rides of China’s mountains, or a time in which you could look out from the arched towers to see bands of marauding Mongolian armies in the distance. The hawkers were just as persistent as my previous visit, though the crowd of tourists was only a fraction of the summer crowd, all boasting “special price for you!” on Great Wall t-shirts, plaques boasting that you’d climbed it, and every other tacky memento imaginable.

After the Great Wall, we had a long, winding, traffic-filled drive back to Beijing, and as it started raining I happily dozed on the crowded streets. After resting for a little bit when I got back, I went out to browse a night market I had seen before, and had a taste of several different things for dinner, excluding these creepy items, which were way too much for my palate to even consider. A full day of Beijing, and looking forward to Xian.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Yesterday I spent the morning at a few more markets in Beijing, tried to make it to the Dirt Market and the Silk Market, but traffic was so slow moving that I sat in a cab at a stand still for 10 minutes and the driver offered to take me back to Badaling (the Great Wall), an hour outside of the city because there would be less traffic, instead of driving what should have been only several kilometers. This population of this city is unbelievably dense. Instead, I just got out of the cab and started walking, found an alleyway market and bargained for some artwork, and visited Hongqiao again. I then made my way to the airport, took the short hour and a half flight to Xian, and landed in the evening to experience an exhilaratingly reckless bus ride from the airport to the city center, where I was totally unprepared for how developed and busy Xian was. Even in the evening, I could see how polluted it was, and skyscrapers and fancy Western hotels clustered all around as we drove through into the city. Pictured: the bustle of Xian in the rain today INSERT <<IMG_1439.JPG>> I had (naively) expected Xian would be a smaller town, out in Western China, rich with history and showing a different side of undeveloped China. In some ways, it does seem small – last night there were small clusters of people huddled around fires out on the street, right on the curb, and today I spent the afternoon checking out many of the fascinating historical sites in the city center, but, overall, I was totally shocked by the size of the city, and the pollution that comes with it.

This morning I was totally incapacitated with a bad fever and achey-ness, but after all of my preparation and excitement surrounding this trip, I still wanted to see everything I had planned to see. So I rallied in the afternoon, in spite of the gloomy freezing drizzle outside. I started at the City Wall, which is the oldest in China and a domineering, well-maintained and restored gray structure that stretches a 14 km perimeter around the old inner city. I walked for awhile in the drizzle; the weather and season had kept most tourists away, and the only other people that were really there were some Chinese army troops who looked like they were being initiated, the occasional curious tourist, and the bicycle rickshaw drivers who followed me around, wanting to convince me I should take a ride with them. The weather made it all look pretty mystical, and it was easy to imagine a time when isolated cities really did need such fortresses.

From the wall, I went to the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, two picturesque attractions that used to be operational for sounding the time, announcing the opening and closing of the city gates, and calling people to assemble. They no longer serve this function, but have small exhibits where you can learn about the “Music Department” of the Ming Dynasty, and watch short performances.

After exploring these two towers, I walked through the Muslim quarter of Xian, with has a large and entertaining market full of fruit, food stalls, and other goods and souvenirs. The market spilled out to the Great Mosque of Xian, which was one of my favorite places. The cultural mélange of Asian pagoda and Islamic architecture, Arabic script next to Chinese characters, was so interesting. The stone carvings everywhere were beautiful. I was surprised to learn that even throughout the most repressive of political regimes in China, this mosque has been preserved and protected by the government, and it has only expanded since its first construction in the Tang dynasty in 742. Still not feeling great, but hoping to improve for tomorrow, to check out the main reason for this trip: the Terracotta Warriors!

Friday, 24 November 2006

Back in the YNT. Yesterday was certainly not the same Thanksgiving that I would usually be celebrating with my huge family in Massachusetts, but I spoke with some of them at the end of the day, when their celebration was just beginning. It made me happy, but homesick—a feeling I haven’t felt strongly except in fleeting moments of missing specific people and familiar comforts.

Yesterday I still didn’t feel well, like I had a really bad case of the flu, but in the middle of the morning I headed out to negotiate a cab to go to the Qin Museum of Terracotta Warriors and Horses, about 45 minutes outside of the downtown of Xian. When we finally agreed that the cab driver would use the meter (which ended up being about 100 yuan cheaper than he was telling me was the standard flat rate), we drove through the country, which was a nice scenic break from the traffic and dirty city environs, and arrived to a giant tourist parking lot complex. The driver announced that he would wait for me there, though I laughed and insisted he shouldn’t, since it would be hours before I returned. Apparently the fare was high enough that it was worth a half a day just waiting with the other taxi drivers huddled in cars, waiting for passengers to return.

There was construction and expansion to the complex going on, though it wasn’t very clear what for…there are plenty of vendors and tourist shops, all selling the exact same merchandise, and to walk to the beginning of an entrance to the museum, you have to walk for about 10 minutes around empty buildings under construction that resemble office buildings (more development in anticipation of the Olympic tourist traffic?). Then, all of a sudden, it breaks out to this Alice in Wonderland-esque checkerboard of grass and stone.

The museum is beautiful and modern, and the area of Shaanxi Province is serene with mountains in the distance. After entering the first museum exhibition building, it was nothing short of incredible to step into the first and largest of the three pits they have excavated, a process that is still incomplete after 30 years, when farmers first found remnants of the Qin tomb while trying to dig a well in 1976.

The story behind the terracotta warriors is that the legendary first emperor of China, Huang Di or the Yellow Emperor, who consolidated all of the warring states in 250 BC and brought China into a coherent nation with standardized systems, came to power when he was 13. That is when they believe forced laborers started constructing this massive tomb, with over 6,000 terracotta figures discovered so far, and years of excavating left. It is so incredible that as much of it is still intact as it is, when they can tell that there have been fires and flooding in the underground tomb that they built so many centuries ago. The figures are also renowned for their detail and facial expressions, based on the appearance of local Shaanxi people.

Pit 2 hasn’t been nearly as excavated, but they believe that Pit 3 is fully excavated and represents some sort of meeting of generals going into battle They still haven’t uncovered the actual tomb where Huang Di is believed to have been buried, though they think that will unearth many more artifacts, in addition to the many bronze pieces they have discovered throughout the rest of the tomb. It was absolutely as impressive as I had anticipated it would be. The history, the sheer number of figures, and the amount of detail is captivating.

After exploring the museum complex’s multiple buildings for several hours, I returned to my taxi driver, and he was patiently waiting as he had promised. We returned to Xian, and after several phone calls to American hotels in the area that offered amusing miscommunications and varied levels of understanding about Ganenjie (Thanksgiving), I discovered that Howard Johnson’s in Xian was having a special dinner. I hopped in a cab, eager to give it a try and have a taste of the American holiday, and I was pleasantly surprised that they had almost all of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes (though they were coupled on a buffet with more traditional and questionable dishes such as eel’s head, or black congee…)! Though it wasn’t homemade, and didn’t come with any of the familiar and entertaining company the holiday usually does (I only noticed a few other American diners there), it was a funny experience in itself, and as I ate dinner and looked out at the illuminated city wall I had walked on the day before, I thought of many things I was thankful for.