At Home in Beijing

Hong Kong is south.  Beijing is north.

Hong Kong is wet.  Beijing is dry.

Hong Kong is gray.  Beijing is blue.

Hong Kong’s lucky number is 8 (sounds like “money”).  Beijing’s lucky number is 9 (sounds like “heaven”).

I just got back from a week in Beijing, my first trip to Big China — and already I miss the city.  Even though people stared at me like a monkey had been released from the zoo everywhere I went, I *still* felt much more at home there than I do in HK.

My first real impression riding into the city in a taxi was of the trees.  Were they birch trees on the side of the freeway, doing that reflective flickering in the sunlight against the perfectly blue sky?  And then, in the city, bicycles, not zipping around, but instead moving at a langorous pace.  I talked to a few people, checking in to the hotel, getting some dinner (cold noodles in broth with sliced apple, egg, and spare ribs)…  And my overall impression was of confidence.  People in Beijing seemed relaxed and confident.  They are not looking over their shoulders at other cities or countries.  This is the center of the world.  This is the place to be.

In the morning I woke up and began an entire week of eating street food.  I stopped at a little mom-and-pop convenience store to investigate a crate filled with small earthenware containers covered with paper that had blue cows printed on it.  I pointed, and the woman happily gave me one and offered me a stool to sit and enjoy (and not run off with the jar).  Sweet yogurt!  In fact, there was yogurt everywhere in Beijing.  This undoubtedly was a large part of why I felt so at home.  I looove yogurt.  When I spent a semester in Switzerland in college, my strongest memory was of the yogurt.  In Hong Kong, yogurt is really expensive — one of those crazy Western foods that costs 100x everything else, and I fork out for it anyway.  In Beijing: strawberry yogurt with black rice, mulberry yogurt with adzuki beans, aloe yogurt, coconut yogurt.  And BIG containers of yogurt, not little puny, unsatisfying pull-top numbers.

But, I will hold off on the food for a second.

After I got my yogurt, I continued down the street past these low gray brick houses with red doors and lion (?) doorknockers that looked so satisfyingly *Chinese.*  The doorways into the gray houses, are actually doorways into winding corridors and courtyards.  Hutong houses.  I would peek my head inside and see invariably a bicycle, a mop, a plant, household odds and ends.  Everything very casual and old-fashioned.  That’s the thing about Beijing, it seems beautifully old-fashioned.  Were the bicycles all made in 1920s?  I don’t know.  They look like it.  The stools look ancient.  The bird cages hanging in the trees in parks — people take their song birds out for air — all look like beautiful antiques.

So anyway, I cruise past all of these gray houses and alleyways winding intriguingly back into more gray houses and little shops and smells of meat barbequing, and then there, behind the houses — in a scale that seems to be out of a totally different consciousness, like an alien spaceship set down in a cornfield — is the Drum Tower.  The Bell Tower and the Drum Tower are on two ends of one square.  The Bell Tower used to mark the time across the city and could be heard for 5KM.  It’s that big.

Well, that was also my introduction to hard-core Chinese touts trying to get me into a tuk-tuk.  Back off, man.  No thanks.  I felt a bit like a baby bird being circled by wolves.

And then, walking, walking, walking, and my first view of the Forbidden City.  Holy S–.  A large mote and a pristine gray brick wall with castle-shaped tops and then this tall, elaborately decorated wooden building standing arrogantly above.  The Forbidden City is massive.  It is a gigantic walled complex at the center of Bejing where the emperors and their legions of eunuchs and concubines lived.  Most of it first built in the 15th century.  How can you describe this place?

The imperial architecture in Beijing is so dramatic.  But it’s not sensational drama, like an amusement park.  It’s drama with a purpose.  It is meant to convey power.  When you enter through the enormous gates of the Forbidden City, you meet head on with a series of big halls sitting perfectly symmetrically set at the center of the compound.  In front is a vast courtyard.  Everything made of wood or bricks of some kind.  It feels hot and intensely dry.

The roofs of all of the imperial buildings are beautiful ceramic tiles, glossy golden yellow for the emperor; green and blue for other things.  A layer lower on the roofs are painted wooden frescoes (is that the right word?), and then painted wooden posts sticking out — with a pattern on the end.  They’re all very grand.

After seeing these amazing sites: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven Park, Lama Temple…I just found myself craving to go back and be in those environments.

I really loved Temple of Heaven park.  A maaaaasive park, with a white marble altar with space-age looking gates and strange sonic phenomena — at one end.  The altar was connected by a looooong marble walkway called “the bridge” which the emperor and his ministers would walk up to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests to pray.  Ordinary people didn’t see any of this.  This enormous park, beautiful buildings, and expensive materials, and only the emperor and company saw it.  The emperor was the son of heaven, so his mandate was not from the people, it was from…well, heaven.  So the central path on this marble walkway was for God (have I got that right), then the emperor walked on the east and the ministers on the west.  The animals to be sacrificed passed underneath.  And then, of course, the perfectly round Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which is the building you see on lots of tourist literature.

But then, speaking no Mandarin whatsoever, I cajoled a cab driver into taking me into the boondocks of Beijing, the industrial north-east corner, past the creepily-touristy 798 Art District to Caochangdi Art District, the supposedly more authentic area.  There are a lot, lot of galleries in Beijing, by the way.  798 is very big.  I didn’t explore extensively because I was so turned off by the crowds of Chinese tourists shopping in the cutesy-pie hipster shops that all looked nearly identical to one another.  Ah yes, my good old Western love of the individual and unique offended, as always, by the Chinese ability to turn anything into a commodity.  But on we go.

Caochangdi is in an area filled with some kind of old gray brick factories.  The galleries there, 3 Shadows, ShangArt, Urs Miele, ArtMia, etc., are vast and very professional.  I found myself wandering and wandering in 3 Shadows wondering who in the hell had to install all of this stuff and if enough visitors came to justify that much effort.  The artwork was…eh.  There was some good international stuff, like a retrospective of Araki’s work, that you might as easily find in NYC or Paris.  But the local work was much like student work anywhere.  A video piece showing trash floating in the ocean.  One decent series of photos by a young woman, combining goldfish and flowers and vanity shots, with some compromising experiences for the fishes.  And a few good photos showing, in Cindy-Sherman-esque style, people standing in George & Martha Washington costumes in front of an construction site, or a girl wearing the heavy stains of a long night of drinking in a broken plastic chair in a a little room.  The artist statement talked about how the rapid growth in China was affecting the emotional tone of the country.  People can’t quite cope with how fast things are changing.

But, you know, it’s hard to interpret this kind of art since it was primarily the Western galleries that had exhibitions about this kind of edgy stuff.  The Western galleries all had work about Three Gorges Dam.  In the West, being edgy is being cutting edge.  I’m not so sure it’s the same in China.  Often, I feel that edginess is just seen as poor taste or poor breeding.  So do the photographs of the girl with the drunken stains on her face just fit the Western art audience’s expectation of what edgy Chinese art should look like?

So then, there was *me* in Beijing, the tall, white, freak of nature that I am.  People really did stare and stare.  They stared at my legs a lot.  I know what you’re thinking 🙂  It’s not because I have such fabulous legs.  I think it was because: a) there’s a tattoo on my ankle, or b) they didn’t want to look at my face.  But, having never traveled somewhere that I am the minority, I quickly became weary of stepping on the train and having people start when they looked at me.  Beijingers are tall too.  Slim and good-looking.

And they really, really want to help you with directions.  I began to look for shelter before pulling out my guide book or map — otherwise I would find people running across the street to help point me in the right direction.  I’m sorry, I don’t know where I want to go.  Really.  It’s hard to explain.  Thank you, your English is perfect.  Beijing is magnificent.  Thank you.  Goodbye.

Then there was the moment of perfectly orchestrated irony when two girls came up and asked to have their pictures taken with me at Lama Temple, with which I complied, feeling rather creeped out.  Only to walk around the side of the building and witness two white hipsters in black chunky glasses asking a Chinese monk hanging out on a bench if they could take their picture with him.  Ha.  Joke’s on someone.

Too much to say and share.  I would have blogged from Beijing except that all blogging software, Facebook, and YouTube are blocked by the Chinese government.

Since I can’t do this justice, I will just say: if you ever have a chance to go to Beijing, go!

And here are some photos too: http://www.flickr.com/photos/44719143@N00/sets/72157623976316157/

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