Finding Nemo

Thursday, July 21, 2011


I am surprised to be writing these words: I like Beijing.  I don’t love it, no don’t get me wrong.  The depressing gray smog in the air and endless traffic, urban jungle, and crowds are not fun at all.  But Beijing has some well-known and few more hidden surprises hidden around its huge sprawling belly.

They have a favorite color, but for some reason can't quite remember which one...
Not so secret police
Everyone starts at Tiananmen of course, the biggest square in the world where the Chinese government, 22 years later, continues to hide from its own people what occurred on June 4, 1989.  I have to say, it does impress.  It is HUGE.  And oppressing.  You can’t stroll leisurely about the square as if it were a park.  In fact, even to get in you have to cross an enormous congested 12-lane boulevard that encircles the square like a lifeless black serpent.  Then, you have to toss your pack into an X-ray machine as you enter one of only 6 entrances to the massive square.  Security cameras are everywhere, and plain-clothes officers in black pants and white shirts watch your every move.  A huge jumbotron a couple football fields long plays a propaganda movie where smiling minorities aren’t oppressed, they are happy and dancing and joining hands.  If you continue to watch, you will learn that China is apparently covered everywhere in only flowers and lakes, and everyone wears lots of Red, the color of the happy worker.

On the south side of the square squats the ugliest communist building in the country, Mao’s mausoleum.  He apparently wanted to be cremated, but instead (to my delight) the Party pickled him and put him on display right here in the center of China.  I was devastated to learn that it was closed on Monday; I really wanted to see if he did indeed look more like a waxed and stuffed penguin than a real person.

Mao's big shiny forehead.  A helpful sign you are heading north as it reflects the sun 
North of the square lies a portrait of Mao big enough to use as a house foundation, hanging off the main entrance to the Forbidden City.  It is truly bizarre, these two prime tourist attractions next to each other, with Mao’s big balding head bridging the gap.  One represents all that is modern China and the Cultural Revolution where every trace of the old world was burned to the ground; and just next to it lies the heart of ancient Imperial China where for a thousand years the sun and earth and phoenixes and dragons were all worshipped as gods.

Ahhh... packaged tour groups.  Always a sign you are making sure the beaten path stays beaten
There is no denying that the Forbidden City is grand.  It has 900 buildings, and the main halls along the north-south axis, where the old emperors would be crowned, pray to ancestors, and meet generals are impressive goliaths of architecture.  But, I have to say it left me feeling empty.  I much prefer the lonely jungle-covered ruins of Ta Prom in Angkor Wat or Tikal in Guatemala.  The Potala was fascinating because it was a single winding castle of narrow corridors, dazzling colors, and opulent thrones you could walk right up to and touch.  But the Forbidden City isn’t like that any of those.

Cool... in a sterile kind of way
The main palaces are blocked off, and the dingy little thrones sit alone within the dark expanses of the lifeless halls.  All the riches have been long stolen away by Japanese or British invaders. The big plazas and even the imperial marble walkway reserved only for the Emperor are now stampeded by tour groups.  It is nearly impossible to imagine it as it once was, a huge army standing solemnly before the Son of Heaven, incense burning from the massive iron cauldrons.  Today only the squawk of loudspeakers and the yell of tourists on cell phones can be heard.  The Zhongguo flood has buried this city so deep that it is hard to get a gasp of air.

The bed of Imperial Boom-boom
There was one bright spot.  At the back, right before the pleasant garden, sits a little palace reserved for the emperor and empress on their wedding night.  On one side sits a sacrificial pit, and on the other a bedroom drenched in red.  And through a window you can see a red bed, where a golden phoenix and dragon dance around each other.  The phoenix represents the empress, the dragon the emperor.  It was nice to see that this intimate spot had survived, a little glimpse into that lost ancient world.

My, what a long rod you have!!
Its just rude not to eat at least one huge scorpion
Behind lies Jingshan park, from which atop a hill you can see the entire Forbidden City sprawl out before you.  And beyond, a series of artificial lakes form the pleasant Shicha Lake area, filled with nice little restaurants and bars.  Old Chinese men, itching to get out of their house I presume (much like my old man), while away the hours day and night here with ridiculously long fishing rods.  At night I feasted on Peking Duck (incredibly rich but damn good) and then slummed it at the night market where I tucked into a few scorpions and silkworms.

Sitting in the Supreme Harmonious Center of China
The Temple of Heaven is a real pleasure, a huge green park of ancient Cypress trees and gorgeous buildings of green and blue and red and gold, all made entirely from wood without a single nail!  One of the structures is a set of raised concentric marble circles, and at the top a stone represents the supreme harmonious center of the entire Chinese universe.  From here one can speak directly with the gods.  I was going to give it a try but I didn’t feel like elbowing my way through the line of tourists also waiting to ask God for something.  God is a busy busy dude, even here in formerly atheist China.  And I didn’t even have time to check out the Kung Fu shows or Peking opera or acrobatics or the Summer Palaces.
Dragons dance beneath the gorgeous Temple of Heaven
I would never live in Beijing.  But it’s definitely a city I would visit again.  After buying some Japanese face-masks and an emergency oxygen tank, of course.

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