Day 02: Beijing

12/07/2009 //


After a night on a hard bed, resting my head on a pillow filled with gravel, our guide collected us from the lobby.

We headed to the Forbidden City first. On the map, it looks like it’s only a few blocks away, but it isn’t. Wrapping my head around the scale of Beijing is clearly going to take some doing. Anyway, our guide told us to wait while he got tickets, so we stood around for a bit. Then, a giggling girl approached Stig and asked if she could get a picture with him. He was the tallest guy around. It was open season after that; I laughed initially, but as my hairy arms were noticed, I was in there too. It was fun at first, but after a few minutes, I started to understand why Brad Pitt always looks so gloomy in photos.

Anyway, the forbidden city is quite a sight. The scale was far bigger than I thought, based on the few movies I’ve seen set there. The first stop was the souvenir shop, which, while we didn’t know it at that time, was to be the theme of the day. The last emperor’s nephew (yeah) made calligraphic paintings on week-ends, and if we wanted, we could get one with our names. Eventually, we relented, as both had planned on buying a print during the trip anyway. We were indubitably ripped off, but at least we got to see the guy actually making it.

Still, the Forbidden City is distressingly impressive, grandeur on such a scale that the mind reels, then boggles, then reels a bit again.

We exited through the south gate, and found ourselves facing Tian’anmen Square. A bunch of guys came running at us from the Monument to the Fallen Soldiers, all trying to sell us Mao watches and fake Rolexes. A mile-long line snaked its way from inside Mao’s tomb and around the corner.

After that, we were taken to the Silk Mall. We were introduced to our “professional guide” who showed us silk cocoons, silkworms and how they got the silk out. Then we were led into the sales area, which was enormous, and stood around for half an hour trying to say we weren’t interested.

Anyway, after stepping on some toes, we had lunch at a food factory for foreign devils such as ourselves, which was nice. Even a free glass of beer! Then we were carted into the pearl factory next door, also government-run and hey, we could look around and everything! To end the agony, I picked up a cheap pearl bracelet and walked to the cashier. This was apparently wrong, and the ladies looked at me all perplexed. One said something about “gwailo”, which I think means “stupid white man” or something. I dunno. My grasp of Chinese is gleaned from bad martial arts movies.

After our guide failed to convince me to buy some more shit, we left for the Summer Palace. The Chinese knew how to build stuff, that’s for sure. The Summer Palace is the only remaining after the British and French torched the other five during “negotiations”. Again, it’s huge, and gorgeous, but I was left with the feeling that the guide sort of held a grudge towards us for allowing our people to do this during the Opium wars. I was temped to tell him that the limeys blockaded Norway during the Napoleonic wars and burnt ships and boats, causing many people to starve and even more school children to endure Ibsen’s epic poem “Terje Vigen”, but decided to leave it.

Situated by a lake, the Summer Palace is listed in the Rough Guide as the place to go to get away from the crowds. However, as I stated, we were not the only ones on holiday. It was packed with people. As I’ve said, we’re not the only ones on vacation.

At night, we went to the Beijing Opera, which, handily enough is located in our hotel, and Shaq was there the previous night. I once went to a Chinese Opera in Singapore, and found it to be a most singular experience. So I was wondering what it would sound like these days.

Lyrics like:

I hear you are a scholar of renown.

Sure, I guess.

You both should get married to each other!

told me that it was much the same (yes, I know the traditional form won’t change, I’‘m trying to be humorous, however feeble my attempt), but the show also enlightened me furher on the connection between opera and martial arts when the players started flying around like supercharged dervishes. The acrobatics were quite amazing, but Chinese opera still sounds, well…wrong, to my ears. Forgive me, but these are the facts of life.