Beijing, September 30, 2008 - Tuesday

Trip Start Sep 26, 2008
1
5
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Trip End Oct 18, 2008


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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

As this wasn't my first time to have an appointment with PingPing at Tiān'ānmén Xi, I appeared there elegantly and on time, even a bit earlier. Emerging by the elevator from the station, through the glass I saw two girls talking. One of them was so pretty that her beauty turned me into a statue, and like a calf I stared at her, completely oblivious of the fact that I was doing it. OK, maybe in China it is an ordinary thing. They are never too shy about displaying an open curiosity. But such things are considered less than polite back where I come from. So if you want to stare at people, you try to do it in such a way that no one notices and you pretend like you don't look their way at all.
Well, this time my European brand of politeness must have failed to get the entry visa in Chinese Embassy when I applied for mine and I was as transfixed now. The girl noticed my less than subtle show of fascination, smiled one of the broadest and prettiest smile for miles around and waved to me. And only that wave of her hand snapped me out of the hypnotic state I'd been in and jerked me back into real life. I was too confused to even smile properly back.
Up out in the street, on Xichang'an Jie, I pulled myself back together enough to assume the European-style politeness mode and pretend I minded my own business. Which like hell I did. As PingPing wasn't there yet, I was passing my time glancing stealthily in the girl's direction. She was like a work of art, a master-piece that you just can't take your eyes off. But of course, she never looked in my direction, and let alone waved more. Which in turn made it easier for me to exercise some self-discipline and really not look her way any more.
And when a minute or two later she and her friend went away, one problem was finally taken off of my back.
Not long after that, PingPing arrived, as well. She was delayed so little that one could consider her being on time without being too generous. And we started our day right off.
I thought we would go straight to Tiān'ānmén. We didn't, though. PingPing thought she should show me another Bĕijīng's miracle of modern architecture and civil engineering, so she led the way across the street. Which was something I gradually started getting hang of, even if this time it was a broad, multi-lane Xichang'an Jie. And there, on the other side, there was this new, ultra-modern looking steel-and-glass ellipsoid structure, bathing in a shallow, but huge water pool, called "the Egg". This thing most definitely hadn't been there for a long time, it was plain as a day.
The giant titanium-and-glass, egg-like dome was, of course, yet another modern edifice among those sprouting recently from the Bĕijīng soil, designed by one more French architect lending his services to the Bĕijīng City. This one was not so much seeking to touch the sky as it was giving out an impression of elbowing out everything else in search of sun and space, all that so it could house the National Centre of Performing Arts. And before the opening ceremony of this year's Olympic Games.
To keep the design aesthetics clean, visitors enter into the theatre by way of an underground hallway with a glass ceiling that goes directly under the pool. Or the lake, if you will. So after we had taken a few pictures at the water's edge, we followed the people who at this relatively early hour couldn't be termed a full-fledged crowd yet, particularly if one knew that we were in China. Because in China they redefine the term for crowd as it is known in almost any other country in the world. Anyway, once underground and 40 yuan for the admission ticket later, we earned ourselves a privilege to do the sightseeing at this newest Bĕijīng landmark.
Of course, so that there is no confusion, those forty yuan earned us no seats in any of the three halls inside the Centre for any of the upcoming performances advertised inside. All of them big guns, like European opera stars and philharmonic orchestras coming from the glitziest theatres there, wrapped up in the shiniest of images and reputations classical music can lend them, the tickets for those things often sold for the money Mei earns in one month as a waitress. And money that would hurt a commoner like me. Those forty yuan we had paid probably wouldn't get us to the closed theatre door, so we could at least listen to the music played from the outside. Such tickets went to the privileged. Even it is always open to debate who is really privileged.
"Those tickets are often sold months in advance," PingPing said.
Of course, it has probably become another status symbol among the Chinese new elite to be seen at the night at the opera. Or classical concert. Or whatever is held there. Maybe it even worked like the more expensive the ticket, the more in you are if you're seen there. I wouldn't be surprised. Of course, I don't want to disqualify anyone in advance and I am sure a genuine art lover sneaked in every now and then. I would even bet that among those upstarts snapping up the tickets for such performances there were bound to be at least a few who really had an ear and could appreciate the art such music contained. But I couldn't help wondering how many dozed off. Only to be waken by the sound of applause. Like they had in the Budapest Opera the year before as Su Yeon and I watched Verdi there.
At the entrance there were some sorts of machines, or maybe visitor counters, with lines marking that quirky 1.2 m height I had already noticed at the entrance into the Forbidden City. They couldn't stop amusing me. And it couldn't stop amusing PingPing that I found this height thing amusing and was taking pictures of the machines.
But regardless of whether you're a fan of modern architecture or not, you had to admit that this buster who had designed the Egg was onto something. You can agree or not with the viewpoint that the world must go forward rather than stay in the past, and that it applies as much to the design as it does to the technology. You can also argue that such an approach is often an excuse to architects and modern designers to promote a bullshit which would otherwise, in the presence of some more tangible criteria, be simply flushed down the sinkhole. But such arguments and viewpoints aside, the Egg struck me as very clever in terms of the indoors use of natural light and visual play that rippling water of the lake, up above the subterranean roof we were now under, rendered on all the surfaces below, both vertical and horizontal. I don't know if the effect was as ingeniously vivid on overcast days, but on a day like this, with sun up in the sky, the Frenchman got it right.
And to make sure that those 40 yuan we had to dish out on the entrance ticket is no rip-off, the Chinese graciously provided some live classical music after all. Not anywhere near the scale of those glamourous events they staged in the evenings, but live music nevertheless. So as soon as I heard the sound of instruments, like a hypnotised bulldog in "Tom And Jerry" cartoons lured by the smell of a steak, I was inevitably lured to music. PingPing and I followed it and found a spot where a five-piece band had a less than formal, half-an-hour gig, right there on the floor without any stage. They were just sitting on simple chairs, in front of a fluctuating audience that kept coming and going, never fully occupying all of thirty or forty chairs set aside for the crowd. I don't know how inspiring it could be for the ensemble that consisted of four men on oboe, fagot, horn and clarinet, and one woman on the flute. Every musician is additionally inspired and lifted by the crowd that is attentive and focused on what they play. The people who were sitting here, at least it was my impression, would sit down just to have a rest. Almost no one stayed longer than four or five minutes.
Well, PingPing and I did. All the way until the end, in fact.
The National Centre of Performing Arts, though, is not only about music. It's also about visual arts, paintings and sculptures. As a decoration, but also on display at several exhibitions staged inside. I would say that whereas music tended to lean towards classical, visual arts leaned more towards modern or even avant-garde, if I my opinion may be any yardstick to it. In fact, with an exception of music to an extent, the rest of my understanding of arts - I mean real understanding - is pretty limited and it usually comes down to only whether I like it or not. And when occasionally I do cotton on to what the artist had in mind while creating the work of art, then it's very seldom the case with those modern pieces.
However, you can never know what you may see and from time to time you do discover an intriguing or provoking painting or sculpture. Not all of them play upon the sense of inadequacy of the visitors and their fear of appearing as a laughing stock should they openly claim they've got no idea what the thing is all about. I'd say many do. Maybe most do. But some don't. So it was always interesting to check what they had on display. Consequently, PingPing and I went up the escalators floor by floor to see what else there was in the National Centre of Performing Arts. There were cafés, a snack restaurant or two, a CD shop with prices no European CD shop would be ashamed of, but with only original titles and no pirate editions.
And an exhibition or two. So we joined those who decided to pass some time inspecting the works hanging on the walls or occasionally standing on some designated spots. An average uneducated visitor in me noticed nothing worthy of any serious attention. I had no idea if it was a sales exhibition, and if it was, then if any of the works there provoked any healthy demand. And if so, then who the buyers might be. An uneducated chipkicker in me noticed nothing to catch my eye.
Until we saw a funny sculpture of an upright standing Dalmatian dog leading his crawling Dalmatian master, in the same white-with-black-spots outfit as the dog, on the leash. The exact message was, of course, lost on me. Unless it was just a parody, or satire, in its own right, with no particular messages or hidden meanings behind. In that case I would have been bang on the money about it. I didn't find it thought-provoking. I just found it funny. And to that end quite OK. Because the rest of the exhibits I forgot even before I had moved on. And this one stood out.
Also, Dalmatia happens to be a province in my country. Most of the people in the world have no idea that it is. But almost everyone knows what a Dalmatian dog looks like. Walt Disney has long made it immortal with his classic "101 Dalmatians" cartoon. However, as it is something I come from, I am kind of always alerted when I see a Dalmatian dog outside my country. Same as when I see this red-and-white checkered football jersey which people occasionally wear. They are both unmistakeably and characteristically "mine". And whether we want it or not, we are defined by such things. We may adopt as many values of modern civilisation and soak in as much as we can from foreign cultures in the faraway places we visit. But somewhere deep down inside there is still this cultural background, traditions and the setting we've been brought up against. They never stop resonating from within. The fact that I am myself a Dalmatian by heritage certainly added to my interest. Except that my skin is not white with black spots, but that was beside the point in this case.
Feeding ourselves on the heavy diet of concentrated culture and art for two hours, PingPing and I felt we were full and decided to leave the National Centre of Performing Arts and finally head for our original destination. By the time we were about to come out in the open, the crowd inside thickened considerably. Another good reason to go. And when we emerged back on the surface, we found ourselves in the sunny and really warm late Bĕijīng morning.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, October 1, was one of the biggest Chinese national holidays. On that day, in 1949, at three o'clock, in front of 300000-strong crowd, during a ceremony on Tiān'ānmén, Chairman Mao declared the founding of the People's Republic and waved the first five-star PRC flag. In effect, that day became the PRC's National Day. In past times, the day was marked by large political gatherings and speeches, military parades, state banquets and the like. Of lately, though, they have been bent on phasing out such relics and instead the national holiday lasts seven days while most workers are given time off to visit relatives and take time for travelling. And when the Chinese travel, then you talk about tens of millions on the move. Major tourist destinations such as Bĕijīng and Shanghai boast hotel bookings of over two thirds of total capacity. In a way, it's not a bad idea not to be there during the National Day week.
However, I didn't have much choice. The timing of my visit to Bĕijīng was strictly linked to the fixed schedule of the trip I had booked to North Korea. But then again, I had booked my accommodation long ago. At that time, almost everything had still been available in Bĕijīng. And I also didn't plan to travel anywhere while in Bĕijīng. So the burden of moving crowd wasn't supposed to affect me much. And I couldn't say it did. Actually, the most visible evidence of this huge migration of the Chinese was PingPing's occasional remark:
"This people are not from Bĕijīng."
At first I would ask:
"How can you tell?"
"By the way they speak."
Which probably meant by their accent. Or even language. Later I wouldn't even ask. I knew what she meant.
And Xichang'an Jie grew ever more crowded the closer we were getting to the Tiān'ānmén. Which was as well. If Tiān'ānmén was the spot where old Mao had made history fifty nine years before, with so many Chinese still revering him as their hero and believing he'd been the trailblazer in the shiniest sense of the word, then it was only befitting that they wanted to be there. So PingPing and I mingled with the crowd and went with the flow.
And then I saw this wonderful thing I had read about - a toddler, led by the hand by his father, dressed in some kind of a babygro. Except that it wasn't exactly a babygro, as this thing the kid had on had a hole cut out in the range of his ass. Just in case the young fellow would decide to ease himself without a prior announcement. Or to make things cleaner in case he would give a warning in advance. Anyway, I toted my camera and aimed it in the direction of the toddler's bare ass. PingPing burst out laughing. Undaunted, I first took my picture and then asked:
"What's funny?"
"Have you never seen such a thing before?"
"No. This is the first time."
Then she was all like:
"Many kids in China wear this," pointing out obvious advantages to this kind of fashion detail. Well, I am sure there were many. After all, I had read about it. But I'd never seen it with my own eyes before, so it was most certainly worth documenting. And so, following bare-ass toddlers, incomprehensible provincial visitors and an occasional local character, we arrived at the outer fence of the Great Hall of the People, our first destination at the Tiān'ānmén today. The queue to the Great Hall of the People appeared very long, snaking on both sides of the fence. Someone with less time and patience on their hands might've well been disheartened by the prospect of having to struggle through such a long line of people. But PingPing and I were determined to go in and see whatever there is on and around the biggest square in the world. The Great Hall of the People was the first in the row and that was all there was to it.
It took us a while to buy tickets. OK, it took PingPing a while. While she was fighting the crowd in the queue, I was comfortably taking pictures around. Of people queuing as she did. But also of others picnicking right there on the pavement, putting what little shadow created by the street trees they could find to the best possible use. Some would crouch, some would sit on a nylon bag or a handkerchief. And they all feasted on some home-made food, probably way cheaper than anything they could buy in an average restaurant, refreshing themselves for the continuation of their exploration of Bĕijīng.
Then there were others whose refreshment of choice was sitting right on the pavement, leaning against the metal fence and slowly working towards getting sozzled. In other words, everyone seemed to have their own fun. Including myself whose fun was watching them all until PingPing showed up with entrance tickets.
After that we had to enter another queue, this time a controlled one, which was going to get us into the home of the power in China. Step by step, we were approaching the broad stairs leading directly up to the entrance into the Great Hall building. On the eve of the National Day, it was decorated with numerous red five-star state flags proudly fluttering in the wind.
The Great Hall of the People is one of the so-called Ten Great Constructions of China, built for the tenth anniversary of the People's Republic. Volunteers steeped in ideology and patriotic zeal completed it in mere ten months, which is a marvel in its own right. Today different incentives fuel the zeal and break records in China. It's hard to imagine what kind of patriotism would drive people to another breakneck construction at the beginning of the new millennium. But there was obviously still more than enough of it left to visit the place.
Anyway, for those still in awe of and under inspiration by the communist party, this is most certainly one of the places to visit and check on the must-see list. There they can see where their leaders convene, hold sessions, shape legislation, organise a congress every once in a while and in general pick directions to lead their country to. Others who are less than inspired by the communist party and don't hold the booklet with party tenets at the bedside as the mandatory bedtime read may at least have a look at the centre of power all-mighty and satisfy their curiosity as to how wide the gap has grown between the power-holders and the great majority of common people in the land of no gaps.
Of course, as expected, once inside, we couldn't roam just about anywhere we pleased. Cameras were fine and taking pictures was OK, but the stream of visitors was more or less precisely directed along the fixed route which led us through one or two additional X-ray checks. Just in case. Minders and guards didn't even pretend they were taking a low profile. After all, in China they never do. And in places like this one, they do even less.
Anyway, we first saw the Central Hall, then the Main Auditorium which impressed me mostly as a fantastic venue to hold a concert in, and a few smaller halls carrying names of Chinese provinces, special administrative regions and autonomous regions including those with as of yet dubious status like Taiwan Hall. Along the way there was a half-hearted attempt at informing the visitors in a more detailed way about the inner life inside the Great Hall in the form of pictures, captions and even some more extensive written explanations. However, unless you're a sinologist or about to be, nothing there can possibly spark up an enhanced interest if you have arrived without it. The one thing I was eager to see, in addition to never-to-be venue for my band in the Main Auditorium, would have been the State Banquet Hall which allegedly can take up to seven thousand guests or at least five thousand if they are diners. But that one was off-limits.
And that pretty much closed the visit to the Great Hall. We got out, retrieved our backpacks and then crossed the street to finally find ourselves on the Tiān'ānmén Square itself.
Starting out as the place for important ceremonies during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, when imperial edicts were issued for coronation of emperors or the conferring of the title of empress, the Tiān'ānmén Square with time expanded into the allegedly largest square in the world. Once enclosed by walls and galleries, and three gates on its east, west, and south sides respectively, now it's a vast open space attracting huge daily crowds of tourists from all over the world. When there's a real squeeze there, then they say you can place your safe bets on at least half a million people. Which would be almost three times as many people as in my entire hometown. And of course, apart from being a popular gathering place for tourists and kite runners, it is still often used for all sorts of big celebrations and for the government leaders to address the people.
Every lamp post on the square sports an array of speakers, so the high and mighty may convey their message to the reverent masses when the proper occasion arises. But those lamp posts also tote video cameras. Just in case. You can never know. And to boot, the square is heavily monitored by uniformed and plain clothes policemen, who - just as usual in China - don't even bother to stay in the background. Now you may question democratic and liberty premises behind such arrangements. You can also question real security level in the light of killing of an American visitor during the recently closed Olympic Games by a deranged local man. But the thing is, in a generally safe country as China is, right there on the Tiān'ānmén Square you do feel safe as a baby.
Of course, Tiān'ānmén Square has seen its share of violence and death, and even recent history of just twenty years ago, with student uprising, democracy movement and tanks rolling in, is a good evidence in that sense. But that was another story.
Today the mood was festive. And the day was gorgeous.
Every day at sunrise and sunset, the national flag is raised or lowered in the square by a squad of army personnel, stirring strong patriotic feelings in the bosom of everyone who loves New China. PingPing said:
"Would you like to see the hoisting of the flag tomorrow?"
And tomorrow would be the National Day. The day to see the ceremony if you were fixing to see it.
"Yes, of course" I said right away.
"But you'd have to wake up very early. Before the sun-up."
"Is it fine with you?"
"Yes."
"It's fine with me, too. After all, I am on vacation. If I am too tired after that, I can always go back to bed and sleep."
"But you said your hotel was noisy."
"Don't let that worry you."
So that was settled. We seemed to already have a plan for tomorrow. At least in its initial outlines. And now we focused back on the Tiān'ānmén Square we were standing on.
And there on the square, no matter how hard you may try, one of the things you can't possibly fail to notice is the big, massive Monument to the People's Heroes, a sturdy ten-storey obelisk erected as a national monument of the People's Republic. This thing wasn't constructed at the fast and furious pace of the Great Hall of People, but at a rather leisurely one of six years. It was in May 1958 that it finally stood where it stands now, eventually commemorating all those who had laid down their lives for China, starting out with the First Opium War until the founding of the People's Republic.
The Monument brandishes an inscription in old Mao's handwriting, reading "eternal glory to the people's heroes!" up front, and another one on the back by one of his most prominent sidekicks, Zhou Enlai. The Zhou's thing was obviously a product of the same workshop as the one up front, which basically meant merely an expanded variation to the same theme, without any notable originality. And probably without any intention to claim some.
The Monument itself is located just to the north of Mao Zedong's Mausoleum. I hoped we would be able to make a broad sweep, include everything on and around the Tiān'ānmén Square today and eventually strike the square off the list of the landmarks I was planning to visit. But it wasn't going to be. The authorities decided to leave the old Mao in peace for the time being and close the Mausoleum up until the end of the week. I didn't know if that was a usual practice every year, but PingPing was as surprised as I was. For all I expected, this would be the best time to enable people to see the guy. After all, when best to engage your ideological heavy weapons if not during days off when everyone from everywhere was flocking into Bĕijīng? But the authorities obviously followed different line of thinking. Not entirely comprehensible to me, but theirs was the last one. Which, simply put, meant that if I really wanted to see the geezer sleep, I'd have to cram it into the only day remaining relatively free to me next week. All other days were already gone.
So instead of the Great Helmsman, we had to settle for a lesser spectacle of a lone soldier boy, standing not as stiff and statue-like as, say, British guards do, but nevertheless broomstick straight, his arms down his sides, tight to his body, white gloves on, armed with a gun in a holster. But the young lad could turn his head and didn't have to pretend he saw nothing, staring firmly only at an imaginary spot somewhere down the straight line from his eyes. Standing on a small, raised pedestal, he even had a luxury of a parasol to hide from the ever stronger sun in order to avoid premature melting. So, much as I wouldn't have traded my spot with his, admittedly there were people, even in his line of business, who had it worse than he did.
Actually, he could even talk. Ask a British guard outside the Buckingham Palace or in the Downing Street a question, and he'll offer you as much attention as he would to the latest speech of his Prime Minister on the current economic situation. Unless it includes a tax hike, of course. Anyway, the Chinese soldier could talk. So he was the one to explain to the ever chatty PingPing that the Mausoleum was closed for a while. In other words, a reliable source.
So we moved on, up to the northern end of the square, to have from there a good look at the Tiān'ānmén and the famous Mao's portrait, one of the last publicly displayed ones. Having taken a few mandatory photos there, as every true-blooded tourist should and does, we stopped for a second to have a short parley. The result of that parley was an immediate decision to skip the Chinese National Museum altogether, located opposite from the Great Hall of the People across the square. Neither of us was in a particular mood for such kind of diversion and entertainment right now.
"I have a different idea," PingPing said.
"What is it?"
"We can have a lunch in an interesting place and then maybe see some Bĕijīng opera."
Bĕijīng opera was one of the things I wanted to see by all means while here. And it definitely sounded more appealing than some lifeless museum which ominously promised to some more extol party achievements and advantages in a society ruled by the party. And I had nothing against considering the lunch, either. Any way you turn it, this sightseeing business was a thing that seemed to burn a hole in my stomach pretty fast. So we swivelled on our heels and headed back south.
Of course, lunch had yet to be earned. It didn't come that easy. In order to qualify for it, we had to clear one or two more hurdles. One called Qiánmén, for example. Or Front Gate, literally. It too was built a long time ago, in 1419, and reaching up to 42 metres in height, it is still the tallest among all of the gates of Bĕijīng. With all the likelihood that it'll remain that way, as for some reason Chinese authorities don't build gates of that variety any more. Naturally, it had to be climbed for the sake of appeasing my own conscience, so I could say that I didn't spend all the money for the trip in vain. Or in other words, that I visited all the landmarks in Bĕijīng I reasonably could. And what's more reasonable to visit than the thing that's right up in front of your own nose and that you need to pass through on your way out anyway? Besides, from there we had a nice view of the rear end of the Mao's Mausoleum with a bonus of some impressive - at least in size - sculptures in the best tradition of socrealist schools, with a lot of chesty, frowning and determined characters, heading straight into the bright future, pointing their fingers - and sometimes firearms - right into that direction. They may never be considered a work of art, at least outside of China, now or ever in the future, but I do have a feeling that one day they will gain in prominence even internationally. Maybe not exactly tomorrow or next year, and maybe not necessarily the way they are seen in China right now, but history has vindicated things considered a trash in their own time before. So, who knows.
In all, Qiánmén, and its immediate vicinity, took a while to let us go. So by the time we finally had it behind, we could both claim to be hungry enough. And PingPing's place to go to was just off the Tiān'ānmén Square to the south, in Qiánmén Xidajie. It was nothing the "Lonely Planet" recommended. But once we got there it was obvious it needed no "Lonely Planet" recommendation to nevertheless do a brisk business. So much so that you had to get in a queue, two of them in fact, if you wanted to eventually get a table inside. One queue was to simply enter the restaurant. The other queue was inside and it was a kind of reward for those more patient and persistent ones. Which means, those who made it all the way there could wait the rest of the time sitting on one of the limited number of chairs set aside for waiting purposes. A lot of people seemed in the mood to wait. Too many for PingPing and me to have a stomach for joining the queue, in fact.
Not satisfied only with what she could see, as ever, she went inside to ask how long it might take to get a table. I waited outside, taking pictures of coolies and upholstered pedicabs for tourists. Foreigners and wealthy Chinese, to be precise. When she returned, the expression on her face was such that you needed no parasol next to her. A jacket over a T-shirt would do much better.
"Let's find something else," she just said.
"What happened?" I asked.
"They said maybe forty five minutes."
That was long, there was no doubt about it. We were both hungrier than that. But then again, much as I appreciated her idea of eating "in an interesting place", I wasn't going to lose any sleep over it should we not. Much as they tout Chinese food and the Chinese seem to be enormously proud of it, I would never have come to China because they "have a great food". That's not me. I don't assign food such a place in my life. So I said:
"Look. It's no problem. We can eat anywhere else. I don't mind."
"But I wanted to show you the restaurant. It's famous. I often come here with my friends."
"We can come some other time. Tomorrow, if you want. I still have many days to go in Bĕijīng."
"What do you want to eat?"
"Fried rice?"
"Fried rice?! But it's so simple!" she was almost disappointed with my redneck choice of the lunch dish.
"I know. That's why I tell you we can go anywhere."
That "anywhere" was practically the next door. Shoulder to shoulder with the toffy spot PingPing originally had had in mind, there was one of those innumerable fast food eateries, serving food for country bumpkins like me, ultimate provincials when it comes down to matters of palate. We entered to only end up in another full house. It was simply the lunch time everywhere. And when you happen to be in China during lunch time, with millions of hungry Chinese descending all at the same time onto woefully few available tables, the odds are not necessarily in your favour. That's all there was to it.
We could go on. Or we could stay and wait. We decided to wait. Which proved to be a wise decision because in a matter of ten minutes or so a clearing opened on one of the tables and like hawks we dived for it. The worst part was behind us. From now on this was just a routine like in any other eating place in the world.
By the time we would've finally got the table in that swagger joint next door, which still boasted the long queue spilling out onto the street, if we had decided to wait there, we were back in the street, full and in a much better mood instead. And with thoughts focused on entirely different things.
In the same block, there was another posh neighbour. One that even "Lonely Planet" listed as a recommendation for some Chinese entertainment in town, where PingPing believed we could have a taste of Chinese opera today. It was Lăo Shĕ Cháguăn or Lăo Shĕ Teahouse. Now, with so many famed spots on such a short stretch of a relatively short street, no wonder there were many pedicabs at the ready around.
Expert on Chinese language as I am, at first I thought it was a "Lăo Tzŭ Cháguăn". After all, out of PingPing's mouth, they both sounded the same to me. And the old Lăo Tzŭ was the one to first come to my mind. But PingPing straightened me out on that one and only then I remembered that in preparation for my trip to China I had read about Lăo Shĕ, a renowned writer known as "people's artist". The geezer had even been my contemporary for a few years as he had died in 1966.
The native of Bĕijīng, the old Lăo Shĕ was once, among other things, a teacher at the Oriental College of London University, and a professor, first at Qilu University, then at Shandong University. After the World War II he occasionally went to the US for lecturing and writing. In short, a textbook intellectual every country would be proud of. Comrade Helmsman also seemed to be fond of him for his role in mobilising writers and artists for anti-Japanese propaganda. So he was regularly giving him glossy but relatively harmless high posts in departments dealing with literature and art. One of not so many intellectuals who were never sent to the countryside for re-education, Lăo Shĕ died where he had been born. Here in Bĕijīng.
In a slight twist of the irony, the teahouse was created in 1988 by some educated young people who had returned to Bĕijīng after once being sent to rural areas for "re-education" during the Cultural Revolution, which as just indicated, had somehow passed Lăo Shĕ by. Twenty years on, the teahouse has become a comprehensive cultural enterprise, blending Chinese opera, food, tea and Bĕijīng culture, and featuring various forms of teahouses found in old Bĕijīng, such as the plain teahouse, the teahouse-restaurant, the roadside tea stall, and the teahouse with story tellers.
That's where PingPing thought I might catch what I was interested in. So we entered and, greeted by a neatly dressed up young guy in a dark suit, found ourselves in a wonderfully decorated interior, a beautiful lobby mostly out of wood, predominantly painted in those auspicious red and gold Chinese colours. They had red velvet, they had red lanterns. They had bird cages and they had even living trees. They had all that inside. And they sold the tickets.
At 180 yuan for top spots at prime time they were not exactly the mother of all the bargains. But then again, I wouldn't be putting my purse on a shoestring right now. Two hours later I wouldn't even know I had those 180 yuan. And they might buy me something much more valuable than their face value. However, there were also some mellower prices, like for shows earlier in the day, which they were running all day long. A ticket for the next one, early afternoon show, could be had for 120 yuan, for example. So when PingPing asked me if it was too expensive, I said:
"No. If it's OK with you, let's go."
We bought the tickets and then ended up with a good hour on our hands to kill. And so we got out again. The good thing about Qiánmén Xidajie is that just behind the house blocks on its southern side lies a maze of hutongs, some commercialised, some less so. And whoever asks me, hutongs are among the best things in Bĕijīng to see. Having one half a stone throw away meant it would be a shame to go elsewhere.
However, before we went there, right in front of the "Lăo Shĕ" entrance door, PingPing stopped, wishing to have a cup of tea from a street tea stall there. She entered a pretty extended queue which fortunately moved fast, so we didn't wait long, and yet enough for me to take a few pictures without stress. When she had disposed of her desire to have some street tea, we went around the corner and entered the first hutong.
I don't know if locals knew the names of every particular hutong in the area. I discovered the name of the nearest one. It was Qiánménxihouheyan Jie. Coming out onto the main street, it was nicely dotted with outdoor tables of tiny cafés and eateries, and a few street cooks. But once you passed through the first section and immersed deeper into this intrinsically Chinese world, it abruptly lost connection with tourist dollar and an urge to make a fast money on presence of foreigners, and all other hutongs lost their names. They just turned into a quintessentially Chinese experience and atmosphere, with locals who were living there going about their daily business undisturbed by hordes of tourists, and small grocery shops selling goods at Chinese prices, not inflated by the presence of those like me. There was not much gloss there and there was quite a bit of litter on the ground, but there was a charm that most of other parts of Bĕijīng sorely lacked.
One may or may not disagree with the Chinese Communist Party lines and I suspect that very few outside of China would. But here there were tiny red flags on almost every little house, almost every shiheyuan, happily fluttering in the afternoon breeze, and simple people were looking forward to their big holiday tomorrow in their simple and honest way. Maybe the Party was misleading them, maybe deceiving them. Maybe not. But did it matter? Right then and there I don't think it did. The way I saw it, what mattered was what they felt and believed. And by all accounts, they appeared, at least this afternoon, at peace with their life.
An hour later we found ourselves back in the luxury world of the "Lăo Shĕ Cháguăn". For those like me there is a theatre on the third teahouse floor where you may watch performances of traditional folk arts, such as Bĕijīng opera, folk shows, acrobatics, illusionism and so on. You reach it by a dandy elevator and enter what is in effect a large restaurant with a stage. We were greeted by one of the ladies who were waitresses there, but also ushers, and they took us to our table. There we soon got some refreshments like tea and local snacks, then some company in the form of a gang of Chinese who filled our table to the point of overcrowding and while the restaurant-theatre was filling in general, we were waiting for the show.
On either side of the stage there was a screen with bilingual captions, Chinese and English, with various notices, information and an occasional warning. So during the waiting time for the curtain to go up, we could among other things learn how many foreign dignitaries and celebrities had already visited the "Lăo Shĕ Cháguăn", who they were and when they had been there. And we were also warned not to take any pictures during the show.
"That means we can expect the Chinese to be taking them?" I asked only half-jokingly.
"Of course," PingPing laughed.
And then the show finally started. However, not with the opera. I assumed the organisers took it that some intro in the form of theatre of shadows would do well as a warm-up for the real thing. So we were first treated to a white, nearly transparent screen and an array of quirky characters behind it, monkey kings rescuing captive princesses and slaying numerous demons along the way. Of course, without PingPing's help I wouldn't have gotten on to it. She was dutifully explaining the plot to me and helped me enormously to get an idea what it was all about.
I took my camera out to take a picture or two. Same as at least one person at almost every table. However, for some incomprehensible reason one of the waitresses came up to me and sternly warned me to abide by the house regulation of taking no pictures during the show. At the same time she never bothered to reprimand anyone else.
"She tells you not to take pictures," PingPing said. Meekly, I deposited my camera on the table top. However, others were blissfully shooting like it was going out of style and other waitresses simply kept serving snacks and tea. First I was crestfallen with the obvious question "why me?". And then after initial confusion over the issue, I grew upset and defiant, and the question turned into "why the hell me?" Once the hell intervened, it was only a matter of time before I would take my camera up again. Of seconds, indeed. Even if at a possible cost of raising hell. I wouldn't let them hold me to account for doing things other did with impunity. And interestingly enough, they never did again.
This monkey king business rapidly went from intriguing and funny to boring, in spite of all the PingPing's effort to guide me through it. So when it ended, I felt it was really about time. Not a second too soon. Well, then I assumed we would see the opera. But instead, we seemed to have a dish of a few more support acts on the menu. The next on was a chubby guy, his head shaved bald, and his juggling act with clay pots. As it was a purely visual thing, no translation needed, it was significantly easier for me to follow than the shadow theatre before. The guy, dressed in what to me looked like an azure blue silk gown, spent most of the time carrying the pots of various sizes on his head, turning them every which way and spinning underneath them. Of course, they were up there on top of his head, always at some of the most impossible angles, and yet never tumbled down. Which was the whole point of his act.
After he had exhausted his stockpile of pot tricks, he gave way to someone, again in that silk outfit in the hue of bright blue, who in their turn appropriated the stage in the capacity of a face shifter. Elaborately costumed, they - it was impossible for me to determine the gender - whirled and twirled at such a high speed that I wondered how on earth they didn't get dizzy after a while. They didn't. Instead, the whole thing culminated in a rapid succession of shifting masks without any sensible explanation, to the enthusiastic response of the crowd.
And then I thought the real thing was finally coming. Out on stage came a lady who allegedly had a reputation of one of the most renowned Beijing opera singers. Or at least that's what I was led to believe by what PingPing was telling me. Locals obviously knew her well and she was rather pleased with the round of applause that greeted her right away. Her name eluded me, but it didn't matter. If she was good, then she was.
Soon she started singing, veering off into one of those melodies which are already quite recognisable as distinctly Chinese to anyone with an at least partly functioning ear. While she was singing, the captions in English on two side screens closely followed the original Chinese lyrics. Or libretto, if it was supposed to be the opera. Very soon it was clear her song was extolling the delights and pleasures of Chinese food. The libretto story began with a short welcome to as yet unnamed guest who pops up at the doorsill and is invited to a lavish treat of some local dishes. It was unclear if the guest had been expected or not, but it was soon clear that the poor sod would be shackled there for a long time, as the succession of dishes offered and coming out of the kitchen saw no end. At first it was mildly entertaining. But then it became boring as she wouldn't stop rattling off all the delights the cruel host would inflict on the doomed visitor. And when she would eventually even give Fidel Castro and his political speeches a good run for his money with her tirade, mercilessly marching on, not only the guest, but I too suffered a bad case of indigestion. And not only that. This food strangler in the form of a quasi opera singer caused my stomach to firmly tighten into a knot to boot.
"Hey, this is awful," I gasped after what must have been at least ten long minutes of pointless blather on stage. If my sense of time was on the erring side, then I could have erred only to the less, not to the more.
"But she is famous," PingPing protested. "She is very good."
"She may be famous," I was at the brink of leaving the whole thing altogether and wouldn't give in. "But this is clearly a torture."
"But you know China is famous for food and hospitality" PingPing tried to defend the act.
"Maybe," I was unrelenting in my harsh criticism. "But this is no hospitality. This is hostility."
Fortunately, though, after I had already started thinking that even an appointment with Mr Lucifer would be a welcome respite from this, the lady smotherer dried up. I don't know why. Maybe she ran out of fuel. Or the poor guest from the libretto asked for a medical attention after she had recited entire cook book. Whatever the reason, with all due respect to Chinese food and hospitality, this lady and her singing was easily the most awful thing the China had offered me as yet. The monkey king slaying all those hapless demons from the beginning of the show was a top rate suspense thriller next to this one. The highlight of her show for me was most definitely the moment she finally pulled off the stage. However, the crowd was generous. They saw her off with a loud round of applause. I didn't say anything. I was simply utterly relieved she had disappeared at last. But if everyone had felt like me, and if they had shown what they felt, she would've been booed off the stage forever.
She was followed by an illusionist. A guy with a standard array of tricks, with a standard stage set consisting of hats, pigeons, handkerchiefs and so on, with ubiquitous calls for assistance from the audience, he more belonged into a variety show than on stage that, as I still hoped, would feature Beijing opera. Except that it was increasingly precisely that - just a variety show.
Once this realisation started dawning on me and then sinking in, I perceived a sense of disappointment and even a feeling of deception. I couldn't with certainty tell if someone had explained to us as we had bought the tickets that this was not going to be an opera show. But I could most certainly claim that I had not known it would not be.
"Where is the opera?" I asked PingPing.
"I don't know," it seemed that she too had started feeling misgivings about the rest of the show. She too had obviously expected something else.
After the illusionist, the stage was cleared for two tea pourers. They had a tea pot each with a ridiculously long straight neck and their act consisted of acrobatic tea pouring, if I may term it like that. The point of the whole exercise was to poor as much tea into little cups from the most incredible positions with as few drops spilled as possible. Hopefully none. They were OK. People recognised that. But they were no opera. And I had given my money for an opera.
Which, as was now clear, would never come. Because after the tea pourers had left the stage, we came to the final act of the show, two guys dressed in the Chinese all-time fashion, or out-of-fashion, style of white shirt and dark grey trousers. No ties, of course. They were the whistlers. Not only, of course. They could imitate all sorts of sounds from trains to birds and rather well at that. However, even if they were good, after the realisation that I had bought tickets for something else and not for what I had wanted, everything for me was an anticlimax. The lowdown was that I was just waiting for the whole thing to end. That was all.
And when it did, and when PingPing and I were back in the street, none of us talked much about it. I guess we both had a feeling we had got what we had not been looking for. And that's not what shopping in principle should be about. Including the shopping of tickets for entertainment shows.
We decided that the best way to wash away this tart feeling of disappointment was to go back to the hutongs around the corner and again enjoy the atmosphere of real China. We went back to this world in the shadow of the high-rises, encroached upon on all sides by so-called development, which increasingly resembled an endangered species on retreat. So we slowed down to the pace of those small streets where everyone seemed to have all the time of the world and no one looked to be in any particular hurry. Stray dogs proudly strutted their stuff as if there were national holidays declared in their name. People played mahjong or didn't do anything at all, just sitting in plastic chairs and listening to the sound of the sun going down. This was the place where the meaning of the neighbour could still be found in the dictionary. Small time grocers, butchers, cobblers, tailors and similar craftsmen still dotted the area. This is what life there must've been like back then.
Yes, the Chinese authorities have been giving signs of finally starting to understand the significance and potential of hutongs. So they began to refurbish and restore some of them. Which was commendable in any case. But once you emerge on such a restored street, you nevertheless can't help feeling that some of the authenticity has somehow been lost along the way. As we emerged on the Liulichang Jie, it wasn't the same hutong atmosphere any more.
Liulichang Jie, or Liulichang Cultural Street, renovated more than twenty years ago with an intention to bear the appearance of a Qing Dynasty market street, is obviously one of those that during renovation had foreign tourists at least as much in mind as authenticity in appearance. Liulichang seems to mean glazed tiles factory, as back then, in times of the Yuan and Ming dynasties an official kiln was located here, churning out glazed tiles used during construction of imperial palaces. However, somewhere along the line, in the Qing Dynasty it became a well-known cultural street for the sale of antiques. Also, close to it were hostels for imperial examination candidates. Since these people needed books, and tons of them, Liulichang became the biggest book market in Bĕijīng with booksellers from all over the country setting up book stalls and shops. As a result, Liulichang was a also favourite haunt for scholars, painters and calligraphers who flocked there to pen and purchase books, as well as to dabble in painting and poetry. That contributed a great deal to the growth of Liulichang as a cultural street. So with time, the kiln was phased out and it was all handicrafts, arts and calligraphy. But the name Liulichang stuck and it's still called so today.
Now it's actually yet another commercial Bĕijīng center, dealing in books and souvenirs. OK, you can say there's jade, there's porcelain, sculpture, paintings, calligraphic works and so on, but I saw it all as souvenirs, even if sometimes of a somewhat heavier price tag. For the good measure, they added the typical socrealist staple of Mao portraits with a lot of red booklets on the side, as well as occasional appearance by other well-known comrades in the mould of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. All in all, I wasn't entirely sure how closely Liulichang Cultural Street now followed in the footsteps of what it once used to be.
PingPing led the way on and we soon found ourselves in another "traditional" Bĕijīng street, this one being Qianmen Jie. Bĕijīng reopened it as "historic Qianmen shopping street" one day before Olympics to the claim of some locals that this neighbourhood, going centuries back, had been turned into just a kind of Disneyland hutong version. Contractors tore down many old buildings, and then rebuilt them as old. And then, right next to it, there was an artificial period complex of upscale restaurants and shops. The authorities claim that reconstruction project's aim was to preserve the Qianmen Street's history in its entirety and they are unapologetic, claiming a roaring success. A dozen local brands which originated from Qianmen in the past century, such as a famous roasted duck restaurant and an equally famous tea house, reopened to business the same day there. So of course, that there is no illusion, it was all just about business, after all.
As opposed to Liulichang Jie, which was by Chinese standards almost empty, Qianmen Jie was crowded. By any standards. Which in turn made it less than appealing to the two of us. The sun over Bĕijīng was well on its way down and only minutes separated us from real dusk. Another full day on foot was behind us. So we just passed through the Qianmen Jie, without ever stopping by any longer anywhere. Our plan for tomorrow was already set, except that PingPing said she would come by car:
"When I leave home, I don't think trains will start going so early yet."
So we would meet tomorrow in my hotel and from then take the underground to the Tiān'ānmén. When every detail was arranged, we said bye to each other and left each our own way.
I had an appointment with Maggie for another round of conversation and chance for her to practice English. She didn't stay longer at work even if it happened sometimes, particularly as she was one of the highest ranking employees in her company. At one point she asked me:
"What is your plan for tomorrow?"
"I will go to the Tiān'ānmén Square for the flag-hoisting ceremony at sun-up with PingPing."
"Really?!" Maggie seemed to be surprised. "I would've never thought of that."
"She said it was worth seeing. Particularly on the National Day."
"She is a very good guide," Maggie acknowledged. "Much better than I am. It's an excellent idea."
But of course, there was no need to compare the two of them. I didn't need two guides. Each one of them contributed to my still small but increasing knowledge of China and its culture in her own way. In fact, I didn't even need a guide in the strict sense of the word. I could find things like those famous landmarks all by myself just fine. I don't think I could get lost any more anywhere. So even if PingPing offered an insight which I wouldn't have otherwise gained, I cherished her company most. Same as Maggie's. Or Mei's. They were all precious in their own respective ways. Each one of them taught me a bit of their country. That was the whole point.
And there was no price for that.
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