Beijing, October 3, 2008, Friday

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

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Appointments with Maggie were different. As a self-proclaimed avoider of subways, and a disoriented walker, she always preferred meeting at a place where taxi could conveniently drop her off and there was no waiting at awkwardly scattered exits or dubiously marked spots involved. So I just waited for her to appear with her daughter in "Red Lantern House 2". The morning was fine and for once it felt good to just sit in the courtyard, at one of the wooden tables there, and not to have to rush out right after breakfast. I was almost on the uptake on advantages of taking it easy. One week into my vacation, I felt a bit tired and a bit unslept, so it sure did me well to slow down for a change.
Bĕijīng sun had just peeped out over the roofs of the houses surrounding the courtyard, starting to chase off the morning freshness from the air. Birds and their chirps were easily louder than the muffled street noise from the outside. Most of other guests in the hotel either still slept or lingered in the other courtyard section, the covered one with the reception and computer. Here in the heart of the multimillion beehive that Chinese capital in fact is, all by myself, for a short while this morning it seemed I had found myself a retreat.
I appropriated myself an entire table, spreading the Bĕijīng city map all over it, my travelling notebook, my diary, "Lonely Planet" on Bĕijīng, two pens and mp3 player. If Maggie and her daughter would take longer, there was also a book and a whole stack of backlog "TIME" magazines in my room.
However, Maggie and her daughter didn't take that long. I didn't even finish the entry in my diary yet when, against the backdrop of Mozart's "Adagio" coming out from my mp3 player, the two of them showed up.
"This is Maple," Maggie said introducing her daughter to me. Maple? Well, I sure knew by now of the widespread fashion among Chinese to adopt western, usually English, names and often proudly using them even in contact with their fellow countrymen. But Maple sure belonged to those less common ones. OK, I don't come from a country where English is the primary language, but by now I should have heard of Maple as a name anyway. I couldn't recall such an instance, though.
Why Maple?
"Her face resembles maple leaf, so that's why I chose that name for her. Don't you think it does?"
I looked at the girl's countenance, but all I could see was one more of those characteristic moon-shaped, almond-eyed eastern faces. It would've been a bit of a stretch of imagination for me right now to see a maple leaf there. As it always has been when I, for example, try to see the Big Dipper or the Orion in the night sky, even if I know exactly where most of the stars are.
Instead of confirming what I didn't see, I asked:
"And what does she think of that name?"
"She likes it," Maggie assured me.
"Do you like it?" I asked the young Maple directly. She nodded.
"Great," I said and went on. "How old are you?"
She smiled and wouldn't answer. I couldn't guess whether it was because she was too shy or because she didn't know how to convey me her age in English. Maggie intervened:
"How old are you? You sure can say that."
"Thirteen," she finally strained the words out of her mouth.
"Thirteen? Well, then you should already have a boyfriend by now!"
Maple understood it straight away, blushed all over, smiled broadly and covered her face with her hands. Maggie laughed but also cried out:
"Hey, hey! Don't say that!"
"Why not?" it was now my turn to laugh.
"You see, that's one of the cultural differences between China and your world."
"Why? What's wrong with what I said?"
"You just don't say such things to young girls in China," she instructed me.
"OK, I won't any more," I winked.
They both inspected the table I was at and all the things on it with interest.
"You've been writing a diary?" Maggie asked.
"So we interrupted you?"
It was more of a statement than a question.
"Don't worry. I was just doing it while I was waiting for you. I'll continue this evening."
"OK, so what's your plan for today?"
"Nothing yet. Spending my time with you, I guess."
And then, rather atypically for Maggie, who was always quite content with letting others assume the initiative, claiming that she was a "boring guy", which just by the way, couldn't be further from the truth than it was, she said:
"Would you like to go to the zoo?"
"Hm. I was there on Monday. Remember?"
"Ah," and then after a tiny pause "and maybe the Flower & Bird Market?"
It was obvious she was making an effort to find something that would make both her daughter and me happy. I suppose she suddenly felt the responsibility for making this a good day now lay with her. So the fact that both the zoo and the Flower & Bird Market were "just for kids", as she had stated it a few days before, now seemed to take a back seat to her urge to make all of us happy. And I suppose a mother is automatically happy if her daughter is. Unfortunately, it had never occurred to me that there would be circumstances when Maggie would want to change her mind and express a wish to go to the Flower & Bird Market.
"I was there yesterday," I said almost apologetically.
"Well, you said it was for kids, so I never thought you might want to go there."
She was disarmed. For once, she wanted to take reins in her hand and, despite her best efforts, it all came to naught. So after all that she just asked:
"Is there something you want to see?"
I suggested we take a look at the Bĕijīng city map on the table. Maple didn't seem to care where we would go. By the looks of it, as was expected from a typical girl in her early teens, her world would go on spinning no matter what we decided. She had much more important things on her mind. Maggie spent her entire arsenal of suggestions without concrete results and basically it was now up to me. So we studied the map a bit, or to be precise, I studied it and then I said:
"How about Temple of Heaven?"
"Good," she said. "You didn't see it yet?"
"No, and I planned to. Is it OK with you?"
"Yes, of course."
Then she asked Maple what she thought about it, but she was above wasting her effort on such mundane decisions. As far as she was concerned, the best spot was right here in the "Red Lantern House 2" courtyard. But as even she in her lofty philosophical approach to life understood, such an idea wasn't likely to gain much of an approval with Maggie and me, so she just shrugged and we took it as yes.
So it was settled. We chatted a bit more and then I folded the city map, picked up all the things from the table and we were ready to go. Maggie even professed temporary shunning of her boycott of Bĕijīng underground and so now we even knew how we'd go to the Temple of Heaven. Our day was to begin.
One subway ride later and back up in the street, with Maggie feeling just fine afterwards, we found ourselves next to the Temple of Heaven, or Tiāntn, another of the famous Bĕijīng landmarks. However, just across the street from it, there was another spot that was increasingly gaining prominence on tourist maps. It was Hngqio Pearl Market, or Hngqio Shchăng in Chinese. Maggie asked me if I was interested in having a look and checking it briefly. In my preparation for the trip I had read about it, but it would be unfair to say that it elicited much interest in me. It had made it onto my list of things to see only in the "just in case" category. As I'm not much of a shopping guy, I didn't know what sensible I'd do there, so I never seriously considered visiting it. However, now that we were just across the street anyway, I saw no reason why we couldn't have a look. After all, I guessed it was worth seeing what increasing number of western tourists were finding of interest there.
So we went in. The whole thing was housed in a sizeable building on three or four floors, looking quite western from the outside, but very much Chinese on the inside. Which in other words meant relatively chaotic. I've never been much of a fan of non-European style department stores and this one definitely was one of those. As someone who never considers shopping an antidote against stress and medication against depression, I usually visit shops and stores with a clear intention as to what I want to purchase, preferably go straight to the departments selling the goods I was looking for and clear off as soon as the deal is clinched. European-style department stores, organised and well-arranged as they are, are undoubtedly my bag as the shopping goes. Elsewhere it's usually an apparent jumble where similar goods and items can be found everywhere, scattered all over the place without any obvious logic.
This one was offering all sorts of things. The ground floor was the place to look for some knock-off watches, second-rate electronics and basic photo equipment which I had some serious doubts about in terms of life duration. Also, for good measure, there were shoes, some unpretentious clothing, not exactly off the lines of world famous designers. Nothing to really attract me.
"Do you want to look for something?" I asked Maggie.
"Well, maybe a bag."
"You've got no bag?"
It made me wonder a bit. I didn't pay any closer attention to it, as probably very few men ever do, but I kind of vaguely remembered that she had always had some bag on her, whenever we met. Even now she had one hanging off her shoulder, in fact.
"Of course I have, but I like bags. Sometimes I buy a new bag every week."
Mei came to my mind again. She probably had just one bag. I had never asked. It's a kind of question that hardly occurs to an average man. But even if she had more than one, I'd place my every bet on her not having more than two. Which made me curious:
"How many do you have?"
"I am not sure. Maybe twenty? Or more?"
"Twenty? Can you use all of them?"
"Of course not," she laughed.
"So what do you do with those bags you don't use any more?"
"Sometimes I give them away to my friends."
"I see. And how long do you use a bag before you give it away?"
"Depends. Sometimes after one week. Sometimes I buy a bag and soon I realise I don't really like it. But sometimes longer."
So we took a tour of bag vendors on the first floor while Maggie and Maple inspected the goods on offer, checked the items, compared the models and haggled along the way. Occasionally, Maggie would ask me about my opinion on a particular model and I would answer, sometimes more seriously and sometimes less. I tried to take it lightly and pretended that this shopping was interesting. Well, in fact, in a way it was. The girls who were selling that stuff, and also some other things, probably found me somewhat unusual. The only explanation that I had, apart from my western looks - which were nothing all that unusual by now in China - must have been my long hair, something less common than in the west. So they often openly stared my way, sometimes giggled and waved and said hello.
"You are quite popular here," Maggie said.
"More of an attraction than popularity," I sought to correct her.
And those girls who were selling bags, as soon as they realised I was with Maggie and Maple and wouldn't move on until they did, tried to include me in the whole thing. I joked a bit which they liked, and when they tried to capitalise on it by attempting to sell me on some of the items there, I would dismiss it saying:
"Sorry, I have no money."
Amusingly enough, they were not entirely sure I was not serious. Of course, they suspected I was not, but I noticed such an unexpected declaration usually got them wrong-footed for a moment. Enough for me to go on claiming the same and yet that it didn't sound stupid, and at the same time in effect avoiding getting involved in any shopping.
After some mandatory haggling, Maggie eventually bought herself a bag for today and then we could move on. She asked me if I was interested in going another floor up, but we reached a general consensus that I had seen more or less what there was to see and so we decided to go out. Still, on our way out, I too succumbed to charms and magic of the market and, upon suddenly recalling that I needed a new nail clipper, told Maggie that in case we found one, I might be interested in purchasing it. We didn't have to look far. As soon as we focused on nail clippers, they started popping up virtually from everywhere. In no time I found one which promised to be good. But Maggie wouldn't let me buy it before she had dutifully toppled the price from fifteen to ten yuan. Once that part of the mission was accomplished, as well, I was permitted to pay, collect my new nail clipper and we went out.
We emerged on Tiāntn Donglu, a broad avenue separating Hngqio Shchăng and Tiāntn Gōngyun, or the Temple of Heaven Park, after which it got its name. So now was the time to go into the park. Except that it was not. Yet. Just as we were about to buy ourselves entrance tickets, Maple declared that she was hungry. Which inevitably started off an elaborate discussion as to when and where she would eat. As any teenager, she had demands which were very difficult to meet and no matter what Maggie suggested, every idea was dismissed out of hand.
"OK, let's go inside and then we'll see," Maggie eventually gave in. However, I knew that I was going into the Temple of Heaven now and then probably wouldn't any more. At least not any time soon. So I was not overly ecstatic about the prospect of Maple declaring in five - or fifteen minutes - that she was so hungry that we would have to leave almost as soon as we entered. And on account of what life had taught me about thirteen-old kids, in my mind it was one of the most plausible scenarios for the immediate future. So I decided to put a stop to it even before it really happened and said:
"Look, let's first find a place for Maple to eat and then we shall go in."
"But she says there is no place where she could find something to eat," Maggie defensively said.
"I am sure we'll find something. Let's just take a walk around."
True to her inclination to just follow and not lead, Maggie obeyed, and Maple might have been too much of a chicken to oppose me. So we turned around and set off on a search for a place for Maple to eat. Just as I assumed, we didn't have to trek forever to find it and basically just across the street and around the corner we came upon two or three usable eateries. To Maple's credit, she didn't make much hassle as to where she would eat. She soon settled for a rather run-down, low-end Muslim restaurant, complete with stars and half-moons, but also scarred tables, rickety metal chairs and less then clean windows. However, Maggie and she pretty much agreed that the soup they ordered - because they both decided to eat - seemed to be good. And, most important of all, the eatery was nowhere near empty. If the food was as good as Maggie and Maple claimed, and if, to top it all off, it was as reasonably priced as it seemed to be, then obviously a few defects in maintenance and interior design didn't appear to stunt the business.
Half an hour later, we were back in the street, returning to the Temple of Heaven. With no further obstacles in sight, either material or abstract, we finally got in. God provided us with a wonderful day, as if made for sightseeing. Add to it the ongoing Golden Week, as some Chinese fondly termed it, and you again had all the ingredients for the crowded day out.
The Temple of Heaven is the grandest cult architecture complex in the world and a masterpiece without a rest. The guy accused of constructing yet another Bĕijīng wonder is this same Yongle, the buster who commissioned the Forbidden City, as well. Nobody seemed to get away short-changed after its completion, numerologists, sound engineers, necromancers, just name it. There seems to be a symbol in just about every brick there and a hidden construction secret in every corner. And for the most practical, those in search of solid orientation only, the Temple of Heaven is dead on the southern compass tip of Bĕijīng. Emperors throughout the two most famous China's dynasties, Ming and Qing, used to worship the heaven and pray for rich harvests there in ceremonies as elaborate and secretive as only Chinese court could concoct.
This complex roughly consists of two sections, the inner temple and the outer temple and is surrounded by two high walls. The two primary and most conspicuous buildings in the temple are the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests in the north and Circular Mound Altar in the south. I would guess the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests, or Qnin Din, is a Bĕijīng celebrity in its own right. Unless the only thing on your mind when in Bĕijīng is the Bĕijīng duck or Olympic Games, one of the first things you'll notice there, right along the Forbidden City and Summer Palace, is this three-tiered circular marble terrace with the wooden, no-nails prayer hall on top of it, covered with dark blue glazed tiles which represent the colour of the sky. That's where most of the crowd flock, that's what you see from almost everywhere inside the complex and that's where we went first, as well.
I suppose that's also where most of the pictures within the Temple are taken. So we duly followed suit and only when we were sure that no relevant stone there was left unrecorded, we moved south. And that meant starting a stroll down the so-called Red Stairs Bridge, which in effect is just a 360-metre-long raised walkway, and no real bridge at all. It got us to the next gem inside the Temple, this one being Imperial Vault of Heaven or Hung Qing Yŭ. This one is another circular building, reposing on a single-level marble stone base. There are obvious similarities to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, only it's significantly smaller. Which inevitably means that common, ignorant tourists like us would treat it only as a brief check point.
Were it not surrounded by the Echo Wall, that is. This Echo Wall, or Huyīn B, is one of those marvels which I'd put every bet on that modern engineers can't duplicate any more. Of course, even a common brick-layer can erect a 65-metre diameter wall, but the trick is in the fact that this smooth, almost a full-circle wall can transmit sounds and whispers over its entire circumference, in both directions. In case there's no intervening outside noise. Well, tell that to the visitors. Including the three of us. And there's also a protective barrier that now stops you from getting really close to the wall. So all you can nowadays do is lean on it, stretch your full length towards the wall and yell your tongue out like crazy.
I skipped the yelling part. But there was no shortage of yellers around, including Maple for a brief spell. However, with so many of them trying to outyell each other, there was no way the wall would have responded. So it chose the wisest course - it simply remained silent.
On to the south from there, soon we came up to the Circular Mound Altar, or Yun Qiū. That's actually an empty circular platform on three levels out of white marble, where the Emperor prayed for favourable weather and where sacrificial rites were held on winter solstice. This thing is a boon for students of numerology as there's hardly a piece of it there that's not in some way connected with number nine, either directly or more often through its multiples. As nine in China represents infinity, characteristic of heaven, there was no way of sidestepping it here.
And that was it, as far as the inner temple section was concerned. I had to admit that UNESCO had every good reason to list it as the World Cultural Heritage site as it had in 1998. Even the old Great Helmsman and his sidekicks knew better than giving it a revisionist treatment back then. I guess it's simply too grand to be touched. Unless it's for the purpose of maintenance and protection, of course.
Outer section is much less spectacular. It's mostly a park. Which, of course, is no mean thing at all. But with so many parks in Bĕijīng already, this one didn't stand out in any particular way. So we just lazily strolled through it, generally seeking the way out.
"Where would you go now?" Maggie asked me.
I checked the city map and realised that not far from there we could visit the Natural History Museum. If there was a common will, of course. Maggie conveyed my proposal to Maple and she agreed.
It took us only a few minutes to get there. Maggie checked the opening times at the ticket booth, and once we ascertained that it was open long enough to make the visit worth it, we went in. Now, it is the largest natural history museum in China. And I can't say it's not mildly entertaining. If you're not too rigorous with your expectations and don't set your standard bar too high, it can be OK. But spectacular is the word that has not found its place inside the building yet. However, it's an excellent place to learn Chinese. Go in and treat yourself to Chinese-only captions. Your rewards might be multiple. Perhaps even in the form of a headache.
But then again, I didn't take it too seriously, either. Same as zoo, with its usual array of usual stuffed animal species, most of whom were not even endemically Chinese at all, it was just fun for me. A place I naturally always like to visit. In fact, Maggie profited most as along the way I was enlightening her on English names of quite a few displayed animals. You don't really need an English caption to identify a lion or a wolf, I guess. Well, not that Maggie was going to find much practical use for words like boar or owl, but that was not the point, in the first place.
Probably the most spectacular feature of the museum, the only one that could rise above the rest of it, was the dinosaur hall, discretely lit, complete with the first-floor platform to view the exhibits from higher up. The rest of the museum still had some catching up to do.
And that was it, as far as featured sightseeing for this afternoon went. Now Maggie decided that both she and Maple were quite tired and she started thinking about going home. Well, Maple was tired, but for some reason she took to liking "Red Lantern House 2" and its inner courtyard. Hence she expressed a wish to make a station there before really going home. But Maggie wasn't entirely thrilled to the idea. So we kind of started walking until they would come up clear as to what they really wanted to do.
Our walk took us north to and through the Qinmn Jiē, then we waded through some htngs which I had already visited with PingPing, and Maggie finally decided that she would go home without stopping by at my place.
"I shall be occupied this weekend," she said.
So we set up our next appointment at Monday evening, after her working time, as we mostly had a habit of doing. We wished each other pleasant next few days, she went home and I returned to the hotel.
In "Red Lantern House 2" I rang PingPing up and informed her that I was free now. She declared herself ready to meet me and this time we changed our usual meeting place. Instead of Tiān'ānmn Xi, we set up an appointment at the exit A of the Wngfǔjǐng station. At seven in the evening, I was going to visit this famous shopping district at the time when it usually displays all of its feathers.
I was there on time. Even a bit earlier. However, Wngfǔjǐng station was something entirely different from any other station I had seen in Bĕijīng up to then. You find your exit A pointers all right. And you follow their lead which for a while is not exactly a Ph.D. thesis in the making. But then, after one level, and then another level, you just emerge into a spacious shopping mall, on the scale of any decent department store, and that's where the problems start. Because exit A doesn't deliver you out into the street, but rather into that mall. And as every department store will tell you, there is routinely more than just one way out, and in case of this particular mall they all belonged to the Wngfǔjǐng station's exit A. That presented certain difficulties to the situation. PingPing was not there. Either yet, or just there. If she was not there yet, then it would be no problem. I'd simply wait on top of the moving stairs and she'd come out sooner or later. But what if she was there, only waiting at or just outside one of the exits? I had no way of knowing which one it was.
And so I started moving up and down the mall, not really sure where to stop and wait. And at one of the doors out, two girls approached me:
"Good evening, sir," one said in a decent English.
"Good evening"
Then standard questions followed as to where I was from, when I had arrived, how I liked Bĕijīng and so on. Answering politely to the interrogation, one of the young ladies said:
"You look like an artist."
I nodded:
"You may say I am."
"What do you do?"
"I am a musician."
"Ah, that's very good. Excuse me, sir," she said, liberally dispensing more than a really needed quota of "excuse-mes" and "sirs" in our short chat, "would you have a cup of tea with us?"
Well, I had read about girls who approach foreigners in Bĕijīng - and maybe even elsewhere in China - often with an agenda more expanded and elaborate then just English practice. There were too many rumours about it that I wouldn't be immediately on guard, but also lured to it. A part of me rang the scam alert, and another part of me wanted to see how exactly it worked first-hand. For some reason, if my intuition didn't play tricks on me, these two girls fit the bill.
"I am sorry," I said "but I am waiting for a friend. She should be here any moment now."
"You will meet her here?"
"Yes, inside the station. Maybe she's even arrived already. I am just not sure which door."
Maybe my arguments against accepting the offer - much as they were genuine - sounded less than convincing. So this girl marched on:
"You can come with us until she arrives."
I tried to look as smiling as they did:
"I told you. She should be here any minute. We were supposed to meet at seven."
"Do you have a telephone number?"
"No, I don't have a number here in Bĕijīng."
"Then can you take mine? You can call me and we can meet tomorrow," she offered.
"Yes, I could do that."
She gave me her number, we chatted a minute or two longer and then I said I needed to go back into the station to look for my friend.
"See you tomorrow," she chirped at the end. I smiled, nodded and as soon as I was out of sight, tossed the number away. I guess she probably expected me to do exactly that. On one hand I was sorry I couldn't see what they were really up to. Something was telling me it would be worthy of a story. But you just can't cram everything into a two-week stay in a city like Bĕijīng. Maybe some other time.
It turned out PingPing was only late, nothing more. She emerged at the same spot as I had and was now apologising. But of course, it was no issue whatsoever. I told her about the two girls that had given me their number.
"Did you take it?" she asked.
"Yes and I threw it away as soon as they disappeared."
She laughed.
"They were cheats," she said flatly.
Well, maybe they were. I would never find out.
Wngfǔjǐng Djiē this evening was a different world compared to when we had passed through it after the flag-hoisting ceremony on National Day. Crowded, noisy, full of neon lights and for most part pedestrian-only, in a way it was even fun to go through. It was now home to both modern major shopping malls, and old brands of Bĕijīng, continuing traditions of old craft stores. Also to a number of large department stores, souvenir shops and some of the biggest book stores in Bĕijīng. No wonder people loved it there, particularly - as they say - visitors from those less developed parts of China. I may imagine that Wngfǔjǐng Djiē as it was this evening was a spectacle for them.
"What did you have for lunch?" PingPing asked me.
"In fact, nothing," I grinned.
"Nothing?! Then you must be hungry!"
"Well, a bit. You?"
She was hungry, too. And if you are hungry on Wngfǔjǐng Djiē, there is a handy solution for empty stomachs and bellies singing the blues. Just turn a corner and you find yourself at the Donghuamen Night Market, another unique Bĕijīng attraction, even for those like me. This Donghuamen Night Market is an endless row of food stalls, neatly arrayed next to one another, all in full swing with food being cooked and grilled right on the spot. Each one is served with at least two or three cooks and vendors who are all uniformly dressed in a MacDonald's style outfit. People swarm the place and it's a small feat pushing your way through to place an order. The whole bustle is a fun and spectacle in itself.
The air was full of smells, most of them very pleasant to a nose whose owner started hearing symphonies from his stomach. And each one of them would most certainly find at least someone to appeal to in the crowd. You had food for just about every taste there. Whether you were Peter Peter the Pumpkin Eater or a carnivore in the mould of fried-lizard devourers, or anything in between, you could find it there. PingPing and I decided to skip delicacies like fried centipedes, crickets and scorpions this time around and opted for a more conservative fare in the shape of dumplings, rice balls and pancakes. And some other stuff which I had no idea what it was, but took PingPing's word for it that it was vegetarian. Which in turn proved to be quite all right. She threw in some fried meat on a stick, as well, for the good measure and that's how we dined this evening. Eating itself was like filling a fuel tank in a car. I was simply hungry and that was all there was to it. But the whole atmosphere and the crowd of this night market was what made it special. Next time I am in Bĕijīng, I knew, I will come here again.
From there on we backpedalled to Wngfǔjǐng Djiē again and I did end up doing some shopping after all. I couldn't resist stopping by in one of the bookshops there and it proved to have an excellent choice of English-language paperback titles. I hardly had any time to read here in Bĕijīng. I didn't know how much time I would have in North Korea, either. Probably not much more. And yet, once back out in the street, I had some Nick Hornby, Peter Ho Davies and Khaled Hosseini titles under my armpit. It made me feel quite happy.
Final station we had for this evening was, almost inevitably, Tiān'ānmn Square again. I had seen it during the day, and I had seen it at daybreak. But I had not seen it in the evening yet. And this was now the good opportunity to do it. Just as the rest of Bĕijīng, wherever there was an even tiny chance that a tourist might stray in, it too was awash in lights. Whoever was saying that it should be visited after the nightfall, they were right.
I guess, it was just the right sight to wrap up the day with.
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