home         Photos         email Rafi

Part XXXXIV Commie Central

June 8, 2000

As you can probably guess from the subject line, this one is about my trip to China with Jeff.  We went to China at the end of March, and were only able to spend three days there.  However, they were tightly packed days.

We arrived in Beijing late on a Thursday night, March 16, and we only had until Sunday morning to "do" Beijing and the Great Wall.  We were met at the airport by an English speaking guide named Ho.  Jeff had booked the trip through a travel agency in Japan, and the package included the ticket, hotel, and travel both ways between the airport and the hotel.  Hoís English wasn't perfect, but it was certainly better than what we were used to hearing in Japan, and his name speaks for itself.  We were both confused at first because he kept on talking about "everyone's" plans for the next day, and what "everyone" was going to do.  After about ten minutes we realized that "everyone" meant me and Jeff.  Although we are both ostensibly English teachers, we didn't correct him.  It was too funny.

Anyway, when we got to the hotel Ho helped us check in, and then he gave us some good advice on how to see the important sites the next day, Friday.  We also told him that we wanted to get to the Great Wall on Saturday, and we asked his advice on how to get there, since the place we wanted to go was three hours away by car.  He said that the driver who took us from the airport was available, and that the four of us (myself, Jeff, Ho, and the driver) could go together.  He wanted to charge us about $80 total for the whole thing.  We thought that was a great idea, and we were relieved to have solved that problem so early in the trip.

On Friday we woke up very early to go to Tiananmen Square and witness the official sunrise flag-raising.  This is a popular activity for Chinese people, but we saw very few other foreigners there.  A highly trained group of soldiers, marching at EXACTLY 108 steps per minute, EXACTLY 70 centimeters per step, formed the honor guard for the flag bearer.  Once the flag was attached to the pole, it started to rise and the national anthem started at the EXACT moment of the sunrise, according to the almanac.  The anthem finished at EXACTLY the same moment that the flag reached the top of the pole.  The soldiers marched away EXACTLY as they came, and everyone left.

While there is a large police presence in and around Tiananmen Square, almost none of them carry guns.  This was a pleasant surprise.  Of course, the only explanation we could think of for this is that the general populace has been under a harsh military dictatorship for so long that, in Jeffís words, "they live in fear." As we all know, there are tanks close by in case of need.

Another interesting thing to see in Beijing is the mix of cultures -- Chinese cultures.  It was kind of cool to see young children in brightly colored western clothing next to women wearing traditional chinese styles next to old men still sporting the navy blue "Mao Suit," complete with hat.  It was strange to imagine a time when everyone would have been wearing identical Mao Suits, and I am glad it is not like that anymore -- we stuck out enough as it is.

Other than the police presence and the occasional Mao Suit, there was very little of what we would consider the ìtrappingsî of communism.  The most obvious were the large portraits of Mao himself, but even those werenít nearly as ubiquitous as I had been led to believe they would be.  My favorite Cultural Revolution relic was a restaurant called ìRecall Oneís Past Suffering and Think About Oneís Present Happiness Restaurant.î Really.  They actually have two menus, one entitled ìPast Sufferingî and one entitled ìPresent Happiness.î Unfortunately, we were unable to visit the restaurant to determine the difference.

Anyway, after the ceremony it was about 6:30 am.  Nothing was open, and we didn't know what to do.  Fortunately, even from the middle of Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Communist China, we could see no less than two nearby McDonalds.  Chinese people must have a strange idea of what Americans eat for breakfast, because the McDonalds in China don't have any breakfast food.  So, I had a spicy chicken sandwich, fries, and a coke for breakfast.

We still had some hours to kill before the Forbidden City opened (apparently, it is still Forbidden at night), so we decided to walk along some of the city streets, which at 8 am were just starting to show signs of life.  At one point, we passed a very cheerful, friendly-looking guy, and he kept looking at us expectantly.  I wanted to know what it was he was selling, so I tried to ask him.  He couldn't speak any English, but he beckoned us to follow.  Why not, right?

He led us through some narrow, dirty back alleys, and then out into a mid-sized pedestrian street.  He knocked on a door that said "wall art" on it, and a few minutes later it was opened by a middle-aged guy in pajamas, still wiping the sleep out of his eyes.  He woke up very quickly upon seeing us, though, and invited us inside using gestures.

The room turned out to be a small shop selling silk wall hangings, some of which were beautiful.  I hadn't even known that I was looking for a Chinese silk wall hanging, but I was immediately curious.  We sat looking at the walls for about five minutes with the guy who led us there, and then the older guy came back in wearing an impeccable three-piece suit.  That guy changed FAST.  However, he didn't really speak English either, and about ten minutes later his 25 year old daughter came in.  She had studied English in college, and she spoke very well.  She said that they had a much larger selection at nearby location, so we embarked on another short journey through dodgy side-streets, then through the first floor of a building that was under construction and very dusty, up a narrow staircase, and finally into what looked like a museum.  There were four rooms covered from floor to ceiling with wall hangings of all sizes, many of which were stunning.  There was a four seasons series that was exquisite, but $40 per piece.  It was all hand-painted silk, not copies.  The father and daughter even showed us a few in a more modern style that they had painted themselves.

I saw one 6 foot X 3 foot hanging of the Great Wall and immediately fell in love.  Jeff liked it too, but they only had one -- proof that it wasn't a print, since no one would ever sell just one when they could have sold two. (I had dibs, since I saw it first.) After a bit of bargaining I got him to about $55, and I bought.  I hadnít been in the market for art, but it is a great souvenir, especially considering how I found it.

We spent the rest of the morning going through the Forbidden City, which is huge and largely empty.  On one occasion I walked through yet another gate, saw yet another set of buildings, and said "yup, it sure is another old wooden building with fancy carvings."  Not to say it wasn't amazing, but with all due respect to the recent restorations, it had seen better days.  In the afternoon we walked around some of Beijing's parks, including one with several more beautiful historical buildings.  It is an impressive, if flat, city.  The thing that struck me the most was the scale -- everything is bigger than you expect it to be from a distance.  In an ironic way, itís kind of like Washington, DC, where the Capitol Building and the Mall are much bigger in real life than they seem to be in pictures.

We returned to the hotel that evening quite worn out, and ate at the hotel restaurant (we had the Beijing Duck, of course).  There was a gift shop next to the restaurant run by a very nice woman who spoke both English and Japanese, and we chatted with her for a while before heading to our room.  We were all set to go to the Great Wall the next day when, at around 11:30, our guide Ho called to say that the trip was canceled.  It seems the driver acquired another commitment, or something.  He was very apologetic, but we were pissed, especially since we had given him a deposit.

The next morning we went back to the gift shop, and miraculously the same woman was working there.  She must work some brutal hours.  We described our predicament, and she said "oh, my father has a lot of retired friends who can drive you.î  She called a guy, and he showed up with a friend thirty minutes later.  We discussed prices, and they were asking for only about $60, $20 less than the price Ho had quoted.  Score!!  We set off at around 8:30.  Although neither of the men spoke any English, they were very pleasant and friendly.  That seemed to be the case with just about everyone we met, including, for a surprise, most of the taxi drivers.

The Great Wall is indescribable.  It was far and away the highlight of the trip.  The height, width, and length of the wall are impressive, but not as impressive as its location.  Taking advantage of natural defenses, the entire wall is built on top of mountain ridges.  The amount of resources poured into this project over the past 1,000 years can hardly be comprehended.  By more than one estimate, over 1 million laborers lost their lives during the construction, which spanned centuries.  According to our guidebook, some parts of the wall have been recently restored and resemble theme parks, complete with fast food restaurants.  However, we went to a part of the wall described as being in "pristine crumbly condition," and that is exactly how we found it.  After taking a cable car part of the way up, and hiking up a steep switchback trail for 15-20 minutes, we reached the wall.  It was breathtaking.

The only negative part was that every tourist was immediately accompanied by a small group (2 or 3) of people selling souvenirs.  When it came time for us to leave, they proceeded with the hardest sell I have ever seen (and I've seen some hard sells in Thailand and Korea).  They said things like "we climbed the wall together -- now we are friends and you must buy this"  and "I am a poor student, and this is my only money so you must buy this" and stuff like that.  I was disgusted.  Finally I bought some postcards just so they would leave me alone.  Each pack of postcards cost 10 yuan each, and I agreed to buy three.  I paid with a 50 yuan bill, but the woman would not give me my change.  Instead, she insisted that I take two more packets of postcards.  I now have plenty of postcards of the Wall, but every time I see them the bile rises in my throat at the memory of how I got them -- quite the opposite of the wall hanging.

Finally, my one regret, other than I wish I had more time to explore, is that we were unable to eat as many different kinds of Chinese food as I would have liked.  Much to my surprise, I very much enjoyed the food in China.  I was warned before I went that it would be terribly greasy and not so good, but I guess we were lucky.  The meals we had were all quite nice, including a dirt-cheap and delicious noodle-based lunch at a restaurant near the Wall.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering whatever happened to Ho, he did show up on Sunday morning to drive us back to the airport, and he did return the deposit we had paid for the Great Wall trip.  Once again he was very apologetic, and considering how well it had worked out we werenít even angry anymore.  Besides, how can you stay mad at a guy named Ho?