Beijing Dispatch: Where The Party Never Stops

If Shanghai is the New York of China, Beijing is its Washington, DC – right down to the very visible police and military presence, the manicured and well-planned streets and the official buildings. There’s a lot more Mao here.
It’s a different feel than Shanghai – the traffic is more orderly. The buildings are not as vibrant. The sights are more official.
And there are sandstorms.
The sandstorm is one of the downsides of overpopulation and unchecked industrial development. Winds come down from Mongolia, through what was once forest. Apparently forest acts as an air filter of sorts, and when it’s not there: sandstorm. 300,000 tons of dust fell on Beijing on our first day there – more than any Sharper Image Ionic Breeze could ever handle. People wore surgical masks. We laughed and laughed at them then coughed and coughed and coughed.
There is a store named “Herbal Heaven” that sells only handbags.
The people are pretty much the same in Beijing as they are in Shanghai, but they have a different dialect and I might as well give up trying to speak Mandarin because it’s hopeless. The slightest variation in tone and you get Weh? Weh? Weh? On the bright side, even the Chinese can’t comprehend each other’s dialects.
As an example of how the dialects work: In Boston you’d say “about” but in Toronto you’d say “aboot.” You know what the other person means. In China the guy from Shanghai says “about” and in Beijing he says “lederhosen.” Then the other one says Weh? Weh? and you call it a day.
The hutong is a neighborhood comprised of a network of winding alleys connecting crowded courtyard homes with no plumbing to unregulated restaurants and tiny shops. The courtyard homes were nice a hundred years ago when they had courtyards but overpopulation caused folks to build homes inside the courtyards. So you have a house within a house, no plumbing, people coming out of the woodwork, and everything is filthy and decaying. It’s an interesting stroll though as people spend their whole lives in these places, presumably because they can’t find the exit. Unlike a Haitian shanty-town the hutong is quite safe to walk through because crime is deterred by the government’s We’ll Kill You If You Commit Crime policy. As part of the pre-Beijing Olympics de-shitification program the city is slowly eliminating these historic neighborhoods and relocating folks to gigantic apartment towers elsewhere, so hurry.
The Summer Palace is where the Emperor used to hang out during one of the seasons. Probably summer.
The Summer Palace is impressive as it sits on a hill by a large lake with a very beautiful old building covered in very recent scaffolding. One of the problems when visiting China pre-Beijing 2008 Olympics is that it’s pre-Beijing 2008 Olympics. They’re remodeling everything so as to make a great impression on the world community, current tourists be damned.
As can be expected, you will be hounded by souvenir peddlers most of your walk. Hallo! Mister? Postcard? Nice price! It’s a long walk, and at the end you’ll see a marble boat. After being accosted by more souvenir vendors you can have a photo taken in traditional Emperor/ess garb for not much money, and then you have your annual Christmas card photo taken care of.
The Forbidden City is deceptively huge, and entered just under a portrait of Chairman Mao. Don’t mind that he killed 70 million people and makes Hitler look as harmless as Frankie Muniz. Just smile and walk through the gates.
Lots of walking and looking. At some point you will be funneled into a small gate. Chinese people will be freaking out and pushing you so that they can rub their hands on a red box or something – most likely for good luck or wealth. Don’t mind them, just stay to the other side or they’ll trample you to death.
If you see the guy selling the charcoal portrait of Mao, Bush and Putin please ask him what the hell he was thinking when he came up with that trio.
The Underground City was the government’s network of secret tunnels designed to spirit the important folks out of the city if things got ugly. If you go looking for it, remember it was secret and it’s hard to find. It’s in a hutong somewhere. If you’re like us you won’t find it, but you’ll find yourself seeing spray-painted signs for “LiQun Roast Duck” everywhere. So, if you give up on Underground City, follow the trillions of hand-scrawled signs for LiQun and maybe you can see a chef blowing a duck up like a balloon – and get yourself some delicious Hepatitis.
Hey, you know, a lot of people died here. Their crime – they wanted more than a one-party communistic state. The only person who acknowledged that was a Chinese friend of ours who lived through the 1989 massacre and had no shortage of ill feeling towards Deng Xiao Peng or Mao. Most Chinese seem to want to ignore the awkwardness of the whole thing – like a parent who sends their kid to sleep over Michael Jackson’s house.
Rather than fight the throngs to view Mao’s preserved body in the Mao-soleum, consider writing a review of Lord of the Dance on Amazon instead.
There are several sections of the Great Wall to access, the closest to Beijing being Badaling. Don’t go to Badaling. Why? It’s the closest section of the Great Wall to Beijing. It’s a tourist trap, and when the Chinese do tourist traps, they go nuts. Simatai is 2 – 2.5 hours out, and it’s worth it. Better views. No crowds. The only annoyances are the souvenir vendors who will stalk you – even up and down the many steep steps – in order to sell their crap. Ask them to leave, and on the 40th try they might get it, but probably not.
Much to my dismay I learned that the “Flying Fox” was in fact not a tram back down the mountain, but rather a wire line that you hang from on a sling. Terrifying for a few moments until you’re over some water, but worth it because you don’t have to walk any more.
Privacy, like not hawking phlegm everywhere, is unheard of. The size of the population prevents it from happening, and as such you simply get used to dealing with hordes of other people. You push people out of the way without apology, you cut them in line whenever possible, you flood into the elevator before anyone can get out, and you stand right next to people as they enter their ATM password. Nobody gets mad because that’s just what you do. There are myriad things you would say “excuse me” for in the States, but in China you don’t bother. Plus it’s too hard to pronounce.
A heritage rich in railings is worth protecting.