August 18, 2008

Beijing – You can take our empty packets, but you can’t take our freedom

Since we had no afternoon events, we decided to go touring. We first went to the Silk Market, but accidentally ended up at the mall across the street. After getting to the top floor and seeing no restaurants (at least, no restaurants that weren’t fast food), we realized our mistake and went across the street. The Silk Market was quite like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but more organized. The market women almost sounded desperate when they tried to sell. They practically threw things at us. I ended up with a t-shirt, a Chinese-style silk shirt, a scarf for David, and some tea. The bargaining is really ridiculous – for the scarf they offered 360 and we bought it for 50 yuan ($6). The most interesting part was that they had tailor shops where you could select your fabric, show them a picture, and have your suit or dress made in 24 hours. I wish I had an idea of what I wanted made or I would’ve tried to get something, but no luck. The only thing I want is the Edwardian dress I’ve been planning for so long, and I want to make that myself. We ate at the Western restaurant at the top. “Western” here is as if someone had a general idea of what Americans eat and then made up their own recipes. I presume this is how a lot of Chinese-American food started off (like chop suey). There was an extensive list of pizzas with the most random ingredients – fruit, bacon, and pine nuts. I found the only one without meat, the margherita, which listed its ingredients as “tomato, cheese, margherita”.

We took the train one stop over to Tiananmen Square, which wasn’t as big as I expected. They had some Olympic topiaries and guards standing at attention. However, the walkway under the street was HUGE. Most of the streets here are 10 or 12 lanes across with barriers in the middle, so they have to have special under-the-street crosswalks. On the other side was the Forbidden City. We tried to go in a different, smaller entrance, and then were greeted by a bunch of over-friendly people at the gate. Now, the guidebook says to be wary of “art students” who offer to show you their exhibitions and charge you exorbitant rates and scam you somehow. I didn’t think this actually happened. However, these people said “Come look at my art! Please, see my art! I am an art student!” and pointed toward a sign that said “Art Exhibit”. We turned around and went back to the main entrance.

From the main gate to the second gate was so far. Then there was another gate with a giant courtyard before the ticket booth. From there there were a series of courtyards with buildings (built in 1420 during the Ming dynasty) in what I would call the traditional Chinese style. (What I didn’t realize, as I am jaded from seeing cheap stuff in Chinatown, is that this stuff isn’t just tourist tack – it’s actual historical Chinese architecture.) We kept going into smaller and smaller courtyards with similar buildings. Since we hate audio guides, we had no idea what was going on. All the buildings had signs saying when they were built and what they were used for, but no more. They seemed to be mostly unused – the emperor’s meditation room for this once-a-year festival, the antebuilding to the meditation room, the emperor’s second cousin’s minister’s meditation room for the week he was there ever. Like British castles having a room in case the monarch came to stay. They had little exhibitions – jade, gold censers, amazing bronze items from the 10th century BCE (seriously, the Near East has nothing on these). Except for the little placards for each item, we really had no idea what was going on. There were no explanatory signs, no historical drawings, and really very few displayed items when you think about how many they must’ve had. The most impressive part was the size of it all.

lionWe went to USA House for dinner, where they were very friendly and we had free massages and barbecue.

At the stadium, we saw the mens’ 3000m steeplechase, where one guy lost his shoe and had to stop to put it back on. He ended up a minute behind everyone, but of course everyone cheered as loudly for him as for the winners. Mens’ long jump went on in the background, but they hardly ever showed it on the big screen. Pole vault was great – we watched the Brazilian pick a wedgie of Olympic size and the Russian break an Olympic record (but apparently missed her break the world record at 5.05m, as the 400 was going on at the same time). It was nice to sit down after so much walking, but I think the seats are a little too short for real comfort.
Also, instead of having them confiscate our food, Dad poured his cashews into his pockets and I stuffed my face chipmunk style with the rest of my Goldfish. He got the cashews through and I spent the next five minutes chewing.

Here’s a phenomenon I didn’t remark on yesterday: human fences. Instead of using orange cones or barriers of some kind, they have either police or volunteers  stand in a line. And there’s also a volunteer in every section making sure no one misbehaves. And one of the guys who raises the flags for the medal ceremonies continually hits himself in the face with the flag.




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