Across the Middle Kingdom

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9 August

22 July 1998 - Beijing

Having arrived after sunset last night, I was looking forward to seeing the city by day. Sadly, the morning revealed a thick haze which limits visibility to a couple of miles. I don't know if this is heat-haze or smog. The weather is certainly humid enough that it could simply be some kind of fog, but the odors-- often quite pungent-- indicate that pollution is the cause.


At any rate, we caught the tail end of a Western breakfast buffet in the hotel and then took off for Tien'anmen Square. This involved taking a taxi, which turned out to be a pretty interesting way to get around. The wide-open exapnse of the Square was quite impressive, as were the massive edifices to each side. On the north side is the Forbidden City; to the east, the Museum of Natural History; on the south end, Chairman Mao's Tomb and a remnant of the ancient city wall; and on the east, the Hall of the People, otherwise known as the Chinese Parliament. We headed south, away from the Forbidden City (which we'll see on Saturday), and into a sidestreet market. The narrow, crooked street was almost literally choked with both shoppers and merchants. One thing I noticed was that the merchants have no hesitation about grabbing your arm or otherwise touching you in an attempt to catch your attention. (Kat says it's no different in New York.) One gaudy silk fan later, we made our way to a side alley, headed for the Liulichang Jie, a cultural market mentioned in Fodor's.

The alley very quickly became "local"-- that is to say, a place where people live and work with no thought to tourists or their presence. At first this was kind of neat, but after a while we started to get nervous. There were no street names we could identify, and no major streets. This was foot-and-bike country at its finest. Thanks to the haze, our only directional aid was the tiny compass built into my watchband, and the vaguely east-west nature of the streets.

Knowing that we were still headed in roughly the correct direction, we decided to press on. Then we hit an area where the streets were both winding and running at all angles. This would have almost certainly made us turn back, if not for the sudden realization that we'd actually reached the eastern edge of the market area we sought.

So we browsed the shops, buying here and there, but browsing at least every other store. The street vendors were less abundant, but much more persistent, which was sort of funny. Kat was fun to watch, too, as she haggled with various sellers. I don't think we paid more than two-thirds the original asking price on anything!

Of course, we found out later just how badly we'd done. But hey, that's what tourists are for: to get soaked by the locals and thus help improve the local economy.

All of our buying was done in shops on the outskirts of the market area. The main section of the market was actually sort of a letdown, being more expensive, more touristy, and less friendly, in a way. About this time I started to wear down, so we caught a taxi back to the New Otani.

Looking back on this, our first excursion in China, I'm struck by a number of things. One is the sheer magnitude of some things and the smallness of others. For example, right near Tien'anmen Square, this enormous wide-open area filled with people and surrounded by huge buildings and massive, ancient defensive gates, there are these tiny little shops on narrow streets. Living spaces appear to be quite tiny, at least by our standards. I suppose that in a city of 12 million, this is to be expected.

The primary form of transport is the bicycle. There are huge rack which are chock-full. Our temporary tour guide was mentioning that car ownership is on the rise, making for crowded streets. Maybe by their standards. The interaction between bicyclists and drivers is unique. When driving, it seems, one should act as though the bicyclists don't exist and assume that they'll fend for themselves.

Driving here is not for the faint of heart. In fact, riding isn't recommended for the easily rattled. I can see why foreigners are forbidden to rent cars here. New Yorkers would be used to the chaos and the use of the horn with abandon, but the bicyclists would baffle them. Everyone else would simply be lost. Things like lane markers are treated as halfhearted suggestions at best, and I think the traffic jams are caused by things like two lanes merging into two other lanes, and nobody really yielding to anyone else. I saw three cars trying to fit side by side in a single lane, and it almost worked, too.

Dinner was dumplings at The Golden Cat, which is apparently (and justifiably) famous for them. We sat in an open courtyard that had strings of lights across it. Each order was a liang, or a set of five dumplings. One of our orders was truly excellent, but we don't know exactly what it was! We tried to re-order but got something else instead. Such is life, I suppose. Considering that the entire meal cost Y30, or about US$3.75-- and that includes a beer for Kat-- I couldn't complain even if the food had been bad, which it wasn't.

The cab ride back was every bit as exciting as I expected. The bicyclists in this city are utterly fearless; I was impressed.

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