We met at 8 am in Tian’anmen Square with Annette and Alberto, a couple we had met in Xi’an and with whom we had made plans to spend a day visiting Beijing. Annette reminds me a lot of Faby: brunette with brown eyes, short, pretty, and with an enviable bronze complexion. She is German, has a German mom and a Bangladeshi dad, and like my beloved daughter is a polyglot who feels at home anywhere in the world. Alberto is Catalan, speaks very good Spanish and English, and is tall and of fair complexion (just like DJ!). They are traveling through China for three weeks, after which Alberto will back home to Barcelona and Annette will go to Hangzhou for a year to complete her degree in Economics. Pretty interesting travel buddies for the day, wouldn’t you say?
The Forbidden City was a bit of a disappointment. It is a must-see landmark in Beijing, but in summer it is hot and terribly crowded. Besides, you only get to see the central one third of the whole complex, where the big palaces are. OK, one would think, there should be plenty to see in the big palaces. Alas, no. They are essentially giant warehouses, with a rug, a throne, and a few imperial amenities (you need to add with your mind a throng of 3,000 concubines, flowing banners held by eunuchs, lanterns, gongs, and colorfully dressed courtiers to get an idea of what the place might have looked like in its heyday). But you have to do your imagining as you peer through rather narrow openings since the public is not allowed inside the warehouses.
The imperial garden, at the far north of the complex, is OK, but not as imperial as Versailles or those of the European nobility. Besides, the soot that floats over Beijing gives all surfaces a slightly shabby aspect.
Fortunately Klaus had recommended climbing the small wooded hill that rises north of the Forbidden City, and that was delightful. An additional fee of 20 yuan cut the crowds by at least 90%, so you could actually stroll through the woods, stop to look at groups doing dance/exercise, and from the top of the hill look at the Forbidden City, which from the distance does indeed look imperial and vast (this is when we realized tourists only have access to one third of the whole complex).
With our karma and feng shui restored, we ventured west, to the lakes that border the Forbidden City to the west, and where the Winter Palace and the White Pagoda are located. I never identified the palace, but the complex of the White Pagoda was quite interesting, with several temples devoted to different incarnations of the Buda and his coterie of angels and demons.
The lakes themselves are a favorite place of relaxation for the Beijingese, with all sorts of opportunities for boating, strolling, or picture-taking. Now, the Chinese have taken into picture-taking with a vengeance, and are intent on dethroning the Japanese as the biggest collectors of tasteless pictures. Interesting characteristics include total lack of the concept of framing, avoidance of any sense of normality (either by being stone faced or by breaking into silly poses), and incredibly long intervals to actually snap the picture (why, in comparison with them el Coquito is like lightening in taking a picture).
Thoroughly satisfied with ourselves we were thinking of quitting for a few hours, but we dug deep into our reserves of inner strength and went walking through the Hutongs west of the imperial complex. You see, Beijing was built from scratch as a planned city in the 1420’s, and as soon as the imperial and administrative complexes were delimited a couple of million squatters established residence around them (actually, they were probably the workers and artisans that built the imperial complex). Well, as time went by the “old city” became defined by a network of alleys with small, single family residences, where the people lived in a type of vecindad or vecindario, doing half of their living in the communal areas. So the narrow streets were where kids played, food was prepared in small coal burners, bucket showers were taken, clothes were hung, and socializing took place. With the Olympic games in 2008 many of these vecindarios or Hutongs were razed to the ground, but a few were rebuilt as a show piece of history, and the remaining ones were give a coat of paint to brighten their squalor. Luke felt we were wasting our time walking through little ugly streets, but I hope one of these days he will remember walking through the history of old Beijing.
After a quick lunch at Yoshinoya (one of my favorite fast food restaurants from Japan) we said goodbye for a few hours to Annette and Alberto (we were meeting again at 6 pm), and Luke and I headed home to take a break. Fortunately Klaus has a good collection of action movies, so we relaxed for about an hour and a half watching Die Hard 4 with Chinese subtitles. Nice :)
By 5 pm we were on the road again (or shall I say in the metro again), headed for a dinner date with Klaus, Annette, and Alberto. Klaus figured that if we had come all the way to Peking, then the least we should do is have a traditional Peking Duck dinner. He had chosen a strip of nice restaurants intermingled with pubs and handcraft shops, along the shore of one of the lakes, for our dining experience. The restaurant was super popular and super crowded, because on top of serving delicious meals they also put on a dinner show. We missed the first part of the show waiting for a table, but we thoroughly enjoyed the second half, looking at the jugglers, the dancers, and the magicians! (When I was a little boy my parents took us to see a Chinese magician, who I remember as being marvelous. He wore a Mandarin robe, and long mustaches, and performed the most amazing tricks I had ever seen. This show totally reminded me of that wonderful memory).
The Peking Duck was superb, but this was an upscale restaurant so I didn’t get to gnaw on the head, neck, and bones of the carcass. Schade! The trick with Peking Duck is that it is sliced very thin and is served with very thin steamed tortillas, a strongly flavored duck gravy, cucumber strips, and onion strips. The diner takes one of the tortillas with his/her chopsticks and lays it flat on the plate, dips in the gravy two or three slices of duck and lays them on the tortilla, adds a few slivers of cucumber and onion, and then wraps it tightly to form a small package that can then be daintily placed on the mouth. Well, since we had the League of Nations at the table the results were as varied as burritos and Knödels, but they certainly didn’t resemble the sample we had been given. Ah, but the taste was not affected by the outside appearances, and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.
Klaus then invited us to go for a walk along the strand, and to have a beer in one of the outside pubs, and so we let the night drift away until . . . shit, what time is it? Ten? Oh my, the metro closes at 10:30 pm!
We quickly gathered our tiliches, and at a brisk walk headed for the bus stop, rode to the metro station, and there said goodbye to Annette and Alberto. They are a very neat couple, and we wished them the best of lucks for the year to come. I am sure Annette will come back speaking Chinese like a native, but I am sure Alberto will pine for his vivacious girlfriend alone in Barcelona.
Then we turned and ran into the metro. Oh, good, the last train is at 11:20 pm. But it was already 10:40 and we had a good stretch to go, including two transfers. We made the first transfer on the nick of time, and we ran with the rest of the stragglers to try to catch the second transfer. We were almost there when the crowd came to a sudden, silent stop. The last train had just pulled out of the station and we had missed it! (At the end it was not such a tragedy, since we were already within walking distance of the house, but it was a first time experience to have missed the last metro train by seconds :)
Well folks, that is it. I am actually writing these notes on Day 23 (August 18), and in a few more hours Luke and I will be boarding the plane for Seattle, will have a layover of 5 hours in Sea-Tac airport, and then will take the last leg of the trip to Sacramento, where we should arrive at 7 pm of August 18. Luke figured that this trip has involved something like 9 flights, 12 major stops, 4 bus rides, 2 hard bike rides, and 1 death march. During these three weeks we have made many new friends and visited old friends (“one is silver and the other gold”), Luke has collected many girlfriends, and we have seen wondrous sights. We have tasted exotic foods, dined in fine restaurants, and enjoyed breakfast with the locals by the curbside. Best of all, we came to say hello to our Chinese brothers and sisters, and got a warm brotherly embrace from them and an invitation to come back soon. Not to worry, we will.