Saturday, May 20, 2017

Beijing Revisited: Wait, What Exactly Is This We Are Breathing??

February 2008

The scene: Around 20 of us are taking part in an escorted tour through China. In the span of seven days, we are whisked through Beijing, Xian and Shanghai. It is very much a checklist tour. Great Wall: check. Terracotta Warriors: check. Endless shopping stops: checkity check check. For the most part, we are subjecting ourselves to this style of travel because of the unbeatably low price. While lamenting this rushed presentation, a philosopher amongst us says something along the lines of:' Let's look at this as a highlights tour. There is no way we are going to appreciate anything in depth so let's see this as a way of figuring out where we want to spend more time when we come back.' This made a lot of sense to me and became the mindset I used to stop myself from flattening the tires on our tour bus.

Fast forward to May 2017
Almost a decade later, I am finally back in China. It is an even shorter stay, two days in Beijing, but at least it is a chance to finally enjoy the city at a slower pace. My plan was to return to the two places where I had most wanted to linger, the Wall (of course) and the Hutongs, as well as  check out some places I hadn't had a chance to see the first time around.

Day one, after flying all night from Anchorage, I was a little cross-eyed but there was no time for sleep. I sought advice from both the hotel concierge and a local friend and decided to begin my day at the nearby 798 Arts District. Created in 1957,  this rather sizable area was once the home to military factories, specializing in electronics. By the 1980's, production had slowed down and the buildings eventually became abandoned. As a result, you had these cool Bauhaus style buildings (courtesy of East Germany's help in getting the original project off the ground) sitting empty.  What happened next was  inevitable. Cool architecture and cheap (or even better- free) rent will draw artists in the same way all-you-can-eat buffets will draw fatties. It is a law of nature.

In 1995, the Central Academy of Fine Arts moved in and over the years, others followed.  Today it is this wonderful microcosm of galleries, funky stores and hipster-filled bars and restaurants.

My first time around, I had not had a chance to visit this district.  This was all new to me and I was doubly thrilled to wander around admiring the wonderful balance of high art, kitsch and everything in between.

"I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac"

I initially had hopes of picking up something small from one of the many galleries but a look at the prices disavowed me of that notion super quick. Instead, I contented myself with a couple of hours of window shopping and a stop for an authentic lunch. My very Chinese meal consisted of a vegetarian club sandwich and fries (and I thank the Google gods for making that possible).

Using the same method of communication, I tried to get the waitress to help me with getting to the next stop on my agenda. I typed "How much should a taxi to the Hutongs cost?", hit google translate and handed her my phone. At this point, she had several options. She could type in her reply. She could shrug and let me know she had no clue. She could use fingers and toes to give me a rough estimate. She did none of these. She grabbed her pen and a napkin and jotted down her answer. In Chinese!! In Hanzi characters!!  Why she thought that someone who barely had managed Ni Hao suddenly understood Chinese characters is a mystery to me.

When someone puts you on the spot or you don't know the answer to something, there is a Cuban expression that says"Me la pusiste en China" or you put it to me in Chinese.  As I sat there, dumbfounded, staring at the napkin, all I could think was 'this fricking chick just literally me la puso en China".

Luckily, the hotel had equipped me with a cheat sheet listing most of the destinations I might want to go to. All I had to do was show the card to a cab driver and point. My destination was the Drum and Bell Towers, which sit by a hutong neighborhood I had really enjoyed on my first go-round.

Stepping into the hutongs, which are a network of small alleys leading to courtyard-style dwellings allows you a peak into what 15th century Beijing may have looked like. Most of these neighborhoods have been bull-dozed out of existence but this one remains standing and judging by the number of pedicabs guides waiting in the square, appears to be quite popular.

Since I now had time on my hands, I waved away the pedi-cabbers, preferring to explore the area on foot.  I figured I'd get a better feel for the neighborhood this way and I was right. I learned that if you unwittingly walk down a dead-end street, you will probably end up on someone's front stoop where an older Chinese lady will shoo you away in ways that indicate you have been mistaken for a particularly aggressive Zika-bearing mosquito.

It was time for plan B. I saw a bar full of cats (although not technically a cat bar).  I like cats, I like beer and the owner was neither stomping nor hissing at me. This seemed like a good place to stop. I asked (again via google) for recommendations in the neighborhood and he showed me pictures of a lantern-bedecked street that may or may not be in Beijing.

It was time to consider the Pedi-tour option. I knew from my quick walk through the square that this would require haggling, which I hate but I have been to enough countries where it is the norm that I know the script. They give you an inflated price, you offer a third and after much melodrama, you arrive at a mutually agreeable price. In China, or maybe just in this particular square, the rules were a bit different. The pedicab drivers or sometimes their touts would approach and quote their outrageous price, in this case 500 yuan (roughly $72) but before I could counter-offer, they would answer for me. It was something like this:

P: "Hey Lady, tour of Hutong, one hour, 500 yuan" (this was always accompanied by much waving around of a laminated map showing the tour highlights)
Me: Uh
P: (as if we had come to an agreement) "Ok, 500. Let's go. Tour of Hutong" and they would start walking away with a the misguided belief that I would follow.

Once they realized that I was not budging from where I was standing, the negotiation would begin anew.

P: "Ok, ok Lady, tour of Hutong, one hour, 400 yuan. Ok, ok, let's go. 400"

This continued until we reached 150 yuan (around $18) and I had tired of looking at the map for the 50th time.

As we went around the neighborhood, he pointed out the school house, a temple and whatever else was on his map, but the most interesting part was just getting deep into these residential areas watching people go about their daily routine. I had seen public bathrooms by the bar, where there were a number of small stores but as I continued to see them the deeper in we went, it hit me that a lot of these homes must not have indoor plumbing.  These were communal bathrooms in the most literal sense of the word.

We finished the tour back in the square where we had started. I was barely out of the pedicab when a tout approached me to try to sell me a tour. I explained that I had just finished one. His sudden change in approach caught me off guard. "Ok, you already do tour. Tonight, we go dinner. You, me" "Uh?""Ok, ok. Dinner you, me. Free. Ok, ok" Dude was straight up trying to haggle a date!!

By this point, exhaustion was kicking in, so I passed on that generous offer, made my way back to the hotel and was asleep by 9pm. Of course, this means that I was also awake at the ridiculous hour of 5am. I had signed up for a tour with some friends which was picking us up at 8am, so I attempted to go back to sleep but not before I noticed something a bit unusual in the weather forecast.

"Unhealthy air quality"?! Since when was that up there with sunny, cloudy or sneezy? Oh well, it is Beijing, a place kind of known for unhealthy air quality, so maybe this was normal.

I slept some more, woke up at 7am and wondered who had applied a sepia filter to the windows of my hotel room.  Maybe it was a Four Seasons thing. You ask for a wakeup call and they come to your door at the prescribed hour with a cup of tea.  They really think of everything at that place.

We began our tour with a stop at the Forbidden City, the imperial palace I had been to nine years before. It seemed a bit hazier that I remembered but I had also been there in winter so maybe that was a factor.

#NoFilter. For real

No sooner had we entered the Palace than I started getting frantic texts from a friend who lives in Beijing but was away on business. "Wear a mask!" "Don't go outside!" "This is really bad!" I was too late on all counts but I was still under the belief that this was normal for this part of the world. It was most definitely not.

We had left "unhealthy air quality" and had progressed onto "hazardous air quality". My friend informed me that 100 on the pollution index is normal or acceptable. It was not yet noon and we were on the high side of 900. It would eventually go over 1000. Flights were canceled and people were staying inside and tightly hugging their air purifiers. The oft-blamed culprit for this mess was a sandstorm in Mongolia which had mixed with the usual smog and pollution to create this super sludge.

We had limited time in Beijing so staying in was not an option. Plus a day or two of this couldn't possibly be enough to kill  you.  Give you superpowers maybe but not kill you. We would just have to look at the bright side. This toxic air meant there would be fewer people at our next stop, the Great Wall of China.

My first visit had been to Juyong Pass portion of the wall. It was impressive in the way that by definition any world wonder is impressive but I remember standing amongst a mob of people looking up as the wall climbed along the mountain and out of sight, thinking "Yup, that's a wall alright."

This time, we were going to the Mutianyu portion. It is a bit further from the city but is known for being more scenic and less touristy, both big pluses in any wall watcher's book. Plus this one had a cable car.

From the moment we got up there, it was clear (perhaps not the right word in this atmospheric climate) that this was a much better chunk of wall. For one, even through the chunky haze, you could see the wall continue waaaay into the distance. It had the more scenic title hands down.

But even better is that we had huge stretches of the wall all to ourselves, something that would have been unimaginable at the Juyong Pass. I'm not sure if this was due to the more remote location or the fact that people are so picky about breathing but either way, this was fantastic.

We had close to two hours to either run up and down the wall, our own personal playground, or to sit in one of the small cafes, enjoy a Tsingtao and just marvel at where we were. I opted to do both. The next day as I read the crap air warnings and precautions, particularly the one about not exerting yourself, I wondered if trying to run from one guard tower to the next was the wisest move but then again, superpowers....

That evening, we walked to a nearby local restaurant. The menu was 100% in Chinese and the pictures all left more questions than answers. I typed "I am a vegetarian. No chicken. No pork. No fish. No meat. No sauce made with any of those things. Do you have anything I could eat?" and handed over my phone. When my meal came, it was the most awesome plateful of tofu I'd ever seen. For days, I was still carrying around my tofu from fridge to fridge.

The next morning, I woke up to a repeat of the day before. My phone was still trying to tell me not to breathe and the sky maintained that weird hue somewhere between orange and gray. But I had other issues, we were leaving that afternoon to Seoul, where I already had plans and the only purse I had brought with me had a dangling strap that was not long for this world.

I woke up early and ran over to the Silk Market in hopes of picking up a cheap knockoff that would carry me (and my crap) through the next two weeks.  Maybe I was scarred by the bizarro haggling of the hutongs but the bartering for a hangbag was almost too easy.  It took me about 5 minutes to explain that I did not want anything leather and another 5 minutes worth of negotiation, including the time it took to run my card. Within 15 minutes of entering the mall, I was walking out with a $20 Fucci (aka a Fake Gucci).

But that is not the strangest part of the story. As I sat in the cab, heading back to the hotel, I was admiring the architecture when it suddenly hit me that I was surrounded by blue sky. I lowered the window, lest there was trickery involved. Nope, in the 15 minutes it had taken me to get a bag, the most toxic pollution in the history of toxic pollution had simply dissipated, or gone back to Mongolia or whatever it is that it had done.  The day was beautiful!!

I wanted to go back to Mutianyu. I wanted to walk the streets and take deep breaths. There was so much I suddenly wanted to do. But alas, once again, I was out of time. This, my second trip to Beijing, had ended up leaving me wanting more. (Note: This is where I could include a hack joke about Chinese food but please note my restraint.)

I guess I will just have to look forward to my next visit, the one that will afford me enough time and if I'm lucky, breathable air.

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