Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I'm going to call this Thursday, though I've seriously jumbled the order of the things we did and the places we went, but it doesn't matter. We went to a performance of acrobats and contortionists, and I have to say here that I never knew the human body was capable of such dexterity and precision movement, and I certainly never knew it could be bent into some of the shapes and positions that those young girls achieved. If I tried to bend my back as they did, the cracking would be heard in Cincinnati, and I'm sure I would never walk again.
I was fascinated by the theaters. Our bus would nose its way down some little back street and find a place to stop, we would get off and follow Omar down a dimly-lit alleyway, pass through a small door in a somewhat seedy-looking building, and find ourselves in the foyer of a lovely theater. The decor would be beautiful, the restrooms ultra-modern, the staff courteous and efficient, and the seats comfortable. We would see an impressive performance, complete with the latest in light and sound effects, and then be ushered out the way we came in, back down the little alley and back to the bus. It all had a surreal, dreamlike quality, and later I would wonder if I had really been there.
Almost everywhere we went, we were besieged by street vendors and beggars. About the only place they seemed to be absent was in Tiananmen Square. I think the plentiful supply of uniformed police there might have discouraged them. They were everywhere else, though. Many, if not most, of the beggars were children. At first, I found this appalling. I'm not accustomed to having children beg me for money or food, and my natural impulse was to want to give them something. Our tour guide, David, told us not to do so. At first, I found this hard to accept. Then, I began to look more closely at the children. Funny thing, they all looked healthy to me. In fact, some of them were pretty plump. I don't mean the swollen, round bellies of starving children. I'm talking about plump little kids, with little round rumps, little round faces, and pudgy bellies. We had seen hungry children in Mongolia. These kids weren't hungry, they just knew they could cadge a little spending money off the tourists. Once I realized that, it became a lot easier to refuse them.
The same thing applied to the vendors. Mostly adults, they swarmed around us like flies, selling everything from "Chairman Mao" wristwatches, to fake Rolex watches, to silk totebags, scarves and just about anything else you could name. However, none of them looked particularly needy. Our tour guide, in addition to warning us not to give the children money, had also warned us against buying from the vendors. It was hard to do, though, as they were extremely persistent.
We went to the Forbidden City. All my life, I have heard of the Forbidden City, but never really knew what it was until now. It is a huge, walled compound that encloses an Imperial palace, and some lesser palaces where the Empress and a lot of concubines and their children lived. It was forbidden for anyone other than the royal family and their servants in good standing to enter the compound, hence the name "Forbidden City." David was very good about giving us the history of the various Emperors who lived there, and I only wish my head would retain those facts as well as his apparently does. Most of it just went straight through.
We also went to some other palaces, the most beautiful of which was the Summer Palace, in my opinion. It's built near a fairly large lake, which has an island in the middle. There is a residence on the island, and one assumes that in the warmest weather, the family would go there to seek relief from the heat. Surrounded by water, the island residence would surely be the coolest place around. There is a small lake, or large pond, on the grounds of the Summer Palace, enclosed by pathways, seating areas and gardens. This pond contains a great number of beautiful koi, the glorified goldfish of which the Chinese, as well as the Japanese, are so fond. They are indeed very pretty, and a group of children were feeding them, so I was able to get a picture of them as they formed a surging mob of color, going for the food.


Another very enjoyable thing we did was the ricksha ride. You probably know what a ricksha, or rickshaw, is but I'll catch you up anyway. It's a small buggy, typically seating only two people at the most, and in older times it was pulled by a man who placed himself between two poles extending from the front of the little buggy, and holding the poles, he would run along the streets, pulling the little buggy behind him. Nowadays, the buggy is attached to a bicycle, and the driver rides the bicycle, which pulls the buggy.

Eloise and I got into one together, and our driver was a large, genial man who was very friendly and kind to us. Toom Chris, who (mercifully) rode alone, had a driver who was small of stature and didn't look very strong. The expression on his face when he saw Toom Chris was priceless. The man may have been small, but he had a large sense of humor, and we all had a good laugh when he partially encircled Toom Chris's huge bicep with his hands, then transferred his hands to his own thigh, indicating that Chris's arm was bigger than his leg. Which, indeed, it was. However, once we got under way, it was evident that those thin little legs were made of steel, as he had no trouble at all in powering the ricksha right along with everyone else.


You'll remember that earlier I mentioned that we felt like we were being shown the best of Beijing, but knew that there must be a darker side somewhere, just as there is in any large city. At one point, our bus was passing through an area that obviously had not undergone any renovation. David commented on this, and acknowledged that it's a problem for the government. They want to tear it down and rebuild, but are delaying, surprisingly, for humanitarian reasons. Apparently some of these old sections date back for two hundred years or more, and the little homes within those rabbit-warren areas may have been in a single family for many generations. There are narrow little lanes that traverse the neighborhood, really too small for auto traffic, but bicycles and pedestrians have no problem. The people are well known to each other, and form a very tightly-knit community. They look after each other, and share in each other's joys and sorrows. In short, however poor and rundown the area may look to outsiders, to the residents, it's home.

When the government does tear a neighborhood down, they make every effort to relocate the residents into nicer surroundings, but the people don't want to go. They want to remain where they are, with their old friends and neighbors, and in many cases their family members, close by. We were privileged to be invited to visit a home in one of the back-alley areas, and were surprised at how nice it really was. From the outside, it looked very rundown and dilapidated, but inside it was quite lovely. There was a large TV, comfortable furnishings, family pictures, a modern refrigerator, all the comforts of a home. Outside, there was a tiny patio, with a grape arbor overhead, and some beautiful flowers. The resident, our host, was hospitable and charming, a well-spoken and obviously educated man. Of course, this visit was arranged by our tour guide, and we know that there are areas that he would not want us to see, but then there are parts of Dallas to which I wouldn't take a visitor from China.

Once again, this has grown too long, and I think I'll save the rest for tomorrow.

NOTE: I do know how to paragraph my text. This program does not know how to honor the commands I give it. After re-paragraphing this about four times, I gave up. My apologies.

1 comment:

samraat said...