Sunday, January 17, 2010

Streets of the City: What to say about the Forbidden, that Kodak hasn’t already…

The following morning we took on the Forbidden City, hoping to see it within two hours and move on to 798, possibly the Summer Palace and who knows what. I did make reservations for a Peking duck dinner with Leo, Liu Ye and had inquired about Buddhist vegetarian restaurants for the following evening, our last. After much discussion I had convinced Leo that we could manage the subway. The New Yorker in me, needed to experience their mass transit system and Michele was of like mind. For some reason, he was reticent to send us down into that realm, preaching about confusion, getting lost, etc. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but it looked easy enough on the map even without good language skills.
We ate a little earlier this time and then took a cab to Tiananmen Square arriving on site at 8:20AM, to make good time. The Forbidden City is an awesome and foreboding monument, surrounded by high walls a moat like waterway and various gardens. Hawkers and stalls were plentiful as we made our way towards a side entrance. We elected not to purchase an audio guide, thinking that we could buy a good text later to fill in the unknown historical aspects. The city was a rite of passage for native Chinese, Chinese Americans on pilgrimage and every tourist to Beijing. As such I guess it mimics the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon. Pleasantly the admission fees were quite low to make it accessible for everyone, I assume particularly locals. Though I had viewed pictures, had a sketch of the historical context and had seen films like ‘The Last Emperor’ the enormity and scale of this palatial city was nearly impossible to process. As a testament to imperial rule and class division the few equals it has I guess would be Versailles, the Pyramids, Chichen Itza, Machu Pichu, Timbuktu or the Taj Mahal; none of which I have seen. If you had the stamina you could spend a day or three there, focusing on different aspects of the grandeur, engineering, artifacts, design, landscaping, craftsmanship and use/abuse of power. Were we shooting film, Agfa, Kodak or would have made book. A variety of lenses would have proved helpful to try and capture the perspective and scope of the environment. I can barely begin to describe the scene and prefer to add a section of images to hint at the nature of this venue. Almost as engaging was the network of real, charlatan and in-between tour guides, promising city and Great Wall tours et alia for a very good price. Waves of tour bus groups from different cultures and various religions descended into the city with us, adding a stew of a dozen languages to the misty morning air; and anchoring the significance of this monument. Periodically we would have a brief exchange, be asked to have our pictures taken with strangers, again due to my hair. We had seen few black people so far, I had noticed one large family who appeared African, and a few random people in the street. Somehow random Chinese Art and Cultural educators were allowed to secure a few salons in the palace, tucked into the maze of rooms to exhibit student artwork, ostensibly for personal enjoyment; though actually a thinly veiled commercial enterprise.
By 12:30 I knew that the trajectory of our day was a crapshoot. We had stopped for tea in what had been a Starbucks and had fairly recently reverted to a more traditional quick service Chinese style tea café with snacks. Quickly moving through the scholars gardens we made our way to towards the southern exit before turning around to walk hurriedly back to the main entrance across from Tiananmen Square. Walking back through the outdoor/indoor palace city we realized that whole grids of other buildings and official galleries of artifacts had been skipped. Incentive for future explorations on our next trip.
The six or eight lane boulevard that separated the Forbidden City from the Square and its massive modern monuments Mao had built ‘to the people’ were most easily accessed via an underground walkway that also led into the subway system. We quickly learned that all who desired to enter the Square were required to go through metal detection devices, police profiling, and several sets of surveillance cameras. Walking up into the sunlight and open plan of the square felt like an achievement after that close observation. Looking back at the palace the massive painting of Mao, held credibility while standing in the square, though the juxtaposition of his image at the entry to the palace seemed out of context. The square and its surrounding buildings were his imperial city, now feeling wooden and hollow as Communism has evolved from his era. We noticed that every pole and lamppost had huge floodlights reminiscent of prison break film settings and a minimum of 12 video cameras mounted to capture the activity in each direction. Hawkers saw us a honey or a tidbit to ingest as they swarmed around us offering more historical tours, trinkets, translations and guides to the authentic Beijing. Viewed as bait for consumption or co-opting, just being with ourselves was quite hard to manage, particularly once we began shooting pictures. Though I desired a walk around and into Mao’s legacy of official buildings which visually defined his period I saw that getting out and entering the subway was the best medicine.
We immediately learned that the system seemed like a metaphor of the new China, massive underground spaces, brightly lit, quite clean and orderly. After exiting the first escalator we encountered various electronic fare card machines and manned info/sales booths much like our capital’s transit system. Everything wa visually charged with a saturation of commercial advertisements on every wall, inside the Lucite straps for hands to hold while riding, and on the tunnel walls to provide crude flip book of goods, foods and services available I assumed in the next district. Uniformed attendants were quite conspicuous and though their English was halting, they could offer guidance. Toilets were manned as well, with TP available on a roll by the sink to preclude waste I assumed. The cars themselves proved to not be as modern as those we would encounter in Hong Kong, but were quite modern and efficient with a double door system for containment and security. Schematic maps of the system were displayed everywhere with clear directional information to clarify where you were headed. Inside each car electronic versions of the maps lit up with arrows and color coding to identify the successive stops and which side doors would open in addition to the mechanized conductors’ Chinese language itinerary. Bloomberg and NY could take a page from this system; though it seemed evident that lower wage rates allowed all of these details to have a home here.
Our plan had been to go to 798 and then the Summer Palace based upon Leo’s instructions. The trip would take us to two opposite extremes of the edges of the city, with some switching between trains lines included. Now we were off our budgeted time scheme so we reversed the order thinking that we truly could see this second palace briefly and end up in 798 with more options for a late lunch. It was a short walk from the train to the palace, and this district was less dense and more residential. By the time we arrived at the gate it was around 2:30 and we were advised in pidgin English to purchase a ‘postcard view’, whose significance or parameters we didn’t understand. This home was smaller in its architectural presence, set into a hill that offered panoramic city views. Again there was a moat or waterway surrounding the building. Though this one had shallow gondola style boats in it, which were locked to the frozen ice crusted shore. Along its banks were numerous brightly colored pavilions, with banners and displays currently home to cafes and tchotcke stores, but which appeared to offer displays, snacks, puppetry and diversion to the various royals being ferried along the water. Footbridges were set above the water to lead guests to the palace. This palace was newer, seemed influenced by Tibetan architecture and color schemes, and rose up from a central square just over the bridge which had two massive stairways three stories tall. The building rose out of the rock as though it had arrived out of the land with an earthquake. There was a major temple to the Buddha with oversize deities in it at the top of the stair. As much as the Forbidden City was a testament to engineering, the Summer Palace was anchored in nature. Steps were carved out of the rock and seemed to just happen or appear. Pines and bushes jutted out from all sides, between the network of high stairs, rooms and temples with small garden tracts punctuating the landscape. Finally reaching the top of the hill and the end of the palace, you could look what seemed southeast for a great panoramic view or turn round to walk in a dense park whose northern parameter was defined by the river that the moat had dumped into. Suddenly, I understood, ‘the postcard view.’ You could walk the park, but below probably accessible by boat were a few islands all with structures, gazebos and or temples on them. If we had arrived earlier, that would have been an option.
Quickly exhausted by all of this history, we did make short work of this palace and tried to locate one of the numerous restaurants that Leo said we would find there. Other than a few pushcarts of the ubiquitous candied chestnuts on a stick and a souvenir map cart we found nothing. I spied a cafeteria, now closed and we realized that we had to move forward or go back for our late lunch. Retracing our path to the last train change we got off at the site of another hǔtong, assuming it to offer greater selection. We did have several choices, and decided on a large one room restaurant with high ceilings and a roomful of women who seemed working class and possibly many of whom could have been employed by the same business, factory or mall-store. The waitress owner a polite, attractive woman in her late fifties spoke no English presented a menu for tourists with photos and Chinese character. We pointed and picked a few items, and didn’t realize until we started eating that we had found a wonderful little Sichuan spot. The spicy shrimp were divine. For the first time I understood the concept of ‘Ma’, that is the cornerstone of Sichuan cuisine. I had often read that the cooking has Ma Hla, or numbing heat from the combination of Sichuan peppercorns and chilies; while its sister province Hunan, is characterized by just the Hla or spiciness. The glow on my lips and tongue tip was electric and endorphin, staying with me for nearly thirty minutes.
This feeling of numbness, satiation and serendipity conjured memories. From the village of my surrogate parents, and early food and culture mentors, I imagined eating here with Perry Sloane. He was one of my Dad’s oldest and best friends; now an ancestor. His daughter, is a soul-mate and sister. I felt that Perry would have voraciously and hedonistically taken in this food and the Sichuanese Maitresse’d, owner. Quite possibly he would have snapped her portrait and flirted just a bit, while Neddie his wife, keen eyed quietly observed smiling.
Shopping sorta
Getting out of the district was another story. Tired, too whipped to try and move across town onto 798, we elected to briefly explore this hǔtong and surrounding neighborhood before heading home to get ready for our duck dinner. This time, we skirted the alley enclave observing the numerous food shops and small restaurants. I needed a sense of relative economic value for local consumer goods and suggested we look into the mall across the avenue. America should be proud, or maybe it’s the other way round…anyway malls more dense and intricate leading in and out of mass transit, underground walkways, in transit terminals and landfills were ubiquitous everywhere we went in China. This happened to be our first. In retrospect, one of the most tame. The stores were varied, generally working class goods, though the first four floors of eight were dedicated to bridal wear. In the streets, and in advertising I had seen a mix of no name brands, clones & knockoffs, premier western brands, (now made locally) and super luxury, all often juxtaposed together. On another occasion think of going to a mall with Gucci clothes, fine Swiss watches, Bottega Veneta fine Italian leather, haute cuisine and Subway shops all in a row. Today this mall market largely had knockoffs and wannabees, vaguely implying standard brands at fairly reasonable prices; although I hadn’t a clue of wage rates. Think, utilitarian shoes in coarse leather for $19-28 U.S. with women’s dress heels at around $35.
Afterwards we were too through and still far from our lodgings. The train seemed to dense and at the six way intersections, cabs were hard to come by. Like all cities at rush-hour the client base increase in direct inverse to the number of cabs on duty. Mounting a NY mindset, I hustled and got us on our way after 10 minutes of haranguing in some derivation of a bastardization of Mandarin.
We checked in Leo, who I now only referred to as Liu Ye, to verify our dinner reservation and travel plan before showering, decompressing briefly and heading off on foot. I should mention that navigating the city and negotiating the cold were key factors in every decision. When we had flown to a bright cold evening, walking after dinner and quickly realizing that Beijing’s was a dry, low humidity cold and thus deceptive. Within moments of stepping outside, the rawness would cut through you at a different rate then the wet cold of NYC. The temperature appeared significantly cooler, though the daytime sun lulled me into believing it was tolerable. Our decision to walk to dinner was therefore either foolish, based in punch-drunk logic, or due to that slight warming trend urban areas experience post sunset when the buildings give back heat to the streets. The walk was pleasant and offered more context to the vitality of the city, people, street food vendor performances and pushcarts peddling anything from cured meats, analogues to Veg-a-matic slicers, cheap sox and such.

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