China Trip--Day 8
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8:42 AM A friend in Chicago wants to know if we know about recent events in China. The answer is yes, but only because of articles on the Internet. Things are peaceful here, in the sense that Beijing bustles with life, the streets are crowded with honking cars, pedestrians who never look before crossing the road, and tens of thousands of bikes who drive right in front of cars and never look. We see near-collisions every few minutes. You get used to it, and life goes on. That's my answer to the question. There is an enormous amount of energy among the younger generation, and music videos and material things cannot quench entirely the deeper desires of the heart.
9:13 AM Little things take forever overseas. Marlene has been washing clothes all morning. She had trouble figuring out how to make the machines work because the instructions are in Chinese. And the machines work a bit slow. The wash won't be done until tonight.
10:14 AM It's colder today than recently--in the 20s, with a cutting wind. Because this is an arid region, this is a dry, face-chapping cold. Very little snow, but the wind gives you chapped skin everywhere.
10:44 AM Alan, Josh and I had breakfast with some publishers at the fabulous Shangri-La Hotel. When I say fabulous, I mean it is the kind of five-star place you see on the Travel Channel. One of the men taught English in Beijing from 1989 to 1991. He told some amazing stories of the events of those days. If that sentence sounds like a circumlocution, it is. People talk like that a lot in China. It's just better that way.
10:47 AM Here's an amazing fact. Each year 8-10,000 new books by like-minded people (that's another circumlocution) are published in the US. Compare that to a total of around 450 books in that category in China in the last 20 years. And China has 1.3 billion people. The publishers agreed that China is a country on the move, especially in light of the 2008 Olympics. A year ago there were 15 bookstores specializing in this sort of literature. Today there are 43 at least. No one really knows. That's not much, or it's utterly amazing, depending on your point of view. Many open doors. I plan to talk to the elders about some things we can do in the days ahead.
11:05 AM Just visited the Bell and Drum Tower. Built in the 1200s, destroyed, rebuilt in the 1400s, this was the "Big Ben" of ancient Beijing. The Drum Tower rises 150 feet in a series of pagoda roofs. We climbed 68 extremely steep, slippery, uneven steps to get to the top. The drums are enormous--6-8 feet in diameter. You can beat on them with your hands. Centuries ago, the drums kept time for the whole city. It was bells in the day, drums in the evening. The Drum Tower lines up on a north-south axis with the Forbidden City and the Tiananmen Square. A sign invites visitors to say a prayer and then drum a blessing for friends and loved ones. About as close to a religious statement as you'll find in public here. A sign calls one drum "the biggest drum in the world." It was made from "cattlehide" by a the Ha clan in the Henan province.
12:15 PM We're touring a typical Chinese hutong. The word is Mongolian and originally meant a well. It came to mean any group of homes built around a common well. Later it referred to the narrow lanes that joined homes and shops in the ancient Chinese tradition. The homes in a hutong were quadrilateral, built around an inner courtyard. Our guide took us down "Pipe Alley," named for the former shop that produced ornate pipes. Today the alley has become a kind of "Rush Street" of fashionable bars and tourist shops. We saw a bar called "Shut Up, Just Drink." But off they alley was a narrow passageway so tight that I could easily reach the adjoining walls without extending my arms. The walkway was cluttered dark, uneven and claustrophobic. Our guide said some families lived in the homes along this passageway for over a century, passing them down from parents to children. You see these hutongs in many towns outside Beijing. Inside the capital, they are a tourist destination. Our guide showed us an outside stove with stack of circular pieces of perforated coal. Evidently it keeps the house plenty warm during the winter.
12:40 PM We decided to take a rickshaw ride. So we rented six rickshaws for an hour-long ride through the hutong area. Lots of laughter and chatter as we each cheered our drivers (who pedaled very decrepit bicycles). Marlene and I started in third position but were son passed by Mark and Nick. Because it is cold today, we didn't encounter many people during our tour of the may alleyways. Odd to pass some very nice cars, such as a shiny BWM, parked in those narrow, ancient alleyways. I should add that while old and somewhat run down, the area was basically very clean.
1:20 PM Just saw some people riding bikes attached to skis on a frozen canal.
1:30 PM General observation. Most Chinese people we meet speak little or no English. However, almost every seems friendly, many wave to us and smile.
3 PM Just finished lunch at a restaurant across from the hutong area. This is a bit more like a neighborhood restaurant, I think. Our guide spends quite a bit of time placing our order. The biggest surprise: Chrysanthemum Fish, a whole fish, filleted, including the head and the tail, cooked with pieces of fish prepared in tiny fried slices sticking up from the fish. Extremely tasty. You could tell that we were all very tired from four days of extensive touring. We bade farewell to David, our tour guide. He charged us $2 each for each day of guiding in Beijing, an extremely reasonable price. He is a fine man who understands our group and perhaps shares some of our views on life.
4:30 PM Took a while to get home because our cab driver got lost and Marlene and Alan and I don't speak Chinese. Thankfully, Alan had David's cell phone number so the driver called him and had to backtrack to get us back to the Mac Center.
9:32 PM In bed early tonight. Mark and Nick and Josh went out for a head massage across the street. The two younger boys are in bed, Josh is talking with a friend, Alan and Marlene are sleeping, and soon I will join them. I learned a great deal about life in China today and the doors that may open to us in the near future. Certainly we can say that we have enjoyed our time here. We like China. I hope this isn't our final visit.
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