07 May 2004

From the Temple of Heaven to the Depths of Humanity

Hey, I finally got my rental cell-phone today! Anyway, I also experienced a Beijing bus. Let me try to give you a visual picture of the sounds and feel of the ride. I caught the yellow and blue bus (number 22) not far from my homestay and climbed aboard, well, barely, as it was so jam-packed that I was standing on the top step, just far enough inside to allow the door to shut.

Off to the side of the bus was the ticket lady, whining out the stops in a steady nasal drone and collecting the one-yuan fee from each rider (except those with the special pass cards – government workers?). At each stop, a few more got in, and fewer got off, so we were sort of naturally packed in there, like when you take a bunch of stuff and keep gently shaking it in a bucket, until it all settles down into the most compact form possible.

Now all this was going on with Beijing traffic, which picked up again today, being the final day of the holiday and everyone getting back home. Luckily, at one particularly busy shopping district, most passengers got off, and only a few of us were left standing, with seats for several others. I highly recommend a ride on a Beijing bus if you are here, simply for the experience, even if you only choose to ride a couple of stops.

From Qianmen, I walked the length of Tiananmen Square again (Mao’s mausoleum was closed again today, and will be closed tomorrow as well… spring cleaning?). Then walked to the Beijing Grand Hotel to pick up my excessively large cell phone (one of those old Ericsson models). Then I walked to the Temple of Heaven Park, paid my 35 yuan, and took a self-guided tour.

The grounds of the temple are even bigger than the Forbidden City, a large artificial forest of Cyprus trees cut with broad walkways and the a series of temple buildings. This was not a Buddhist temple, but one for animal sacrifices, to ensure a good harvest. There were green and blue roof tiles, and the circular Hall of Prayer for a Good Harvest (in fact circles seem to be the thing in this particular temple). It was cool and shaded, a welcome break from Beijing. Of course the sky was a non-descript gray haze all day, no definition between cloud and sky.

In fact, to shift gears a bit, there seems to be a bit of acrid oiliness to the air in Beijing, mixed with the dust, leaving my glasses eternally dirty and my eyes occasionally watering. And while we are off the subject anyway, lets go way off topic for a second. I have not seen very many infants in Beijing, though there are plenty of children. But two of the few I saw were being fed. One lady was just sitting outside a shop on the sidewalk with the kid stuck on, another was actually walking down one of the busy streets with the kid breast feeding. No judgment intended, just one of those images of Beijing that keeps the city seeming slightly different than the average big U.S. city.

Back to my daily travels, though. I walked north along Qianmen Dajie to Qianmen again. There are several army-surplus stores here, with several people wearing parts of U.S. military uniforms. There are also plenty of KFC restaurants (one of the most successful foreign companies in China), as well as McDonalds and even a Dairy Queen. There are also Chinese places using images similar to the Colonel of KFC for their dumpling and duck advertisements.

I then decided to take a cut through the Hutongs, pickling a westward-leading street parallel to a main road, and started walking. Soon the small stands and street-vendors gave way to small shops and restaurants, then even these became sparse. Then there were barbershops. A couple dozen of them. And the “hairstylists” were sitting in their doorways in short skirts looking for customers. Apparently the service in barbershops here is a little … extra, if you know what I mean, wink wink, nudge nudge. They all know at least one word of English, too – “massage.”

Eventually even the barbershops receded into the distance, and the street just wound through houses and the occasional business, run out of a room in a house. Old men played games on the corners, children ran around and laundry waved in the breeze. Very noticeable was the significant increase in Chinese flags hanging outside the doors. Those and the pro-hygiene, anti-littering, anti-SARS cartoons painted on the walls of the Hutongs by the government.

The rest of my afternoon walk was relatively uneventful, unless you count the bag of Lays brand Peking duck-flavored potato chips I ate. Some flavors you just cant get in the States, you know. And so we come to the end of my second full day in Beijing (well, maybe not the end, I may go out again tonight), one Imperial Palace, one Heavenly Temple and one Communist Culture attraction down, one more palace, one great wall and one stuffed leader of the Communist revolution to go.

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