First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

China +10: Playing Tourist

Today is officially my 10th day in China, and just yesterday I got to do my first touristy thing: I took a cab into the heart of the city and spent a couple hours at Tian An Men Square and the Forbidden City.

First, Tian An Men Square: You may not have gotten this from the name, but it is a very large public square! If you like enormous, unshaded open spaces, this HAS to top your must-see list!

OK, in seriousness, there are a few impressive sights in the square: a huge monument, Mao's tomb (closed for repairs right now)and the ancient gate at the south end, but mostly it's open space and vendors. I had to keep moving because if I paused, three or four people would descend on me with Mao watches, kites, hats, little red books, postcards and books.

Then there were the scammers: I had read about these in advance, but if you ever visit (assuming you stand out like I do) be ready to be approached about every 3-4 minutes by an 'English student' who wants to practice or an 'art student' who would like you to see their exhibition. Neither scam will kill you - they try to get you into a position where you are compelled to buy grossly overpriced goods - but there's no reason to be stupid, either. Thanks to the wide open square, you can see them coming a mile away, too! I just walked fast and played the ugly American - try to ignore them, say no thanks, no eye contact, keep moving.

The 'English students' seem to have the square itself, while the 'art students' seem to dominate the area leading up to the Forbidden City. But once you pay your 60 yuan and get inside, it is a much more pleasant experience.

I got there at 4, as they were letting the last people in, and the City closes at 5, so I was feeling rushed. Some of the most famous and largest buildings were closed and shrouded in scaffolding and netting, getting cleaned up before the Olympics next year.

So I walked along, looking at red buildings and gilded archways - all very impressive - and then I came to the Imperial Gardens.

Now THAT was worth the price of admission. It's ancient, gorgeous, huge and intimate at the same time, and it was shady and cool. Absolutely spectacular.

By this time many of the people had cleared out, and as I randomly wandered, more and more often I would find myself all alone in some sunlit little courtyard with a tree and another ancient building and nothing else. The temperature had dropped, there was a breeze and that terrific late-afternoon light.

Soon I had to leave and elbow my way through the vendors who had formed a dense crowd around the exit. On my way out I bought some postcards - negotiated from 10 yuan down to 5 (she was annoyed when she saw I had more money in my wallet and angrily thrust the cards at me, but I got the feeling that was for show) - walked several blocks to a cabstand, the last 45 minutes having made the whole thing worthwhile.

Unfortunately, it was only on the last 'art student' of the day that I realized what I should have been saying to them all along:

"Sprechen zie Deutsch?"


That's an old saying, but still true. At one point I had left the area and went into an upscale Western shopping mall several blocks away. I wanted water, but places that sell Rolexes and Cartier are short on convenience stores, so I went into a Starbucks and bought two bottles of Evian (the only bottled water in sight) for 20 yuan each, about $2.50 each. That'd be a mild extravagance in the States, but even more so here, where I have a water dispenser in my kitchen, and each 5 gallon refill costs - you guessed it - 20 yuan.


I like the image of some ancient emperor standing here throwing switches and yelling 'Is it on now?'

Seriously, though, I think this shows one of the differences between ancient cultures and America. You take this exact same pavilion, centuries old, with its history as part of the Imperium, and drop it in America, and we'd build a park around it. Here in China, you can't swing a Mao watch without hitting something 1,000 years old, so they looked at this and... well, those brooms have to go SOMEWHERE.

I did go to the store, but the weighing station looked like one of those raised islands on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during a crash, so I passed for the day.