Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I'm in sensory overload.. this place is completely out of control. In many ways it reminds me of Moscow and Seoul. Incredibly wide roads, massive buildings and smallish cars jam packed down main thoroughfares make me think that Beijing is the Moscow of Asia. The architecture is clearly reminiscent of Soviet style in the older buildings, and even some statues that continue to exist are absolutely straight out of the USSR. But then there's a colder, extremely sanitary architecture to the parks and public lands. Impeccably clean, yet not a place that you actually feel warm or comforted in. Acres upon acres of park land that is designed with concrete, trees and stone. Yet almost uncomfortable and striking all bundled up into one.

After checking in, I was psyched about being able to use my status with United to get into the China Airlines Biz Class Lounge. Walking in, I was instantly impressed and awestruck at what must be the premier lounge in the Star Alliance network. Two young women stare blankly at the walls. No TV, just three newspapers and magazines- all in Chinese. On one wall, a few shelves contain a limited supply of food stuffs. "Ooh!" I say. "How did Arrowhead water get out here?" Looking more closely, I realize that it's not actually Arrowhead but something called Nongfu Springs. Fortunately, you can use that to wash down miscellaneous foods categorized by "Sweet" or "Salty". All of these, I notice, are fortunately "Disinfected"- proudly announced by yet another sign. Tick tock tick tock. No wireless. Time drags by. It's tough to tell how much is actually dragging. "Hey, where the hell is the clock?" Why, you learn, right where you'd expect it to be! Camouflaged in between two Shanghai Int'l Airport certificates in a far corner of the room. Why not place it right below the "Disinfected" sign? More people will notice it there.

Yesterday there was big talk in Shanghai about how crappy the air was in Beijing and talk of a sand storm that rolled through the city. Arriving today, the air is still incredibly bad, although on the hour long drive from the airport to the hotel, the taxi driver mentioned that even though the air looks hazy brown, "it's still much better than yesterday". I took pics right after leaving the plane that I'll attach below but in the next several images of other sites you can't help but notice how awesome the air quality is here.

The Olympics.. a few months off, will be interesting and a major exercise in logistics across this sprawling and congested city. In many ways it'll be fine. I mean- after the Olympic spirit takes hold and everyone gets into the lets-make-it-happen mode, the Games will continue. But hardly any taxi drivers speak anything but Chinese, construction projects run rampant, and nothing is very well marked. One taxi driver had no idea where the Holiday Inn was located- a major hotel and relatively new in Beijing. After asking, he made little effort to try and figure it out.

Picking up a city map clearly ginned up for the Games, its hard not to notice a massive PRC map on the back that has a theme of "Sights of interest in the PRC" with red dots identifying cool highlights from the different provinces. In a jab at all contested states, Lhasa and Taiwan are both identified and clearly marked as Chinese provinces. So there. Apparently that settles any disputes and case closed. Time to go visit Lhasa, I hear it's beautiful in the dead of winter. Yeah.

People here are definitely chatty, and you can tell they are putting themselves into an international frame of mind. In addition to an endless overdose of the Beijing mascot which appears in every nook and cranny, here are just a few of the Beijing '08 reminders from around town:

But then you see this sort of taxi. Some things haven't changed despite the immintent onslaught of the international community:

There are some stunning temples here, which makes sense. With 17 million people and being the cultural/ spiritual center of China, you need places like the Temple of Heaven. This place is out of control and newly sparkling from fresh coats of paint a-la Olympic facelift. There are signs all over the place talking about this being constructed in 1420, that being constructed in 1350, etc. It goes on and on. Just stunning to think that this structure you are touring was already considered established by the time Columbus hit North America. There are oodles of pictures, too. Like Nixon walking by with the main temple in the background. In a pic right below his, Khameni (Iran) is also pictured visiting.

It is important to get going at a normal hour in order to grab breakfast and then head over to Mao's Mausoleum no later than 9am. Traffic will completely kill your efficiency plans and the Mausoleum closes at about noon each day so when coupled with the throngs of gawkers crushing in to see Mao, it's important to kick off early.

Located at the opposite end of Tienanmen Square from the Forbidden City, I wandered the length of Tienanmen Square and found it impossible to not think back to those TV images blasted out worldwide in '89 of that student armed with a shopping bag who stared down five T-72 tanks in this very spot. I spent some time poking around trying to figure out situationally where that had occurred. Based on two things- the direction of the famous photo and the proximity of non-Governmental buildings near the square it really came down to deductive reasoning. My guess on where the famous pic was taken and what that piece of the square looks like now are here:

As a lay-in-state sort of mausoleum, this one is the kind where Mao rises out of a refrigerator for a few hours. But in order to make sure that things stay where they need to, he descends back down to his cell for the remainder of the day and for any needed maintenance and to make sure that he doesn't start to deteriorate. Or at least, that's one uneducated person's take on the embalming process after seeing what I saw. And what a spectacle it was at that.

Mao passed in '75. So for the past 30 odd years he's been on display in a manner just like Lenin. The difference is that Lenin died in 1924, so he's been on display for 80 years now and in the 50 years from his death till Mao's passing, technology in the art of preserving a body for extended public display had clearly taken quantum leaps forward. So while Lenin now needs weeks of renovation from time to time- replace an ear here, staple an eyebrow back on there- Mao is still in relatively good shape... well as good a shape as you can get, I guess. There is still a bit of Madame Trousseau's about the whole affair but all things considered it's all good. Creepy, but good.

As mentioned above, viewing hours are from 8 to 12. Guards do a good job of pushing the curious crowd along through the entire line- start to finish. The interesting thing about the visitors that I noticed is the incredibly large percentage of demographic that appear to be farmers from outlying prefectures. From what I could gather, this was A Very Big Deal for them- all springy in their step, sparkly eyed as they queued up and literally pushed their way ahead of others to go back through for a second or third time. I was reminded of being a kid at Disney World on Space Mountain.. riding it over and over and over. There's no cost to go view Mao and I think that some of these stinky guys desperately in need of a dentist (they tended to travel in packs of 8 to 10) had spent a considerable chunk of their savings to make the pilgrimage to see Mao and were going to make the most out of it.

It's about a 45 minute walk/ wait from the beginning of the line to the metal detectors. That breaks down to an initial 15 minute wait, 15 minutes to walk to a well hidden storage office after finding out that you aren't allowed in because you have a camera with you, and then another 15 minutes to finally make it through the crush and back to the exact same metal detector. The guards are pleasant enough, so in some respects you just wish to yourself that there might have been a sign posted somewhere other than in Chinese characters that could have warned you beforehand.

From that point forward, it's another 15 minutes to the building entrance and easily a ten foot tall marble statue of a seated Mao. Flanked on either side are 4' tall potted banzai trees and behind is a giant needle point mural of sky complete with yellows, blues and oranges interspersed through blots of white clouds. In front, a mass array of rose bouquets placed by the hundreds. As I milled forward, at least five people came forward to deposit ever more bouquets to this neatly arranged pile and I had to wonder if these bouquets were recycled to be resold tomorrow to yet another set of adoring fans.

Moving into the next room the line splits yet again- leading into the viewing room where Mao lays in state. The room goes deathly quiet and all light conversation grinds to a halt. The only noise is the shuffle of feet and the guards sternly insisting that people keep moving in two lines. The chamber Mao rests in looks new- thick bulletproof glass lets you peer in, but there is no doubt about it's thickness. Another floor-to-ceiling glass box houses both the catacaulfe, Mao and his two honor guards. This box is what we walk around and allows us to look the entire way through as a light from directly above Mao beams down onto his face. He is still tucked neatly under a bright red wool blanket decked out in a hammer and sickle logo, representing a bygone age at the height of Mao's power. although I thought that other than in building fixtures & statues this had gone the way of the DoDo back in the 90's.

I wasn't able to take a picture (and didn't see one camera although there appears to be an apparent ok on cell phones that have built in cameras) but was able to scare one up on the Internet. Here's what it looks like in Mao's room:

Ok, actually here is what it looks like:

After that spectacle, I headed over to the Forbidden City- a place you can see with all artistic glory in the movie "Hero". Built to grand scale in the 1600's, this Emperor's palace is truly a sight to behold once you make your way through the throngs of street urchins to enter the palace grounds. One guy with no leg and who hadn't bathed in three months came up on me:

"Where you from?"
"Paraguay, no habla ingles."
He didn't buy it- maybe because he was asking me in English and I was answering his questions.
"I know you understand me."

Dammit. I am confident that besides being a good foot taller than anyone and not looking a hint of Asian that I blend in. How did he figure me out that quickly?

I'm immediately awash in ancient temples shrouded in mist or poor air quality. I don't know which, but either way it made for fantastic photos. The Forbidden Palace is seriously insane in the membrane:

Inside there were all sorts of interesting things to note in a mass of hidden-in-plain-view ways. For example, this has to be the most bad-ass looking turtle I have ever seen:

Flanking the walls of the main courtyard where Jet Li was waxed in "Hero", there are mini-museums outlying the history of the buildings, the Qin Dynasty, and various historical items on display. These arrows caught my eye because I kept thinking about how hosed you were if convicted back then. To the Wall with you! And when you die, your kids will go! What if you said no? What if you upset someone so badly that you faced a firing squad of sorts and these arrows were used on you? Yikes. Serious dent in your social schedule, that's for sure. Would your final words be something akin to "why haven't they invented bullets yetttttt......."

Of course no famous historical site like this would be complete without the throngs of baseball hatted tours. Color coded so that your flag-wielding tour guide wouldn't lose you, every language and nation under the sun had their own tour group. Ever wonder where you go when you are an Iranian on holiday? Now you know.

But like every group, you always have some loud goofball American to do our country proud:

One final lunch before heading out at a local restaurant conveniently titled in English "Peking Duck Restaurant". Yes, to answer your question I had the Peking Duck and it was incredibly good. Wouldn't it have been weird if it wasn't? However I did steer clear of the Century Eggs and this offered house innovation course, which states with authority in that famous old saying "one pigeon beats nine chicken". Sha, as if that needs to be repeated. Who doesn't know that?

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