15 February 2007

From Hutong To Whoa Mama

Day three in Beijing and Robin and I are feeling the impact of spending the better part of two days on our feet. Our toes are now wrapped in protective tape to curb the pain of blisters impinged between the baby toe and the toe next to the baby toe (the awkward one that’s not cute, not useful and always seems to get in the way). Robin has shooting pains down the side of her lower legs. Her left knee hurts. Still, there’s lots to see and we’re only here two more days! We head to the official Hutong tour departure point and in the commotion, get what I now believe was a really bad deal. 180 kuai per person for a three-hour rickshaw journey through the back alleys of Beijing complete with stops at all the major sites, only entrance to the sites is not included. Our driver, Mr. Yu is about 100 years old and I am tempted to tell him to sit in the back and let me pedal around, though I know it would be considered rude on my part and he would most likely take offense to it. As Lianne said, “these guys should be sitting at home with a cat on their knee watching the tellie, eating biscuits and sipping tea.”

Our first stop is a restored 16th century government official’s home. The guide couldn’t be nicer, though the plasma screen TV and cappuccino machine slightly impact the feeling of authenticity. The entrance has seven steps, indicating the official’s rank. I am slowly realizing that unlike in the US, everything in ancient Chinese culture has significance. The number of steps, the color of the pillar, the height of the headdress and the length of the pinky fingernail all mean something.

From here we pedal on through the giant maze of hutong (literally translated as alleyway) on our way to the Drum and Bell Towers. I ask Mr. Yu if we can stop at a more modest home. He obliges and “pulls it over.” We enter into a small courtyard surrounded by five doors. The roofs are made of wood and covered with leaves. There are plastic bottles scattered everywhere. Random building materials (bricks, floorboard, and cement) line the walls. All the doors are closed. Clothes are hanging on numerous lines strung about the area. I see a child peeking out through a window. Mr. Yu explains that five families live off of this small courtyard. I ask him if they have toilets in their homes. He looks at me confused. “The neighborhood toilet it down the road,” he tells me. “So is the tap water.”

Back on our trolley and we’re zigzagging around pedestrians, bikers, and other rickshaws. Everything is grey. We’re in a sea of grey. A red door here and there breaks the bleak monotony. This is China. Upon arriving at the Bell and Drum Tower we are met by a perky twenty-something who races us around like we’re in some sort of contest. Robin and I (as well as our tour guide) struggle with the 75 steep stairs in the Bell Tower, though the incredible panoramic view makes it worthwhile. “The bell was struck 18 times to indicate a hou, and there were 18 hous in a day, which made up 12 haious, now known as months.” At this point I’m totally lost. Just read the sign attached. The Drum Tower is next. 69 steps. Even our perky guide is panting. We just catch the 3-minute drum exhibition, performed by a group of totally depressed-looking people. They walked in, banged some drums, and walked out. No smiles. No happy.

Now it’s back to Mr. Yu, who I think was missing us. Another hour through the hutongs and a few more stops before we’re back where we started. We tip Mr. Yu big-time, wave goodbye, and disembark, leaving him in this life while we return to ours. It was like we had spent the last four hours trapped in the past, sometime between 1949 and 1974. The whole “Oppressive Communism” thing all became a little clearer though sadly, that doesn’t mean anyone was able to escape – even now.

After a brief lunch at McDonald’s (I don’t want to talk about it) we were in a cab heading to the spectacular Summer Palace in the northwest part of the city. Our driver was literally obsessed with the NBA, which left me spending the whole thirty-minute ride pretending to know something about basketball. Every conversation came back to Yao Ming. “I love the NBA,” he told me. “American basketball is so wonderful. You know, Yao Ming is the best basketball player in the Universe. Yao Ming is Chinese.”

We enter on the lake side and are immediately drawn to the extensive section in my book on Cixi, who is our unofficial Beijing mascot. Mao was pretty cool, but this Cixi broad is off the hook. She’s got the whole pillaging, killing, backstabbing, corruption thing down AND she’s a girl. How sweet is that? Sadly, the incredible landscape is somewhat ruined by the lack of water in the lake. It’s the dry season, which means the paddleboats are sitting in a pile of mud. Even still, this place is powerful.

The main buildings are set on a hill that splits the palace in half. The southern section is meant to resemble Hangzhou and it’s famed West Lake, while the northern half was modeled after Suzhou, China’s Venice canal town. Once again, everything has significance, from the number of stone tablets in the floor to the height of each building. We walk down the forever long and appropriately named “Long Corridor” on our way to the Marble Boat, a thirty-foot yacht made entirely of marble. It was obviously commissioned by Cixi. It turns out she spent the last twenty years of her life ruling China from the Summer Palace, which she renovated and upgraded using funds that were diverted from the Navy, resulting in a major naval defeat to the Japanese in the 1880’s. She had over 10,000 eunuchs at her disposal and lived an expectedly lavish lifestyle.

This place was a far cry from the Hutong we had toured that morning. It was grandiose, excessive and equally overwhelming, though in a very different way. It seems that China’s past has been marked by extremes. Extreme wealth and power for the emperor in feudal times. Extreme poverty for the masses in Communist times. For a country that is obsessed with balancing the yin and yang, there is little such moderation to be found, even now. The Chinese tourists don’t even really seem to understand what it is exactly that they’re looking at, much less appreciate its significance. It makes me question whether they are really learning at all from their own past, and if those monumental mistakes can be mended in a fashion that will lead to sustainable development and a central role in global politics. I wonder if the extremes will simply be replaced by another extreme – one of consumption and self-fulfillment. After so many years of being poor and destitute, it’s no surprise that people want to be like Cixi and have more things. Of course, what will their significance be? There’s no more “seven steps means this” and “the color red means that.” Then again, maybe the shear fact that they can now afford all of these things is significant enough. Only time will tell. For now, I’m just going to keep on reading all I can about ma’ gurl’ Cixi. Who knows? Maybe she was one of the world’s first feminists. Now that would be pretty significant!

Oh, I forgot to mention...We also went to the night market, where they sell bugs on a stick. Yum!

1 comment:

Ryan Butler said...

Ewww -- Bugs!