Today is March 26, 2011, and I’m in Beijing. Sometimes I look out the window, stop for a moment, and remind myself of the date and where I am. I think life becomes pretty ordinary in any city, when you’re working and studying as I am, or following any kind of daily routine. But there’s really nothing ordinary about this opportunity to live in Beijing. It’s something I dreamed of a few years ago, and now I’m living it. I think it’s good to stop and remind myself of that from time to time.
Today is not supposed to be an ordinary day, but it’s going to turn out to be quite ordinary. I’m going to visit the Great Wall. I visited it when I came to China for the first time in 2009, and I figure since it’s so close, it would be a shame not to go see it again. The weather has been crisp and sunny recently, so I think it’s perfect for a visit to the Great Wall. It’s a bit hazy this morning, not as sunny as recent days, but I’m hoping it will burn off by the time I get to the wall.
I leave my building and go grab something to eat on the way to the subway. There are plenty of roadside stalls that show up early in the morning and disappear by ten o’clock. I don’t know where they come from or where they go to. Most of the time I don’t know the names of what I’m eating in China. I just pick things off the menu, or point at something I like, or ask the staff for help choosing.
Today I’m eating something that looks like an egg pancake. It’s used as a wrap for a wiener and some lettuce. If I was in India, I wouldn’t touch lettuce (or meat) with a ten foot pole, but here in China it’s no problem. I order two. One is probably all I have time for, as I’m in a hurry, but I’ll need two if I expect to be able to survive a trip to the Great Wall, without succumbing to hunger and having to buy overpriced dumplings while I’m there.
I’m eating while I walk and it’s a bit messy. It’s somewhat difficult to eat these things out of a plastic bag and I don’t have any napkins. In China, some people think westerners are dirty. Walking down the street with hot sauce all over my face, I’m probably reinforcing the stereotype. I usually try not to do things that reinforce negative stereotypes, but I’m in a hurry today, so I’m not going to worry about it.
The streets and subway are crowded this Saturday morning, though it’s not like a weekday. A lot of people look like they’re dressed for work. I’m not entirely sure how the work-week goes for people in China. I guess some professionals work Monday to Friday, and a lot of other people work six or seven day weeks, with twelve hour days. But this is a worker’s paradise, the proletariat run the dictatorship and so there’s no need for complaining, or strikes, or any such nonsense, right?
I’ve learned to handle the crowds in Beijing. It involves a lot of shoulder, and never yielding. I repeat, never yielding. There are no exceptions to that rule. None. I used to think it was due to the population density here, that it was necessary to move about like this. Then I visited Seoul, Taipei, and Hong Kong, places which are equally dense, but you don’t have to get your elbows ready every time you go to the subway.
All the new subway trains have TVs on board. They are usually showing either advertisements or cooking shows. It’s like working out at the gym. The woman on the TV is cooking a crab dish. She pours cooking wine on a pair of crabs which are sitting on a plate minding their own business. The previously motionless crabs start to twitch. Then the chef starts to poke them with her chopsticks. I think at this point, the crabs are more concerned about being bathed in cheap red wine than they are about their imminent demise. In the end the crabs wind up with their limbs chopped off even before they get tossed in the pot. Didn’t Gordon Ramsay of MasterChef say if you do it that way you leave all the flavour on the cutting board? I guess there are plenty of different ways to cook a crab.
I arrive at the Beijing Sightseeing Bus Centre, which is next to Beijing’s South Cathedral. As I approach, two guys call out to me. I’ve learned through my travels that when people see you coming from a distance, and they’re already calling out to ‘help’ you, you might wind up getting scammed. I ignore them and walk on to the ticket booth, but there’s nobody there. The two guys come over and start talking to me, and I ask what’s up with the bus to Mutianyu, the part of the Great Wall I want to visit. They say the last bus left at 8:30 in the morning. I had the impression buses leave ever half hour until 10:30. I’m not interested in going to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, so I take off. Now my day just became ordinary.
I decide to stop by the cathedral for a bit to pray, since I’m in the neighbourhood. I light one of the votive candles, and then I notice that there’s wax all over the floor below the candles. It looks like the wax drains off the racks and onto the floor, and nobody cleans it up.
I still can’t quite figure out the status of religion in China. It was strictly suppressed years ago, but the best idea I can form about it now is that the government just doesn’t care. The South Cathedral is obviously of the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church. I’m not sure how the priests and bishops of the church walk the thin line between Beijing and the Vatican. Near my office there’s a huge protestant church. It’s less than ten years old. There’s a giant lit-up sign on the roof that says “Christian Church” in Chinese and English. They’re obviously not trying to hide. I also know that several Buddhist monasteries are running pretty ambitious evangelism programs.
I’ve noticed through my interactions with Chinese immigrants in Vancouver that the not-so-mainstream and somewhat crazy churches seem to be making inroads in China. I think this is a bit of a concern. Mainstream Christians and Buddhists better step up their game. Otherwise in a hundred years we might have a billion fundamentalists in Asia, making the place look a lot like the US Bible Belt. God knows we don’t need that. I don’t think that will happen, but I still do get a bit uncomfortable when I see Chinese people converting to the fundamentalist churches, instead of something a little more mainstream and sensible.
I hop back on the subway and decide to go visit my friends at the Red Lantern. This is a hostel in Beijing’s hutongs where I’ve stayed several times since the first time I cam to China in 2009. They know me there so when I’m in the neighbourhood I stop by for a visit.
I’ve been having problems recently with my transit card. It’s one of those cards like the Oyster in London or the Octopus in Hong Kong. You put credit on your card and then swipe it at the turnstiles or when you get on the bus, and the cost is automatically deducted. Sometimes I have to swipe several times to get the reader to recognize my card so before I get on the train I decide I’ll try to swap it for a new one. No dice. The staff at the subway station tell me that’s not going to work. What I have to do is trade in my card, get a refund for the balance and the deposit, and then get a new card. Isn’t that the same thing? Maybe the real problem is that they don’t sell transit cards at that station.
At one of the stops on the subway ride, one of the Beijing Metro’s fake security guards gets on. They’re easy to identify because their uniforms never fit properly. I’ve never seen one wearing this particular uniform before. There is a lot of fake security in Beijing. I gather it’s an employment scheme for young people, and it helps everyone feel safe. The uniforms never fit and these young people are always sending text messages on their cell phones. Every time I get on the subway, they x-ray my bag. Half the time the x-ray is not turned on, or the person behind the screen is not paying attention. I don’t know what the paranoia is all about.
I go visit my friend Tina at the Red Latern. We have a good chat for a while, talking about the changes at the hostel, what it’s like trying to understand foreigners speaking Mandarin, and the complications of getting to Tibet or the Great Wall. When I leave the Red Lantern, the sun is shining.
It’s lunch time so I decide to have lunch at a nearby Xinjiang restaurant which I’ve eaten at several times before and I know is quite good. In Xinjiang they use a particular combination of spices when they barbecue meat, and it’s very tasty. They have a special dish of noodles mixed with the BBQ’d meat and some green & red peppers. I was introduced to it by some friends in Xinjiang last fall, and I order it whenever I can. There’s a Xinjiang restaurant in my neighbourhood, but it’s not nearly as good. China has quite good beer and it’s cheap, so I order one of those to wash it down.
This restaurant is owned and staffed by Uyghurs from Xinjiang. As I’m having my lunch I’m trying to figure out if the Chinese patrons are more demanding than they usually are of waiters in restaurants. I can’t tell for sure. Han people in China are very suspcious of Uyghurs and fear them. I can’t figure out why. There are more than a billion Han and only ten million Uyghurs. When I was in Xingjiang I found Uyghurs to be very friendly and I was never concerned for my safety at all.
After lunch I head back to my office apartment and take a nap. I was up way too late on Friday night chatting with friends. Tomorrow is going to be busy as I’m having a one-off painting class and my first Taichi lesson.