Last Day
Insomnia

These crazy Communists

Xi'an had 4 or 5 street food vendors across the street selling an assortment of meats and tofus and vegetables on sticks, ready to be dipped into the vat of oil and fried to lovely perfection. Beijing has an entire dajie (huge huge humongous avenue) of street food vendors, the sticks cost twice as much as they do in Xi'an, and you can get everything from octopus to frog legs to lotus root on skewers.

Xi'an had big streets with even wider sidewalks. Beijing has huge streets, actual pedestrian walkways, and a vast expanse of sterile Communist concrete called Tian'anmen Square. You will have gray hair, wrinkles, and bad knees by the time you make it all the way across.

Xi'an had annyoing souvenir hawkers shrieking "Hallo! Hallo!" the minute they caught sight of your big foreign nose. Beijing's annoying souvenir hawkers are completely fluent when they attach themselves to your side and insist that by God your trip to China will not be complete without purchasing a package of their special Forbidden City postcards, special price!

Xi'an had crowded buses and busy restaurants and people clamoring for the best view at the top of the Bell Tower. Beijing has the Forbidden City and 743 yellow-hatted camera-brandishing pointy-elbowed Chinese tour groups within. Do you want to get a good look at the throne inside the Hall of Heavenly Peace? Then you must chuck everything you've been taught about how to treat Old People and start throwing elbows and using your high school basketball experience to Block Your Opponents Out.

Beijing is Xi'an on speed.

The flight here was pleasant enough. (And our taxi driver to the Xi'an airport had us give him a lesson out of his English For Taxi Drivers Handbook on the way. "I think many more foreigners will come to Xi'an!" he told us brightly.) Our hotel is snazzy and a block north of the glitzy Wangfujing shopping street. There are a TON more foreigners here and not so many Chinese doing double takes when you walk by. This was obvious as we walked down Wangfujing last night on our way to Tian'anmen Square. Not only foreign people, but many foreign brand names (although I still can't figure out if the Nike store sells real Nikes.)

It was dark by the time we got to the square and we were standing by the south gate of the Forbidden City, right next to Chairman Mao's gigantic portrait. The party line is "70-30", that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong. The Communists gave women equal standing with men, but as far as Mao was concerned, I think that just meant that he had no problem imprisoning female dissidents along with the male ones. As I know next to nothing about Chinese history, I think I will now conclude my commentary on Chinese Communism. Oh, but I will make fun of them. The Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of The Revolution on the east side of the Square, for example, were closed from 1966 to 1978 so that history could be "revised". Our guide book says it was closed at the time of writing and as far as we could tell, it's still closed. On the west side is the Great Hall of the People where Nixon met Mao in 1972. And at the southern end of the square we have Mao and his mausoleum. It was fun to be there in the evening when most of the souvenir people were gone and the square was left to foreigners taking pictures, locals out walking with their babies, and small children flying kites or rollerblading around the obelisk (the Monument to the People's Heroes) in the middle. Half the buildings are being restored and are hiding behind scaffolding, as seems to be the case with historic buildings wherever I go. But it seems that most of the construction going on in Tian'anmen Square is for the 2008 Olympics. At least, that's what we decided. A huge section of the square is closed off for what looks like a dozen or so circular above-ground fountains. And scaffolding is going up near the obelisk where they're building something else. I did read a few older articles about Tian'anmen Square possibly being the beach volleyball venue, but I think the proposal was retracted. The Chinese people and government alike are very excited for the 2008 Games. There are some hopes that hosting the Olympics will further open China to the world, but most of what I've seen and read is about how the international stage will finally be giving China the respect and honor it deserves. It's hard to believe that beach volleyball might be played where pro-democracy students were once massacred.

But on a simply practical level, where are they going to put all the people? Beijing already has 14 million residents and I think most of them were at the Forbidden City today. The Forbidden CIty itself is one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen. It's a real life movie set, an enormous private playground, temple upon temple, concubine residence upon empress residence. There's a stunningly beautiful garden at the north end where the emperors went to unwind. But if the emperors knew how many screechy pushy commoners were tramping through their palace they'd be thrashing around in their graves. I lived in Italy for a few years and know a thing or two about Japanese tour groups, but Chinese tour groups are something else. (Of course, the world has yet to find this out as the Chinese are hardly ever allowed to leave the country.) These people are loud, excited, and joyous on one hand ("We're in the Forbidden City! Take THAT, Emperor Qin!") and impatient, tough, and sneaky on the other ("I must get to the front of the line NOW NOW NOW! Out of my way you big fat foreigner!"). After a while it wasn't worth it to me to push to the front to get a quick view of the emperor's throne. (You weren't allowed into the big halls, you had to gather around the entry ways and fight for a glimpse inside.) The English audio tour is narrated by none other than 007 himself, Roger Moore, but in the garden, when Roger begged me to "feel the beauty of the this quiet retreat" I burst out laughing. Phillip said it wasn't this crowded on his previous trips, so they must have all known I was going to be there and wanted to make it a special event for me.

We're leaving in a bit to go see the hutong, the tiny historic alleyways where the courtyard-style dwellings are. We hear that most of these will be demolished soon to make way for wider streets, another construction project readying the city for the 2008 Olympics. And tomorrow? The Great Wall!

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