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Saturday, March 4, 2006

Today was my first full day in Beijing.

 Phil and Erica had warned us that we would probably wake up at 2 am and not be able to get back to sleep.  I did not think that there was any chance of this happening.  I managed to stay up until about 10:30 pm, but then I crashed hard.  When I finally went to bed, I felt like I could sleep for about 12 hours straight.

 But sure enough, I was wide awake promptly at 2 am.  I told myself that this was not acceptable and that I’d have to go back to sleep.  I was marginally successful.  I managed to sleep off and on until about 6 am.  At that point, Margaret and I both decided to get up.  We took our time getting ready, and headed down to breakfast at 7 am.

 Breakfast was amazing.  The free breakfast buffet here is a far cry from the continental breakfast you get at most hotels in the States.  The buffet was full of every kind of breakfast food imaginable:  donuts, pastries, bagels, bread, pancakes, French toast, bacon, sausage, eggs, fruit, and tons of Chinese food that I didn’t recognize.  Everything was wonderful.  I’m usually not a big breakfast person, but I stuffed myself.  When I was about half way through my first plate of food, someone discovered that there was a made-to-order omelet station in the corner.  That’s what I’ll be having tomorrow!

 Leon showed up about halfway through breakfast, and herded us all down to the bus around 8:30.   We had a 20 minute drive to Tiananmen Square.  On the bus, Leon warned us about the Hello People.  The Hello People are at every tourist attraction in Beijing.  They greet you as you exit the bus, saying “hello, hello, want to buy a…” They are peddling everything from post cards to silk scarves to fake Rolexes.  They speak surprisingly good English.  Leon warned us to be careful when buying from them.  There are good deals to be had if you are willing to haggle, but you can just as easily be ripped off.  And it’s not unheard of to receive fake money as change.  We were told to use small bills and keep track of our money.

 Leon expected Tiananmen Square to be full of tourist groups like ours.  Most tour guides carry a sign with a flag on it, so that their groups can find them easily.  Leon had forgotten our Lake Forest sign, so he tied a little Santa Claus penguin stuffed animal to the end of his flag pole.  We would be following the penguin all day.  He also told us that if we got lost and couldn’t find the penguin, we could approach any English-speaking tour guide, and they would help us.  As we exited the bus, he also handed each of us a business card.  On it was written, in both English and Chinese, “Please take me to the Tianlun Dynasty Hotel,” and then the address of the hotel.  We could give this to a cab driver if we ever became lost.

 In front of the entrance to Tiananmen Square was a huge picture of Chairman Mao, and we all stopped to take pictures in front of it.  The area was incredibly crowded – filled with tourist groups like ours.  A bunch of military-looking police men kept shooing us along, yelling in Chinese.  “I wonder what they’re saying,” said Frank.  “Probably something like, “Stupid American tourists!  Keep moving or I will shoot you!”’ I replied.

 While waiting in line to enter the square, we were approached by a lot of beggars.  Most of them were missing limbs, or parts of limbs, like Thalidomide victims.  Phil kept us away from them as much as possible.  Any time one got too close, I would feel a strong arm around my shoulders, gently leading me away.

 Tiananmen Square is just a large open area, paved with bricks, surrounded by pagoda-type buildings.  You have probably seen dozens of pictures of it.  If you’re like most Americans, only one thing comes to your mind when you hear the words Tiananmen Square.  However, the Chinese are prohibited from discussing the massacre, so I wasn’t surprised that Leon didn’t mention it.  We did not linger in the square.  He rushed us through the palace doors and into the Forbidden City.

 The Forbidden City was the palace of several of the Chinese emperors.  It is so huge that they call it a city.  Historically, it was forbidden to all commoners, with the exception of the palace servants, of course.  The only man allowed in the palace was the Emperor himself.  He was served by women, children, and unics.  This was so that if ever a baby was born in the palace, it would be certain to be the Emperor’s.  Even the Emperor’s sons were required to leave the palace when they started puberty.

 If a male baby was born to a concubine or even a palace maid, the woman would be elevated to a much higher status.  Her son would be a prince, and would have the chance to become Emperor himself one day.  It was not a given that the oldest son would become Emperor.  Typically, the Emperor had dozens of sons (all with different mothers).  He would watch all of his sons grow up, and decide which one was smartest and best-suited to becoming Emperor.

 The palace is absolutely huge – truly a city unto itself.  It’s mind-boggling that it was built for just one person – especially when you know that in the time of the Chinese Emperors, most other people in China were starving to death.

 The last Chinese Emperor, Puyi, started his reign when he was only a baby.  His tutor was an Englishman, so Puyi brought many Western ideas to China.  He was de-throned in the 1920’s when the Communists took power.  I guess the Forbidden City became a tourist attraction at that point.

 Walking through the entire Forbidden City took a couple of hours.  All along the way, Leon told us the stories of its history, and gave us time for taking pictures.  That encompassed the Chinese history lesson for the morning.  I also got a lesson in Chinese culture, which was a bit more practical than the history side.

 In China, you will find two types of toilets.  One is the regular toilet that we are all used to seeing, called the “Western-style toilet” in China.  (We have the Western-style toilets in our hotel.)  The other kind is affectionately referred to as the “squatty potty.”  The squatty potty is like a narrow, oblong toilet bowl set directly into the floor, so that the rim of the bowl is about flush with the floor.  Therefore, you can’t sit on it – you have to squat over it, hence the name.  Apparently, these are the more common types of toilets throughout the world, except for Europe and North America.  Most of the public restrooms we visited (including my first Chinese public restroom at the Forbidden City) have about 10 stalls containing squatty potties, and one or two stalls with Western-style toilets (if you’re lucky – many only have the squatty potties).  As you can imagine, there is usually quite a long line for the Western-style toilets at these touristy places.

When we entered the public restroom at the Forbidden City, the maid working there directed us to the Western-style stalls, and we all lined up to wait.  Meanwhile, several Chinese women came in and quickly bypassed the line for the squatty potties.  Margaret and I glanced at each other and quickly agreed that we were not going to spend this entire trip waiting in line for the restroom, and made a beeline for the squatty potties.  They are really more hygienic, anyway – most public restrooms are not the cleanest, and your bottom never touches anything with the squatty potty.  By the second day of the trip, most of the younger women in our group were willing to use the squatty potties.  The older women weren’t willing to do it.  I’m not sure if this is because they are squeamish about trying something different, or because they are not sure that they trust their thigh muscles to get them back up!

 We exited the Forbidden City from the opposite side from which we’d entered, and the bus picked us up there.  We went to a small Chinese restaurant for lunch.  The food was quite good, but I wasn’t very hungry, since I’d stuffed myself at breakfast.

 After lunch, the bus took us to the Hutong district.  Hutong literally means “alley.”  Back  in the days of the Emperors, the area around the Forbidden City was a walled city.  It was made up of one-story houses with narrow, winding, twisting streets and alleys between them, which why it is called Hutong.  This area is also called Old Beijing City.  Most of these houses still exist today, although most have been greatly modified and remodeled.

 The bus dropped us off in a narrow street lined with small shops, restaurants, and bars.  In front of the shops were parked dozens of rickshaws.  Beijing rickshaws are like great big tricycles, with one seat up front for the driver and two seats in back for the passenger.  We all paired up and were assigned rickshaws, and we set off for our tour of the Hutong.

 The transportation through the Hutong was somewhat nerve-wrecking.  The rickshaw drivers peddled us through the narrow, twisting alleys at break-neck speed – but somehow managed to avoid all the pot holes and speed bumps.  The alleys in the Hutong are too narrow for two cars to pass – really, they are even too narrow for one car, in my opinion.  But that doesn’t stop cars from driving through them!  And of course there were dozens and dozens of bicyclers to avoid as well.  It was scary, but also fun.  The temperature had warmed into the mid-60s, and it was sunny.  It was a beautiful day for a rickshaw ride.

 The buildings we passed mostly looked run down.  However, the streets were clean and full of well-dressed people.  We passed many restaurants, stores, and bars.  Really more bars than anything else.  I assumed that the buildings that didn’t have any signs on the front must be houses, but they didn’t look like any houses I’d ever seen.

 We screeched to a stop in front of one such building, and were told to exit our rickshaws.  We were going to get a tour of a local Hutong home.  An English-speaking guide (not Leon) led us through a gate and into a small courtyard.  The courtyard was paved in brick, and surrounded on all four sides by rundown buildings made of grey wood and stone.  A small, squat building made of red brick was in the center of the courtyard.  There were several doors into the buildings.  The one nearest to us had a small area fenced off around it with scrap plywood.  Two small dogs wandered about in this makeshift pen.  Several of the doors had plywood overhangs above them, creating a kind of roofed patio area.  Under the roofs were tables and chairs and bikes and toys and all kinds of other items.

 Our guide explained to us that hundreds of years ago, when the Hutong was built, each courtyard and the buildings surrounding it was owned by a wealthy Beijing family.  Each of the buildings on the fours sides of the courtyard was an individual house.  In the largest house lived the parents.  In the other houses lived their sons and daughter-in-laws and grandchildren.  Only the largest house had a kitchen.

 Today, about 90% of the Hutong is owned by the government.  Families with at least one member working for the government have the opportunity to rent one of these houses.  This is substantially cheaper than renting a privately-owned house.  Actually, there are not many privately owned houses in Beijing.  If you do not have the option of living in a government space (or don’t want to), the most available private option is a modern high-rise.  (The government also owns high-rises for employees who prefer the high-rise life to the Hutong life.  However, the government high-rises are generally pretty lousy compared to the more expensive privately owned high rises.)

In the houses surrounding the courtyard in which we were now standing lived 9 separate, unrelated families – a total of about 40 people.  The original 4 houses had been carved up into 9.  This is a very typical situation in the Hutong.  There was not room to put a private kitchen in all of the houses, so the small brick building had been constructed in the center of the courtyard.  This building contained kitchens for the houses that were too small to have their own.  However, this building was in no way connected to the others.  The users of these kitchens had to walk outside to get to them. 

 Each of the houses had the option of installing a private bathroom.  Not all of the families wanted to give up the space for that.  Therefore, there was also a public bathroom in the kitchen building – again, not connected to any of the houses.

 We were led through one of the doors and into a house.  We were introduced to the lady of the house, Madam Song.  Madam Song did not speak English, but we were encouraged to ask her any questions while our guide interpreted.  We learned that Madam Song lived here with her husband, her mother and father in-law, and her 10-year-old daughter.  Her husband worked for the Aviation Ministry, as did at least one member of each family in this Hutong house cluster.  The entire cluster was owned by the Aviation Ministry.  Madam Song used to work for a private company, but she was able to retire because she made more money by allowing the tour company to drag groups of tourists through her home every day.

 We were given a brief tour of the house.  The living room was small by our standards, but was nicely furnished and had a large Sony TV.  The dining room table was also in this room.  Besides the front door, there was only one other door in the room, and this led to a bedroom.  The bedroom was tiny, and contained a twin bed, a sofa, and a dresser.  Another large Sony TV was perched on the dresser.  There were two other doors in this room.  I stuck my head in one of them, and saw a squatty potty, a table, and a floor drain with a shower massager affixed several feet above it.  Apparently, this was Madam Song’s private bath.

 The other door led into the other bedroom.  It was slightly bigger than the first bedroom, and also contained a twin bed, a sofa, and a dresser.  A door in this room led to the tiny kitchen – barely bigger than a closet – which contained a dorm room-sized fridge, a sink, and a two-burner stove.

 And that was it.  That was the whole house, in which 4 adults and one pre-teen lived.  Madam Song was very proud of her home, and much preferred it to living in a high-rise, since the government high-rises are not so nice.  She felt very fortunate to be living there.

Seeing people living like that really makes you realize that it is possible to live very happily with a lot less than what we have.  We complain when the internet connection is low, and we don’t think we’d survive without TIVO, but guess what?  You really need so much less than that.

 One of the girls in my class had an interesting observation.  If Paris Hilton had taken that same rickshaw tour, and then immediately afterwards taken a tour of our neighborhood in suburban Chicago, would she be able to tell the difference between the two?  About half the class thought that she would not.  She is so far removed from real life that all our everyday experiences and surroundings would blend together and look the same to her.  I’m not sure I agree with that.  I think the way we live is a bit closer to the Paris Hilton lifestyle than it is to the Hutong, but I could be wrong. 

 After the stop at Madam Song’s house, the rickshaws took us to the Price Garden.  This was Emperor Puyi’s playground when he was a child.  It’s a very pretty park full of sculptures and weird twisted, knotty trees.  It looks like something right out of Dr. Seuss.

 Our final stop was the Beijing Bell Tower.  One of the Emperor’s constructed two huge towers in the end of Old Beijing City.   One contained huge drums and one contained a huge bell.  The drum and the bell marked each hour of the day in ancient times.  To reach the top of the bell tower, you must climb 75 extremely steep, narrow stairs.  The climb isn’t too bad, but coming back down is a bit scary.  From the top of the bell tower, the panoramic view of Beijing is breathtaking.  The bell tower is the southernmost structure built by the ancient emperors on the meridian line.  The meridian line is a north-south street that ran through the center of Old Beijing.  It was considered lucky to live on this line (feng shui thing).  The bell tower is the southernmost point, then the drum tower, then Tianenmen Square, and finally the Forbidden City and the emperor’s palace.  And now the Olympic Village for 2008 is be constructed on the meridian line, extending the line north of the Forbidden City.

 After decending the bell tower, we stopped in the tea shop at the base to learn about the traditional Chinese tea ceremony.  We were all seated at a long table, and a friendly English-speaking young lady taught us about the ceremony.  She was very funny and entertaining.  We were each given a small square china tray holding two tiny tea cups.  One cup was wide and low, and the other was tall and narrow.  Our host told us about all the different types of tea that are available in China, and explained how some of them were infused with fruit juice or herbs.  Then she brewed some tea in a small pot and poured some into our tall, narrow tea cups.  We were shown how to invert the wide cup over the top of the narrow cup, and then flip the whole thing over so that the tea ended up in the wide cup.  Then you rub the inverted tall cup around the rim of the wide cup 3 times.  Then roll the tall cup between your hands several times, and then smell it.  It smells strongly of whatever type of tea you are drinking.  Then you pick up the wide cup using three fingers, and drink the tea in three sips.

 Following the tea ceremony, we returned to the hotel.  On the bus, Leon asked if anyone wanted to get a massage that night.  He could arrange for a girl to come to our rooms and give 1.5 hour reflexology massages for 160 Yuan, which is about $20.  A 90 minute massage for $20…amazing!  I signed up.

That evening, Margaret went out to dinner with a friend of hers who lives in Beijing.  After she left, I went to the hotel fitness center and had a good workout.  Then I took a shower and went to the Executive Lounge for Happy Hour.  Everyone staying on the executive floor got two free drinks during the Happy Hour.  I had one beer with some of my classmates before it was time to go back to my room and wait for the massage girl.  I returned to my room and put on my pj’s.

 The massage girl was running a bit late.  She looked extremely young.  I assume that she must have been at least 16 or 18, but she really looked about 12.  She had me lay on my bed with my head at the foot on my back.  She started out with scalp massage, and then moved on to my neck, back, arms, and legs.  This was not like any massage that I have ever gotten at home.  The massages I have gotten in the States have all been slow, kneading, relaxing massages.  The Chinese massage was not exactly relaxing.  She attacked me with vigor, and there was no way I could have fallen asleep or even really relaxed completely.  But it felt wonderful.  Even when I get deep tissue massages at home, I never feel like they really get deep enough into my muscles.  This girl did.  She poked and prodded and moved my joints around.  I wore my pj’s the whole time, and she did not use any kind of oil.

After she finished with my legs, she disappeared into the bathroom.  I had no idea what she was doing, but soon I heard the bathtub running.  “What the heck?” I thought, “Is she going to bathe me?  Weirder and weirder.”

 I walked into the bathroom and saw that she had brewed a bathtub full of hot tea.  She had me roll up the legs of my pj’s and sit on the edge of the tub to soak my feet in the tea.  While my feet were soaking, she massaged my scalp and neck.  Then she rubbed my feet and lower legs with the tea bag. 

 She had me step out of the tub onto a waiting towel, and she dried my legs and feet.  Then she had me come back to bed, with my feet at the foot this time.  And then she went to work on my feet.  Wonderful!  I’ve never had a foot massage before, and it was fantastic.

 When the massage was finished, I paid her and she left.  I felt amazing.  Although I wouldn’t have described the massage as relaxing while it was in progress, every muscle in my body was completely relaxed afterwards.  I felt totally content.

 I got dressed and met some people from the class for dinner.  We walked to a nearby Chinese restaurant that Leon had recommended.  I got a big plate of noodles and veggies for about $3.  Tsing Tao beer was served in 22 ounce bottles for 12 Yuan – about $1.50.

After dinner, I went to bed, still feeling totally relaxed and content.

I need to mention something here that doesn’t really fit into any particular day.  There is a guy in my class, Dave, who is really overweight.  I mean, REALLY overweight.  He’s shorter than I am, and probably weighs over 300 pounds.  He does not carry the weight well.  It’s all focused in his belly.  He does not move easily, and always looks uncomfortable.

 There really aren’t any fat people in China.  Everyone you see on the street is thin, and almost everyone is beautiful as well.  It’s like walking through a Japanese Anime cartoon.  We are something of a spectacle, since we are not Chinese, but Dave is even more of an oddity because of his weight.  People treat him as a kind of a freak show.  They stare and point.  They walk up to him on the street and rub his belly.  (It probably doesn’t help that there are statues of fat Buddha everywhere, and rubbing Buddha’s belly is good luck.)  

 Dave was put alone in a rickshaw for our Hutong tour, so as not to overtax the driver.  Apparently, the driver was a bit overexerted anyway, because he tried to ditch Dave.  As we were all boarding our rickshaws after one of the stops, his driver just took off without him.  We all had to wait while the driver was retrieved.  At the time, I didn’t know what we were waiting for.  We were a huge group, and Margaret and I were in one of the first rickshaws.  Dave’s rickshaw was at the end.  Dave told this story over dinner.

 I do feel bad for Dave.  I hate being the center of attention for a negative reason.  But on the other hand, he should have known what he was getting himself into when he came to China.  I knew that a group of American tourists would be a spectacle, and I also knew that there weren’t a lot of overweight people in China.  He should have known that this would happen, but he complains about it a lot.

 I think having Dave in our group really personifies what most of the rest of the world thinks about Americans:  fat, slow, lazy.

Go to March 5