Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Around China in 30 Days: First Stop, Beijing

These are my May/June 2010 Journals, rewritten into a semi-coherent narrative of my trip through China with the UW Madison History group. It was a tremendously fun experience that I want to publicize a little bit, so I'll be posting these here.

30 Days in China
First Stop: Beijing

Thanks to Krista Thomson
I will endeavor here to describe in crushing detail my month in Beijing. This is an assignment, so I don't expect anyone to read it too closely, and I hope you don't, because up to a month after the fact it's going to be mostly rote description of details for my own future edification. Well, obviously, it's not like it's "present" edification, -ed. A considerable warning for those of particularly Victorian constitution: much of the culture shock I experienced in China revolved around bathrooms.
I arrived in Beijing after possibly the most harrowing plane ride I'd ever endured. How many hours passed I've no idea, but if I had to guess I'd say "Hell is very real, and it is a tin can soaring at 30,000 feet and playing Meet the Morgans as your only source of diversion ". On the bright side, I lost my camera! The pictures you'll see were taken with permission from my friends on the trip.
Beijing International Airport had the effect of immediately pacifying me, though, as it was colossal and my first glance at China's dusky magnificence. Peeling away from the airport and onto the highway, I was offered sights which I devoured with increasing glee. From the ugly apartments with thousands of matching air conditioners to some trees growing underneath an underpass to the first glance at Beijing Daxue's lush campus, I giggled about how much I "loved China". My compatriots were unmoved--or at least, they certainly weren't as moved as I was. Which is understandable, as I was and continue to be something of a lunatic with unending pleasure for China's unique psychological imprint.
It took a full day for my enthusiasm to dampen even slightly. This was caused by a meeting with the infamous and unpleasantly nicknamed "squatty potty". Although I was previously familiar with these engineered attempts to prevent the geriatric from using public restrooms, I'd never done so as someone possessing adult dignity (loosely resembling, perhaps distance cousins, but dignity nonetheless) and so after a minute or so of mentally accounting the urgency of my needs against the absence of a lock and the presence of a garbage can littered with suspiciously stained tissues, I surrendered and retreated. The rest of the day passed with little of interest to mark it spectacularly except a loud and entertaining battle between two people on bikes (culminating in a brutal slap) and an opportunity to try Beijing's Greatest Lie (aka Chinese Mt. Dew).
The next day, our troupe attempted to visit Coal Hill and instead found ourselves in one of Beijing's numerous shopping districts. Again, my sanitary needs were foiled by the presence of the squatty potty and the arrival of a mysterious trend: missing bathroom locks. Is there some pervert desperately hoarding these? Perhaps a cult of vandals opposed to restroom privacy? I don't know, but again I decided to test my colonic fortitude and simply left. This is far from a comprehensive discussion of events which transpired that day, but discussing in depth the circulation of a shopping district for no reason seems something best left to someone with a broader vocabulary for the subject. That I opted to discuss the nature of toilets in place of shopping should shine some light on my feelings for the consumption of material goods that I can't consume. With, like, my mouth.
Our final full day in Beijing remains one of the crowning experiences during my trip, one that would set my pace for the month. First, we saw Yuan Ming Yuan; a Qing Dynasty Summer Palace destroyed by invading Europeans during the Second Opium War. We had a lecture sitting on the ruins interrupted by an adorable kitten mewing constantly and a curious Chinese man quietly video taping us. It was quite an enjoyable experience, sort of a peaceful, pedestrian thing. It might be a fun place to take a picnic and learn of the horrors of British imperialism over ice cream.
Seen here with Krista and Liz
Then we traveled to the New Summer Palace, a massive complex arranged over a mountain and decked out with a variety of experiences for the discerning and wealthy tourist. A man painted my picture on a plate and sold it to me for a hefty sum, even after Helen was kind enough to intercede and do violence to him in ways that I sincerely believe only Chinese women are capable. I saw a marble boat complete with marble paddles, one of the first pieces of Chinese history I encountered as a scholar of Chinese history (such as I am) and a testament to the Qing ruling family's increasing disconnect from reality. The loss of the Opium War is frequently attributed to Qing financial misconduct (and not British aggression) but that's a topic for another time.
I took a photograph of a small child, and while my eyes were moments later occupied with magnificent architecture and the lay of the vast city stretching below, I was beset by a Chinese tourist eagerly offering me his child. I was flattered and frankly bewildered; what did this dirty stranger (I should specify: the guy was actually, physically dirty) want me to do with his adorable daughter? He offered her again, and so I took her cautiously. Perhaps too cautiously, as I held her at arm's length and her father immediately rescued her. No, wait, he was fixing her dress--apparently if they were going to have a stranger hold their child like it was an adorable bomb, they wanted to make sure she wasn't naked from the waist down.
I departed (retreat was quickly becoming my watchword for the trip), and before too long we arrived at a massive building containing many, many stairs. "Hurry" I was urged. "You have twenty minutes to reach the top and come back, or you'll be abandoned and possibly eaten alive by Chinese merchants." I am not the sort of person who takes such suggestions lightly, and so I bolted eight stories or more in short order and arrived at the summit out of breath. The breath-taking sight did its best to take credit, but really it was air pollution and my own belief that respiratory diseases are just God's way of questioning my manhood.
Sights seen and mountains twice surmounted, I descended rather proud of myself. I'd easily beaten the time limit and seen a large statue. What more could I want? I reached the bottom, left the gated-off building, and was promptly informed that the bus would not be arriving for over an hour and that I'd nearly died so that we could lolligag somewhere where the water could mock us with a mixture of tantalizing freshness and foot-melting pollution.
And in the final moments of good fortune in Beijing, I ran into a friend, who invited me to my first evening on the town. I met several of his friends--amongst whom I hope I did not embarrass myself too readily--and we visited a pair of bars and a very nice restaurant. Jake was more than happy to serve multiple roles, helping me speak trembling Chinese, giving me a tour of one of Beijing's terrific Jiu Ba Jie, and accompanying me home when a mixture of terrible Chinese beer and jetlag began exacting their toll.
I woke up the next morning bright eyed and bushy tailed, enthusiastically ready to travel to Chengde, to be entailed shortly. Beijing was a terrific city, I decided, but I was ready to depart for new sights.

Next Stop:  Chengde

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