Monday, November 11, 2013

October 21, Beijing

Rick has told me how when he was in his 20s he was in India right near the Taj Mahal but skipped it because it was too touristy. I was appalled: how could you miss such a thing? Today I understood. Now we are 16 people in the group, which feels huge to me. Early this morning we went to Tianmen Square and the Forbidden City, and sure enough our local guide had a flag on a pole, a microphone around her neck, and a loudspeaker at her waist. There must have been a million people there, all with an identical guide. One of our new people noticed one group all wearing shocking pink caps, and commented about what a good idea that was. I cannot tell you how much I can't stand this. I just make an awful lemming.

Then there was the air. It was not only visibly hazy and polluted, but it smelled acrid and awful. Having a hospital mask helped a lot but of course not entirely. It is a terrible feeling, this sense that every time you breathe you are being poisoned.

Okay, Tianmen Square. 120 entire acres paved in identical granite stones.

It had several buildings designed to incite awe, not appreciation of beautiful design or construction. There was a mammoth fake vase with fake flowers, left over from China Day (our July 4) on October 1.

This soldier was standing below The Flagpole, very serious business. The Chinese flag is red and consists of a big star for the Communist Party and four little ones. The little ones are for farmers, workers, students, and one other menial group that I forget. No scholars or businesspeople, it goes without saying. 

 Can you imagine what this poor soldier is doing to his back standing motionless in this position for hours?

And of course there was the picture of Mao, whom the Chinese still call "Chairman Mao." Not being particularly interested, I have no idea if this building is the one where his body is encased in a crystal coffin.

And then on into the Forbidden City. The emperors starting in the 1400s built this, and kept adding to it over the centuries. Building it in the 1400s consumed 20% of all of China's wealth. The place consists, I am told, of 999 sumptuous rooms over 240 acres. This is so much worse than any Rockefeller rich person's mansion I've ever visited in the United States -- politically just nauseating. Between the huge distances to walk and the throngs of humanity I was not in the mood to admire one single thing. I honestly hated the whole experience. This day was my nightmare version of what a tour is like. 

But one good thing – I brought a collapsible walking stick with me and also was able to sit down a bit three or four times during the trek. Between the two, my pain level never got above four out of ten, which frankly felt triumphant.

Dinner was a big deal, the excuse being a “welcome to China” meal: Peking roast duck with many many wonderful dishes. Mike showed us the correct way to eat Peking duck, which I had never had before. 

You take the thin pancake and unfold it round, then take a couple of thin slices of duck dipped in its sweet sauce and lay them on the pancake. Then add a piece of cucumber and some bamboo shoots, then fold the bottom and the two sides. An awful lot of trouble for something that tastes delicious without it! An elegantly served fish:

Each meal tends to have ten or more dishes, brought out sort of one by one: a heaping platter of rice, then various things with meat and/or vegetables, then soup (!), and last watermelon for dessert. When you see watermelon, you know there are no more dishes coming. This trip is a culinary treasure.

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