Wednesday, November 13, 2013

October 24, Beijing

I am writing this on the overnight train to Xi'an. One other woman and I are sharing a four-person sleeper car — we both have the luxury of taking a lower berth. The cabin is maybe six feet wide by six feet long, but there's maybe 18" in the center between the two double berths. There is a man on this trip who is 6'2”, so he'll be pretty cramped. There is a window on one side of the cabin with a curtain and a little table on which I am writing this, a thermos for hot water, a wall with a lockable door, and a corridor on the other side.

This morning was the first free time of over an hour since Shanghai, and I really needed it. I slept late, skipped breakfast, read and relaxed. At noon we left for the little bit of hutong area left in Beijing -- the Chinese are razing these areas to make room for modern buildings. The word “hutong” is Mongolian for “water well,” reflecting both the common water sources and the people who first created the area. I've read about this and was eager to see it. These men were playing Go.

The alleyways were considerably wider than I had expected, and paved – actually wide enough for a car to park and another to squeeze past.

Most of the doorways I peered into were short passageways with the continuation of the path to the left in front of a window: I expect this was a feng shui thing.

Near the neighborhood was a large building used as a drum tower. Because there were no clocks, time devices were kept in the tower: an hourglass and a series of five bowls that dripped water over a period of six hours. Every hour the drums sounded to let people know what time it was.

We were shown to a house in this neighborhood where lunch was prepared for us. The young woman in the family, the niece of the owner, an unmarried woman, carried on her great-grandfather's trade: painting glass snuff containers from the inside, with angled brushes, which of course were for sale. She was capable of great delicacy using this technique. The apartment consisted of a bedroom in the back that closed off with curtains, a pretty large living room, and an entrance area and tiny kitchen. To get to the bedroom you walked through the living room, railroad-car-style. I was told there was a toilet in this apartment but obviously many apartments had neither shower nor toilet since I passed many communal bathrooms. A shower in a large room with other people your sex costs 1.5 yuan, about 35 cents. The niece grew up there and took communal showers a couple of times a week.

After lunch the grandfather showed us how to make dumplings – how to roll out the dough, how much filling to put in the middle, how to fold the dough over and crimp it with your fingers, how to curve the dumpling into a crescent. 

His were perfect. Mine were not!

Walking out of the hutong I saw diapers drying outside.

The air pollution filth on a car. In Beijing many cars have clear windshields only where the windshield wipers go; the rest of the cars look like this.

A motorized rickshaw with plastic to keep out the polluted air.

Our next stop was the Temple of Heaven, a Taoist temple built in 1420 and used by every emperor – who was carried there in a heavy sedan chair with long poles by 80 men from the Forbidden City several times a year to sacrifice animals and pray for rain and a good harvest. It goes without saying that the imperial feet could never touch profane ground. Such pomp and circumstance to do what every primitive society has always done: beseech some deity or other to control the weather and bestow survival.

After dinner we came to the train station. Because our luggage was picked up at 9 AM and sent ahead to Xi'an – to make sure it all gets there in time! – I only have my backpack for overnight, not enough room for my collapsible walking stick. The walking in the hutong, the Temple of Heaven, and the train station, all considerable distances, made me realize what a difference it makes to my pain level to have it. Good to know!

One pretty shocking Mike story from today. Although nursery school costs only 500 yuan a year, about $82, it turns out he could not get his son into school without paying a bribe of 10,000 yuan to the director. Then there were two or three more shakedowns, one of them being a special fee of 100 yuan (for each of the four teachers even though the kid has only one teacher) supposedly because his two-and-a-half year old son had demonstrated special talent in traditional Chinese painting (fat chance of that so young), so this was for a special class. He and everyone he knows pay the bribes each time they're “suggested” to make sure the teachers are nice to their children, even though all this is illegal. If you report them they make life very hard for your child, so of course no one reports them.

Now I am going to stretch out with my book. This train even comes equipped with reading lights, so I am a happy girl. Once before in my life I took an overnight train, in Finland to the Arctic Circle, and I remember feeling as if I were being rocked in a cradle. It will be a lovely night.

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