Thursday, July 21, 2005

Man's Got To Eat

Saturday night, my first glimpse at darkness for nearly two days brought on an unparalleled sleep, even if only for about 6 hours. I woke up, wide awake around 5:00 am (4:00 pm KC time). However much I do like the idea of getting up early enough to enjoy the day, this feels a bit ridiculous. Lounged around the room for about an hour & half, which was about the amount of time it took me to check one email, wrote a couple words down, read my stupid X-Men book (on the flight over I read two complete books & this is the third out of the series, when flying these long flights, I find it easiest to keep the books simple & easy to follow. I made the mistake of taking a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel from the mid-1800s with me to Santiago, it put me to sleep, but the flight kept me from sleeping, so I was pretty miserable), and finally decided to call Laura to see if, by chance, she was up & felt like breakfast.

The breakfast was much better than dinner, mainly because it had stuff like scrambled eggs & bread, but it also had lotus root and the fruits that looked remarkably like sushi & tasted a it like Windex (as far as household cleaners go, Windex really doesn’t taste too bad, compared to Chlorox or shower cleaners, but I’d never eat it for breakfast or design a fruit flavor after it). Both of us were itching to get out & do something other than walk around the neighborhood, but we were kind of torn. Being here for 6 months, we really didn’t want to do all our sight seeing in one day, so we decided to go to the Forbidden City, but not go into the inner walls this weekend. Marlow was due to arrive this afternoon & we were going to meet for dinner and have a project meeting to kind of prepare us for the upcoming week, so we knew that we were on a slight time schedule.

Laura & I seem to get along pretty well, we’re both into the travel thing, neither of us want to sit around the hotel & we both walk at about the same speed (which is really the most important part in my mind). She studied the Chinese language in college, so she has some pretty good communication skills, while I have had to reduce my communication to somewhere between a caveman and a baboon, pointing my fingers & grunting a lot. I typically prefer to travel & wander alone, but this will be alright for a few days.

The cab ride to the Forbidden City, which was about halfway across the city cost us a whopping $3 US, in Kansas City, it would have been probably $35. I really didn’t know what to expect here because I basically know nothing about Chinese culture & history, the Forbidden City has always just kind of been a place on a map in the center of Beijing (and even that much information was stuff I gathered over the course of the past couple weeks). The cab driver dropped us off on the street across from this moat with a dark red wall that is about 50 feet tall. Because of the pollution (which the locals insist on calling ‘fog’, yeah right, that’s like me calling myself a five year old black girl), this wall seemed to disappear on the horizon. Walking along the moat/wall combination, about halfway (maybe quarter of a mile down), we came across a massive gate with an enormous building behind it. In front of this gate was probably 1500 people, standing around, snapping pictures, selling Rolex & postcards and stuff. I was most impressed & ready to go in only to find out that this was actually the back door (The Gate of Divine Prowess). The back door? Like the maid entrance? Holy shit, this place was literally the size of the front of the Nelson Atkins art museum or the home plate entrance to a MLB baseball stadium. When you’re at a place where the doors have names, you know it’s big. I jumped into the tourist thing & snapped a couple pictures & we kept walking, on our quest for the front gate (The Meridian Gate).

It took us about half an hour to get around to the front. I have never seen a front door in my life like this. First of all, the place was swarming with people, if I had to guess, I’d say 20,000 people, but not surprising, I could see over about 19,050 of them. On the front gate, there is a portrait of Chairman Mao that’s probably 150x100 feet. There are soldiers standing at attention all over the place, beggars, people selling shirts, personal tours, drinks of water, hats, food. This place is so big, so many people and animals, so hot & humid, so ‘foggy’ and smelly. This place does seem, however, to be well tended after, there is very little trash, the grass is manicured to a shine, there are always people running around picking up trash. It costs a couple bucks to get into the actual city, but we decide to leave that for another day.

Across the street from the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square. Most people only know about this place because of the riots that took place in the 90’s. Just a brief recap XXXXXXXXXXX. That’s great and all, but Tiananmen Square is really the home of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. The Chairman, who’s picture is right across the street, overlooking the square, died in XXXXXX. Today, inside the mausoleum, you can go in & actually see his body. The US has their own Chairman, they call him ‘Old Blue Eyes’ & he died recently, but they don't display his body. I will have to go see this at some point, but it is impossible for me to put into words the number of people standing in line to see him. Tiananmen Square is basically the size of a NFL parking lot (without the BBQ and beer), maybe equivalent to ten square city blocks. Just south of the middle is the mausoleum, which itself is about two square blocks and looks somewhat like the Lincoln Memorial. From the Forbidden city front gate, we could see bunch of people going into the mausoleum, but it was hard to tell how big or how long the line was.

By the time we actually got across the street, I realized I was seeing something that you only get one or two chances to see in your entire life. Chairman Mao? No, he’s dead & you can see him anytime. I was witnessing the longest line in the entire world. I always just assumed the lines to the bathrooms at Arrowhead or the lines to the Back To The Future ride in Disneyworld would compete for the longest lines in the world. That’s like the difference between shooting a gun & throwing a bullet. This line, if I had to come up with a number, I would say probably had about 100,000 people in it. It wrapped around the square, ten people wide & was probably close to one mile long. I told Laura that my mission was to find the end of the line & we walked for about half an hour before finding it. Every time we thought we were there, it turned out to be just a turn in the line & the river of people flowed off in another direction. The entire place was roped off like a Hollywood movie premiere, inside the ropes was about a 20 foot buffer, on the inside of the buffer was a yellow line, like a highway line, then the line, about 15 feet wide & another line. There are speakers up all over the place with a recording that repeats in English & Chinese something to the extent of: “Welcome to Tiananmen Square, if you are standing in line, there are no cameras allowed inside the mausoleum, please leave them outside the lines”. It was loud, but still felt in the background, plus every 25-20 yards along the inside of the buffer was some sort of officer with a bullhorn. These guys were shouting at people various things that I couldn't understand, but judging by the general crowd it was: “No Cutting, stay in line & be quiet!”. Thus creating a strange, quiet atmosphere with directions being shouted in several languages from several sources. This is one of the most surreal thing I’ve ever witnessed. Who cares about seeing the Chairman, just go to see the line.

About two thirds of the way through the line, a girl snuck up behind me & started talking to me. This has happened several times, but this is by far the hottest one, plus she spoke English. She walked with us for about 15 minutes & was telling us about her school & her art exhibit across the street at the National Museum. Her job today was to go talk to people & see if they’d like to go to the museum. Now, I love museums & art & all that gay shit and I thought it was a pretty good idea, but Laura was having none of that. This is the first time I would have liked to be alone so that I could have gone seen some art with a hot local. If I had of gone, this story would probably gotten a whole lot more interesting. I should have given her my email address & told her to drop me a line & I’d take her up on that tour next weekend, but Laura was ready to get away from this girl, I think her spider-sense was telling her something. I know mine was, booyah.


Laura & I did have one major side challenge & that was to find a place to buy the new Harry Potter book. It’s a guilty pleasure & I left the US the day before it went on sale. I really enjoy the books, but Laura is kind of crazy-cat-lady about them, so she did all the leg-work on finding a big book store that we could probably get the book at & it was only a few blocks away from the Forbidden City, I think it’s was called The Forbidden Bookstore (actually, it’s called the Foreign Language Book Store, these guys have no sense of humor). We quickly found a bookstore & got our Harry Potter books, in English, but not at the Foreign Language Bookstore, at some other place that was like a 5 story book store.

One sentence paragraph: On our way to the book store area, but still on Tiananmen Square, I saw a child, completely naked with his mom steadying him, pissing while his brother thought it was a fountain. I just had to mention that.

After stopping for coffee, which is surprisingly expensive & very hard to find, we decided to head to lunch. Right before we stopped for lunch, I saw my first golf club knock-off shop. I could have bought a set of Calloway’s (US $1500) for right at $250. I’m not much of a golfer anymore, but at these prices, maybe I just need to learn to like it. I got a business card & 5 months to think about it. Lunch was at the Quanjude Roasted Duck restaurant. It was totally awesome, the bring a duck to your table, chop it up in front of you & you make little duck-meat burritos out of the meat & some vegetables. I’ll be going back there fo sho. By this time, it was getting close to time for our other co-worker, Marlow, to be arriving so we headed back to the hotel.

Around 6:30 that evening, we all got together for our kick-off meeting dinner. There was six of us & this was my first real Chinese dining experience (the hotel is kind of like a Kansas City Chinese food restaurant). Marlow & his wife, Marla, Xinlei, Laura, another interpreter who’ll be working for us named Eddy (her name is Eddy & this was her ‘interview’ I guess). Food in China is quite an experience I’m now beginning to learn. Food is all ordered ‘family style’, meaning one person orders all the food & put it on this huge Lazy-Susan in the middle of the table & everyone attacks it with chopsticks. But they trick you, after a few minutes they bring out two or three dishes, so all of us white folk just freestyle on it, no matter what it is. Then every minute or two over the course of the next hour, they bring in additional dishes until there’s about 15 of them on the spinning glass top. At this point, I’m determined to eat anything they put in front of me just to say I’ve eaten it. In this case it was goose necks, a carp deep fried in caramel sauce & served whole, a salad made completely of flowers, pig kidneys and a couple things I couldn't identify.

They don't server ice tea or water or soda with dinner (normal, typical US drinks), they server piping hot tea. Now, it’s already about 98 degrees here with a humidity of about, ohh… 10,000%, naturally, I’m craving boiling tea to wash down my caramel fish and pig kidneys. Overall, the meal was very good, I probably only sweated one or two cups of water & the grand total for a top notch dinner for 6 was roughly $35 US.

It’s about 8:30 pm, I’m wiped out & tired. Tomorrow is my first day in our client’s office here in Beijing. I really have no idea what to expect, I’m sure it will work out better going in with out any pre-conceptions. I have no doubt I will not be let down.

- L

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