The deserted city

In the run up to the Olympics, the Beijing government did a whole lot of “restoration” of historic tourist sites. In the case of Qianmen (前门), this meant razing a large swath of historic hutong, building a large, historic-looking shopping street, and raking in large sums of tourist money.

Except that the money never rolled in.

Saturday I visited Qianmen for the first time since I was in the area visiting a museum. Of over 100 large, beautifully built shops and restaurant spaces, eight were open. Of course, there were still crowds of tourists, because if the government deems something a tourist spot, the tours companies are pretty much obligated to go. The result: hundreds of tourists wandering down a completely desolate street, all wondering “why am I here?”

Although some businesses had signed on to open up in Qianmen, almost all have pulled out and moved to other areas.

So, what was once a vibrant neighborhood with local homes, shops and historically significant buildings, is now a no-businessman’s land of empty buildings. Though these buildings are quite pretty, it doesn’t really justify the incredible waste and reckless prospecting by the government.

The only exception to the lack of notable businesses is the newly opened H&M store. H&M is pretty much my favorite store, but it doesn’t redeem Qianmen.

As I said earlier, the question on everyone’s minds was “why am I here?” A few years ago, the answer would have been that Qianmen is the historic business district of imperial times. Because it was located just south of the gates to the Forbidden City, it was the place where members of the court went to unwind, do some shopping, visit bars and frequent brothels. In later years, it housed some of the oldest stores in Beijing.

These days, the answer to that ever-pressing question: To witness yet another prospecting failure of Beijing. Cheers!

The best museum in Beijing

I’m aware that Beijing is famous for its history, and yes, I know that most people would list one of Beijing’s art museums, 798 or perhaps the Forbidden City as the best museum in Beijing.

But they’re wrong.

Against all expectation and probability, the best museum in Beijing is the Exhibition Center for Urban Planning.

And here’s why:

1. On a beautiful, sunny Saturday in Spring, the centrally located museum had less than a dozen visitors.

The four-story museum was opened in 2004, but it’s gorgeous main entrance, seen above, is not in use. I’d hate to be the official who has to explain the surely astronomical building price to higher-ups for the technologically advanced museum with no visitors. But it’s great for the few people who do go! No crowds!

2. Interactive exhibits with flashy lights and little buildings

This shows a five square-foot, scale map of Beijing and the surrounding mountains. The different lights referred to different, no doubt educational features of Beijing. Mostly, it makes it look like I live in some kind of evil mastermind’s volcano lair!

3. The future

An entire floor of the museum is devoted to models and concept drawings depicting the future of Beijing. It’s actually really cool, and you don’t really need to read the accompanying placards to enjoy it.

The creepiest part of the museum has to be it’s future house:

On the incredibly large bed rests a very corpse-like, life-sized little girl doll. Nuff said on that.

However, no matter how futuristic China gets, the Chinese will always have a penchant for doilies and covering their household appliances.

4. 4-D movies

Ok, so I don’t have a picture of this, but it was like the ride at Disneyland where your seats tilt around and you fly through the city. Except that the employees, not realizing I spoke Chinese, had a nervous and protracted argument in front of us about whether to show the English or the Chinese version. It seems that although the English version was supposed to be shown at four, they had sold tickets to a Chinese group for the 4 pm showing, creating a conflict when two foreigners also bought tickets. I kept quiet and enjoyed the little panic attack they were having. Eventually they hustled us into the theater early, and we were out a little after four to let the Chinese group in for their Chinese showing.

5. Did I mention a scale model of the entire city of Beijing?

There’s my school, with the track.

Here’s where I intern at The Beijing! It’s the relatively short building in the lower center of the photo. In real life it’s 28 stories tall.

Mostly it’s fun for pretending to be Godzilla!

Even the things that are kind of sad about the museum are funny at the same time. Our favorite joke: Holding onto XYZ as hard as Beijing’s holding onto the Olympics.

Yes, that’s a countdown timer to the Olympics start date.

Jingshan Park

One of the up-sides to having a slow-down in freelance work is that I’ve had a bit more time to tourist around, so Thursday I went to Jingshan Park. Also know as Coal Hill Park, it is located directly behind the Forbidden City. On the four separate times that I’ve visited the Forbidden City, I’ve always thought I’d really like to visit the park, which has a striking pagoda on a hill overlooking the palace. But, seeing as the Forbidden City is incredibly large, I’m always too pooped to bother.

However, I finally devoted an afternoon to it, and it’s one of my favorite parks in Beijing. The entrance fee is only 5 kuai, and from the West Gate there are no rickshaw-driving louts or hordes of tour bus-driven, matching hat-wearing tourists — just old people and locals. It’s also relatively small, but it packs quite a punch, and you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed by its size.

As soon as I entered the park, the sounds of traffic and smells of pollution seemed to magically disappear from Beijing, and I was transported to another place entirely. The park was just beginning to bloom, and the whole park smelled sweet.

The peonies that cover much of the park have just started to blossom:

Now I don’t even need to go to Holland!

I feel like this should be a motivational poster — Dare to be different!/Always show your TRUE colors!

After wandering about for a bit, I began the climb to the top of the park, which is quite short and easy, but has great rewards. Beijing was meticulously designed so that the most important buildings were all aligned on its center line. So, from the top of Jingshan Park you can easily see many of the scenic spots of Beijing.

Here is the White Pagoda on the top of Beihai Park, west of the Forbidden City. In the distance, you can see the Lama Temple:

And here, of course, the obligatory Forbidden City shot. It’s so big, it’s impossible to get the whole thing in one picture though. It was actually really fun to admire how big it really is, and feel a renewed sense of wonder (after four visits it does get old).

I ended up leaving the park through it’s front gate, directly across from the Forbidden City, which unlike the gate I entered through, was swarming with annoying tour groups, rickshaw peddlers, acrobats show peddlers and the like. And since I have a white face, I got to talk to all of them.

I really need to invest in a hat that says “I speak fluent Chinese, and I know better than to ride four blocks in a 200 kuai rickshaw,” and a T-shirt that says “Leave me alone, I live in Beijing.” Maybe even a flag that says “I’ve been to the Great Wall, and those Chinese tourists over there in matching hats are way more likely to buy your crap.”

Beijing’s Yuan Da Du Park

Beijing has finally shed its winter coat, and it looks gorgeous. The long, sooty winter had almost entirely erased from my memory how pretty it can be even in the heart of the city. Needless to say, I’m ecstatic about spring.

On Monday, which was Tomb Sweeping Day, a national holiday, Jeff and I went to a FREE park. Yuan Da Du Park (元大都公园) spans a long east-west stretch of Beijing along a lovely little canal parallel to the Line 10 Subway. We started from惠新西街南口station and walked west, passing the Olympic stadiums along the way to 牡丹园station.

Literacy!

I think most people who know me would describe me as a fairly literary person, but it wasn’t always so. Up until about fourth grade, I couldn’t even read Green Eggs and Ham. I was literally the kid that got pulled out of class to do remedial exercises and learn ABCs, because I was eight and hardly read a word of English. If I was a kid today, I’m sure they would have given me like five learning disabilities.

At any rate, one day in fourth grade I was with my mom at Barnes and Nobles. I couldn’t read, so bookstores were mysterious temples for a faith I was excluded from. For some reason, that day the books arrayed on display incited my covetous desire to read. Left to my own devices, I picked up a book with a pretty cover, and decided that I was going to read it cover to cover. I was tired of not being able to read.

I don’t know how long it took me, but I read that book every day. I’m sure it’s not the best work of literature — it’s out of print and the lowest selling price on Amazon.com is 1 cent — but it opened the world of reading to me. By the next year I was devouring fantasy books by the dozen, in addition to Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and the rest of the Western literary cannon.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I was thinking about this and realized maybe I could mount the same offensive against the Chinese language. After browsing a Chinese website that has lots of book commentaries, I chose a few hopefuls and went to the large bookstore in Xidan. Eventually I chose 《X 的悲剧》 (The Tragedy of X), an American novel of no reputation that was probably translated because: A. It was written a while ago and wouldn’t have too much naughtiness to censor, B. It was written a while ago and it’s out of print, so C. It was cheap to get the rights.

My first choice was to read a Chinese novel, but I couldn’t find the authors recommended to me — imagine browsing a bookstore when the language has no alphabet and you’ll know how frustrating trying to find a book is.

I’m proud to say that not half an hour ago I finished my first-ever Chinese book. It was a mystery, which I figured would ensure that I was motivated to finish it. I’m not sure how much I learned from it, but I’m still pretty happy with myself. I guess tomorrow I may have to go to the bookstore again to find another book, which is one of my favorite activities in the whole world. I actually have some Chinese classics already, but I hear they’re depressing, so ppfffffbbtbttttttt on that.

The cab shyster

Today Jeff and I decided to go to the park after work, so I met him at his office and we took a cab uptown. It was a lovely, hot day, the first real day of spring, and a national holiday.

As we were riding, I noticed that the driver was taking a slightly inefficient route to get to the park, but it wasn’t an egregious case of fare inflation so I didn’t worry about it. I figured he’d possibly make a few extra kuai, but with the traffic slow on more traveled roads, it’d be more or less even.

At any rate, just as we were entering the on-ramp to the second ring road — it functions like a freeway within the city— he slammed on his breaks. We weren’t going too fast, but it caused the car behind to rear-end us. This is the first car accident I’ve been in in China, so I was mildly excited and a little worried it’d delay us.

He hopped out of his car, exchanged pleasantries with the other driver, who was a young army official driving a rather nice look sedan, 200 kuai exchanged hands and in less than a minute we were driving along as before.

The thing is, the taxi driver had no reason to stop, and our slow speed insured that little damage would be done. I’m pretty sure he did it on purpose. I wonder how often he gets in accidents…

Jiangxi, Day 3

On the last day of our trip, we went to Jingdezhen, the capital of Chinese porcelain. The weather was beautiful, and we mostly went to museums.

One of the coolest things we saw was a porcelain workshop where they make porcelain the old-fashioned way. Unlike most “workshops” and “factory tours,” this was not just an elaborate ploy to sell stuff, it was actually really neat!

This man was throwing bowls, and he taught some of the people on our tour how to do it. The wheel is hand-powered.

This man was trimming the bowls. There were more steps before and between these two, but I didn’t take pictures of everything. First they throw the bowl, then let it dry. After it dries it’s put on a stone mold and beaten to unify the shape. Then it’s trimmed, glazed and fired.

The designs are incredibly intricate and all hand-painted here. This man said it takes him about two weeks to finish each piece, and he copies famous vase designs.

This pot is also hand carved. It was about the size of a 20 or 30 gallon pot, and the man working on it said it would take about a month to complete the designs. After that, it would be painted as well.

Some of the items were really, really ugly. I think my dad would like these though.

The workshop was surrounded by beautiful gardens and outdoor kilns that we could walk into.

We also saw some other porcelain museums, but were a little rushed because we wanted to eat lunch. However, I thought this guy was worth capturing and sharing:

What do you think he’s thinking about? Feel free to leave a comment. Every time I look at his face I laugh.

After lunch we went to a porcelain market with nice enough pieces for really good prices. I don’t really want any porcelain, so I didn’t buy anything, but if you’re into porcelain at all or want a new teaset, go to Jingdezhen, it certainly earns its title as the capital of porcelain.

Jiangxi, Day 2

After spending a night in the village, we hopped on the bus early the second day and headed three hours out to Sanqing Mountain.

Sanqing Mountain is one of the important Taoist mountains in China, although today it’s more of a non-religious tourist spot and nature preserve.

In the interest of time, we rode a tram up part of the mountain. Sadly, it was really foggy, so we couldn’t see the view. It was foggy enough that you really couldn’t see much more than 50-100 feet away. After our tram ride, we continued hiking up to the summit, where we ate lunch.

The hiking trail was actually a concrete walkway attached to the side of the mountain, which was prety mind-boggling because there are no roads and the mountain is incredibly steep and densely wooded. I can’t figure out for the life of me how they got gigantic concrete slabs up there to build it. Even today, all the food and supplies at the top of the mountain are brought in on the backs of poor laborers.

We hiked all the way to the bottom of the mountain, which was gorgeous. My legs and feet were pretty displeased though, since the entire hike was pretty much steep, old, uneven stone stairs, not hiking trails. Thousands of stairs make feet and muscles very unhappy — I’ve been walking like a robot all week!

The mountain was really beautiful, with lots of trees, bamboo, flowers, moss and small waterfalls all around the trail. There were very few tourists on the mountain as well, creating a rare and peaceful atmosphere.

This is part of a small guesthouse on the mountain, where some of the people who work there live.

After we had hiked down to the bottom it was already past 6 p.m., so we all got on the bus for another long ride, off to our next destination and a good meal and clean sheets.

Jiangxi, Day 1

This weekend I took a trip to Jiangxi province in southern China. It was wonderfully humid and green, but also a bit too cold for spring.

After we got in, we drove three hours out to a small, ancient village that was known for its porcelain. Porcelain is the main cultural export from Jiangxi, so many of our activities revolved around porcelain.

In the village we toured several mansions of architectural and historical note. One mansion belonged to a famous revolutionary who fought for the nationalists during the Sino-Japanese war. We also saw a museum featuring lion dancing costumes, photos from days past, a foot-binding stool and other items from the village’s history. It also featured a porcelain collection with several horrifying pieces from the cultural revolution. Many featured a “horrible landlord” or evil capitalist getting their head cut off. It was pretty interesting, but considering the embarrassment many intellectuals feel about the era, I was shocked these were on display. I guess word hadn’t reached the small village museum that these are a part of history the elites would rather everyone forgot.

After the village tour, we went to a preserved ancient porcelain factory. Here is a video of part of the machinery for pounding the clay. It’s all water-powered, very cool!

The best part of the area was the lovely scenery and lack of other tourists. There was also a really creepy statue there.

After this, we went on a hike to see waterfalls. There were so many beautiful spring flowers, one of the highlights of the trip for me.

We just kept hiking up and up, it was so mysterious and peaceful in the mountains. The bamboo forests were gorgeous.

The very highest waterfall was gigantic, and the top of the mountain was basically a vertical face.

After the long hike, we were all beat, so we went back to the hotel for dinner. Our program only has about fifteen kids in it now, so needless to say we’re a pretty tight-knit group and played games together after dinner. I had really forgotten what great games Egyptian War, Doctor Doctor and Sardines are.