After returning to Singapore from Borneo, Leanne and I visit Beijing. My son, Sam, has lived there for three years and speaks Mandarin, which’ll make the trip easier. We arrive in Beijing on a Thursday afternoon.
A lot is said about the air quality in Beijing. The nasty atmosphere is the first thing we notice when we step out of the airport. It’s as bad as it’s reputed to be—filthy, toxic, dense, stinky. Everything is viewed through a dull brown cloud. Our eyes sting, our throats hurt, and the assault to our lungs makes us cough—and this is just after a few minutes of exposure. China should be ashamed.
I’ve got a slip of paper that has the name of our hotel written in Chinese. I hand it to the taxi driver; he grunts, hands the paper back to me, and pulls away from the curb. Forty-five minutes later he comes to a stop, points down an alleyway, then gestures toward the meter. We pay, get out, and roll our bags in the direction he indicated until, thankfully, we arrive at our hotel, The Traditional View, which is clean and spacious, and has the hardest beds in the world.
Sam and his girlfriend, Julia, meet us at a nearby restaurant for dinner. Julia started showing up in Sam’s emails about four months ago. I know what to expect before I meet her—Sam likes exceptional people and exceptional people like Sam. And Julia doesn’t disappoint. She’s stunningly beautiful, smart, self-confident, and appropriately respectful of the visiting mother and aunt. The two of them have gone to some trouble to plan our tourist itinerary, which includes the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Llama Temple, the Confucius Temple, the Summer Palace, the Olympic Park, the Hagglers Market, The Drum and Bell Towers, and the Temple of Heaven. Oh, and somewhere in there Sam manages to find time to demonstrate something called a MacBook Air, which is a light laptop he’s certain will make my life more perfect than it already is.
Rather than share an in-depth report about all the sights, I’ll just say they’re exactly what I anticipate—worth seeing, but crowded (we actually fear we’ll get trampled in the mob at the Forbidden Palace)—so I’ll just offer a few comments on the things that please or amaze me. The underground transportation is clean, clearly marked, and efficient. The food is inexpensive and terrific and often entertaining, like hot pot, where you order the food raw and then enjoy yourself while you cook it at the table. And I also must mention dumplings, China’s most glorious contribution for the well-being and absolute happiness of all mankind. The parks are remarkable—beautiful, clean, and popular. Quite a few of them charge entry fees, which I find surprising.
My favorite outing is to the park of the Temple of Heaven on Sunday morning, when the older people gather and participate in unusual activities meant to promote fitness and demonstrate that they’re engaged in the world around them. Ballroom dancing, yo-yoing, whip cracking, hacky sacking, Tai-chi, badminton—these old folks are doing all this stuff, and doing it well, though sometimes their actions seem bizarre, which causes me to believe this is a very uninhibited culture. I have mixed feelings—while I admire their unrestrained spirit, I also find it cringe-worthy; I would never be so spontaneous in a public setting. There’s a man standing by himself under a tree singing at the top of his lungs. Some other old guy places himself on the edge of an elevated deck and howls, his voice rolling out over the park. One thin man, dressed all in black, repeats the same polished dance move again and again and again, while nearby a shirtless man slowly crawls along the perimeter of the courtyard in “downward dog” position. We come across a group of about fifty people all gathered around one ancient character who hollers, “Ho!” and his followers holler, “Ho!” Then he hollers “Ho-ho!” and they holler “Ho-ho!” This goes on for as long as it takes us to pass by, and the whole time everybody’s bouncing up and down on the balls of their feet and clapping in rhythm. We turn a corner and there’s an eighty-year old man rapping out a humorous tale—we know it’s funny because his three-person audience is laughing.
Also worth mentioning are the hutongs. Hutongs are alleyways—narrow, crowded, smelly mazes that call to mind what Peking must have been like a hundred years ago. Nice homes and tenement dwellings abut one another. The cobbled streets are gray and all the walls are gray, and the gracefully sloping low roofs are gray, so it’s difficult to discern beginnings and endings. Every hundred yards or so there’s a sign pointing toward a public restroom. When I mention to Sam that I think they do a good job of providing facilities, he explains that these toilets are for the people who live in the area because they have no toilets in their homes. When he tells me that they are all “open plan”, well of course I have to poke my head in. And yep, he’s right. Squatting toilets, no doors—and I have another question answered, which is, how do really old women squat like that? The reality is—they just do it. I don’t have the audacity to take a picture.