Monthly Archive for May, 2006

China day 15: Summer Palace

Woke up to even stronger solvent fumes. Called front desk to see about changing rooms. They said they would reserve one of the premium rooms on the 17th floor for us, with a scenic view of the Forbidden City. Cool!

On the itinerary today was a visit to the residence of Prince Gong, and then to the Summer Palace of the emperor, the Imperial Cottage as it were.

A day of beautiful weather today, the first blue sky I’ve seen since we arrived in China. The best photos too.

The residence of Prince Gong was built to a state of magnificence by a previous occupant, Heshen. Heshen was a court advisor to Qing dynasty emperor Qian Long, around (year?). He was notoriously corrupt. It is said at one point his annual income was 10 times that of the Imperial government. But he came to well-deserved unpleasant end, when the emperor seized his assets, and gave him a token gift with a special signifigance: an order that he kill himself.

Heshen used his ill-gotten gains to build a magnificent residence for himself, including a wonderful garden with fountains, islands, caves, and lots of that weirdly organic-looking stone sculpture that seems so popular in China.

In later years, it became the home of Prince Gong, and was visited by other emperors. Emperor Kangxi (the good one that enjoyed learning about science and technology) visited, and wrote a large Happiness character on a stone wall in a cave.

I thought this place pretty magnificent, and very well fit for an emperor, but I had not yet seen the Summer Palace, which makes Prince Gong’s residence look like a room at the YMCA. The Summer Palace is vast.

It includes a mountain and a lake. Seems like hundreds of buildings. A group of Tibetan Buddhist temples is on the side of the mountain.

The Summer Palace was used by many emperors over the centuries. Its most recent occupant of note was the Empress Dowager Cixi who, together with the powerful and most-thoroughly corrupt chief eunuch, did much to bring about the decline and fall of the Qing dynasty. Cixi left many marks on the Summer Palace.

Cixi came into power at a young age, as one of the concubines of Emperor Tongzhi. She bore him an heir, which increased her power. While the emperor lived, she worked hard to build her power further. When the emperor died, her son was too young to hold power effectively, so she ruled from behind the throne. She cemented her hold on power, destroying everyone that opposed her. Even into adulthood, her son, the true emperor, remained a puppet. Apparently her own son came to oppose her eventually, but so great was her power at that point that she had him placed under house arrest. He died soon, and some believe she had had him killed, her own son. Not a nice woman.

Enough history. We trooped all about the grounds of the Summer Palace. Didn’t spend so much time in the various buildings. Even the nicest of these old Chinese buildings start to look the same after a while. Instead we headed up the mountain side paths and gardens. At the top we found ourselves in amongst the Buddhist temples there.

Heading down the other side of the mountain took us to another of the main entrances to the Summer Palace complex. Here, there is a river valley, which is lined by shops right on the water. Most of them given over to tourist crap now, but still an interesting and pleasant stroll up one side of the river bank, and down the other.

From there, we decided to try to make it back to the original building complex, to catch a perforce and the theatre building. By avoiding the maze-like temple buildings and sticking to neighbouring paths through the trees, we made it back to the theatre in 15 minutes, and caught the tail end of a music performance, plus a traditional dance show.

From there, we made our way out the other side of our original entry point, to a museum of treasures from the Palace. It was mostly full of the same sort of bronze wine vessels and porcelain pots that we’ve seen a lot of already. Beautiful work, to be sure, but it wears thin. A gallery of miscellaneous artifacts was more interesting.

At that point, we walked along the shore to find the famous Marble Boat of Empress Dowager Cixi.

Cixi took vast amounts of money out of the government coffers to make improvements to the Summer Palace. At one point, she took a large amount that was intended to be used to build up the Chinese navy, and instead used it for Palace improvements. As a small concession to the original purpose of the money, she used a portion of it to build a large marble boat at the edge of the lake. Basically the boat stands as a big shiny hard marble “Fuck You!” from Empress Dowager Cixi to the entire people of China.

We got some photos of that elegant monstrosity, and then decided to rent an electric motor boat to tool around the lake for an hour before the Palace grounds closed.

With Admiral Ye at the helm of our noble vessel, I got more photos of the Marble Boat, then sailed around an island that we never had time to get to. On the way back to the dock, the boat was going much slower, our battery apparently running low. In the end, we got towed back to shore by a motor boat, an ignoble end to the nautical career of Admiral Ye.

With the park closing, and most tourists gone, we were able to enjoy some leisurely walking along the waterfront, before finally heading out to go home.

Back at the hotel, we found the solvent smell now permeating even the hotel lobby. This is crazy shit for a good hotel. Even one-star hotels don’t poison their guests. Stronger in the elevator, then on our floor, it knocks us off our feet.

We returned to the lobby to inquire about changing to the fancy room we asked about in the morning. They said all such rooms were booked, but offered us another room, much like ours, on the 10th floor. We went to look at it, found the smell bearable. We were in the process of moving to it, when we got a call. They had realized that one of the nice rooms that was booked was actually reserved for us, so we could have it after all. Went to look at it, found it truly splendid. Above the noise of renovation, above the apparently-heavier-than-air solvent fumes, spacious, and with a lovely view of the Forbidden City at night. Naturally, we took it.

After we moved in, Sabrina called the manager, and managed to get us a very good rate on the nice room, in compensation for the inconvenience and the night of inhalation of toxic fumes we had already endured.

China day 14: One Family’s Story

General Wang Ju-chin was in charge of a number of the southern provinces in the late days of the Qing dynasty (late 19th and early 20th century). As a high ranking military man, the family was well-off, and owned a number of these quadrangle residences in the hutong area. The one we saw was actually not the main one, it was originally occupied by servants. Even the family’s servants lived in luxurious residence at the time.

In those days Sun Yat-sen, with the help of the powerful General Yuan Shikai, managed to overthrow the corrupt and ineffective Qing empire. Sun Yat-sen intended to set up democratic government at that point, modelled on the ones he had seen while living in Europe. They were succesful in overthrowing the Qing. But then General Yuan Shikai showed his true quality as a man, by betraying the democratic dream. He revised the new consitution before the ink was even dry, making himself ‘President for Life’, and shortly thereafter even promoted himself to Emperor, and declared a new dynasty. The more distant provinces would hear nothing of this, and immediately tried to break away. Yuan Shikai looked for support from others to cement his position, but General Wang Ju-chin declined to take part, remaining neutral in this. So, in this at least, he was not on the side of Evil.

General Yuan’s dynasty lasted exactly 80 days, before he died of kidney failure. One wonders why he bothered? Destroying everything Sun Yat-sen had fought for, when he had such a short time to live anyway. How different might China be today, if Sun Yat-sen’s true democracy had taken root at that time? No squabbling over Taiwan, no millions of people starved to death as a result of Mao’s awe-inspiring incompetance, no Cultural Revolution.

In the following 30 years, the Kuomonting government of Chiang Kai-shek took power. No democracy to be found there, just another sick megalomaniac.

The general’s son (the father of the present owner) was very well-educated, and did ok working in technical position for a government factory. But they were turbulent times, and the youngest, the present owner, received little education.

The good times were over when the Communists finally overthrew the Kuomintang, and Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan (taking China’s entire gold reserve with him.) The family was not so rich anymore, but they still owned land and a number of quadrangle residences. The Communists at that time were very much into the philosophy that best way to provide for poor people was to eat the rich people (figuratively, of course, not literally.).

After founding the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949, the Communists under Mao seized most of the family’s residences. Only the one servant’s quadrangle was left to the family.

Things got worse later on when the Cultural Revolution came. The ‘eat the rich’ fervour reached a peak, and the Red Guards ran around destroying anything that even vaguely reminded them of the feudal times. It’s surprising the Forbidden City survived, but Mao had respect for it as a symbol of China’s ability to build great things.

At this time, the Communists seized all but one of the small houses in the remaining quadrangle. They were left with a tiny two room house. The family was treated very badly. The present owner was uneducated, and worse yet, the son of formerly-rich people. That made him a prime target. The Communists wanted to send him to the country to work in the fields, where he would likely die, as many did. He was only spared because of his wife, who was from a poor family, and thus subject not a prime target. The Communists wanted her to divorce him, so he could be sent away, but she refused to do this.

And so they struggled, in great poverty, for many years. In 2004, the government, apparently thinking its ‘eat the rich’ strategy, returned the other buildings of the present quadrangle to the family. What happened to the poor people who had been living there I don’t know, but they probably didn’t like it.

The family’s fortunes finally had a bit of recovery. They have opened the quadrangle as a simple little sort of museum, and manage to pull in a little bit money.

The old man seems to have no anger about the story, he’s just grateful for the new chance they have been given.

China day 14: Sprawling Temples and Narrow Alleys

Slept until noon as usual. The banging and hammering of renovation upstairs was much reduced now.

We had lunch at the one of the hotel restaurants. A bowl of ginger congee for Sabrina, and fried Udon noodles for me. In a country where the appearance of food is nearly as important as its taste, they were surprisingly drab looking. But they tasted better than they looked.

We took a taxi to the Lama Temple, a very beautiful Tibetan Buddhist temple complex in Beijing. Originally the area was a residence for some Imperial official, but was later converted into a temple complex. It’s one of the more lavishly-decorated Buddhist temples I’ve seen, very colourfully-painted ceilings in repeating patterns.

Saw the usual assortment of big Buddha sculptures and scary-looking Heavenly Guardians. The pride of this temple is a gigantic Buddha done mostly in a single piece of sandalwood. It stands 18m high, and apparently goes 8m into the ground as well.

Swarming over the place is the usual crowd of more-or-less devout followers paying their respects to Buddha, and offering incense sticks. The Buddha had better really, really like the smell of incense, because people burn a whole shitload of it for him.

Unusually, in this place, they don’t want people burning incense inside the temple buildings. Probably because the smoke would damage the beautiful ceilings. Or maybe they’re afraid the giant sandalwood Buddha might catch file. People instead offer unburned incense sticks. The standard rate for paying homage to Buddha is three sticks of incense. These are piled high at the Buddha’s feet. Once in a while, somebody will come buy and pile it all into a big garbage bag and haul it away.

I don’t know how the people feel about that, seeing their gifts of incense shovelled unceremoniously into garbage bags. I don’t know what happens to it from there. I really hopes it’s not just thrown away. I imagine it gets sorted back into different types and shapes, repackaged and sold again to the next guy. Seems kind of like a scam to do that, but if it’s not going to be burned, that seems like the most sensible thing to do with it.

Back outside the temple, we started taking a walk down a “hutong” across the street, heading to the Confucious Temple.

The hutong are a network of very old and narrow alleys that run around the city, many radiating east-west out from the north-south axis that runs between the Forbidden City and the Bell Tower.

While walking down our first hutong, we were pursued by a pedicab driver who seemed determined to take us on a hutong tour. We found the Confucious Temple to be closed, so we took him up on the offer. Climbed into the back of the bike, and off we went.

Many houses in the hutongs were the residences of officials and generals in the Qing dynasty. The rank of the official was represented by a number of short cylinders protruding from the lintel above the door. Many of the residences took the form of a walled quandrangle, with buildings housing servants or members of the family in a specific arrangement.

After the New China was formed by the Communists, the houses were seized from the former-officials by the Communist government and given to poor people. Now they are all very dillapidated, featuring small shops, with an occasional very stinky shared toilet.

After riding through a number of hutong alleys, the driver took us to the Bell and Drum Towers which are at the center of this part of town. The towers were closing soon, but we managed to snag an English-speaking tour guide who could get us through both towers, just in time to catch the last performance at the Drum Tower.

We saw the Drum Tower first. A long climb up some very steep stone stairs brought us to the top. A bunch of very large drums are there. They are mostly reproductions. One original drum is there, which had been vandalized in the early 20th century by French-British Allied troops.

This is something that happens in every country in the world. Whenever any army is sent anywhere, they can always be counted on to commit senseless acts of brutality, looting, and vandalism. No country’s soldiers, it seems, are above this. It’s something governments need to think about before deploying their military: regardless of the justice of your cause, you are going to give people very good reason to hate you.

The drums were originally played at certain times of the year. Didn’t catch all the details. The Drum Tower also had a display of some antique water clocks. We saw a performance on the drums by five players.

After the show, we went back down the stairs with a large group of tourists. The stairs are so steep, if somebody at the top slipped, the whole line of people all the way down would fall like dominos. I wonder if that has ever happened?

Across the road, we came to the Bell Tower. Up an even longer flight of stone stairs, we see the bell. A gigantic cast bronze bell of impeccable workmanship, weighing 65 tons. Its sides are over 20cm thick. In Imperial times, it could be heard all the way to the Forbidden City.

The Bell Tower was originally the office of the Imperial Time-keepers. They used their most sophisticated technology to keep time for the Emperor, and rang the bell at specific intervals.

There is also a model display showing the planned development of the hutong area around the tower. They plan to kick out the poor people living there now, level the old hutong buildings and replace them with newly-built quadrangle residences that only rich people will be able to afford, probably government beaurocrats. So, it goes full circle. The last shreds of the old Communist ideology gone out the window. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

All of this is to be done in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Heaven-forbid the Olympic visitors ever look out from one of the main tourist attractions to a sea of squalor. Somehow everywhere the Olympics go, they leave destruction in their wake. Why do cities fight so hard to bring this nightmare upon themselves?

After this, the hutong tour continued. He took us to see one of the old quandrangle residences up close. At the end of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century, It was the home of one General Wang Ju-chin. Since then, the family has fallen on hard times. The grandson of the General, now an old fellow himself, has opened it as a sort of museum. I will tell their story in a separate post.

After this, the pedicab driver continued through the hutongs, taking us to a strip of bars on the shore of a small lake. Along the way, we passed a walled and guarded compound, which I’m told is the home of the daughter of Deng Shaoping, one of the early Communist Party bigwigs. Even as they were seizing the homes of rich people, they were ensconcing their own families in luxurious mansions. Such wanton and utterly shameless hypocrisy.

We arrived at the shops and bars by the lake. It was getting dark at this time. All the shops and bars all lit up. The invention of vinyl ropelight has truly revolutionized the art of decorating Chinese shops. Just string ropelights along every edge, and you’ve got a stunning and long-lasting display.

We were very hungry by this time. Sabrina stopped at a street vendor and got some “stinky tofu”, which she claims to love. In it’s raw form, it smells like a festering outhouse, but she says it tastes great when cooked. I tried a bite, thought it tasted only slightly better cooked than it smelled raw. Won’t be trying it again. Another kind of marinated dry tofu was more to my liking.

Walking around the lake shore, we passed a number of vendors selling animals made out of a thick honey/sugar mixture. They were made like blown glass, and very cool looking. Sabrina asked him to make a monkey (my Chinese zodiac year), but when he made it, it was just a solid blob of the sugar, pressed into a monkey mold. Quite a cop-out, and dissappointing for ¥10. And we were sure not going to eat it, since he shaped it with his grubby fingers, and held bits in his mouth while we worked on other parts. Sabrina got him to give us one of the premade blown pigs instead, much cooler looking. Sadly, I never got to photograph it, since it melted overnight in our hotel room.

After the blown-sugar vendor, we stopped at a restaurant for some late dinner. Not high Chinese cuisine today, just fairly simple, and very good. Kung Pao chicken, fried corn and vegetables, soup.

Walked home past more shops and bars with live music. Back on a main road, caught a taxi home.

In the hotel, we found that the hammering and pounding had been replaced by a strong smell of some kind of solvent or paint-thinner wafting in through the ventillation system.

China day 13: Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City

Woke up to the sound of renovation on the floor above us. Hammering, drilling, scraping, grinding, dragging, all day long.

Sabrina is still weak today, so we spent most of the morning in bed. Still, with the help of another Tylenol, she felt well enough at noon to venture out.

We had lunch at one of the hotel restaurants, specializing in Szechuan. It was pretty expensive, but good. Beijing-style cucumber salad, some kind of bean curd salad that I really liked but Sabrina did not care for, beef with green chilies, Szechuan-style green beans, fish in spicy oil, and a simple soup.

After lunch, Sabrina still felt well enough to head out to see some sights. We walked to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

We passed a bunch of government buildings on the way. All surrounded by guards and a 20 to 30 foot high cement wall. The Communist Party is at least as well-protected from unwanted contact with the common rabble as any emperor could have wished for. The Peoples’ Republic of China hasn’t been a republic since the 20’s (if ever), and any lingering illusion that it exists for the benefit of The People died in 1989.

Really only saw a little bit of Tiananmen Square, mostly just the big gate building at the end of the square, the one that features that huge picture of Mao we’ve all seen on TV

Whenever I see huge pictures of political or religious leaders, I always immediately distrust them. The bigger his picture, the more he is not to be trusted.

Immediately beyond the gate, you can buy tickets to go inside the gate building. The security here is pretty tight, with some incomprehensible policies. Why is Sabrina not allowed to bring her handbag up, but my camera bag is fine? Why does the rule against guns and explosives, also prohibit bringing in ‘xeroxed documents’? Is there some Anarchist Cookbook recipe for making photocopies into weapons? After a while, and a reading of Chinese version of the rules, we realized that probably because they don’t want The People dropping political leaflets off the gate into Tiananmen Square.

After we cleared the security, we were held back from entering the gate building for a while. Apparently some big-wig was visiting the gate. After a while, a Western guy came out, surrounded by security people. They got into a bunch of big black limos and drove away. Finally we were allowed in. I have no idea who this guy was, but I already don’t like him.

From the top of the gate, you can look out with quite a good view of Tiananmen Square. There’s not much inside, just a TV playing a tape of a big military parade down the square with Communist Party honchos watching from the gate, where we had stood just moments before. A very impressive display of military discipline. But in my mind, I kept seeing it overlayed with images of that same military in that same place murdering The People for daring to want actual democracy in their Republic. It would be really cool if somebody could sneak in there and replace the videotape with that.

Photos of the view from the gate, and everything I photographed today, are pretty poor because of the haze and fog.

From there, we proceeded into the Forbidden City itself. I got an automatic guide, a cool little flat box that knows where you are, and tells you about it. It has a map on the front panel, with a flashing LED to show where you are, and a magnetic compass in the corner to get oriented. Pretty slick! But it tended to talk for too long, in too much detail, no way to skip ahead or pause it.

The Forbidden City complex is really enormous. Pictures don’t do it justice. Many of the side buildings are now museums, but we didn’t have enough time to see much.

The coolest thing I saw was an exhibit of scientific instruments, from the time of the Qing emperor Kangxi, who was quite interested in science and technology, and had many Western people come to educate him. He also did a lot to combine Chinese and Western mathematics. I wonder if this how the Chinese Remainder Theorem came to the West? Sabrina says he is remembered as one of the better emperors of that dynasty. I’d like to learn more about him.

Other buildings housed various imperial treasures, the ones that haven’t been looted by foreign armies and never returned. We didn’t have time to see much, though. The museums were all closing, so we had to spend our remaining time outside in the rain. Made our way to the imperial garden at the back of the compound. This was a nice place, better than the vast field of stone pavement that makes up most of the City. But it was raining and unpleasant, and Sabrina was becoming tired, so we headed home. Managed to snag a taxi outside the back exit.

Back at the hotel, Sabrina want to bed, after taking another Tylenol. I went down one of the hotel restaurants and special-ordered a bowl of ginger congee for her.

China day 12: The Cold Strikes Back

Woke up at 7:30, only a few hours of sleep, but much refreshed.

Breakfast was kinda crappy in this cheap hotel. “Orange juice” was actually Tang, dilluted with too much water. And the first cup drawn from the dispenser was full of black floaties. Disturbing.

Bus trip back to airport didn’t seem as interminable as the trip to the hotel. We were issued new boarding passes, and are now waiting on the plane. Soon, with luck, we will be in Beijing.

Ok, got to Beijing without further incident. Checked into our hotel, the Capital Hotel, which more than compensates us for the crappy one we spent last night in. Multiple nice restaurants. A spacious room, bath entirely done in granite, and a really cool controller on the bedside table that controls every light in the room, the air conditioner, the TV and music system, has an alarm clock in it, and displays the time in four time zones! Except the TV controls on it don’t actually work. I guess they replaced the TVs with new ones that aren’t compatible. And we have free Internet.

Conveniently found a business card on the floor behind the door, offering assorted types of massage from variously-descibed ladies. I guess a previous traveller was partaking of some of China’s spicier delicacies.

Putting a damper on everything, Sabrina has caught my cold too. Her symptoms are different from mine, though. Seems like quite a fever. After sleeping under two blankets for a few hours, we’ve gone out to a local hospital to get her some medicine. They don’t really have walk-in clinics or doctors in private practice here.

Beijing, what I’ve seen of it so far, has been nice. Doesn’t seem to have the energy and excitement of Shanghai, but it does seem more spacious and safer to walk the streets with less chance of getting run down by car, bus, truck, moped or bicycle (individually or in groups). But that’s based on a very small sample, I may change my opinion.

Sabrina got a mosquito bite in the waiting room of the hospital. I can scarce imagine a worse place to get a mosquito bite. I guess a malaria clinic in Myanmar would be worse.

After walking this way and that, blood test, cashier, blood test, doctor, dispensary, cashier, dispensary, we ended up with a bagful for medicines, and a trip to an IV room, where they gave her a glucose drip with some antibiotic drug in it. Weird to me, since a common cold is usually a virus, not a bacterial infection. The IV drip took almost two hours, and did nothing for her fever or joint pain, so that the end of it, she was weak and exhausted and suffering.

Having eaten nothing in some time, and all restaurants closed by now, we picked up some canned congee and yogurt at a convenience store on the walk home. Had that, and she took a couple Tylenols (with some difficulty, she is not good at swallowing pills.). The Tylenol really helped with her fever and pain quite a lot. The other medicines seemed really unnecessary to me, including more antibiotic pills, some kind of antiviral, and whole lot of some Chinese traditional medicine in vials. They’re too foul-tasting to drink.

Went to sleep.