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.

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