It’s been years since a place disoriented me so much; since a place truly felt utterly out of this world. Every place I’ve visited in the past three years has had something about it that reminded me of someplace else. But not Beijing. It just feels so… foreign. And I’m someone who hates the use of the word foreign, but I can’t think of any other word just yet. Beijing feels like a stubborn pleasure-loving Taurean. There’s something hard and harsh about it; and yet there’s something incredibly Venusian.
I woke up this morning and asked the front desk for directions to the Forbidden City. They told me to take the bus. I’m generally nervous about taking buses in foreign countries because you never know where they’re going to go. I know it sounds a bit irrational, but with trains it’s much more of a clearcut distinction – they have to stop when there’s a stop and there’s sure to be an announcement or a sign. With buses, there is no such guarantee. They just keep going till someone decides to get on and get off.
ANYWAYS – I decided to take the bus. After waiting 15 minutes for the bus, the bus driver told me that I was on the wrong side of the road.
Told you I was like Dory from Finding Nemo.
So I crossed the street and waited for the bus. After another 10 minutes, I gave up and decided to take a taxi. The first taxi that stopped refused to take me there. The second guy gave me a slight nod and I was on my way. I’m still finding it hard to understand the local variant of Mandarin in Beijing – but everyone understands me so that’s a start.
The cab smelled like stale cigarette smoke. The driver kept scratching his hair and his dandruff kept falling all over the place. Occasionally he stopped to dig his nose and play with the snot while waiting for traffic. Yes – I am grossed out. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, he sneezed. Hard. And no – he didn’t cover his face or use a tissue. And all the snot from his nose landed all over himself and the front passenger seat.
When we finally arrived at the destination, he DEMANDED a tip. I was told that it’s illegal for cabbies to ask for a tip so I didn’t appreciate being asked to leave one. I know how it is – people think that women travelling alone are soft targets. Thank God I left my 20s behind. I asked for the receipt, double checked the price and gave him what he was due.
He was yelling at me on the way out. Not that I cared. I really should have waited for the bus.
But I was here – at the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City
Growing up, I often watched the film The Last Emperor. For some strange reason, I remember that it was always on TV. The movie would drag on for five hours or something – including ads – and I would sit there and watch parts of it before falling asleep. But somehow that film is etched in my memory. I think I’m going to try and watch it again when I get back. Actually – I’ve started reading the autobiography From Emperor to Citizen that the movie is based on… It’s strange to make the connection that The Forbidden City was someone’s childhood home.
Pretty fancy crib, huh.
The moat surrounding the Forbidden City was semi-frozen. The cabbie had also dropped me at the backend of the city so I had to walk a good ten minutes to get to the entrance. I paid 40 yuan US$6 for entry and another 10 yuan $1.50 to see the Treasures Exhibit.
Where does one start and where does one begin to even describing this place? You could spend years walking around and studying that place and still not quite know it.
Unlike Japan where everything is understated, austere, humble and mellow – everything at the Forbidden City was grandiose, opulent, loud and decadent. Unlike Japan where everything old looks like it was built just yesterday (yes, there is such a thing as too much conservation), the Forbidden City is beautiful in that the signs of its age create mystery about an era now gone. Yes – the walls are not as red as they used to be; and no the yellow doesn’t shine like the sun – but the fraying wallpaper, the missing bits of paint, the slow decay all reminds us of how much it has survived and how it will continue to survive for a long time to come.
The weather was very cold but I lasted around 4 hours outside. There’s just so much to see. It wasn’t as crowded as I expected either. The tourists that I met were largely from other parts of China. I noticed many women dressed in traditional clothing. Some of them were even wearing ornate headdresses. They were all speaking Mandarin, but I’m not sure which part of China they were from. In hindsight, I should have opened my mouth and asked.
After the Forbidden City, I made my way to Tiananmen Square. I took a bus. I was the only foreigner on it. I was glad to sit down in a warm space after spending all day outside. THANK GOD I STILL HAVE MY GEAR FROM CANADA. I don’t know what I would have done without it…
ANYWAYS, some of us know about Tiananmen Square’s historical significance. If you don’t, Google it yourself. Hey – you currently have Google, and I don’t.
The only thing I remember is the very large painting of Mao at the entrance.
After that, I went to Wangfujing Street. It looks like any old high street of any major city. That’s until you find the small alley selling street food. I have NO IDEA what was on the stalls of half of those street vendors, but I can’t say I much cared to buy any of it.
I returned from Hong Kong with a terrible case of food poisoning, so I haven’t been particularly keen on taking unnecessary risks now that I’m in Beijing. Plus – there were insects, scorpions and other err unsavoury items on the menu – and although I’m adventurous, I’m not that adventurous. And yes – it really is a starfish on that picture.
I’m not sure what to think of Beijing just yet. It’s been a while since I’ve felt this overwhelmed. Then again – new country, new city, and new experience.
Till next time, sweet dreams.
4 thoughts on “Day 3 in Beijing: culture shock, crazy cabbie, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing Street”
Give it time. You’ll probably unravel all the experiences later. Sounds like a very intense trip. Guess you understanding Mandarin is like me understanding French Canadian. Depending on where people are from it’s an exercise in futility. 😀
Here taxi drivers demand a tip. That’s after they’ve taken the grand detour so they can charge you double (triple really, since they adjusted the meter). But, you know, it’s Hungary. The country of uttermost virtue and real Christian values (so proud of being Hungarian. No really, I am. Not). So until you get caught its legal. An 18-year-old pointed out a flaw in the transport website’s new bus pass sales, and instead of being grateful, they sent the cops over and had him arrested.
I picked up a sea spider once, convinced it was a lobster. We were shopping for food, and I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Saw something pink in the sea food section and walked over making conversation. Didn’t realize what I was holding until I looked down. The cellophane wrapping was the only thing separating me from this vile creature. It happened ten years ago and I still get shivers. And not in a good way either. A friend, who knows how much I love lobster, tried the approach of, “they’re both crustaceans,” but that didn’t work.
I’m slowly getting the hang of the accent. It’s still hard, though… This whole experience has been intense. I’m still not sure what to make of Beijing…
Oh and Quebecois is not easy to understand for native speakers… But then again most native speakers of any language are usually arrogant about their first language… :S
Your story about the sea spider is hilarious. You should make a comic/meme about it! :)) And then you should send it to me… I have a feeling my teenage students would love the story… Oh man… hahaha
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What do you mean arrogant? French as it’s spoken in Paris is the only way to speak the language. Everyone knows that. Not arrogance, merely a fact. 😉
You’ll figure Beijing out. Probably had a few past lives there that are clashing with each other and contributing to the weirdness. And it’s ok to say a place is meh. Before I went there, I really hyped up Tallinn in my head, and Estonia. Based on one girl I’d met from there. I had to go there. It was a pull. Once I got there, I couldn’t leave fast enough. Beautiful city, total disappointment. I felt nothing. Weird how that works sometimes.
I should get more into memes. But it’ll be a cold day in hell before I’m putting myself through that. I love you, but hell no.
Feel free to use the story though. And tell me their reactions. And if one of them tasted the damn thing, remember to ask them what it really tasted like. And then report back.