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25 August, 2005

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An example of the helpful labeling technique in place inside the subway system.


The entryway to the Forbidden City.


This part at least could use some touching up.


Another square, another palace.


And still more.


They use the British phrasing and some great graphics.


Now what the hell is wrong with this picture?


You didn't really think it was over, did you?


This was a space far bigger than what was needed for all of the people passing through so it must have been used for throngs of previous centuries, assuming they were allowed in.


Or maybe it was for farming.


Another great sign. Presumably the word should have been "irreplaceable."


This is what the inside of one of the palaces looks like. People like us aren't allowed inside.


This is where people like us are allowed.


At the very end are the same huge doors that seal the Forbidden City on the other side. (Incidentally the Chinese prefer to call it the Palace Museum.)


One more great sign and graphic.


And these are the aforementioned perilous hills.


Not sure how many people would only go on the audio tour if Roger Moore were the one leading it. But I suppose it's a selling point.


A bicycle taxi. I've seen up to three people cram into one of these things.


This was weird. It was right in the middle of an intersection.


These are the kinds of toilets you will find in any public establishment. This is one of the more decorative ones. The idea is to squat, not sit.


The equivalent of a fast food Chinese place back home.


A typical packed city bus.


Many cyclists wear these strange looking visors.


Guess which sign is geared towards the Westerners?

25 August, 2005

Day 40. As it turned out, I was pretty damn tired last night after the whole duck thing so I crashed as soon as I got back which meant by the time the show rolled around at 7 am, I was pretty well rested. I couldn't have been more surprised.

The show went well with one major catch. I had been planning on talking rather openly about some of the problems here and doing that in the closing minutes of the show. I didn't know what to expect, especially if the reports of foreigners' hotel phone lines being monitored were true. But if I was cut off, that would be pretty revealing. As it turned out, I *did* get cut off but not by the Chinese authorities. Because of a problem in the studio, my line was cut and a call back was never initiated, leaving the issue forever unresolved. It was pretty damn frustrating to say the least. Especially so since I sounded like a fucking cheerleader for the Chinese government during the first part of the show where I played it safe. Trust me, I had a lot more to say on the subject. Maybe I'll do something for "Off The Wall." But it won't be the same not being on a live phone line.

After the show it was still pretty damn early in the morning. We had planned on going to the Forbidden City at just such a time in order to avoid the usual mob of tourists. Well of course, *that* didn't work since there's *always* a mob of tourists. But we bit the bullet and dived in anyway.

We'd seen the entrance to the Forbidden City a couple of days ago. But actually walking into it is a whole different experience. You're struck by the size and the sheer number of these majestic buildings. You just keep on walking and taking it all in. You forget about the thousands of other tourists around you and you don't even notice the oppressive heat as the temperature rises. You just feel the majesty and the history. There's a lot more you can read about this site in a number of places so I'll just point out that this was the center of the Ming and Qing dynasties and it was completely off limits to commoners for about half a millennium. Now anyone with 60 yuan can get in, although they still won't let you traipse around the inside.

So we made it through the entire complex with only minor symptoms of heat stroke. But we knew if we didn't find a place to sit down and get sustenance soon that we would be in trouble. So we walked a few blocks and came to a district with shops and places to eat. It's amazing how (with the exception of those fries from McDonald's) I've had nothing but Chinese food since getting here yet every meal has been completely different. What we see in America really represents only a fraction of the food that's available. I doubt I'll ever feel satisfied walking into a Chinese restaurant again.

This was our last full day in Beijing together and the last full day before I went on my own to Shanghai. I figured we should do the taping of "Off The Wall" tonight in Tiananmen Square as a sort of farewell. So I headed back to the hotel to get the equipment ready (and well hidden since I didn't know what to expect if I was detected as being wired) and Hanneke and Sasja did some more walking around. I figured it would be a cinch to hop on the subway since I knew approximately where a stop was. But that's the one failing of the system. The stops aren't marked very well from the street. And since there aren't a whole lot of them, your odds of finding one go down substantially if you aren't looking in the right place at the right time. Eventually I tracked one down after I was almost all the way back to the hotel by foot.

I had some extra time to kill so I perused the offerings on television. Not very much if you don't know Chinese. In fact, only one station (CCTV9) broadcast in English at all. There were about 14 State television channels (all known as CCTV followed by a number or a Chinese character) and a few others, all sanctioned by the State. They each had quite a lot of commercials but there were notable differences between what I had seen on foreign commercial television up to this point. No ads for sex lines. No MTV-like channels. Not a whole lot of Western style programming of any sort. I'm not saying any of this is necessarily a bad thing, just very different from what I'd seen so far. And of course nearly all programming is subtitled so that the Cantonese audience can understand it. Mandarin is the official tongue of China and what people speak in Beijing. But the written language is for the most part identical. If I understand all of this properly, this means that the subtitling also serves as captioning for people who speak Mandarin and choose to have the sound off or who are hearing impaired.

One thing I saw a few times on CCTV9 (which you can get in the States in many places and which, although it purports to be a "world news" channel, is really just a propaganda tool of the Chinese government in English) was a "documentary" on the new replacement for DVDs that will be known as EVDs. And since this was invented by the Chinese, it means, in their words, that the Chinese people will have control over the content at last. They spent a half hour reinforcing all of this which left me skeptical at best. But it did rather indirectly point out something which is quite prevalent here: piracy. It's not even hidden at all. Counterfeit copies of DVDs and CDs prevail. Sasja even noticed that the copy of the Lonely Planet guide to China that I had bought in the hotel lobby was clearly a fake copy. If you looked at some of the pages you could see print from the pages on the other side - which didn't line up with what was actually there. Like someone had made a bad photocopy. It seemed like an awful lot of trouble to go through especially since they were selling it for the normal price but apparently they have a pretty well developed system. I suspect this won't last too much longer though if China indeed becomes a leading member of the world community. Certainly by the time the Olympics roll around in three years, Beijing at least won't want to be seen as a place where piracy prevails.

I can never get over how people stare here. It's not like they even try to hide it. I know we look a little strange as foreigners but I wasn't expecting this. There must not be a whole lot of foreigners passing through. And this is the capital! Imagine what it must be like in small town.

Sasja gets it far worse than I do, being well over six feet tall. People have dropped things when they turn to stare at him going by. He told me earlier of the commotion he caused in a grocery store when a couple of Chinese basketball players saw him. I guess up until that point they had been the tallest people in town. The shock on their faces was quite apparent. It was also in a grocery store that one of the store workers had grabbed Sasja by the hand and led him to a particular aisle. "Beer," she proclaimed proudly as if she had invented it. I guess the reputation of Westerners has preceded us.

We headed down to the Square again, with me wired up for sound, this time using the lapel microphone that had never worked quite right. I didn't have a choice this time. There was no *way* I was going to walk around Tiananmen Square with that huge handheld thing. I may like to live dangerously but that's just a bit much for me.

The show went well with some recounting of the many experiences we've shared, both in China and on this trip. Since this was the last of the programs that Hanneke and Sasja would be a part of, we said our goodbyes here. I had a few minutes at the end to say some of the things I didn't get to say earlier on "Off The Hook" and it felt good to get it out. The whole thing was probably a lot less worrisome than I had made it out to be; the only people who approached us were merchants, although I'm sure I turned a few heads during the part when I seemed to be talking to myself at the end. (I did hold a cell phone to my ear for at least part of that time to make it seem like I was actually talking to someone. Naturally I got an SMS chime in my ear almost immediately.)

I went back to the hotel to get the show ready for uploading, which would be a breeze considering the stable connection I had. Later we went out for a late night snack at the Real Brewed Tea place across the street, which now seemed quite familiar to us. It sucked that I had to leave so soon. I felt like I was just beginning to get to know this city. But I had to keep moving if I ever wanted to get across this globe. And part of what I'm doing is marking places down that I want to come back to. Beijing is definitely on that list.