23 August, 2005

This wasn't the only baby duck salesman we saw.

Rather light midday traffic as seen from a pedestrian overpass.

A patriotic statue (I assume) found in a local park.

Some free exercise equipment in the same park.

Steps leading up to a picturesque view.

Whenever anyone starts getting involved in sports, the folks from Nike are there.

A modern and huge intersection.

A group of cyclists waits for the light.

The guy with the cap and flag is the crossing guard for the cyclists. You would be unwise not to listen to him.

That's the signal for go.

Lots of cars have Chinese emblems on them.

The sign doesn't necessarily mean no bugle playing. Unless you're driving a car at the time.

And as far as I can tell this isn't a prohibition against fire trucks but rather against trucks that explode.

One of the many police vans in the area of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

One of the most famous entrances in the world.

These lions guard the Forbidden City.

So do these guards.

The vast openness of Tiananmen Square.

Statues and cameras are everywhere.

The countdown to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games has begun.

This has got to be the widest bicycle lane in the world. Maybe in all worlds.

Madness and mayhem inside a market.

I wonder if Charles Schultz knew about this.

Not a payphone.

I found it interesting that this place was right next door to McDonald's and used the exact same color scheme on its sign.

The KFC shuttle suffers a breakdown.

One of the less interesting sections of a really huge bookstore.

Another use of McDonald's colors and even arches.

Grasshoppers on a stick.

A Colonel Sanders imitator.

Yes, that's the actual name of a stop.

Another one here may be amusing to some.

23 August, 2005

Day 38. It was time to explore. I knew we had a few days here but I also knew I'd probably want to rest from all of the wandering around I'd been doing as well as use the net to catch up on various things.

I met Hanneke and Sasja early in the afternoon and we headed off in the direction of the Forbidden City. It was somewhat hot and muggy but not nearly as uncomfortable as I had feared. So we walked somewhat leisurely, taking in the various sights along the way. At some points it felt like any modern cosmopolitan city. And then we'd find a guy selling baby ducks out of a hat. I had the sense that there were two worlds at play here. At the very least.

We found an interesting little park where people were grouped in circles playing some kind of card game that obviously involved gambling. It was pretty wide open so if there was a

law against this sort of thing, it wasn't being very aggressively enforced. As we explored a bit more, we found one of those neat exercise playgrounds like the one we had seen in Mongolia. Only this one was much bigger. What a great idea to have people go to a park and work out on playground-like devices for free. If I can figure out how to get a Smart car into the States, getting one of these in ought to be a breeze.

We climbed up a stone staircase and found ourselves looking out over the city. Or a small part of it anyway. The park was very picturesque. Apart from the guy who kept chasing us around asking in English if we wanted a massage, it was all quite nice.

That's an aspect to this place I noticed very quickly. The people chasing you around thing. I suppose because it's obvious that we're Westerners, we must have the equivalent of the word "sucker" painted on our faces. Or maybe people just assume we're constantly in need of certain items. Whatever it is, as you walk down any street, people greet you with a persistent "Hello!" which will quickly be followed by an opportunity to buy something from them if you acknowledge the greeting in any way. It's not especially unpleasant but it can keep you from moving down a street at the pace you may wish to. Some of the more persistent of them actually grab you by the hand on occasion. Not a good thing to try on a New York native.

We wanted to find the Forbidden City and the adjacent Tiananmen Square. On the map it had looked pretty close but it obviously wasn't. Plus we went in the wrong direction at least once. But it didn't matter. Everywhere we went, we saw something of interest, something that we wouldn't see at home. Like crossing guards with red flags especially designed to get cyclists across major intersections safely. Or people flying kites at those same major intersections. Weird looking cars, bicycle taxis, new buildings, old structures.... This was a city I could spend one hell of a lot of time just walking in any direction looking as awestruck as a Chinese tourist in Manhattan.

But we finally walked in the *right* direction and came upon the entrance to the Forbidden City. We decided not to actually go in today. In all honesty though, you could spend a day just looking at the entrance. The huge portrait of Mao, the ornate entryway, the ceremonial guards, the throngs of tourists, and the mere realization that we were in such an historical spot on the planet. This was where all of those massive May Day rallies and parades with a million people would start. This was the heart of the biggest communist nation ever. What am I saying? This was the heart of the biggest nation period! With 1.2 billion people in this country, the United States barely can hold a candle. No wonder it's widely predicted that China will have the biggest and most important economy on the planet within mere decades.

Those are the kinds of thoughts that go through your head when you stand at the entrance of the Forbidden City. After a while though it was time to move on. And there wasn't very far to go.

Directly across the street was Tiananmen Square, an absolutely huge expanse where I'm sure you could pack a million people with room to spare. I do believe it's been done. And to us in the West, it represented the battleground for the pro-democracy movement back in 1989 when all those people got mowed down and otherwise killed by soldiers. There are no memorials of any sort and it's the one thing you're not supposed to talk about. Well, fuck that. I'm not going to run up and down with banners or insist that people answer my questions but I'm sure as hell not going to pretend along with the rest that everything is all fine and peachy. Innocent people were killed right here and it's a real blemish on this entire nation, even more so for not acknowledging it. The United States along with much of the industrialized world also shares responsibility by continuing to help China prosper without taking the necessary step of addressing human rights issues. There are so many more examples that would take up a huge number of pages and just wind up depressing everyone. My point is simple: you can't forget this kind of thing. You need to acknowledge mistakes. And the world has a responsibility to every country to not back down on these matters. I wish this were being done right now to my own country.

I feel obligated to say something about this on "Off The Hook" Wednesday, possibly towards the end of the show to see if I'm actually being monitored and wind up getting cut off. I suspect I'm not and I think the kind of control the government has over the people here leads them to not be overly concerned about subversion. But the large police presence at the Square tells me they're not resting too comfortably. One day the regime and the forward thinking people will collide again and I think the next time it may be a whole lot harder to put the genie back in the bottle. But that's not my call.

Anyway, I stood there for a while in silent repose, happy in the fact that we still live in an age where thoughts can remain private. Although I hear they're making amazing strides back home to fix that problem.

Inside the Square, we were quickly approached by two really friendly girls who spoke English to us and wanted to know where we were from. We told them and they said they were studying English at their university, blah, blah, blah. It was kind of strange how friendly people were. Just walking up to foreigners and starting conversations. But then we realized what was really going on here. They started talking about an art show at the National Museum and how this was the last day it was being held. Fine. We said we'd consider going after seeing the Square. But these girls would not take no or even maybe for an answer. They insisted we come with them *now* and they would take us to the show and it would only take five minutes. What kind of an art show takes five minutes? A peep show maybe, but art? This was getting pretty weird. I hadn't been this aggressively pursued since I managed to get surrounded by Moonies in New York years ago. It took some doing and some actual running but we managed to get away from them. And then it happened again with someone else. And again after that. It got to the point where "National Museum" became trigger words meaning "run like hell." At first I thought these people were some kind of weird "minders," sent by the authorities to keep an eye on the foreigners and corral them into a safe and manageable place. But then I realized that this was probably just another tourist trap (almost literally) where unsuspecting slobs were led into some sort of a really aggressive art marketplace were they felt obligated to buy something from the nice people who led them there. Wow. This place was *not* what I expected.

We walked around a bit more and decided to try to find lunch somewhere. We found a really nice street with all kinds of shops and a huge amount of people milling around. We found a "Muslim" restaurant which basically seemed to mean that they didn't have pork on the menu but instead they had stuff like sheep's head. Interesting flavor and texture.

After lunch we went across the street to a crazy shop that we had pointed at earlier. People seemed to be diving into merchandise bins like they were going out of style. The whole inside of the shop looked like sheer pandemonium. So naturally we went in and inside of a minute we got caught up in the spirit. You would see an item, they would tell you how much it was, you would walk away, they would chase you and tell you it was now a fraction of that cost. I accidentally haggled a really good price on some cool looking masks simply by asking how much they were (turned out to be around $50) and then going outside and having a conversation with Sasja. In ten minutes, one of the salesgirls came out and told me she would give it to me for $12. I had forgotten all about it but that was a really good deal. Oddly enough, when I came back inside and tried to negotiate two for $20, I couldn't budge them an inch. The secret seems to be to walk away.

We wandered around inside a huge bookstore that seemed to have an infinite number of floors. And on every one of those floors there were instructional videos, books, and computer programs on how to learn English. There was also a CD and DVD department but their selection was rather subdued. I mean, their idea of good music seemed to be The Backstreet Boys and Mariah Carey. I couldn't find anything that wouldn't make me want to slit my wrists if I heard it more than once. But the bookstore itself was fascinating even though we couldn't read 90 percent of what was in there. We must have spent at least three hours in the place thumbing through the various collections. And I had one really bizarre experience when the first DVD I picked up at random turned out to be produced by people with the web site of www.2688.com. I backed away slowly.

After that we wandered down the street some more and came to a really interesting street market that stretched for an entire block. Now *this* was the China I was expecting. They were selling grasshoppers on a stick, maggots of some sort, all kinds of eels, and plenty of stuff I couldn't identify. Each and every merchant would call out "Hello!" as the Westerners walked by. I found it interesting that I could handle a sheep's head but the thought of a single grasshopper thoroughly repelled me. The things you learn about yourself.

We got on the subway for the first time and rode it back to the hotel. I was amazed at how simple the system was. You walk up to the ticket counter, hand them three bills (around 30 cents), they give you a ticket, you give the ticket to someone else who rips it and gives you back half (this is the old communist system at its finest), then you head down to the train which is labeled in both Chinese and English with maps everywhere. You simply cannot get lost in this system. Unfortunately it's still tiny so finding an actual station can be a bit of a challenge.

Overall, a pretty exhausting and revealing day. I look forward to doing even more in the ones to come.