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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

China part èr

Back in the day, as they say, WEBN, the FM rocker in my hometown of Cincinnati used to play new albums all the way through on Monday nights.  On December 3rd, 1979 they debuted Pink Floyd's The Wall.  Being a major Pink Floyd fan, I was excited that night to hear new music from what was one of my favorite groups at the time.  The most chilling and unforgettable moment of the evening came at the end of side two, of the double-album set,  when the song Goodbye Cruel World was finished.  That's when WEBN first confirmed that there had been deaths at the Who concert that evening at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum.  I can still hear the words, "Goodbye cruel world, I'm leaving you today, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye" followed by the news that music fans had died in my hometown.  Everytime I hear that, I flash back to the bedroom of my parent's house in Pleasant Run Farms in Cincinnati.  I had thought about going to the show that night, but couldn't really afford it, and didn't have any friends who were that into the Who at the time.  I had been to the previous concert at Riverfront Coliseum a couple of weeks earlier, featuring (ugh) Styx and recalled having to shove people out of the way to hold onto my girlfriend's hand as we tried to stay connected in the crush of people rushing to get the best seats in the soon-to-be-banned general admission show. 

This will give you a hint of how my brain works in that when we got to the Great Wall of China, north of Beijing,  I was thinking of Pink Floyd.  We had been in Beijing for a couple of days, arriving there from Xian.  The windy conditions that greeted us created a rare weather phenomenon for Beijing:  clear blue skies.
Our guide in Beijing was a young woman whose English name was Nancy.  As a guy, I've got a pretty good radar for knowing when a gal isn't into you.  (Not that it's happened all that much to me over the years!!)  Nancy was kind of there with us.  There was no open hostility or anything, she just seemed to be going through the motions.  Still, she performed her guidely duties efficiently if stoically.

Our first location with Nancy was the Temple of Heaven, one of the many historic sights around Beijing.  She pointed out that in many of the attractions, the intricate artwork at the tops of most of the buildings had been re-done for the 2008 Olympic Games.

The good weather continued the following day when we visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.  As one might expect when the government is pretty much is complete control of things, there are no markers remembering the massacre in 1989 which brought the world's largest city center square into the living rooms of people around the globe.

The square is mind-boggling big and is the latest place on this trip where we have all said, I can't believe we are actually here.  Nancy wasn't all that forthcoming with any local impressions or information about the June 4th incident from 1989.  When I asked if the people were happy with the current government, she just smiled and shook her head, saying "not really."  Then she quickly proceeded to start talking about the portrait of Chairman Mao that hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Like we had seen the previous day in the Temple of Heaven, a lot of the artwork on the buildings in the Forbidden City had been spruced up for the Olympics. Which, considering it is over 600 years old and has seen the changing of hands through various dynasties, wars, revolutions, etc etc, is certainly understandable.

The Emperor who built the FC certainly had it going on, as he had the pick of some three thousand concubines who were recruited from all across the country.  They ranged in age from 14-20 (creepy!) and were said to be the most beautiful women/teenagers/victims in all the land. His wife, who had her own quarters, probably didn't mind as she certainly knew what she was getting into when she was selected to be the wife of the emperor.  Besides, who would want to be around a sleazebag like that for more than a night or two anyway?  Just make sure your signature is readable on the pre-nup and move on with your life.

While the temples are impressive, after a while, when you've been traveling as long as we have and seen as many countries and the accompanying temples, mosques, etc, they kind of start to run together.  Whoever is ruling or in charge at the time of whatever country you happen to be in, builds something massive to show his power, or compensate for some other short coming.  (Kind of like when guys in their 40s and 50s drive those tacky Corvettes from the late 70s and 80s.)  Then, for whatever reason, they are no longer in power and the monument(s) they have built to themselves are ransacked, destroyed, defaced or re-done.  It just goes on and on.

And it continued in our next stop at the Summer Palace outside Beijing.   It's not all that far from the city, so it's not like this is the Park City getaway for some executive in Denver or even Cincinnati.  The weather can't be all that much different from that in the city, but you know how those show-off emperors are.  We see them today in board rooms all across the U.S.--getting massive stock options and golden parachute bonuses after pretty much leaving the company in worse shape than it was when they took over.  But I digress. 

The Summer Palace is beautiful, with a serene setting on a massive man-made lake.

Well, it would be a serene setting were it not for the thousands of visitors such as ourselves jamming into the place.  Which makes this probably a good place to bring up one of the more annoying features about Asia, especially China:  There's a LOT of people here and they don't share space well with others.  And that's a trend that was very prevalant as much if not more so in India, as Annie and Marley discovered getting into the Taj Mahal.
It actually got a little freaky in a couple of spots around the Forbidden City with people jamming in to a small area to see inside one of the chambers.  I mean, we don't behave that way in the States, expect for important stuff like bursting through the doors of Target at 4am the day after Thanksgiving. That's where being of a somewhat larger size by Asian standards came in handy.  I'm polite to a fault normally, but I don't do well with being pushed around, especially by strangers and especially when I don't know it's coming.  After a while, I started cross-checking and slamming people into walls like an NHL-goon. Okay, probably not that bad, but I let those around me know I wasn't going to be jostled without giving some back while realizing my dreams to someday be a U.S. diplomat in China were probably dashed.  It also made us very much look forward to having some elbow room at the Great Wall.

Nancy had a good strategy for us the next day on going out to see the Great Wall of China.  We had a couple of other stops to make, and I think she could tell that the kids especially got a little more disinterested as the day wore on, but she also knew that they were both looking forward to the wall.  So on our way out to a section of the wall called Mutianyu, we first visited an area of tombs dating back to the Ming Dynasty.  Being the idiot I am, I expected the tombs to be shaped like vases, and I was disappointed to find that not to be the case.

It was a pretty day, so we enjoyed the stroll through the area leading to the tombs, but were pretty much killing time before seeing the star attraction of the day.
The drive to the wall took over an hour and we made a quick stop for lunch before heading to the parking area where a cable car would take you up to the Wall itself.  The cable car unloads passengers at the bottom of a series of stairways that lead up to the Wall.  Heading up the stairs I did have strains of "we don't need no education......we don't need no thought control!"  I managed to keep the lyrics to Another Brick in the Wall to a dull roar in my head and focus on what we were about to experience.  

Seeing the Wall first-hand is breath-taking and one of those moments that you'll never forget.
Once you get up on top, you can see that it just goes on and on and on as far as the eye can see in both directions.
Ben and Marley, who can suffer from the occasional bout of fatigue from seeing all the things we've seen on the trip, were very enthusiastic about this particular stop.
I had a couple of different reactions to see this amazing piece of work up close.  First was wondering how in the world something of this magnitude could be accomplished when it was.  Second was, I'm thinking it's a bit of overkill.  The section we saw is built along the ridge of a very rugged line of mountains.  No invading horde in it's right mind is going to try to advance through this terrain without being the laughingstock of rival hordes!
We really enjoyed the ninety minutes or so we took to walk along the wall, looking to the north and south, imagining what the world was like when the wall was first built.  And, unlike the cramped conditions we found at the Summer Palace and Forbidden City, there was plenty of room to move about without being pushed around.
The sheer magnitude of the Wall and knowing that we were seeing just a tiny portion of it really put things into perspective.  Our time on this planet is so short when put into the context of an ancient landmark like this.  It tends to make the little everday worries not so worrisome.
There was an added bonus to our visit the Wall once we headed back to the parking lot for the ride back to Beijing.  A shiny red Ferrari was parked right next to our van and Ben really enjoyed getting a close up look at one of his favorite brands of cars.

We managed to get Ben up close and personal with some other exotic cars the next day in Beijing.  After being so busy from the time we arrived in China more than a week earlier, we had a couple of free days to play with.  Ben had painstakingly mapped out where he would be able to see Ferraris and Bugattis and Lamborghinis during the course of our trip and one spot was in Bangkok.  The only problem there was the dealers that had the exotic cars were about a forty-minute trip one-way from our hotel, and Bangkok is a very difficult city in which to travel.  I felt bad that we hadn't been able to see some exotic cars in Bangkok, so we were determined to make it happen in Beijing.

The location of our hotel in Beijing was much more favorable to seeing Ben's favorite cars as a dealer we found online was on the same street as our hotel, and only about a 15-minute walk away.  We walked by a Rolls Royce dealer that had some beauties on display and came upon a dealership that had Maseratis and Ferraris.  Our casual dress made it pretty clear that we were strictly window shopping as we made our way through the doors, but the salesmen were kind enough to let us look around without touching of course.
They also wouldn't allow any photos inside the showroom, but that didn't keep us from catching this gorgeous blue Ferrari digitally from outside.  

The big prize for Ben was seeing a Pagani, and it just so happened a couple of blocks away was a dealership that carried those as well as a Koenigsegg.  He hadn't seen either model in person ever, and was disappointed when the salesman standing in a not so welcoming fashion said that no, we could not come in and have a look around.

Ben was pretty disappointed and sulked a bit through lunch, so we decided to give it another go as we walked back toward our hotel.  As we strolled by FFF Automotive, there were not one but three salesmen standing guard at the door.  Annie had a couple of hundred Yuan stuffed in her delicate hands, prepared to try to grease the skids if necessary.  

We managed to explain our situation and say that we only wanted Ben and not all four of us to get the chance to see the Paganis up close and only be inside for about five minutes.  One of the salesmen spoke more English than the other and relayed our plea to the one who seemed to be the decision-maker.  He kindly relented and Ben got to enter his own little nirvana.

The smile on his face when he came out of there was ear-to-ear and he couldn't wait to report back to his car.  Seeing those machines up close put a real explanation mark on our time in China.  

It's truly an amazing and challenging place.  The people were friendly, as we find that a smile crosses all language barriers.
That's one thing we are finding consistently in our travels through nine countries thus far.  People are as nice to you as you are to them.  Maybe that's even something that we could put into better use in our day to day lives back home.

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