Beijing: More Than We Bargained For

Stanford in Beijing at T–– Square

On our first Friday (no classes!), we rolled out as a crew for a day trip to the must-see tourist sites in Beijing proper: T–– (I’m trying to avoid the censors…) Square and the Forbidden City. We first took a Beida bus to the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition, where Shen Laoshi attempted to convey to us the spirit of the re-imagining––the rebirth––of the city of Beijing on a massive scale, in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics. The massive model of Beijing was spectacular, and as a map-lover, I was particularly thrilled. After an IMAX-style 3-D plunge into the history of Beijing, stomachs were growling left and right, and we headed straight for a feast of Peking duck and all sorts of Chinese dishes at a classy restaurant south of the Forbidden City. Fully satiated, we stumbled out the door and into a hutong, the traditional Chinese neighborhood arrangement, consisting of roads lined with fully-connected adjoining houses. We managed to ramble our way onto the store-lined central (north-south) axis of Beijing, just south of T––, and finally bypassed security to reach the famed Square.

The largest public square in the world, T–– Square is at once monumentally oppressive and grandly liberating; if you could decouple the physical location from its grim history, you would find yourself in a spectacular venue, perfectly fit for kite-flying or photo-taking. The gargantuan portrait of Chairman Mao hanging over the gate to the Forbidden City, however, quickly quashes any possibility of that, a constant reminder of the atrocities once perpetrated on the spot where tourists now pose smiling for pictures to email home, and evidence that the Chinese Communist Party endures today. Our tour of the Forbidden City blurs in my mind as an exceedingly long and vaguely interesting history lesson, taught by an eager Shen Laoshi. One memorable observation was that just 100 years ago, the imperial palace that we were touring was still occupied by a Qing Dynasty emperor and empress, as well as up to the oddly-specific official limit of 72 concubines.

A close-up of everybody's favorite chairman.

The emperor, of course, needs his star-rated toilet. I wasn't impressed.

After sneaking out the back door of the Forbidden City in the tradition of the last emperor of China, we decided to climb Jingshan (“Coal Mountain”), the manmade hill made of the dirt removed to form the moat of the Forbidden City. It was truly a magnificent view, and we did our best tourist impression by taking as many photos as humanly possible.

On the summit of Coal Mountain. The Forbidden City is in the background.

On Saturday, April 3rd, I met up with my aunt’s friend’s son, Luo Zhuo Kai, AKA Roger. He’s a 4th year med student at Beida, which means he lives off campus near a hospital where he’s interning. Here in China, aspiring doctors start med school immediately after high school, so Roger is only one year older than I. He took me to Lush, an expat bar overlooking the Wudaokou subway station, for a tasty American lunch. Roger grew up in Taipei, then after his mandatory military service came to Beida. He’s something of a cultural anomaly, a young Taiwanese guy in Beijing who just broke up with his 30-year-old girlfriend because she was ready to get married and he wasn’t. After promising Roger that we would get together again during my stay in Beijing, I met up with the Stanford kids at the subway station for our first trip to Silk Street, the legendary tourist market where hordes of Westerners are the norm and bargaining is essential.

The subway station opens up directly into the basement of the Silk Street building, providing easy access to all in need of fake designer clothes and awkward exchanges with aggressive saleswomen. There’s certainly an art to bargaining, and the road to mastery is littered with overpriced regret––usually in the form of tacky t-shirts––good intentions lost in translation, and premature “walk-aways.” I experienced the first on a grand scale when I attempted to purchase a North Face (North Fake?) jacket from a couple young female vendors. Initial asking price: 600¥ RMB. I instinctively reacted with an open-mouthed facade of disbelief, and so commenced the haggling game. It was a verbal sparring match, both the vendor and I bobbing and weaving, looking for a weak spot to jab in our desired price. After a few landed punches, I managed to pull off the “walk-away” maneuver successfully: I turned my back and started to walk away, and like clockwork, my adversary chased me down, grabbed my elbow, and agreed to my final price with an air of magnanimity. I handed over the cash––a quarter of what I would have paid in the US––and in return was handed a comfy new North Face jacket. In hindsight, the entire deal was more dance than dispute, both parties sharing a tacit understanding that the initial asking price was far above the jacket’s value and my initial counteroffer far below. We played the game simply to determine where in that range the final price would rest––and to have a little fun in the process. No China experience is complete without a trip to Silk Street or one of the countless other markets strewn throughout China’s major cities. Who would have imagined arguing over a price tag could have such grand cultural implications?

During our second week here in Beijing, things started to settle down. We realized that to venture into the heart of Beijing every single evening of the week would require a monumental and ultimately unsustainable effort––indeed, we were all so exhausted from our first such week that the subsequent 4-day Chinese Memorial Day weekend was fully devoted to recovery. I’ve developed a weekday day-to-day routine of such simplicity that I could not even imagine living this life back at Stanford, or anywhere else in the real world: Wake up between 9 and 10AM, Skype with friends and family and do some EE research, eat lunch with my fellow Stanford or Beida students, attend Chinese class from 1:30-2:30PM, go to the gym to run or lift, grab dinner with the Stanford crew, and spend the evening watching a movie and hanging out in the student lounge.

A pleasant deviation from the schedule came up that Wednesday, when we began our weekly Stanford-organized cooking classes hosted by local families. Kelsey, Beatrice, and I were assigned to the nicest old man in the world and his equally-nice wife, and upon arriving at their tiny apartment, we were showered with oranges and tea and chocolate. We rolled up our sleeves and learned how to make dumplings and a variety of other Chinese dishes: tomatoes and egg, a pork and squash dish, and Chinese-style potatoes. Turns out Chinese cooking is very simple: Just stir-fry everything. Once our meticulously stir-fried dishes were ready, we stuffed ourselves until we 走不动了 (couldn’t walk anymore), recovered with some after-dinner tea, and waddled back to Shaoyuan.

The next evening, we had a pizza and movie night (Raise the Red Lantern) with some Yale students, and after the movie, we all decided to go clubbing in Sanlitun, THE expat nightlife district. If you’ve ever seen a ridiculously glitzy club scene in a movie and wondered where in the world such an actual club exists, I now have the answer: It’s in Beijing. And it’s called Vics. Or Latte. Or Mix. Whatever. The evening was a blur of neon lights, rows of DJs spinning simultaneously, and rocking out on stage with the Stanford crew, eardrums bursting from the deep bass that seemed to emanate from the floors, the ceilings, the walls, everywhere.

The next day, no one had the energy to party hard again, so we went out exploring on foot, wandering through Tsinghua University’s massive campus. Known as the “MIT of China”––which means it’s without a doubt the second-best engineering school in the country 🙂 ––Tsinghua has an overwhelmingly male student population and a campus overflowing with Western architecture. Many Tsinghua landmarks would fit right in on the campus of any university in the US. We ended the evening in Wudaokou with a tasty Japanese dinner and a brief detour to a roadside peanut stand and the Golden Phoenix Bakery. Side note: If I could live anywhere, I’d choose to spend the rest of my days in a Chinese bakery.

Tsinghua University: The "MIT of China." Check out my new North Face jacket.

Our 8AM departure for the Great Wall on Saturday, April 10, was a rude awakening. The bus ride from Beida to the Mutianyu section of the Wall took nearly 2 hours, and everyone passed out for the duration of the trip. We awoke to the sight of mountain peaks and the winding, awe-inspiring stone wall that stands as the protector of China past and the pride of China present. The first thing I noticed was that I could breathe again, for the first time in weeks: We had left the flatlands and the pollution of Beijing behind, and all that remained was clean, fresh mountain air. A quick chair lift ride later, we were clambering up the steps of the wall itself, with legs and lungs burning and cameras at the ready.

Marty, Lianna, Me, and Adriana. We told Marty, "No gangster signs," but he was too gangster to listen.

Can you read the Chinese characters far off in the distance? "Loyalty to Chairman Mao"

Conquering the Great Wall.

From seeing pictures of the Great Wall and watching Mulan, I imagined the trail at the top would be a smooth, continuous surface––not so. The stone steps ranged from door jam-sized ledges to countertop-height plateaus, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a common soldier, burdened with sword and shield, could possibly make it to his post in time to keep the invading Mongol horsemen at bay. After taking hundreds and hundreds of group and individual photos, we finally made our way back to the top of the chair lift, where we found ourselves with just one option for transportation down the mountainside: toboggans. Plastic toboggans on a sheet metal track, to be specific. As I careened down the sheer rock face, a park official yelled out, “发疯了!”––which translates to “You’ve gone crazy!”

Look, Ma, I found the horizon!

We were happy because we could breathe at last.

Stanford students: Too weary to walk, but still smiling.

My new ride: The preferred form of downhill transportation in China.

And the fun didn’t stop there. We broke for lunch at an open-air restaurant in the mountains, and were met at the door by a young Chinese man holding several huge nets and bamboo fishing poles. It seemed he wanted us to catch our own lunch. Our gracious host then ushered us over to a nearby pond and left us to our own devices. I’ve always found that food tastes better if you’ve worked for it, but it soon became apparent that unless we changed tack soon, we weren’t going to have any food to taste. After half an hour of unsuccessful man (Stanford student?) vs. fish action––I maintain that “survival of the fittest” worked against us, for the remaining fish were those that had already evaded capture by bumbling humans countless times––the Beida program director, whom we have affectionately dubbed “The Godfather,” swooped in and netted three of the slippery beasts in quick succession, and we had our lunch. The return trip to Beida passed by in that tranquil, post-exertion state of euphoria, and so ended the second week of our Beijing adventure.

Working for our food.


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