Sunday, February 8, 2009

Beijing...Mao and the Forbidden City

Today was one of the most frustrating travel days that I've had in China. It all started with going down to Tiananmen Square to check out the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. I knew they closed at noon so I got up a little earlier than usual and actually made it down there by 9:30 am. By this time, however, there was already probably a hundred or more people lined up to get inside. I got in line and began to wait. Then this security guard came up and started pointing at me saying, "nobeg, nobeg!"

"What?" I replied.
"Nobeg, nobeg...go, go!!" he kept saying pointing off into the distance.

I finally realized he was telling me I had to store my bag in a storage place just off the square (at a 9 yuan fee, by the way). So I got out of my place in line and walked all the way off the square to store my bag. I then got into that line and began to wait. For those of you who have not been to China, Chinese people do not know how to properly stand in line. Apparently, it just is not part of their culture, how that is escapes me. Even though there are 15 people waiting in this line, people try to just cut to the front and store their bag while the attendants yell at them to go back and get in line. And if you are not aggressive in maintaining your place in line, the person behind you will just simply cut right ahead of you. So it causes all kinds of pushing and having to be extremely close to the person in front of you to keep all the others at bay. It is really ridiculous

(On a side note, it is the same in basically every place where lines form. Buying train tickets, at the metro, even at Mcdonalds, people will always just push their way to the front no matter how many people are waiting in front of them. It really makes me wonder what is going on in their minds. The stupidest of all is getting on and off the metro. Common sense would lead you to wait 2 seconds for people to get off the subway and then for you to get on. But Chinese people, as soon as the train comes, just start pushing their way in as the people getting off are pushing their way off. So you have this equal mass of forces pushing in opposite directions. What are these people thinking?)

Anyway, after the side trip to store my bag (not allowed to have any bags or cameras inside Chairman Mao Hall for whatever reason) I then walked all the back to stand in line. And there was still a ton of people waiting and everyone resorting to being the first one in. Im standing there waiting and there are all these little old ladies who, if you just blink or leave a centimeter of space between the person in front of you, will swipe your place in line. And people are just pushing each other and elbowing for position. It is truly incredible.

Finally after making it inside, it was amazing how the mood changes from pushing and shoving outside, to complete quiet and reverance inside. The first hall is a statue of Mao surrounded by all kinds of plants. They have 3 yuan flowers for sale that the vast majority of the people buy to lay on the ground, and as the people come in, they are completely silent, face full of gratitude, lay their flower down, clasp their hands and bow a few times to Chairman Mao. I walked a little way up and was just watching the throngs of people come in and all pay their respects to the late chairman. It was more quiet and referential than all the buddhist and taoist temples that I had visited.

Apparently, I was lingering too long and one of the white gloved security guards told me to keep a move on. These guards were all pretty intense. If anyone made a sound, they were quick to tell them to stop talking. They were also very particular and stern about getting people in and out. You were not allowed to stand around at all.

The next room was supposed to be Mao's body but it definitely looked fake to me. I dont know what an embalmed body should look like, but Mao's definitely looked like it was made of wax. He was lying there in his casket with his face glowing a strange, eerie orange color. Again the guards made sure everyone kept coming in and out. And of course, no talking.

The best part of this was simply observing the Chinese people. It was amazing how much respect and awe they all still felt for the late chairman. Even though he has been dead for over 30 years and most of his policies have been obviously abandoned, there is a big soft spot in the Chinese heart for Mao.

Next I went to the Forbidden City. What was cool about this place was just how big it was. You could easily spend a whole day walking the grounds and visiting all the former residences and office buildings of previous Chinese Emperors. The only downside was despite the fact that it was so large, the coolest things to see are actually quite small. For example, there are various thrones of the emperor, each with a different function (this throne he did his official business, this throne he listened to opera, this throne he studied, this throne he accepted tribute, this throne he played his video games, etc). So the little viewing area would be jammed packed with Chinese people, all shoving their way to the front to get a good look as well as a take a picture. And for the vast majority of them, the concept of waiting for the people in front of them to leave and then fill in their spot escapes them. Instead, its a shove contest to get the front. I also wanted to get some good looks at this stuff, but after awhile it just is not worth practically fighting with old Chinese people to get to where you want to go. Luckily Im a little on the tall side here for so I rarely have obscured views.

Besides just the vastness of the place and the cool architecture, the coolest exhibition I saw was the antique clock room. This room had on display hundreds of clocks that had been either been manufactured in China during the last several hundred years or had been giving to the Emperor by foreign dignataries such as England, France, Japan, Switzerland, etc. They had quite an eclectic collection. From huge water powered clocks to small tiny pocket watches, anything you can imagine was pretty much there. I was also lucky enough to be in the exhibition hall right before they were going to do a demonstration of some select clocks. They would wind up these clocks and then all the bells and whistles would go off on it. Hard to explain but definitley worth it to see.

Well, Im about nearing the end of my two month vacation. It two more days I am meeting up with the rest of my American classmates to begin the new semester in Harbin. This break has not only been a lot of fun but I feel like my Chinese has improved quite a lot as well. In Harbin, I did not use my Chinese very much outside of people I was very comfortable with such as my teachers and roommates. Traveling, though I have had to use it everyday with people from different parts of the country. I have also made an effort, especially in the last few weeks to just sit and talk with Chinese people. So Im hoping that this upcoming semester I will make even more progress than the previous one. I am definitely going to study and use my Chinese a lot more than I did previously. I am looking forward to it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Chinese New Year and Xi'An

The week of Chinese New Year for me was not the most exciting week in the world. I did not realize that all the small shops, including restaraunts, all close for about 7 days. The only places to eat were the more expensive places, street food and, of course, McDonalds. I wish I could have spent the day with a real family because it is really a family holiday. Everyone in the entire country goes back to their homes and spend time with the family. They eat special dinners together, play mah-jiang, visit other friends and relatives, launch fireworks and watch this special television program on CCTV1. All the children receive what are called hong bao, or red envelopes. These are simply fancy red envelopes that are filled with money. Gift giving is a little easier in China than in the US. From what I have heard, you rarely buy someone something you think they want. All you have to do is give the kids a wad of dough and forget about it. Actually doesnt sound like a bad idea.

On New Years Eve everyone watches the special New Years Eve tv program on CCTV1. I watched a little bit of it and it was very interesting. All kinds of Chinese celebreties are on it, singing songs and things like that. They have all the famous Chinese musicians as well. The show also has SNL type comedy sketches, artistic dances, etc. Its quite the show.

Another thing the Chinese are crazy about is fireworks. When I was walking around on the evening of New Years Eve, it was like a war zone. Fireworks everywhere, from big explosions way in the distance to local people in alleys shooting off all kinds of different ones. The explosions also triggered all kinds of car alarms to go off to add to the noise. One thing about China is that they have entirely different views of safety standards. Walking back to my hostel, there were these two little kids just chucking fireworks into alleys where all kinds of people are walking and exploding right next to them, I could not believe it. Then when I got back to the hostel, the staff were shooting off fireworks in the lobby right next to my room! This whole building was made of wood and there is smoke and sparks flying everywhere, it was pretty crazy.

That about sums up my Chinese New Years experience. After I left Chengdu I headed to north Xi'An, one of the ancient capitals of China. Two of the coolest things I have done here are see the teraccota warriors and the biking along the original city walls. For those of you who may not know, the Terracotta warriors are clay replicas of the army of the first emperor of a unified China, some 200o years ago. He expected to rule in death as he did in life and decided he needed some clay life size figurines to take with him to his grave. Amazingly, these statues were not uncovered until the 1970's and have been on display ever since. Its one of those things that you have to see in China and I have to admit it was pretty cool. This emperor had thousands of these warriors created and no two are alike. But when I really think about it, all it is is some pscyopathic emperor thinking he is going to need an army of clay soldiers to help him fight some sort of battle in the afterlife. When you think about it that way it is sounds a little crazy.

The other cool thing I did was bike along the original city walls of Xi'An. These walls are some 500 years old and have protected the city from outside invaders, with varying success, many times. The width of the walls was at least 20 ft. or so leavin tons of room to ride a bike and take a better look at the city. It took me a little over an hour to complete it and it was incredible. Its similar to how I felt on the Great Wall. Being on something so old and that at one time was really important is pretty cool. The only downside was that it was freezing cold and really foggy, so the view was not the best in the world. But I still had a good time.

Anyway, Im heading to Beijing tomorrow and will stay there until I meet up with my program on February 11th. Staying in Beijing for about 4 days will give me a chance to see the things that I missed the last time I was there like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Mao's embalmed corpse. Im looking forward to it.