Saturday, July 07, 2012

Temple of Heaven and on to Chengde

The Temple of Heaven was divine. Originally conceived as a place for the Emperor to make offerings at the winter solstice for an abundant harvest, it is now open to the public, a big park with covered walkways and some open spaces for people to gather. The buildings are exquisite but the people really made the atmosphere. Strolling along the walkways was fascinating — clusters of ladies in one section, colourful balls of yarn tucked into their bags. They knitted elaborate handbags and crocheted shoes as they chitchatted. There was a games section with some groups playing cards, others hunching over Chinese checker boards. The more heated the game the bigger the crowd gathered around them. Some people sat with sheet music in their laps and sang along to recordings of traditional music.

In the open spaces it’s all about exercise, women stand in loose formation and swing rackets strung with loose material. They flip and flick the racket, cupping a ball strung with ribbon, trying to keep it in constant contact with the face of the racket. Other little groups play a version of hackysack, only they’re flat-bottomed rubber doodads done up with colourful feathers. Men and women in their sixties kick their feet up in front and behind them, delivering killer shots to their partners. Other people play music — erhus, flutes, harmonicas, some accompany women singing opera.

Frances and I went back to the hotel after lunch because of an earache. On the way back we pass a restaurant where a line of waitresses in uniform stand on the sidewalk facing their manager, getting instructions for the evening in a hierarchical military style. The rest of the gang went on to the Lama Temple.

We spent the evening walking in the night market, the kids navigating the place like pros, completely unintimidated by the total language barrier. I suppose Mexico prepared them for this. They haggle with a confidence I can’t even fake.

Early morning departure to Chengde (pronounced Cheungd’uh as in d’uh!) The drive was amazing. Although Beijing is great it was a relief to see the city disappear behind us. The countryside is gorgeous. The farm buildings are low-slung affairs, long and shaped like a speed-skater’s helmet. The trees are familiar, lots of pine and birch and cedar. The government has invested a ton of money planting millions of trees in an effort to counteract the pollution problem. James confirms that the air quality of Beijing has greatly improved in the last ten years. After the farmland, the mountains start popping up alongside the road, unfriendly jagged things. If you keep your eyes on the foothills, little men in coolie hats pepper the woods, hacking away at the shrubbery. The tiniest little parcel of nominally flat land is sown in some kind of crop – mostly corn, sometimes squash and cucumber. I keep forgetting that all this land — all of this country — is owned by the state. Eric tells us you can buy a house or an apartment in the city but the land it sits on reverts to the state at the end of a seventy-year lease. Because no lease has expired as of yet no one really knows how it’s all going to go down. The countryside is leased in parcels to farmers but no one farms their own land. James says the country is exploring the possibility of small freeholds to tackle the country’s inability to supply itself with food.

It may be the rainy season but there doesn’t seem to be much water. And it can’t be new because the riverbeds are full of grass and often sown with a crop or planted with trees. The mountains around us grow taller, ringing the road in what seems an impenetrable curtain and then, along the top, a lookout post or two pop up and between them a long line of the Great Wall. Again, I can’t believe I am seeing the Wall and that it’s just “there”. The road which, like much of this country, seems brand spanking new, cuts through the mountainsides, in impressive kilometres-long tunnels.

We marvel at the lack of road manners. James points out that as a country of first generation drivers it’s no surprise that what we consider the basic rules of the road are in no way adhered to. You get the sense that many of the drivers honed their skills in a video arcade — weaving in and out of traffic, opting for the shoulder as though it were a perfectly viable alternative to the other lanes. We witnessed an interesting encounter between a bus driver and a car driver who decided he didn’t want to vacate the passing lane. Once we were out of his way the bus driver managed to finally get around him and then pulled back in front of the car, first squeezing him onto the shoulder to make his point.

We arrived in time for lunch at a little restaurant with a whole wall of aquariums filled with a variety of fish and a dozen fat frogs. A few of the fish were floating belly up so we stuck to the meat dishes. As we were wrapping up our meal, two of the waitstaff went up to the aquariums and starting netting some of the fish and putting them in plastic bags. A few managed to get loose and flopped around on the floor. One of the guys tried stomping on a fish’s head to stun it but instead sent it skidding dramatically across the tile floor toward our table.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the Putuo Zongcheng Temple, a copy of Lhasa’s Potala Palace. Endless sets of stairs going ever higher in a series of simple but beautiful wooden structures. While the Imperial palaces are all about earthly comforts, the Tibetan palace feels like it’s all about the sky. Bricked-up windows are the only decoration in the towering plasterwork walls. Buddha and his attendants sit in cool, darkened rooms, hands poised in positions that speak of calm composure. Strings of colourful prayer flags flutter in the wind. The sky, “Sledgehammer Peak”, a finger of rock that points skyward across the valley and the wall of Chengde’s nearby Mountain Resort are the backdrop. While we walk I talk to Eric who patiently answers my questions about his family’s experience of the Cultural Revolution. As a close relative of the emperor, his Manchurian dad was arrested and his house stripped of everything of value. His oldest brother, who was nine at the time, had to ride his bike several kilometres across town to bring his father lunch and dinner at the prison. He wasn’t big enough to reach the pedals and sit on the seat at the same time. His father’s sentence lasted six months — basically until he agreed to revoke his Manchurian heritage, thereafter identifying himself as Han Makes me wonder just how many of the dominant 92% Han were of another ethnicity before the revolution.

After the temple tour we walk down a ramp that could just as easily have led to an underground parking into the town market. We are almost flattened by scooters on the way down. Inside, the combined smell of exhaust and fish is overpowering. We come back up on escalators that haven’t worked in a long time, the narrow space between them transformed into a makeshift display for slippers. We go to the supermarket and poke around the aisles. The salesgirls giggle and gawk. We buy fresh doughnuts for the kids, puffy balls of dough dipped in sesame seeds, the filling a mix of linseed and sweet cream. Later, we stroll along the boardwalk by the wide river that cuts downtown in two. There is a space by the water set up with workout machines made of piping and seats set into the concrete. A dozen people of all ages pump their legs in cross-country skiing machines and stationary bikes. One old guy stands in front of a back scratcher and goes at it for twenty minutes. Another young man pulls himself up on the parallel bars and wows us with his acrobatics. Back up on the boardwalk couples wander hand in hand, moms shoo their kids away from the water, fishermen cast their lines. Whether the fish from this poopy-smelling water is at all edible is another matter. The roads and bridges all look so new. You can practically see this country transforming before your eyes. As in Mexico, the kids are our “in”. The stares and giggles they incite have calmed by the time we pass by, giving the shocked passersby time to recover enough to decide whether they’re going to scowl or smile at us.

We pop into a beer garden, a covered area on the boardwalk set up with plastic tables and chairs. Wil and James have a Tsingtao, the kids have cokes and we watch the world go by. The surly waitress delivers beer and orders of barbecued meat to the tables around us. A pair of guys sit at one table with four giant draft beers, three little bottles of baiju (local firewater) and a heap of skewered meat.

We stop for dinner at a crazy restaurant — a sterile-looking tiled white corridor with doors opening left and right onto semi-private rooms with round tables for ten. A pane of opaque glass separated the two ten-person tables. The table next door was having a great time, welcoming us with a wave as we came in. I get to sit beside Alistair, who is as charming as can be. The waitresses come through the door and giggle at the gwailos. After dinner is served I notice that the girls loitering by our door change every few minutes as everyone takes their shift staring at the weird whities. We drink “Great Wall” wine and feast. The best hot and sour ever, amazing fried dumplings. Walking home from the restaurant we go through a little square and hear chinese-style waltz music playing. When we get close, we find dozens of couples, some men and women, some pairs of women dancing their hearts out. The kids jump into the fray. The onlookers start watching them instead of the dancing. One man tries hard to engage me in conversation which leaves me feeling totally useless. I can’t even retain the most basic vocab. What I do grasp is his line of questioning which is whether the three kids are all mine. All three? he asks, amazed. Yes, they’re all mine. When I am in public with the kids and people have enough time to do more than stare, the common reaction seems to be surprise that all three are mine. I had a boy. In China it would end there but I was lucky enough to go on and have two girls. Their surprise reflects just how blessed I feel. Fortunately for me, James steps in and answers the man’s follow up questions. The man’s amazement only grows as the big white guy answers him in Mandarin.

We have a nightcap at the hotel as the kids watch chinese adventure shows and we laugh about the hourly rates and the interesting accoutrements provided (at a cost) by our Yun Shan hotel no-tell.

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