Thursday, June 28, 2007

Square Peg in a Round Hole

(Or is it round peg in a square hole?)

I notice huge line ups at the southern end of Tienanmen Square. They are waiting to get a glimpse of Mao in his crystal casket to pay their respects. I hear it’s a big attraction, but soon, very soon, I learned that there is an even bigger attraction. Me.

It starts out innocently enough. One person asks me if she can have her picture taken with me. Why not, it takes but an instant. Two steps later, I am approached by another group. Then within seconds, like one who has taken one too many steps towards a hornet’s nest, I am swarmed by a scores of school children. They all seem to have cameras. Cameras are going off left right and centre as the children take turns standing beside me and smiling broadly. They surround me and there really is no way out. I smile and pose, but the reality is that I’m anxious to lose this instant celebrity status.

The noon day sun is blazing upon me and I drank my last drops of water ages ago. I can feel my skin slowly starting to burn as I survey this massive concrete complex for some shade. But there are no trees in the vicinity. Out of the corner of my eye I see the teachers in charge trying to quarantine their children getting more and more frustrated at the futility of their task. A moment later these very same teachers are standing beside me with their cameras also eager to have their picture taken before moving on.

I prepare for my break, but the crowds follow me. Now no longer just school tours but anyone who happens to be in the square. It seems that I can get no more than two steps in at a time before being stopped again.

It dawns on me that I should be charging. I have been standing under the intense sun for well over an hour and I’m sure that half of Beijing now has my picture. I wonder where these pictures will end up. Will I end up in some tourist brochure or as advertising for an English school? Or will I be displayed on someone’s mantle? Or perhaps shown to company and introduced as, “my Canadian friend.” Perhaps I will end up forgotten at the back of someone’s photo album. But for today, I am an attraction. The crowds watch me intently and follow my every move as I slowly make my way ever closer to the Forbidden City hoping to escape beyond its doors away from the masses.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Tienanmen Square

I am relieved to arrive in Tienanmen Square and to get away from most of the peddlers. However, I barely have a time to look around before a young girl approaches me. Through a series of gestures, I gather she wants her picture taken with me. I figure it must be because of my blonde hair. I acquiesce, after all, what harm could it do?

I hardly have a chance to take two more steps before I am approached yet again, this time by two university students. Initially, I mistakenly believe they simply want to try out their English. It soon, however, becomes evident that they have ulterior motives. You see, they are art students from Xian, and no surprise, there is an exhibit just around the corner. I am led blindly like a sheep to slaughter. There are NO exhibits simply to view beautiful things in China. Everything, I soon learn, is a capitalistic opportunity. Everything, of course, is for sale, and, of course, prices must all be negotiated. Some of the art work is done by, “very famous Chinese art masters.” I do, of course, wonder just how “famous” these “art masters” could be in a population of a billion plus, and if “very famous art masters” would actually be selling their prized masterpieces in a hot crowded classroom of first year art students. I politely listen and look around until I feel I can inconspicuously make my get away. Hastily I slip out of the room.

I find my way back into the square. I immediately look around wanting to take as much in before my next encounter. A surge of emotions washes over me as I realize just how large the largest square in the world actually is (880 metres from North to South and 500 metres from East to West, large enough to accommodate half a million people). The place is packed and I can almost envisage tanks storming the crowd in the midst of the square. I try to imagine what it was like: the chaos, students, tanks, barricades, banners waving. I can almost see the blood stains on the pavement and feel the crushed hopes of a nation.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Walk to the Square

Today I’m off to Tienamen Square and then the Forbidden City. It’s still early, but like every summer day in China, hot and humid. I start off walking due west and stop at a bank to change some money. This is a cash society. Almost no one wants to accept a credit card. Even in my hotel, they want cash.

About a block or two away from the square I’m spotted. A deluge of hawkers descends upon me. No one has any idea of what private enterprise and the spirit of capitalism are until they have been to communist China. The first one hails me with a hearty, “Hello!” and tries to interest me in his postcards. I quicken my pace and he matches it, dropping his price. Others join in, selling by and large the same items. It’s not that I’m not interested, except that I feel as if I’ve been dropped in a pool of piranhas. The potential feeding frenzy that would result if they actually smelt blood frightens me. But overall, I find the whole situation quite comical. I keep walking. One will pull up beside me with something to purchase. When I say no, he drops back and I wrongly assume we’re done with. Seconds later, he pulls up again. “Hello!” he enthusiastically says as if we’ve never met. He’s taken something new out of his bag and wants to know if perhaps it might interest me. This continues, me never knowing quite what will be pulled out of the magician’s hat. Now desperate to cut them loose, I quicken my pace once again. But I don’t break free until crossing the street to the square.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Intermingled Souls

The soul doesn’t thrive on smooth, uncluttered convictions or on lofty promises of deliverance, nor does it thrive on ideology and dogma, but rather imagination and the mystery which is love.

Love comes from years
Of breathing
Skin to skin
Tangled in each other’s dreams
Until each night weaves another thread
In the same web
Of blood and sleep

~Mary Mackey

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Dragon's Den

I have been caught in the jaws of hell, just out of reach of the dragon's ferocious bite, but not beyond his fiery breath. My heart has been scorched. I have fallen off the edge of the precipice, but I no longer know if I jumped or if I was pushed...

Friday, June 15, 2007

Guilty Pleasures #1

I had initially intended on writing of my indulgence in "guilty pleasures" yesterday, but alas, am pressed for time today. So instead, I thought I would share this little video that I had seen a few years back. Food is, after all, one of our first pleasures.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Waiting for the Bus

Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite. Or waiting around for Friday night or waiting perhaps for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil or a better break or a string of pearls or a pair of pants or a wig with curls or another chance. Everyone is just waiting. ~Dr. Seuss

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Perfect Strangers

I sit and look dreamily out the window taking in the landscape mildly aware of the train's incessant bumpy hum along the track. It feels good to finally be out of the city. There is no air conditioning, but the window is slightly ajar blowing a warm breeze through my hair. I feel as if I must pinch myself to prove that I'm actually here. The countryside whizzes past: gentle hillsides dressed with corn fields and a few sparse trees. A river meanders lazily below the track and occasionally I see some poor soul hauling a load along the road. It is much greener here, but still very much a dust bowl.

A cute little boy with a wide toothy grin approaches and sits down opposite me. He can't be any older than 12. "Ni hao," he says nodding in my direction. "Ni hao," I reply back. he immediately launches in and asks another question. I shrug my shoulders and smile to indicate my lack of comprehension. He persists. I try to play anlong with the few phrases I've picked up in the past couple of days. Within the next 20 seconds I've exhausted the extent of my Mandarin. I have to give the boy an A for his determination, but eventually he realizes that the conversation has reached a dead end. Soon he gets up and ambles back into the neighbouring car. I return my attention back to the scenery.

Ten minutes pass and the little boy is back, this time with and adult in tow. Again he sits down opposite me and smiles. The adult explains that the boy was looking for someone who knows English so that he could have a conversation with me. He sits down as well. The boy launches in with a deluge of questions. I sit patiently and wait for the translation so that I can respond. He listens intently, hanging on my every word. I am struck by his curiosity as I doubt that children back home would be so outgoing with an unknown adult and ask such poignant questions. And thus I pass the next hour in the company of these perfect strangers.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Beijing by Taxi

So here am, sitting in another taxi. I don’t know if I’m dizzy from the traffic or the exhaust fumes. Perhaps I’m dehydrated. The heat is starting to get to me. The driver has the radio going; a lone female voice twists her way out of the speakers. At this point, it’s all background noise: the voice, the blaring horns, everything. We zigzag in and out and I search for landmarks but I recognize nothing. We should be going back in the general direction from whence I came, but even that is uncertain. I’m glad I picked up a business card of the hotel where I am staying. The address is written on the card in both English and Chinese. I make a mental note to remember to do that at all my stops. The last thing I need is to be unable to find my way back to my hotel in a city with a population of close to 16 million.

I have decided to go to Jingshan park. I don’t know much about it except that it is a man made mountain that was constructed sometime in the Ming dynasty. This 47.5 metre hill was created from the dirt extracted from around the Forbidden City to create the palace moat. It is both impressive and somewhat appalling to think that the dirt was moved by hand. Feng Shui dictates the auspiciousness of locating a residence to the south of a hill. Apparently there were no such hills in Beijing. But being the Emperor does have its advantages, and unlimited free man power is one of them. But all said, the park still sounds quite inviting. I’m longing for some green space: trees and flowers would be nice.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Where I Left You

I wandered off and left you. I am not sure how that could have happened. There was simply so much commotion. I was confused by the cacophony of Mandarin that I simply did not understand. There were so many people. And the heat…the heat and the humidity. It must have left me dazed and confused. In this midst of this confusion, your hand must have slipped from mine and before I realized it, I must have drifted into the crowd and been carried away by the current going down stream. But I have found my way back. Take my hand and we will continue on from where I last left you.


I was stranded in front of the Sheraton. Well, it’s perhaps not nice to say, but when you are blonde haired and blue eyed in China, you are an oddity and there is no shortage of people who want to help you out. Or at least have their picture taken with you. They are curious about you. The fact is, I could have joined a traveling freak show and drawn huge crowds. But this was not one of those moments. There were no crowds here. This was an upscale establishment away from the dense neighbourhoods of the common man. But there was a doorman who promptly felt the need to help me in the midst of my distress.

“Is there a problem here?” he inquired.

I explained what had just happened and discovered that the Sheraton does have a bus that goes to Mutiyanu at 8:30 every morning. Well, it was now 9:30 so that was out of the question.

The doorman was outraged that the taxi driver would leave me stranded and wanted to report him immediately. I hesitated. I had been warned of the punishments that some poor Chinese souls have had to endure as the result of some disgruntled Caucasian complaint. I had only been in Beijing but a couple of days, there was still much to see. The Great Wall, I was sure, would still be there tomorrow.

I made quick inquiries as to what would be appropriate to visit in the amount of time that remained in the day. The doorman called me another cab and as he opened the door for me to get in, he handed me a card and explained that on the back he had written the taxi number of this cab as well as the phone number of where to make complaints if the driver should happen to give me any difficulties. I thanked him as he closed my door and waved the taxi on. And for the second time that morning I found myself thrust into the throng of vehicles aimlessly encircling the city.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Otherwise Preoccupied

No time to post today...head in the clouds. Will be back soon. Aren't Kootenay weather systems beautiful?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

First Attempt

The humidity hangs heavy in the air even at seven this morning. I step out of the shower, dry myself off and then wonder if I have actually done so. Undoubtedly it will be another day of Beijing belly, and I’m not talking about the Beijing belly one gets from eating the mystery meat. No, this is the local style amongst the men here…a T-shirt rolled up to halter status and glaring Buddha belly sort of look. Nice. At least it's not a Speedo.

I glance out the window and for a moment watch the locals hustling about their business. The men’s Mahjong boards are already set up on a makeshift table under the shade of an unstable umbrella and a few sparse trees. They study the board with brows furrowed as seriously as if they are generals of armies deciding on great strategic defense. A woman stands in the doorway of her shop, arms crossed, surveying the street for customers. Another man quickly sets up his portable shoeshine business…a rickety old stool and a few rags.

I decide that if today is the day, I best be off. I make my way out into the narrow alleyway and am surprised at the intensity of the heat so early in the morning. Propaganda blares from the speakers through the open doors of the shops wafting out into the streets along with a variety of distinctly pentatonic sounding songs and a symphony of continuously blaring horns in the background. Putrid smells ooze up from the sewers smacking me suddenly as they intermingle with the smell of the fried ducks hanging in the windows, various bodily odors of those passing by me, stale urine alongside a building. Everything is so much bolder in this heat…in this country. It screams at me. It thrusts me into sensory overload.

I stand and take it all in before I make my way over to the confusion of taxis just off the road. I address the first fellow. No English. I was prepared for this. I rummage in my knapsack until I pull out my map. I show him where we are and then point to a place way up the map…the Great Wall, Mutiyanu. He jabbers at me in Mandarin, flailing his arms about. I have no idea what he’s getting at. Another fellow walks over and asks if he can be of assistance. I explain that I would like to go to the Great Wall and was told that I could hire a taxi for the day. I ask the fellow if he would ask the taxi driver if he would take me and for how much. They engage in conversation pointing at the map. One hundred Yuan, it’s a deal.

I hop comfortably into the back seat and securely fasten my seat belt. The driver doesn’t like that. It’s an affront on his driving skills, but I’ve now been in enough Chinese taxis to not care how he feels about it. The traffic is horrendous. We zigzag in and out. At times there are no discernable lanes, just the flow of endless vehicles pulsating towards their destinations. We continue on for what seems like forever, yet we have not yet reached the city limits. Suddenly the taxi driver turns onto a side street and pulls up in front of the Sheraton. I’m confused. He stops the vehicle, turns around and in stilted English says, "get out." It must be the only English he knows. I try to glean even a small level of comprehension. I am totally lost. He points in one general direction and continues to excitedly speak. I still have no idea what he's getting at. What am I to do? It’s his taxi. I get out.

Friday, June 01, 2007


Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. Many things in life will catch our eye, but only a few will capture our hearts. Pursue those.