Blue Skies over Beijing

Todays perambulations have taken me to new hutongs and more water. The goal is the Back Lakes area of Beijing, Shicha Hai, a series of man-made lakes once part of a system used to transport grain by barge from the Grand Canal to the Forbidden City. It is a pretty scene, with fishermen on the periphery. Low carved marble balustrades outline the lakes, with arched bridges for pedestrian traffic at the narrows, where each body of water connects. The district is filled with small shops, restaurants, and Chinese tourists.

Duck Island

Duck Island

Wack, wack, wack.” Mallards. I do want you to know that conservation is alive and well here in the middle of Beijing. Not far from the shore, right next to the swan boats, is a tiny man-made island, maybe 30 x 40 square feet, with nesting condos for wild ducks! It is a big deal. The government has gone so far as to mount a large plaque, praising the residents on the merits of this significant conservation effort.

Environmental protection for wild ducks

Praise for conservation effort. Click on photo to read.

Prior to 1911, the Back Lakes district was an exclusive area, where only people with connections to the imperial family were permitted to maintain houses. It has that feeling still. I see a beautiful doorway that is slightly open, revealing cascading orchids. A well-dressed man comes out and when I ask if he speaks English, his answer is in English without a trace of accent, as is his reply when I asked what establishment lies (lays?) beyond the gate. It is a restaurant, open for lunch and dinner. “A very fine restaurant,” I say. “Thank you,” says he. Seeing my interest, he added, “but you would need a reservation.” This is a euphemism for his assumption, correct as it may be, that I am not up to snuff for his place of business. (BTW: Fashion is in fashion here. The well-to-do dress for such venues. And most of the women I have seen climb out if the plentiful Audis, BWMs, and Mercedes are young and beyond beautiful, although “mother” is frequently dowdy.)

My meander today lasts for about eight hours, primarily exploring the alleys. I surface every now and then to get my bearings. With only a map for the subway system rather than the streets, every time I come across a station, I orient myself, then dive back in. I am always happiest when I am deep inside, where tourists don’t often wander. The people tend to be much friendlier.

Roof tops of the Confucian temple in Beijing.  Note the blue sky!!!!!

Roof tops of the Confucian temple in Beijing. Note the blue sky!!!!!

This day’s great surprise is the Confucian temple, at which I arrive after passing through a stunning ancient gateway crossing the rather wide alleyway I have been exploring. The temple, closed for the day, is an impressive compound built in the 1300s. My view is whatever is above the wall, which is quite impressive. It has been my luck to arrive at significant historic sites after hours. Perhaps it is because on previous trips I have spent most of my time looking at the ancient that I do not feel I am missing anything. I have enjoyed blue skies over Beijing. And, not everyone can say that!

Gilt Buddha for sale

Gilt Buddha for sale

Not far from the Confucian complex is the Yonghe Lama temple, another old, large, spiritually oriented place. I feel like I have found the philosophers’ corner. Emerging onto a large boulevard filled with colorful gold gilt shops garnished with prayer flags blowing in the breeze, Chinese Tibetan trinkets, incense and golden Buddhas are mine for the paying. O mani padme hum blasts from speakers in front of a closed door decorated with Buddhist symbols, outside of which burns a lovely smelling offering. It feels sincere. Still, there is an oddness to the isolation and marketing of spirituality here.

My legs are finally tired, so I head in the direction I surmise is the right one. It is, although I do take a couple of wrong turns, ending up in alleys that have no exit. Somewhere in the hutong, not the heavily congest touristized part, but more a locals’ shopping area, I decide to have a drink. There is charm to the little place I find, and FRIENDS is playing with English subtitles above the Chinese. The sound is barely audible under the din of the noisy street and the ventilation system, so I read the script. How ridiculously satisfying to laugh at the goofy familiar characters. It is a good show, even with the sound off!

In an attempt to duplicate the joy of the frozen yoghurt plastered with fresh mangoes that I had last night, I buy another. But somethings are better left as good memories. Tonight the sugary treat is cloying and most of it goes in the garbage. I do indulge in the spiral cut, deep fried potato on a stick. Yum. I walk the touristic hutong for the last time, going to the atm for tomorrow’s cab fare. Before heading to the airport, I plan to go to the art zone, a converted factory I read about.

My final evening in China is spent organizing and packing. I am not really ready for home, as I feel I now have my travel legs. I also am not ready to enter into a world where I will understand what everyone is saying. I am accustomed to communicating with small gestures and not talking at all.


Polar Bears

The only reason I added Harbin to my itinerary is that I really wanted to see, in person, the remarkable ice sculptures in the Sun Island complex that I had seen on the internet. Alas, I never made it there. Instead, after a whirlwind tour of the (impressive) snow sculptures, WN, my guide, insists we get to get to the Polarium for some kind of aquatic show. The Polarium is an aquarium and place where animals of the cold are showcased.

Earlier in the day we had a tour of Tiger Park, a truly pathetic tourist attraction where some 200 Bengal tigers live on a few blocks of land within the city of Harbin. They are, of course, flabby and lethargic. A drive in a caged wagon through the preserve affords us a look at these huge felines (including several white ones) in a natural setting. Well, sorta (said sarcastically). Extremely bored drivers navigate the park, pausing only at the double gates that separate groups of cats from each other, organized by age. The tour ends at at a distressing bank of rusty cages, home to some miserable animals, including a Liger, a freak cross of Lion and Tiger. I hate this whole place.

When I read about it online, I knew I did not want to go, but WN is so insistent that I cannot seem to manifest my wishes. Thus, I now find myself inside the Polarium.

The initial displays are saltwater fish tanks, actually quite well done, albeit a bit crowded. A ray glides midst a bevy of colorful fish, while a large grouper hovers in the corner. Also, much to my surprise, are two cylinder tanks of jellies. I am wondering if this is the aquarium Dave Powell, my old diving pal, consulted on. Jellies are very difficult to display, and he perfected the waterflow for the tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’ll have to inquire.

Then I round the corner to the mammal display and am sickened. Arctic foxes in glass cages sprawl on cement snow. Two polar bears, separated from each other by steel bars, live in a space about the twice the length of the animals. They pace and roar. One is particularly agitated, and its thunder reverberates in my soul.

Fortunately (yes, fortunately), I slip on a wet step while leaving the toilet. The facilities are more often than not raised up one step, and the door to the cubicle is right on the edge of the step, so that when you open it, you must immediately step down. For some reason, in the Polarium, there are two steps up to the john, and there is a woman mopping the floor. This combination proves to be dangerous. As I leave the stall, I forget about the step and thump down, only to slip off the wet second step and fall hard, my coccyx hitting the bottom step as I go down. It hurts like hell, and I am dizzy as I leave the room.

To see the much touted aquatic show, I am to take the escalator to the lower level. I can see from the posters that there will be beautiful free divers interacting with beluga whales, who will form a heart shape by arching their backs while touching tails and bowing their heads nose to nose. What I wasn’t prepared for was the size of the tank. It is tiny…deep, but tiny. I cannot stand it, and I cry. I do not want to be here. I do not even want to know about this. As I descend to the basement, changing colored lights illuminate the denouement of the performance previous to the one I am supposed to see. The two magnificent animals perform their act perfectly to a packed house. The audience is enthralled. I apologize to the whales, and know I have to leave. I cannot stand to be here.

I spy a beaming WN. (Isn’t this wonderful! Yes, yes, yes.) I tell him of my mishap, and that I must go back to the hotel…NOW. “But, but, but. You don’t want to see this show?” I insist we leave, and he is convinced when he sees my bleeding hand. I wasn’t aware I cut it.

We had planned to go see the ice sculptures after the Poalrium. Remember, they are the whole reason for my journey to Harbin. “No, no. We cannot go to the Sun Island ice sculptures tomorrow. We are on this side today, tomorrow we have many things to do.” I am way to tired and hurting too much to even begin to mount my protest. “There are ice sculptures not too far from your hotel. You can see them.” What he doesn’t say is that they are paltry and half melted.


Now I am in Beijing. I have only two days before I leave, and need to get a few little souvenirs. There is nothing that really appeals to me that is within my budget till I stumble onto a working ceramic studio. Three little polar bears are arranged on one of those tiered Chinese shelves. They are just artistic enough to please me. Without a moments hesitation I complete the transaction, pondering the coincidence that my trip begins and ends with polar bears. The sculptures are charming, but are also a symbol of the sadness I feel. Those two white bears in the Polarium and the loss of Polar Bear habitat in the wild parallel the predicament of Tibetans in China.

I have truly enjoyed Beijing, but the wanton Han incursion into Tibetan and other minority lands along with the exploitation of the ethnic groups as tourist attractions is an painful thing to observe. The distress has permeated my trip. How could it not?  Somehow this experience, witnessing the demise of traditional Tibetan cultures, including the rape of their land, is a core element of my journey.

Samtso’s brother said regarding images I had given him from my earlier visits, “We have pictures from you of places that don’t exist anymore.”  Of course change is inevitable everywhere, but here in China, the new scene is almost always one of woeful environmental and aesthetic degradation. It is NOT progress; it is depressing.


Flying into Yesterday

I like that I packed last night. My morning is simply a wash and go affair. The hotel is storing my luggage and will call a cab for the ride to the airport when I return from my exploration into Beijing’s contemporary art scene.

The 798 Art Zone is a huge complex.  Once a ___________ factory, it has become a major commercial art hub out of what used to be a just a place with a handful of working artists.  While some of the work is interesting and a handful world class, most of what I see is bordering on mediocre. Sophomoric is the word that comes to mind. That, and egoistic. Still, the trip is worth it, and my opinion might be different if more galleries were open. Several places are installing new shows, and many just have closed doors. It s winter. Even so, at noon, the place is teeming with sightseers and the trinket shops are full of potential buyers. Lots of selfies being made with the outdoor art as backdrops.

The spaces themselves are fabulous. Large with high ceilings, so high that one installation includes a stairway and “rooftop” exhibit. Most galleries hang their shows with a generous amount of space between pieces. One opulent exhibit space has four large galleries, about 50′ x 15′, each with a single flat screen monitor mounted on the end wall. That’s all. BIG spaces.

There are many video installations. Too many for my brain, and often several crowded close together. Most are talking heads, and long. Think Ai Weiwei. In fact, his influence permeates the scene, but not his brilliance, nor his profound social relevance.

One thing I have discovered is that the Chinese are not shy about imitation. Derivitive, that over-prevelent criticicm in the West, evidently isn’t a concern.  Also, it is a culture of only children. Everyone, it seems, is a star. If art is largely attitude, they’ve got it made.

My ride out to the Zone was odd. The cabby fingered his walnut-like beads the entire way, and he was extremely calm. No zip zip, dodging in and out and around other cars, and no horn honking. That, in and of itself, is notable. Beijing drivers use their horns more than their steering wheels.

Are you wondering how he knew where to take me? The fellow who runs the hotel wrote the destination on a slip of paper. I just jumped in the cab and handed the Chinese script to the driver. And, having learned my lesson in Xi’an, I most definitely have the directions back to the hotel in my safe little belt bag.


The flight home will always be memorable. Not only did I watch three really good movies (The Judge, Birdman, Whiplash), I got to see the sun rise over Alaska: meandering wild rivers, with oxbows and resakas, and rose -tipped, snowy mountain ridges. Best of all, I just happened to open the window to have the glory of Denali fill the window frame. Wow.

So now I am through the horror of international arrivals at Seatac. Three full flights, one from Amsterdam, one from Dubai, and my flight from Beijing, all funneling through customs and baggage inspection. That’s normal. But here, anyone with a connecting flight — many many of us — were processed through a narrow hall to two old Xray security checks.  We hadn’t even had the opportunity to leave the secured area, but that was what we had to do. All in all it took about two and a half hours. And here’s the strangest part: IT IS STILL TWO HOURS BEFORE I LEAVE FROM BEIJING!!! So weird.


The Moat

Across the moat that surrounds the Forbidden Palace, on the far end from Tian’an Men Square, is a little park where little dogs are happily arguing the balance of power while their masters chat about them. It feels like a park I used to take Mick to in Sausalito, only the language is wrong, and the walls of the emperor’s fortress are reflecting in the water instead of the masts of a bevy of sailboats.beijing-dogs-1030802

Beijing is filled with dog lovers, I remember taking notice of this on my first trip. But now that China is fashion-minded, it is quite something to see the outfits that dogs parade around in. Of course, this is mostly the situation when the owners are women. Which is not to dismiss the doting dog dads. Pretty cute…and not one person objects to me photographing their pup!

The moat at the far end of the Forbidden City.  Finding it was happenstance.  Pretty cool, eh!

The moat at the far end of the Forbidden City. Finding it was happenstance. Pretty cool, eh!

It is late afternoon, and while walking down a big and busy street, a large group of mostly African Americans, with guide, pass me. It is noticeable seeing black people here… and nice to hear someone say “hello” without an accent. Then I spot hoards of people just ahead and many guides holding up their flags. And an old-looking structure looms in the near distance. I figure I must have happened upon something important. I have. The tiered building is one of the perimeter guard towers for the Forbidden City, and I am at the moat surrounding this lofty complex. Lordy, Lordy.

The channel is large, and the scene is a potential beauty shot. Many photographers have set up cameras on tripods, awaiting the setting sun. I decide to join them, armed only with my tiny lumix that doesn’t even shoot raw. But it is a feather weight, and I am exploring Beijing via foot. (I often use it to take pictures of intersections, so if I have to retrace steps, I know where to turn.)

The cold is getting to me, so I leave the pretty image to the pros and begin to wend my way back toward familiar territory. In this part of Beijing, the hutongs look to be family dwellings of normal folk. No tourist shops. No Audi’s. The majority of alleys here are too narrow for cars anyway, but a few motor bikes and tiny three-wheeled trucks are parked near gated sub-alleys leading to people’s homes. Nearly all of these passages harbor bicycles, which warms my heart even though the condition of most is pretty poor. I miss the bicycles of Beijing, which used to dominate the streets.  There are some old peddle rickshaws lined up against a wall, chained together like a convict crew.  I see very few people, except on the market streets.

Hmm, I am always happy to see a western toilet, BUT....the outside door is glass, and there is NO door on the stall.  ?????

Hmm, I am always happy to see a western toilet, BUT….the outside door is glass, and there is NO door on the stall. ?????

A significant change since last I wondered the hutongs of Beijing, likely the result of the Olympics being held here, is that the bathrooms are no longer smelly. Rather than the open trough one had to straddle with whomever else was present, now there are private stalls with flush toilets, albeit usually the squat kind. In summer the difference must be a life-changer for the residents. It was downright terrible before. I even see western style toilets available in some spots, maybe for the elderly or maybe for wheelchair access. One such toilet was in plain view from the street like a throne of honor? Eesh.

Public restrooms are plentiful, as the many residents of the hutongs often have no facilities of their own. And, most are very clean. However be forewarned: one must carry toilet paper, as none is supplied. This is true most everywhere in China.

The little hotel where I am staying has running water with a toilet and shower in each room, and it is definitely part of the hutong. Rooms are situated around a courtyard, which is typical. I guess that it was once a family compound, but I wonder how it got the water and sewage. Due to the language barrier, it will remain an unanswered question.

This walk has been great fun, and it is days like today when I realize that sometimes it is actually preferable to travel solo. I can amble at will without worrying about where I am going, nor how or when I will get back. And more significantly, I don’t have to consider my traveling partner. Mostly, like today, I am rewarded with something special, but sometimes the trek is a dud. Hard to share that. Plus, usually traveling pals like to eat, and often at somewhat regular intervals. Not so important for me. Oh, well. Just lost you as a wayfaring partner, didn’t I?

This is a wonderful place catering to foreigners, especially Westerners. It is quite comfortable being there solo.

This is a wonderful place catering to foreigners, especially Westerners. It is quite comfortable being there solo.

That said, it isn’t much fun to eat alone. When it comes to having a meal, I do prefer a sidekick. Still, I often manage to find someplace where I am comfortable. In Labrang it was Cafe Nirvana, here it is a terrific restaurant, Zarah, which has a tasteful photography show, elegantly hung, and good food. These places seem to cater to foreigners with electronics, and, that’d be me! I join my fellow keyboardists for lunch, enjoying a fresh salad and a glass of a very nice white wine while posting on my blog. It is pleasant being surrounded by like loners, mostly westerners who speak languages I don’t comprehend. I have come to enjoy both not understanding and not being able to speak, just listening…in other words my muteatude.