土曜日, 8月 07, 2004

Other News from China

    Okay, folks, due to technical difficulties with the Chinese Internet or my ignorance of it, I can (sometimes) post updates to my blog, but I can't view my blog, respond to comments, or post pictures until I get back to Japan. I promise I will post pictures as soon as I can when I get back, so please be patient!
    It's the 7th day of my great adventure. I'm in Xi'an, the starting point of the Silk Road and the largest city in the world during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). It has been in decline ever since, but interest was renewed when some farmers digging a well near Xi'an discovered the Terracotta Warriors in 1974. We will go out to see those tomorrow.
    Now I'd like to fill you in quickly on my adventures in Beijing and the Great Wall, since I've been away from the Internet for a few days. The coolest thing I did in Beijing was attend the Beijing Opera. I confess I was a little underwhelmed with sightseeing in Beijing. It was fun trying out my Chinese, but the pollution gives me a headache, and when I'm out on the street I feel like I'm inhaling carcinogens with every breath.
    The Beijing Opera was unexpectedly entertaining. Melanie and I were expecting it to be very serious like Japanese traditional drama, and we were happy that it wasn't like that at all. First, we were taken backstage to see the actors put on makeup. Then, we were shown to a nice table with some fruit, cookies and candy on it, and tea, with four other people. Two were Australians on their way to Tibet. The other two were Japanese. We started immediately talking to the two Japanese women in Japanese, and the Australians glared at us. Oops. I'm afraid I was kind of rude to them by not translating what we were saying.
    We had good seats near the front. When the opera started, they projected the actors' lines in Chinese and English on both walls to the side of the stage. The characters were charming, especially the lead actress who played "The Nymph". The costumes were amazing, colorful and ornate with many different impossibly exaggerated headdresses.
    The first story was about a nun fleeing a nunnery to meet her lover, Pan the scholar, and her witty repartee with the boatman. The second, longer, story was about a nymph and her retinue (who sang squeakily in unison). A man arrived, and the nymph's attendants told him, "Our nymph has admired you for a long time." (I'm not kidding). It was love at first sight. She gave him a pearl amulet to symbolize their love. But all was not well, because then there was a stylized acrobatic battle scene and they all had to fight fantastic beasts, frogs and flowers, and armored soldiers. It sounds cheesy and it was, but it was cheesy in a cute, lighthearted way that made the audience laugh by playing on recognizable tropes from Chinese folklore.
    That was one of the highlights of Beijing for me. After Beijing, we took a bus to a section of the Great Wall that's only partially reconstructed, so it's not as touristy as the main two Great Wall Spots. The spot we went to is called Simatai. I took lots of pictures. We went at night and again in the morning, and stayed the night at a guest house up there. When we went at night there weren't so many other tourists, but there were some local women trying to guide us and offering to carry stuff for us although we didn't want them to. In the morning there was almost no one except us, and that was the nicest time to go. Some parts of the Great Wall are really falling apart. At one place we had to turn back. I took this picture to show how it was all crumbling away, mossy and unclimbable. You climb the wall from tower to tower and it's basically endless...you can never climb the whole Wall, so there's always this feeling of incompleteness about it. Melanie said one of the Intrepid group leaders (not ours) had an article on the Internet about how it was his dream to juggle on the Great Wall, and he had a picture of himself triumphantly doing so. I wished I had something like that to accomplish on the Great Wall, but all I could do was walk on it and try to feel awe.
    Roman, a graphic designer from Berlin traveling with us, and I went on the Wall in the early morning to try to catch the sunrise. We gazed in the direction the Mongols would have come from on their horses (it was mountainous, almost impassable terrain). Though we missed the actual sunrise, the early morning calm was nice up there. I was still recovering from my Beijing headache, so I wasn't as energetic as I'd hoped to be about climbing the Great Wall, but I did my best and spent a few hours up there climbing the crumbling, steep little steps from tower to tower.
    On the evening before, we saw some guards running down the steps (the same steep steps we were stepping on very carefully to avoid falling). When they got halfway down, they took the paragliding cable the rest of the way down. They were obviously in a great hurry. The woman who was trying to guide us told us that they were getting off work, going home to eat dinner.
    The guesthouse was a little creepy because there weren't any streetlights; the darkness of the courtyard reminded me, incongruously, of Silent Hill. They left a big red thermos of boiled water outside our rooms for drinking. The door to our room was so decrepit the knob came off in our hands. I tried to use the boiled water for brushing my teeth, but it was so hot I had to let it cool off in my thermos cup for a long time. There was a hot shower, but to use it we had to plug in the water heater to heat the water for half an hour. Melanie took me outside to see the stars in the courtyard; since there weren't any lights, you could see all the constellations and the Milky Way.
    We took an overnight train to Xi'an and here I am. We played Hearts and drank beer on the train. The Chinese folk rock music that was piped in to the train carriage was good and most of us liked it. I liked it. I didn't know how to say "cards" in Chinese, but I was determined to buy some at the train station so I had to kind of mime playing cards and say "a thing to play with" in Chinese, and they guessed what I meant. We see a lot of people playing cards here, and outdoor chess (the shogi variant I read about in the manga). Mel and I are going to try to learn the local card game before we leave. At 10 it was lights out on the train. I found the train bed comfortable, but I was on the bottom bunk of three; Melanie was on the top, and she said that the cold air from the air con blew on her all night.
   In the morning, they woke us up with obnoxious Disney-esque music. We were in a whole new terrain with interesting landscape formations outside, so I started to get excited about seeing Xi'an.

Below: A view of the Forbidden City.

Originally uploaded by moglet.

    The Forbidden City is an important historical relic which should be preserved, but it's meaning, at least for me, was somewhat unpleasant. The gardens and Ming ceramics and decorated rooms on display were quite beautiful, but I know that if I were a concubine living there in ancient times I wouldn't have had a happy life.

    We all thought it was ironic that the Forbidden City has a Starbucks. The receipt carries the ominous message: