Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 3, Thursday, July 8

Morning: Jet lag. I was wide awake at 3 a.m. even after being up for over 28 hours. Joe snores. I mean big-time snores. But that was not the problem. So I got up and logged on to the laptop Joe had brought along. The hook-up to the Internet was free. Michael had brought his laptop to China in April. I e-mailed Mary Ruth to tell her we had arrived safely and that everything was going fine. After about an hour I was able to go back to bed until daybeak.

Brandon arrived right on time. Joe and I had gone to the coffee shop for coffee. We would be touring around Tian’anmen Square. The subway was much more crowded than the night before. Subway workers in yellow vests are on the platforms pushing people into the cars to get the doors closed. Early morning trains run about every two minutes so there is not a lot of time for delays at a station.

Our first stop of the day was the Mao Mausoleum. The Chinese have preserved Chairman Mao Zedong’s body and put it on display weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Mao was the communist leader who defeated the Chinese Nationalists (now on Tiawan) and set up the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The lines were long but moved quickly. The sun was blazing. I had lathered myself up in sunscreen prior to leaving the hotel. As we got closer to the mausoleum entrance, we passed through several security checkpoints. No cameras were allowed. Many Chinese purchased small bunches of flowers to honor Mao. The flowers were placed in bins just inside the entrance. Guards keep the flowers nicely stacked. Joe and I both had the same idea – the guards could take the flowers back outside and resell them. The line split inside the main entrance – some went left, some went right around a large partition. On the other side is the darkened chamber with a huge raised glass case containing Mao’s body. Guards rush visitors by the case so we got just a glimpse. As I recall, the body is mostly covered and all I saw was Mao’s orangish face. I read that the body is kept in a vault below the display area and that it is treated daily with chemicals to keep it preserved. I think I also read that Russians (remember they have kept Lenin around and Stalin for a while) helped the Chinese in the preservation process.

We walked across Tian’anmen Square to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where communist officials watch the huge military parade held every 10 years during the National Holiday in October. (Smaller parades are held every five years.) Just think of the old May Day parades in Moscow’s Red Square. The view of the square from the gate is inspiring. The Great Hall of the People to the right, Mao’s Mausoleum center court and the Museum of Natural History to the left. Cars raced along the street in front of the gate, the same street where the famous protester-tank encounter was photographed some 21 years ago.

Behind the gate is the Forbidden City, the home of numerous Chinese emperors. Perhaps it should be called the “Forbidding City” because of its size. Mary Ruth said she would like to be able to spend more time exploring all of its little nooks and crannies next time she’s in Beijing. It is beautiful beyond description but on this day, in the excessive heat and sun, I was content with Brandon’s walk through tour. I began to appreciate the weeks and weeks I had spent at the gym. The cardio conditioning was going to pay off.

Afternoon: Across the street from the Forbidden City is Jigshan Park, which was actually part of the imperial gardens. Mary Ruth tells me the hill in the park was built from all the dirt dug out to make the moat around the Forbidden City. Atop the hill is a pagoda, which offers a wonderful view of the Forbidden City. I suppose the view is even more wonderful in cooler weather. My T-shirt was soaked by the time we reached the top.

Back on the street, Brandon flagged down a cab to take us back to the hotel. Getting a cab is not always easy, Brandon said, because some Chinese cab drivers are racist and will not stop for a white person. Imagine that.

Before going back to our hotel for a nap and shower, we stopped at a 7-Eleven for some bottled water (cheaper than the water offered in the hotel room) and a sandwich (cucumber and ham is not bad). Honest, this is the only American store we frequented. We did not go to McDonald’s, Burger King, Papa John’s or KFC. Honest!

Evening: Brandon selected a German restaurant for dinner. Mary Ruth and Michael had been to this one, too. Brandon’s girlfriend, Layla, would be joining us.

Brandon met Layla (pronounced Lyla) when she came to look at the apartment he shares with two others when one of the others had moved out. While Layla decided not to take the apartment, Brandon decided to give her a call and their relationship began. Layla is a German citizen of Chinese parents. She is in Beijing on an internship with a marketing firm. She speaks German, Chinese and English. She is delightful and they make a beautiful couple. Brandon smiles a lot when she’s around.

Dinner in Beijing was more of an event than just a meal. It was a time to sit, relax, chat and enjoy good food and a cold beer. While a German restaurant, a guitarist and singer performed Beatles and Simon and Garfunkle numbers. I ordered a pork dish with cheese noddles. It was delicious, but best of all, the German restaurant had forks!

We ended the evening taking a cab to the lake area just on the other side of the Forbidden City. We had seen the lakes from the Jigshan Park lookout earlier that day. The lake area is known for its night life. People crowded the numerous restaurants and bars. Employees outside the businesses tried to get you to enter their particular establishment. You could rent boats and cruise around on the small lakes. It reminded me a little of the boardwalk at Wildwood, N.J., but not as crass. Brandon picked a place and we went to its second floor terrace for a night-ending drink. Our first full day of sightseeing had been a good one.

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