Endurance

Posted: October 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

I was not happy to be in China. I’d had to book my flights only the night before, the tickets I’d booked for the coming weekend to Melbourne were non-refundable, and I was starting to feel that scratch in the back of my throat that usually meant I was about to get sick. Standing on the curb in Beijing airport at one in the morning trying to negotiate with a taxi driver who spoke no English, my head swimming from jetlag and likely semi-toxic air pollutants, I was not in the best of moods.

The next few days of course did nothing to improve this. While the project I was there to work on spiraled into the inevitable ninth circle of middle manager hell, that virus scratching at my throat crept up to my sinuses and began hammering on them as if it held a grudge. I managed all but one day in the office before the weekend, slouching in the back of the cab in the hour-long commute to and from my hotel, watching the impossibly convoluted snarl of traffic slide by as in some sort of orange-tinted fever dream punctuated with incessant noise, odors, and millions upon millions of strange faces.

Thankfully by Saturday afternoon I had successfully beaten back the respiratory invaders with a steady defense of green tea and horrifically overpriced club sandwiches from room service. This likely also relieved the room service staff, who had been looking more and more nervous with each visit as I had been greeting them at the door looking increasingly like the homeless undead after a big night of drinking. In celebration I decided to stretch my legs in the direction of the Temple of Heaven, the closest major historical landmark that I still had yet to see.

Having been to the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace over two years before, I was fully prepared for the size of the place; back in the day, the Chinese built everything like they’d misinterpreted the scale on the plans. Everything; walls, buildings, statues, even stairs, everything in ancient China was built huge, especially in Beijing, the imperial seat of one of the oldest countries in the world. What I wasn’t prepared for was how public some of these formerly heavily restricted spaces had become. Areas with such reverent names as Imperial Vault of Heaven, Nine Dragon Cypress, and North Heaven Gate are now on a sunny day filled with people dancing, playing music, napping, playing badminton, or, most prevalent of all, hawking countless cheap trinkets to tourists. While it’s nice to see people out enjoying themselves, having plastic ping pong paddles waved in your face at every turn is enough to make you start to regret the end of the Cultural Revolution.

The following day was a trip I’d been waiting to make for some time: to stand on the Great Wall. Luckily I was warned in advance of two things: 1) The Chinese feel most comfortable in large crowds, and 2) of the two closest Great Wall sites, one makes the Chinese feel very comfortable, ticking off as many as 80,000 visitors per day. I immediately made plans to go to the other site. Only a two hour trip out of Beijing, the wall is no less flanked by eager and semi-combative vendors, however they are few and far between on the wall itself, so you are able to truly take in the place. And true to expectation, it was a breathtaking sight to take in. The reality of standing on a wall older than most of the world’s nations is impossible to be unaffected by. Never mind that it extends beyond a geographic distance that even now, in the days of easy air travel and satellite imagery, is still difficult to comprehend. I hiked as far as I could in the allowed time and the oppressive summer heat, and I still felt like I’d barely gone anywhere, the perspective of size reducing me to an ant traversing a stairway railing.

My sightseeing accomplished and my health recovered enough to resist the need to lie down in inappropriate places, the remainder of the trip was spent divided between work and seeking out local street food that I could order via pointing and nodding emphatically and that I was 75% sure would not give me intestinal parasites. Luckily just across the street from my hotel was a whole series of such places, as well as a local supermarket and, naturally, a 7-11. If there is one thing I have found indispensable in foreign countries for cheap sampling of local junk food, it is a 7-11.

Also spaced periodically between the rows of storefronts were narrow, dark alleys, made irresistible to me at night by their strings of lights and small noisy doorways, glowing and heaving with people down their length like narrow, luminous veins of concrete and rust branching organically off of the massive arterial roadways choked with traffic and knockoff vendors. In the heat of summertime, these alleys became a combination of storefronts, restaurants, kitchens, and living rooms; walking along I’d pass a couple kids shooting pool under a strand of white-hot bulbs, a group of shirtless men huddled around a TV, or a kid standing a few feet from a massive pot, deftly shaving a large root into it with an absently wielded paring knife. Every doorway was wide open, spilling the lives of their occupants into the street without a hint of self-consciousness. The ever-present sense of poverty sat side by side with an unmistakable air of community, and I was viewed with vague interest but without distrust. If I was not a customer, I was nobody of consequence.

For the whole trip, I was never able to get past the disparity of the place. Beijing is a city of two extremes: grand opulence exhibited by both the imperial relics of the past and by the gleaming storefronts of modern capitalism taking hold, and significant inner-city poverty. Slums built of ancient recycled materials that have resisted the governments efforts to tear them down for being unsightly have been walled in, compartmentalized away from offending the eyes of the elite classes. The industry of the area churns away at a hungry pace, but at the cost of a perpetual orange hue to everything, reminding you that you are in the most polluted place on the planet. It is an incredibly grand city, though that grandeur has come at a price. But then, this is a country of people known for their endurance and determination, and their resolve shows no sign of wavering.

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Comments
  1. Anonymous says:

    Love, love the shot of the light from behind the cloud, just had to say that.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks! One of the rare benefits of heavy air pollution I suppose.

      Totally spaced bringing you your DVD last week, you up to anything tomorrow post-work?

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