Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jing and a Prayer

My Beijing weekend was a busy one. After the Friday evening drive to some key sights, Jing went home to Shanghai and I met with some people from the Gao lab for a weekend exploring Beijing. We took the subway to the Temple of Heaven. The subway was an adventure in itself, far more crowded than any subway so far. Just getting to a subway car required plowing through a crowd so dense I could have lifted my feet off the ground and still been propelled forward at the speed of the mob, probably without anyone noticing. Getting on to each car required shoving and twisting and then fighting to get the rest of the party on the same car. However, the cars were air conditioned, which made a huge difference. Overall, much nicer than the Brussels metro, and certainly the line for the taxi stand under the Beijing train station. (Jing and I ditched the taxi stand and took a bus one station to find a taxi. The taxi driver waiting there said, yep, I get a lot of business right here, for that reason.)

The Temple of Heaven was magnificent. Like Central Park and many others, it was a massive park inside a metropolis. Unlike Central Park, it has Chinese buildings all over it. We went to many of the sights, including the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The temple included a “70 year old door” with a cute story. The door was built when an emperor turned 70 because it shortened his walk from the temple. However, the emperor decreed that nobody else could go through it until turning 70, lest he become lazy. Since then, no emperor ever reached that age, and hence, nobody has opened the door since then. A great story, but suspicious. Nobody ever opened it, not even a wayward guard or someone who bribed him? We got a picture of us pretending to kick the door down. Then, they would have had to edit their story to say: “Oh, and also, some fucking American tourist went through the door in 2011.”

Being helpful and obedient tourists, we decided against kicking down the door. We did pray for a good harvest at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, kneeling in the archetypal Christian fashion and praying insincerely, in English, exactly like the Chinese must have done for over 500 years. We must have got it right, because it promptly rained. I think the Chinese owe us for their incipient good harvest, but I’ll let it go. Swan le.

We proceeded to the Pearl Market, where Westerners are targets. Floor after floor of little shops, and every one opened with an absurdly high price and insulting appellations of sincerity and authenticity. No, I don’t believe an ancient Chinese coin that you’re trying to sell me for 20 RMB is authentic, partly because I just watched you sell a bag of them to that (Chinese) customer for 1. A real IPod for 300 RMB? But you like me so much I can have it for 250? Wow!! Since everyone sold the same stuff, I just went from shop to shop and played them off against each other. I usually lied about the price offered by the last person, without raising the least suspicion, which confirmed that I was still nowhere close to their breaking point. It worked for me when I was a teenager in San Felipe, when I wanted the cheapest possible fireworks and everyone on the street sold the same ones. I did get lower prices, but still way above a fair one.

The next morning, I was up at 6 to meet some people from their lab, and then met with Prof. Gao at 8.30 before flying to Kunming. After a few days in Kunming, my brother and I took the bus to Dali, and this afternoon, we’re off to a Torch Festival and hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

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