Well, I couldn’t really sleep last night, so I decided to take a stroll early in the morning to see what the city looks like when it wakes up. It was very quiet at 6 in the morning. The occasional street sweeper brushed refuse into neat piles to be collected later.
One thing I find regrettable is that the government is leveling the Hutongs. These are winding alleys of houses and businesses that have existed in Beijing for hundreds of years. Now, in preparation for everything that’s coming with the Olympics, the government is just bulldozing entire blocks of Hutongs. I’m not sure what happens to the people who are living and working in them now, but I can guarantee these people don’t have enough money to move into one of the luxury condominiums being built in their place.
I thought I’d be ahead of the crowd by arriving at Tien’an mien Square by about 7:30. I was wrong. There were people everywhere. Security was tight. There were soldiers and police all over the place. Once, I stepped out of line and started heading down the wrong ramp. A soldier stopped me firmly with a hand on my shoulder, and pointed me in the direction with the rest of the crowd. It was a pretty stifling atmosphere, but necessary in light of the 7 million people who visit the site annually.
Remember what I said about the smog not being as bad as I had thought it would be? I take it back. During the rush hour, the smog is horrendous. For instance, here’s a view of the gate to the Palace as seen from the square. It’s really not that far, yet the whole thing is shrouded in thick smog.
I can hardly imagine what it must have been like before the government enacted strict laws to halve the number of cars on the street.
Being that my body clock is totally messed up, and I’ve hardly had any sleep, I headed back to the hostel after taking these shots. I couldn’t tell exactly what time it was, but I knew I needed some sleep, or some food, or both. Eventually, I settled on the food. I bought a bowl of delicious wonton soup, which is spelled “yuntun” here. That kind of confused me, but I was on familiar territory when it arrived at the table. The restaurant was very fast. Indeed, they have people standing on the street to lure you in. Then, after you’re seated, they hover over your shoulder with a pad of paper until you’re ready to order. Talk about pressure! Trying to decipher the unfamiliar menu with unfamiliar words, with an anxious waitress muttering unhelpful advice in Chinese was not exactly relaxing. Anyway, I was required to pay before the waitress put in my order. I guess dine and dash is quite popular in China. The food arrived within two minutes. I guess there’s something to be said for the speedy approach.
After lunch I headed back to the hostel. I was feeling a bit discouraged, because I don’t quite get this place. I mean, I’m walking and busing around, getting some stuff done, but I really don’t feel comfortable. I’m so out of place here. I don’t expect to feel like a local, but I’d like to gain some degree of comfort before I leave it. I think the photos will show it if I do.
I spent a good deal of the afternoon puzzling about what I should do. I don’t have to be in Shanghai until the 11th, and then Guangzhou on the 14th. I was due to check out of the Red Lantern House where I’m staying now on the 5th. I tossed around the idea of booking a hostel in the mountains near the end of the Great Wall, but I felt like I’d be running away from Beijing. I decided to extend my stay here for another two days. That’ll give me time to get to know Beijing better before moving on. Having decided that, it was time for a nap.
I woke up in early evening. I threw on some clothes and packed some camera gear for night shooting. It was my plan to go see the new bird’s nest shaped National Stadium that will be the main venue for the 2008 Olympics. I asked the receptionist how I might get there, and she suggested the 409 bus. But, the stadium was still under construction, she said, looking at me like I was nuts for wanting to go there. I guess I was a bit nuts, because after riding the 409 bus for an hour until the end of the route, I didn’t see even a hint of the infamous bird’s nest. Not only that, but everyone got kicked off the bus at the end of the route, and I had no clue where I was.
Hmm. It was dark, desolate, and I found myself at a bus stop who-knows-where. I decided to hop back on the 409 headed back the way I came. This time the attendant was asking where I wanted to get off, so he could charge me the appropriate fare. I suppose the previous attendant had too, but I didn’t understand, so he just gave up. I dug out my map and pointed to the hostel. He looked concerned. Uh oh. Between stops, we consulted the map and my Mandarin Phrase Book, which was proving to be thoroughly useless. He didn’t understand my butchered Mandarin, and I certainly didn’t understand his perfect Mandarin. Eventually he asked a young guy getting on the bus if he spoke any English, and it turns out he did. So, we had a translator. We discovered that my original plan was going to work. The bus would be stopping near my hostel, and I just needed to pay another 1 yuan to get there. With that settled, I was mildly embarrassed to get off the bus a few stops early because I saw a cool building I wanted to shoot. The bus attendant looked a bit concerned. I think he decided I was helpless in the city, but I assured him it was going to be ok and thanked him in my mangled Mandarin. I hope I didn’t say anything offensive.
I’m glad I spotted this building, because I was starting to feel like a bit of a failure after having come up empty handed on my search for the bird’s nest. The spectacular medieval structure turned out to be a coin museum of some sort. I walked into the courtyard to start some shooting, when I was approached by the manager of the cafe in the courtyard. She informed me that I wasn’t allowed to shoot there. “Bu! Bu! Duibashui! Bu!” No, no, sorry, no. Ok. I could take a hint. Also, I was reluctant to get involved with the police. It was only a photo, after all. I snuck into a bus parking lot in the back and took photos from there instead. It would have been cool to have the cafe in the foreground, but you can’t win ’em all… or even some of ’em, as my night was proving.
After grabbing a couple of frames of this, and then some more from other vantage points, I decided to call it a day. I walked across a bridge to look for a cab, since the 409 had stopped running at 10:00, and it was now 10:30. Then I spotted this wonderful convergence of overpasses and a canal.
I shot it by propping my camera up against one of the antique-looking Chinese railing on the bridge. Then I saw there was a path heading down to the canal, which warranted getting out the ol’ tripod again. It looked like a good vantage point from which to shoot that same coin museum building. I was shooting for a while when I noticed that an old man and his wife had stopped to watch me. The man started asking me questions in Chinese. I think I managed to say, “My Chinese no good,” to him, to which he replied with a big smile. I guessed that the next thing he said was, “You look Chinese. Where are you from?” I said, “Janada” which means “Canada.” More big smiles and nods. He wanted to see the pictures. I showed him and his wife, and they oooed and ahhhed at the one from the bridge above. As I took more photos, we briefly discussed photography through hand gestures and slow talking. I explained the ultra-wide angle lens and he asked how long the exposures were that I was taking. It always amazes me how humans can find common ground with even a little bit of willingness. It also amazes me how art can really bring people together. This was a very heartening experience for me, as I was beginning to feel a bit lonely at this point.
By the time I returned to the hostel, it was quite late. I hailed a cab and made it back to the hostel. I’m not sure what’s happened to my appetite, but I really haven’t had much lately. I had an apple at about 5:30 in the morning, a weird hot dog on a stick at about 10am, my yuntun soup at 1pm, and then nothing except water. Now it was past 11pm, and there were no restaurants open.
I wandered through the dark hutongs looking for something appetizing, not because I was actually hungry, but because I knew I should probably have something. There was nothing there for me. Of course, there were skewers of unidentifiable meat and tofu boiling in oil, but I wasn’t really up for that. In the end, I grabbed another apple and a banana from the hostel. I think tomorrow will be devoted to trying to get my appetite back in order, since I can’t go on burning a lot of calories and not taking any in. Until next time…