Our last morning in Beijing we hightailed it over to the Temple of Heaven, you know, the one featured in the Chinese pavilion at EPCOT? WEll of course Disney has done it again and reproduced it exactly, with the exception that the Orlando version has iced tea on demand and Western style toilets nearby. (Enough said on THAT!) But the real version in China has a large park around it, somewhat like Central Park, where people are hanging out dancing, singing Karaoke and playing cards everywhere, so that was some payback for the non-Western facilities. Funny how people basically do the same things all over the world, just with different styles.
After checking out the Temple of Heaven I went back to the Forbidden City again; what a place. I needed to stroll through it one more time. Thinking of the history that has happened on those cobblestones is mind boggling. The Forbidden City, by the way, is HUGE. I mean, at one point there were 70,000 eunuchs living there, that’s no small town. It’s weird though, the place seems empty. I guess a lot of the goodies were stripped from there during the revolution. You can see how much empty space there is from this drawing…again, a mother following her daughter around the place. I’m not kidding, the kids are in charge in Beijing! So the place is huge, fairly empty, and is covered with scaffolding everywhere to get ready for the Olympics in 2008. The entire city seems to be under construction and it is going to be interesting to see how the Olympics will transform Beijing.
My favorite part of the Forbidden City was the garden area in the back, where the last emporer, Puyi, had his English lessons. (If you’ve never seen the Bertolucci movie by that name, definitely check it out!) It was, I think, the first movie to be filmed on the site. I was looking everywhere for the Starbucks cafe that I had heard was in the Forbidden City but never found it. Somehow the idea of a Starbucks existing in a place that not too long ago could lose you your head for stepping foot in was fantastic to me. Someone told me that they took it out because it was sacreligious; of course that was the whole appeal for me! Oh well…anyway, it is a pretty amazing place even without a Starbucks (ha!) and the day flew by. To quote the in-flight magazine of Air China: “If you’re a culture freak, Beijing always tops the list of your destinations, and that’s for sure.” By the way, gotta LOVE the crazy English translations all over the city. I don’t know who does the translation work for Beijing and Air China, but the creativity of it is astounding. Here’s another example from the Air China in-flight mag, talking about a historical royal visit to the town of Baoding: “Three years later, Governor of Zhili Yuan Shikai showed his sheer elation at the news that [Dowager Empress] Cixi would go to West Tombs via Baoding to worship ancestors, because this flunky saw a not much opportunity to sweeten up his master.” I mean, great stuff! The audio guide for the Forbidden City is equally colorful and opinionated, with several sarcastic remarks about fatuous emporers not doing their jobs…it cracks me up! I’m telling you, I could write a book just on all the fabulous translations; these people should work on Madison Avenue writing some much needed imaginative copy for advertising. I actually read the word “schlep” on a piece of travel advertisement aimed at Western audiences – Yiddish in Beijing is about the last thing I ever expected!!
Our last night attempt to see the Beijing Opera met with the usual run-around. Researched thoroughly, our selection of opera house was the epitome of Chinese culture…and so we approached the hotel front desk with hopes that we could get tickets and experience the ‘real deal’. The helpful desk clerk phoned the theater for us (yeah, right) and after about ten minutes of heated conversation in Mandarin (probably with her mother) she informed us, so sorry, that theater is being renovated. Could she recommend another? That evening we found ourselves in the front row of the schlockiest “performance’ of the Chinese opera on earth. This is the place that the phrase ‘tourist trap’ was invented for…
A fifty minute show with a fifteen minute intermission during which we were again hounded by vendors wandering through the tiny theater to sell us key chains, Olympic mascots, you name it. Oy vey! (to continue the Yiddish theme of this posting). The place had definitely seen better days. The performers did their best, I guess, but the theater was old and their costumes were pretty shabby: stained and frayed. I swear I saw one of the musicians actually yawn and scratch his armpit during the show, and the sounds of yelling and dishes breaking in the kitchen were a most integral part of the performance. And the plot line of this stuff is unreal – like a combination of Desperate Housewives, The Scarlet Letter and Romeo and Juliet, if you can imagine the pathos of it all. My friend Kati (a Studio 1482 member) does a great impression of the Chinese Opera, and now I know how perfectly on target she is with it! Unreal.
On the way out of the theater, some woman almost hit me in the head in her enthusiasm to sell me a knock-off Gucci bag. It made me laugh – only in Beijing! I’m starting to really get attached to the chaotic energy and super-hustle of the place. You’ve got to admire the spirit. It’s going to be interesting to read about the inevitable culture clashes that will occur when the city hosts the Olympics next year. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to come back and see it first hand. But first I’ve GOT to learn more Mandarin…ni shwo ying-wen ma?