Friday, April 5, 2019

China memories, part 6 : Beijing bustle

Back in Beijing, we dropped off our bag at home and went out to see if we would visit Tiananmen Square at night. We arrived as the sun was setting to find the square and the roads that border it blocked off ... and a flag-lowering ceremony about to begin.

First the troops marched across the street:

then lowered the flag:

and then marched back:

All of this happened quickly, and soon the road reopened. We lingered a while to see whether the square would open, but it did not. 

Which is a pity, because it was a pretty night, and Beijing does a great job of lighting up its governmental buildings at night!

Later that night we walked to the Bai He Su Shi Vegetarian Restaurant -- tucked down a hutong, and with no signage outside, we weren't sure we were in the right place. One room looked like a fancy baijiu showroom, complete with marketing materials; then there were large rooms with round tables (ah! it *is* a restaurant!); and then there was a room -- full of people having some sort of meeting -- with small tables and chairs. As we stood looking -- and feeling -- lost, a woman smiled at us, beckoned us to follow her into the room with tables and chairs, and hustled the other people out. Then she brought us an iPad with a menu in English and disappeared. 

A few minutes later -- as we were browsing the menu -- someone brought us two cups of hot water... but we honestly weren't sure whether this was a "finger bowl" or a "boiled water to drink" offering. In the end, we drank it ... but only while no one was in the room!

We ordered a lot of different dishes, and, eventually they arrived -- each one beautiful and interesting... and somehow we didn't take any pictures. 

A few other people did eventually turn up -- most of them western tourists -- but we were never spoken to by the staff at all. We were sad to see that reviews of the restaurant noted that the staff "didn't speak English at all!" or "seemed standoffish and never spoke to us". Now, I don't go into a restaurant in Seattle and expect the staff to speak Chinese, so it always makes me sad. They did smile when we thanked them and said goodnight in Chinese!

The next day we went to Tiananmen Square and were happy to find it open and thronged with Chinese tourists. We joined the line to visit Chairman Mao's mausoleum, not sure what to expect. 

The line moved quickly -- even past the large bins of cheap lighters, cigarettes, and water bottles, none of which are allowed in the building. 

We cleared security -- honestly, way more physical than in a US airport. I had forgotten to take my Mulan comb out of my pocket (because I am an idiot!). The guard, who was female, took it out of my coat and looked at it, smiled at it, smiled at me, and handed it back. 

There was a lot of pushing -- most of the people were part of large groups that had come from the country to visit the capital and I think they feared getting separated -- but it was okay. Then to the flower seller, where for 3rmb I bought a yellow chrysanthemum. I bought one; some people bought DOZENS. 

Cameras were forbidden, but phones were allowed and I snapped this final shot.

The first room you enter is a huge room with a massive painting on the back wall, and a larger-than-life size statue of the chairman sitting in a chair, surrounded by trees.

I and others were encouraged to place our flowers onto a growing pile in front of the statue. I did wonder, later, if occasionally they close the room, gather up all the flowers, and take them back out to the flower booths to resell.

The line split into two and moved steadily toward the inner chamber. While we moved forward someone's phone rang and we all looked sympathetically at the man struggling to dig it out of his pocket and silence it. "Poor chap," we all thought.

Then his phone rang AGAIN. And there was an audible group tutting.

And then we were put into single file and silently moved in to the chamber. There were high glass walls, and inside them were multiple guards ... and the embalmed body of Mao Tse Tung.

To be honest, he just looked like a waxwork. And maybe that's what it was. But I was mostly moved by the reverence that was apparent in the Chinese people around us.

And then we moved out of the inner chamber, through another big room, and then out onto some steps. Down the steps and .... past a bunch of souvenir booths???

We joined the throngs at the souvenir booths, eventually selecting a handsome piece with a Chinese knot, a spinning, 2-sided medal showing two images of Mao inside a star, a red fan, and a tassel. I also picked up some nice pins. But many people were buying BAGS of things -- plates, plaques, small statues.

After we left, we walked around the square a bit, watching the tourist groups, admiring the photographers doing mini photo shoots with provincials. I don't know why I don't have photos, but watching a photographer boss a person around into making particular poses was something I will hold dear in my mind's eye for a long time!

We left the square and headed south in search of the Red Star baijiu distillery ... and found ourselves in a totally restored shopping street. Think Main Street USA in Disneyland, full of perfectly restored buildings housing shops ... except those shops are Maserati dealerships.

There's even a restored trolley that runs up and down the street, which has been turned into a pedestrian street.

We wandered up and down the street, which also had a "snack street" portion -- these are hawthorns on a stick, which we didn't try... YET. 

We saw an adorable Qilin statue. Seriously, look at that moustache! Those horns! Those hooves!!!!

I managed not to buy one of these pillow (where would I put it???), but I love these stylized Chinese animals ... including a qilin!!!

We found the Red Star distillery, which had a little museum of baijiu distilling. Apparently the chairman himself had promoted this particular brand of baijiu.

At the exit of the display, there was ... not quite a GIFT SHOP, but a baijiu shop... with lots of different types of baijiu... and no clear indication of how each one differed.

We bought a small bottle as a souvenir.

We wandered up and down the restored shopping street, and then decided to take the subway out to the 798 Art District...

We wandered around a bit aimlessly, but did admire the caged dinosaurs...

the bits of Mao statues in a courtyard ...

and the random art dotted around the area...

But we weren't really "feeling" it, so we headed back into the center of town... and decided to visit the Dongyue temple.

In addition to the lovely courtyards and architecture, the Dongyue temple is full of dusty dioramas depicting the fate of people who live bad lives. And it is marvelous. I wish I could tell you what these people had done in live to turn into these in the afterlife.

Room after room of this!

As an added bonus, this temple had a STAR-RATED TOILET...

I am wondering if some toilets receive more than one star, as it was decidedly mediocre in there.

Oh, and this temple had a cat. Bless.

That evening we spent at the Lakes, again -- still managing not to be drawn into a bar, but this time visiting the mini snack street, where we used a translation app to ask strangers whether a "Beijing crepe" was vegetarian ... ("You will be able to eat this."), ate a spiral cut fried potato, AND finally tried a candy-coated hawthorn stick. But you'll have to take my word for it, as we didn't take ANY PHOTOS!!!

The hawthorns were surprisingly tasty -- you bit through a sugar/candy shell, and into a soft, potentially boiled / poached mini apple. The hawthorn was tart, but with the sugar coating it was really nice. #truebeijingflavor

Then back to the hotel to pack -- as we were leaving the next day.

Read part 7: Beijing farewell

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