Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 13 2006

Beijing did not start out well. I lugged my two ba…

Beijing did not start out well. I lugged my two backpacks through the crowd in front of the massive railway station into the subway and lined up to buy an actual paper ticket to give to the ticket checker at the stairs down to the platform. The stations here remind me of the New York subway, though cleaner. The ceilings of the cars are lined with big blue buzzing fans, and the pilot rooms on both ends of the train are manned with men in blue uniforms.

I’d been advised to seek lodgings in the Dazhalan (“Dashilar”) district near the Qianmen station. When I emerged into the cold morning air I saw an enormous city gate surrounded by green grass being watered by automatic sprinklers. Its twin lay across the road. Beyond that was a mass of dusty construction with a road running down the middle, where I walked against the crowd. A man in a shoddy business suit fished a piece of toilet paper out of a trash can to polish his dusty shoes.

I turned onto Dazhalan Street, which at 7 in the morning resembled a third-world attempt at Epcot Third World Land, if that makes any sense. Kitschy fake fronts on shut stores and tiled buildings, many hidden behind scaffolding. Foreign backpackers with huge packs quickly outdistanced me, dodging men with jackhammers and trucks parked in the middle of the dusty broken pavement that was the road. I passed several hostel signs and decided I really didn’t want to stay there. I didn’t even want to be there. This couldn’t be Beijing, I thought. It felt like the ass end of Taoyuan, only with slightly more bicycles.

I called a friend of a friend Ah-Bu had mentioned to me, Zhang Yongning. He told me I should try the Dongzhimen area and mentioned the Home Inn there. On my way back to the subway I stopped to watch workmen destroying an elaborate old building. A few people stared at me as I watched.

Another subway ride later I was on Dongzhimen Road, which seemed much more befitting of a large city, lined with big buildings and a nice array of restaurants. I found the Home Inn, but they didn’t have any rooms available, so I walked around looking until I found a large, new-looking hotel called the Qianyuan International Business Hotel. It looked nice and the rooms were cheap (later I would find out why), so I checked in.

I thought I would get some of the more touristy things out of the way before contacting anyone I knew in the city, as they probably wouldn’t be interested in rehashing such experiences. Now unburdened by (as much) luggage, I took the subway back to Qianmen and this time walked north, averting my eyes from the eyesore of Dazhalan in the background. I walked onto Tiananmen Square, which didn’t seem as grand as it had in photographs. To be sure, it was large and bordered by large, imposing buildings, but in the end it’s just a large piece of concrete. Knots of western tourists gathered around tour guides, and boys in ill-fitting green PLA uniforms stood around glaring at people.

At the north end of the square lay Tiananmen Gate, the one with the large picture of Mao on it. I wanted to enter the Forbidden City on a full stomach, so I walked down to Wangfujing, the famous shopping street. This was underwhelming as well; perhaps it’s more impressive at night, but in the late morning it looks like Taipei’s West Gate District. I did find a nice hat store where I bought another blue Mao hat, which the shopkeep said was called a cadre hat. “Mao wore one just like it,” she told me.

“He wore a green one, didn’t he?” I asked.

“When he was older, but when he was younger he wore the blue one.”

“Well, I’ll just wear the young stylish Mao hat then,” I said.

After an unremarkable lunch I walked back to Tiananmen, stopping to try and take pictures of frolicking policemen who were shoving and pushing each other on a park bench, but they scattered when they saw my camera. A couple of migrant workers asked me the way to Tiananmen. They thought I looked Russian.

As I approached the gate, a man came up to me and asked me what country I was from. “This one,” I said, but he didn’t react. The question was a mere prelude.

“Please come see my art gallery, it is just inside the gate,” he said. I declined. Fifty yards later it happened again. What an unusual schtick, I thought. Who would be taken in by it? But it must have worked; otherwise nobody would even try it.

I put my Mao hat on backwards and walked under His portrait, but nobody said anything, which was slightly disappointing. Inside was a huge square filled with vendors. Beyond that was another gate, this one requiring a ticket. I walked across the stones, wondering if they were original, and if so, how many thousands of officials had trod on them over the centuries.

Inside was yet another huge square. I chatted with some of the Chinese tourists inside. I showed them my Taiwan travel document, which gave them pause. I could see the wheels turning in their minds as they thought it over: “Let’s see, he’s a Taiwanese national….and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China….hmm, this can’t be right….how can I put this so that Taiwan is still part of China….damn.”

“So you’re Chinese!” they said at last.

Behind this huge square was another one. The main building at the stop of the center was covered in scaffolding, and PLA guards kept tourists away from them. Many people wore the recorded tour tapes around their necks.

Eventually I found my way back into the huge maze of little courtyards and gardens where everyone lived. It was easy to get turned around or lost, and then find yourself back where you started. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t at a recreation, that this was the actual seat of power in China for hundreds of years, but it was difficult with all the tourists. I began to pace myself in between groups for a more solitary experience, and the place began to feel like a long Doom level where you can’t find the exit. Indeed, for the people who lived there, it must have been a mixed blessing, trapped in a small courtyard your whole life with no hope for anything else. It was the best anyone could hope for, officially speaking, so it was pointless to aspire to anything more than more political intrigue, which I guess they thrived on. I found the Puyi collection, with his toys, schoolbooks and the funky dark glasses he wore in pictures. It made the whole place seem very sad. The red paint rubbed off on my clothes as I edged along the narrow paths.

Occasionally I would see a sign describing a missing piece of art as “on display in the Taipei branch of the Palace Museum.” More pieces that the departing KMT took with them to Taiwan in 1949 were described as “on loan”.

I must have walked miles inside that maze, and the sun was low in the sky as I walked slowly on sore feet out of the front gate again. The passage was lined with PLA guards, and hordes of people now crowded the square. I asked one of the guards what was going on, and it turned out that everyone was there to watch the lowering of the PRC flag at sunset. There were more guards around, looking stern and alert among the crowds. It felt oppressive, and I hurried away from the square to avoid seeing the spectacle.

That night I met up with Zhang Yongning for dinner at a local restaurant. He’s busy with a sports-related documentary series at the moment, and we talked about production over several meat dishes. Yongning’s a big guy, of typical northern Chinese stock. He said he felt the anti-Chen protests in Taipei made Taiwan look bad. “Chinese people look at that and feel better about their own system,” he said. The reunification issue could wait, he added. “All everybody wants is peace and stability.” He also told me about some of the more popular night spots before we parted ways.

Back at the hotel, I found out why the room prices were so cheap. It seemed that the place had only opened a few weeks before, and nobody knew how anything worked. Every operation involved consulting with someone else and phone calls for help. The room smelled of new carpet smell. I tried to take a shower, but the shower flooded as the drain didn’t work. After the front desk called a repairman in to fix it, he opened the drain to find that it had been apparently been designed by third-graders, and stuck part of a plastic bag inside to get it working again. Later I found that the business center computers had to struggle to maintain any kind of network connection, and the women operating the center, while eager to please, had little idea about operating a computer at all. I suspect that someone kidnapped the real staff.

All of the TV programming I’ve seen here so far is state channels, roughly half of which consists of self-righteous people in PLA uniforms. The rest is a combination of smug Ming and Qing officials and amateurish modern dramas.

After a day of monuments and shopping malls, I was eager to see the real city. I decided to call Brendan the next morning.

posted by Poagao at 3:07 am  


  1. Do you mean Dazhalan (???), aka “dashilar”?

    Comment by Mark — October 16, 2006 @ 4:13 pm

  2. Actually, I really enjoyed staying in that area (except for the rickshaw drivers). It was like being in a Taiwanese night market, but with lots of chess players and “shoulder grandpas” around. A bike is a big plus, though.

    Comment by Mark — October 16, 2006 @ 4:13 pm

  3. Yes, that’s what I meant. My rendition is kind of a compromise between the official and unofficial pronunciations. But as to the area itself, I didn’t like the vibe. I didn’t want a Taiwanese night market, I wanted Beijing. But at that point I had no idea what “Beijing” was.

    Comment by TC — October 16, 2006 @ 4:17 pm

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