Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 17 2006

I’ve mentioned how the air quality of Beijing is l…

I’ve mentioned how the air quality of Beijing is less than impressive. Well, it is impressive in that it’s awful. When I got up on Sunday morning, I could sense that, somewhere up there, the sun was shining. Occasionally I could even see a shiny white disc in the haze. Even in my hotel room, just looking out the window would impart the sensation of grit between my teeth.

And yet, according to everyone I’ve asked, this is garden spot of Ceti Alpha VI, air quality-wise.

“So you’ve lived in Beijing your whole life?” I asked a cabbie on the way to dinner. He said he had. “Has the air always been this bad?”

“This?” he said with a short laugh. “This is a huge improvement! It used to be awful!”

Actually, I was lucky to get a real Beijinger cabbie, as the government has recently opened up taxi applications to people from outside the city, leading to a plethora of punk drivers who have no idea how to get anywhere. One of my friends said he told a cabbie to take him to the Forbidden City, and the cabbie said, “Oh, Beijing doesn’t have one of those.”

I’d spent the day before shopping for a cell phone (and sleeping in because I’d caught a cold or something and was living on old-style Robitussin and Chinese pills of dubious quality). The reason I was buying a cell phone was that I prefer the Hanyu Pinyin Chinese input system to the BoPoMoFo input of Taiwanese phones. Unfortunately, after I bought a GPS Nokia I found that it only did simplified Chinese, so I told them I didn’t want it. Then something quite amazing happened. The official Nokia outlet on one of the main shopping streets in the capital city of China couldn’t remit the money I’d just charged back to my credit card. Instead, they had to repay me in cash, so I walked out of the store with a cheaper 6070 model that could display traditional Chinese (although it still texts in simplified), as well as more cash than I’d walked in with. Later a friend told me I could get Hanyu Pinyin input on Taiwanese phones, which I hadn’t known. Oh, well.

One the subway that afternoon a French couple had stared at me from across the car, the woman pointing and laughing and they talked, apparently, about my appearance. I decided to walk over to Nanluoguxiang to meet up with Brendan and watch a jazz cover band headed up by a blonde (Scandanavian?) singer at a bar/restaurant. The singer was amazing. I talked to her between sets, and she said the Muddy Basin Ramblers should come to Beijing. The Mongolian guy the night before said the same thing after hearing some of the stuff on our website.

Unfortunately, while the guitar, drums and stand-up bass were tight in behind the singer, the sax, clarinet and trombone seemed to be just hanging on. They read sheet music as they played straight copies of the melody.

The next day, my last full day in Beijing, I met Brendan for lunch along the same street. Before he arrived I chatted with the owner of a bar called “Single Eyelid”. In his 20’s and sporting long hair, he was the first mainlander I’d talked to who felt that Chen Shui-bian should step down. “Not that it makes much of a difference,” he said.

During lunch Brendan tried to mate my iRiver with his Macbook Pro, but it was a no-go. So much for sharing our music collections. I particularly like a band he mentioned called Second-hand Roses, which I’ll have to look for.

I said good-bye to Brendan, who is one of the coolest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and walked over to the Jingshan Park, which overlooks the Forbidden City from the north. The haze over the city was so thick that the far gates of the complex were almost hidden from view. Tourists, mostly Europeans, crowded the main pavillion at the top of the hill, where a stand sold trinkets and hats with the word “Dragon” on them. I asked for a “Monkey” hat, but they were fresh out. At the base of the pavillion a women in pseudo-traditional dress called out for people to take pictures next to her.

There was no much else to the park except groups of people listening to a cacophony of amateur musicians. I walked out the gate an into an alley. One thing I find very convenient about Beijing is the abundance of public bathrooms. There’s almost always one around when you need it.

I walked vaguely eastwards, looking for and finding more hutong neighborhoods. I have to say I like the old neighborhoods of Shanghai better. Beijing’s counterparts remind me a bit too much of Taipei’s old military villages. Scents such as Jasmine tea, Chinese medicine and tar floated out of the alley doorways.

But I was late for a dinner appointment with some old diplomatic friends from Taipei, Ryan and Katie, who are now posted at the US embassy in Beijing. So I hailed the cab, one of the many Volkswagen Jettas (one out of every four cars in the city is a variation of the 1989 Jetta) and had the aforementioned conversation with the driver, who was wrapped in a steel cage, about the air.

I hadn’t had Peking Duck yet, so after meeting up at Ryan and Katie’s sumptuous apartment in a Sanlitun high-rise, we took another cab to an upscale Peking Duck restaurant. Over dinner, Ryan told me that they were just finishing up their two-year stint in Beijing and were heading out to Ottawa for their next assignment, which would last three years. They were looking forward to getting out of Beijing, which hadn’t impressed them and left them remembering their days in Taipei fondly in comparison, but Ottawa would be a kind of return to the “normal world” after years of “hardship” quirks and exotic locales.

After dinner and good-byes to Ryan and Katie, I walked down another construction-filled
alley, thinking I should really come see the place in 2009, when it’s finished and the Olympics are over. Back at the hotel, the staff wanted me to pay an extra deposit for my last night.

posted by Poagao at 3:13 am  

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