Friday, July 16, 2010

July 16th: Love, Hutongs, and Students

Well, I thought that spending the night sitting in a train seat instead of in bed would only make my cough and head cold worse, but instead, it seemed to help.  Come to think of it, it might be a good idea to sit up all night instead of lying down when I'm sick—it seems to have kept the congestion from settling in my head and I'm feeling decidedly better this morning.  Surprisingly, I slept fairly well on the train; I don't feel groggy at all. 
The train was a bit late getting into Beijing, but, as promised, Zhou Lingxia was waiting as I stepped off with paper with my name scrawled along the top.  Yet again the work of Li: his sister had reserved my next train ticket for me, but her English is not too good, so she enlisted her friend Dr. Zhou to deliver it to me.  Now, all I really needed was to have the ticket handed over and to give her the money, which wouldn't have required much English, but as usual my Chinese friends just can't imagine that I could show up in a city I've never been to before and not be overwhelmed and in need of help.  Zhou Lingxia had offered to help me find a hotel, but I had already booked a hostel on the internet (good thing, too, because her hotel suggestions showed that she had quite a different idea of the sort of place an American would be looking for than what I had in mind). 

Zhou Lingxia said she hadn't minded the delay; it gave her the chance to enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee and read the paper in one of the shops in the train station.  As a friend of Li's sister (who must be around my age), I was expecting a recent college grad in her twenties, but Dr. Zhou turned out to be a friendly woman in her late forties or early fifties, I suppose; she is a professor and researcher at one of the major universities in the city, with a doctorate in paleontology.  She has a daughter nearly my age. 

I got to know her a bit as we waited in the interminably long line for a taxi; although it took awhile, I am glad at least that there is a system in place. I'd rather wait in line that stand on the curb forever shuffling further and further into the road to stick out from among all of the dozens of others also trying to flag down a taxi.  Once we were in the taxi, she and the driver got into an animated discussion as we made our way across town.  I had basic directions to my hostel; the driver of course hadn't heard of it (one of so many small hostels), but I knew the neighborhood and the street names, so it didn't take too much looking about to find it.  Dr. Zhou came in with me and watched over to see that I could actually check in (hostels are used to foreigners; most receptionists have pretty good English—even if not, a hostel check in is not complicated).  Once I was settled, I thanked her for her help and she went on with her day after giving me her card with her personal cell phone number written on, with an admonition to call her if I needed help with anything. 

I knew I only had four days in Beijing, but it was still cloudy and gray outside, and I felt a bit grubby after an overly warm night on the train. I took a shower, and then I realized that the computers at this particular hostel (the Tian-an-men Sunrise Hostel, if you were wondering) actually had headphones with speakers—and skype worked!  After skype had stubbornly refused to work in Xi'an (due to censorship and various other hassles, you will see that internet service will be a continuing theme of frustration throughout the trip), I was really really ready to be able to talk to BW.  It had been a whole five days since I'd heard his voice! I know, I know—it's only a few days, but I've gotten pretty used to boring him with the trivia of my everyday life on a daily basis.  Anyhow, it was wonderful to catch up.  We talked until I was starving for lunch and was beginning to feel guilty about being still in the hostel when I knew I didn't have enough time in Beijing as it was—but it was worth it to spend some time together. 

I finally set out, and I stopped for lunch and one of the touristy little restaurants along the street towards the Forbidden City—the food was good (sweet and sour pork, always one of my favorites), but not surprisingly a bit overpriced.  It was already past two in the afternoon, edging towards three by the time I'd eaten, so it seemed too late in the day to hit any of the major sites, all of which the guide book promised were worth the better part of a day.  Besides, I just really wasn't in the mood to fight the throngs at the famous historical sights. Well, one thing the books all say is that you can't miss the hutong in Beijing.  The hutong are the old winding little alleys that run between courtyard style houses at the heart of the old city of Beijing. Up until about fifty years ago, there were thousands of these little streets, but in the modernization of recent decades most have been destroyed to make way for high-rises, banks, supermarkets, and new offices.  Still, there are supposedly about 800 left, and they are supposed to be quite picturesque. 

Wandering on foot or bicycle through the hutongs is on every to-do list for Beijing.  So, I decided do just that (on foot). Reportedly, a good place to find some is around the old Bell Tower and Drum Tower.  I took a subway that seemed to go fairly close to the Drum Tower—my first lesson that, in Beijing, the map is deceiving. I walked for a good while in its general direction.  I passed various alleys clearly posted as hutong, but they just seemed to be filled with parked motorcycles and people's trashcans set out (if, in fact, the trash was actually contained in a can; more often, it's just a heap).  Nothing too romantic so far. 

Finally, as the sun finally mellowed a bit in the late afternoon, I came upon one that's called South Luogo Lane in English.  It's a little street off of which twelve hutongs, with the normal maze of old courtyard houses, radiate. This one had taken advantage of the tourists and transformed itself to be adorable.  Now the narrow old street was stuffed to the gills with trendy little shops and restaurants with a western flair and plenty of dark coffee shop type atmosphere. I turned down the street, and discovered what I was really in the mood for: shopping.  I enjoyed a pleasant couple of hours browsing through the little shops along the way—I saw a mug shop that had a predominantly displayed cup featuring the face of Obama (really, you don't realize how much the rest of the world interests itself in the U.S. until you live abroad), and paper shops with cute little journals with Chinese scenes or kitschy communist saying on them, an amazing shop with prints of photography of Beijing that were really eye-catching—black and white capturing the texture of the stone roof tiles or wooden beams or cobbled roads of ancient places, with the bobbing umbrellas or clothes swinging on the line left in vibrant color to give life. There were also shops selling Chinese paper-cutting—designs cut into paper that are so intricate that it seems impossible that people do this by hand.  I won't tell you what all I bought, as I might use some of it as gifts. 

I made it to the other end, which had an old entrance arch in the traditional style, that is, painted mostly blue with bright red, green, white, and yellow designs, but opened out into a nondescript busy street.  By this time, I had been text-messaging with Lynn, one of my students from Jingzhou.  She and her classmate, May, were studying in Beijing for a few weeks out of their summer vacation, and we had discovered while talking after class one day that we would be in Beijing at the same time.  We decided to meet up, and she suggested a particular sight. She insisted it was very famous, but she didn't know the name in English.  I had never heard the name in Chinese, even though she gave it to me in pinyin (pinyin in Chinese written in our letters instead of symbols); it didn't turn out to matter because although it was 'famous' I had never heard of it in English, either.  Anyhow, I managed to find it on a map.  I could easily take the subway there to meet them.

Well, 'easily' for Beijing.  I started walking in the direction of the nearest subway station, which of course didn't look so far on the map, but ended up taking about forty-five minutes of walking fairly quickly.  Beijing is simply huge—so much distance to cover, and the subway just can't keep up; besides, the subway wouldn't be very fast if it had to make forty stops on the way across town.  Along the way I passed the drum tower (closed for the evening, but I took a picture of the outside), and through a neighborhood that looked like a good place for restaurants. 

They had to wait just a few minutes for me, as it took longer than I had estimated to get to the subway.  Once I arrived at the subway, I texted Lynn to ask where they were so I could find them, but she said they'd find me (probably didn't want to risk me wandering off in the wrong direction and take even longer). We went to a park, which has an entrance fee during the day, but in the evening is free (although some parts are closed then).  We meandered around, enjoying the large ponds filled with lotus flowers and lily pads, although the part of the park with some ancient ruins was closed off.  It was evening and therefore not terribly hot, but still so humid that we found ourselves exploring the gift shop just to enjoy the air conditioning.  It was nice to spend some time with them; Lynn especially is one of the students I've gotten to know a bit even outside of class. 

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