January 29, 2008

Seeing Red

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Shang-Hi! Hey-Jing! Nan … okay that one doesn’t really work. But anyway, after our many serious appointments and the long hours we spent investigating Cornell in China and whatnot, we were soooo ready to do some touristing and paint the town red! It turns out that some guy named Mao beat us to the punch with that red thing, but regardless, we wanted to see ourselves some China.
In Beijing, our main destinations were the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. We grouped the first three together on one day, basically a Beijing bonanza, and left the Great Wall in all its grandiose wall-ish glory for a later date.
The main attraction at the Summer Palace was the world’s longest man-made corridor. I’m game for any world’s most whatever, but on top of that the corridor had intricate designs painted the entire 728 meters — the frozen Kunming Lake to its left, and an impressive temple atop Longevity Hill to its right. Pei Zhu ’11, our translator, accompanied us that day so we were able to hire an on-the-spot Chinese tour guide at the entrance. He told us a lot of interesting things, which we mostly forgot by lunchtime, but he did take us to many souvenir huts that we otherwise would have skipped. It was definitely worth the trouble to see a painting of the Last Supper hocked among the plethora of panda drawings.
A 40-minute cab ride later, the five of us were still in Beijing, but definitely another world. Tiananmen Square felt like the National Mall, if the National Mall had a minimum of 12 soldiers marching across it every 10 minutes. Our favorite aspect of this display of military power was how they always marched to and from a coach bus, and took breaks to warm back up. Guess those furry, flat-top ear-hats and communism don’t do enough for ya, boys. It was too bad that the embalmment of Mao was closed. We had to be satisfied with the life-size-to-the-power-of-10 portrait of Mao that adorned the entrance to the Forbidden City.
After a magnificent lunch of Peking duck (our most expensive meal in all of Beijing because of the restaurant’s proximity to the tourist sites) we attempted to get into the Forbidden City. However, it became evident to us that the Forbidden City was still forbidden, but only to the four of us. The ticket-taking guards at the entrance wanted to see our student IDs but didn’t accept the Cornell ones. Really, do we look like we go to school in China? Somehow we hoodwinked them and pushed our way through to the splendor.
The Forbidden City gets more impressive the more you walk through it, up and down the serrated ramps to each next arena, because it simply never ends. Everything was red even back then, and they liked to try to keep it that way — signs on random red walls said things like “relic protected, no scratch.” These were oddly specific, but also oddly necessary because there had apparently been a lot of scratching of the relics. While frolicking around in antiquity the intercoms that told us closing time (5 p.m.) was approaching pulled us back into the 21st century. After a brief tussle in a tunnel with the Chinese military, we saw the evening flag-lowering ceremony across the street in the square and had many a picture covertly taken of us by Chinese people. It was flattering when they would stand conveniently in front of us to have their own pictures taken, so we smiled and sometimes flashed the victory sign.
The next day, we woke up repulsively early to catch the bus to the Great Wall. I suppose it was a good deal to pay 12 yuan (around $1.50) for one-and-a-half hours on a pretty nice coach bus, but I had forgotten what single digit morning hours looked like (they aren’t that great). People packed onto that bus, though, until the aisles themselves were packed, so in hindsight it was a good idea to get on early. The scenery in our windows exhibited what Beijing probably used to look like, pre-Olympic preparation, which is to say sundry things other than gray skyscrapers, and then suddenly we were in fuzzy mountain country.
We disembarked and the cold of the countryside hit us each like a swift punch to the babymaker — like one of those days in Ithaca where your eyeballs hurt as you walk to class, except we were going to be outside all day. We pushed through the pain and the boys bought some Mao Zedong-themed winter wear. We had another tussle in a tunnel on our way up to the ticket counter, this time with some unfriendly automobiles, and suddenly on the other side, a giant “One World, One Dream” billboard for the Beijing Olympics greeted us. Literally, we noticed the sign before noticing the Great Wall.
After purchasing some tickets, we made our way through the hordes of people by holding our elbows out in shanking position. Considering the thousands of people that were there on a bitterly chilly day, it’s almost impossible to imagine the wall in the peak of tourism season. As we approached the entrance, a middle aged woman told Jonny Lieberman ’08, Sun editor in chief, that he wanted a Great Wall keychain. Indeed, it was exactly what he wanted at that very moment, you know, after a personal space heater, a scarf, the ability to fly and some Nickelodeon brand Gak. We trekked on.
The four of us made it 50 yards before we were stopped to take a group’s picture. Matt Hintsa ’10, official trip photographer, graciously took their camera and began to point and shoot when they corrected him and asked all of us to appear in the picture. We felt like bona fide celebutantes. Having stopped for this moment though, Rebecca Shoval ’08, Sun managing editor, and I reevaluated all the myriad ways we were playing with death at this very moment (there were no railings, the ground was both steep and slippery with hundreds of years of wear, the winds seemed hurricane-warning worthy, a general hypothermia type of death, etc.). Contemplating this, we decided to cut our losses and head back down. Our companions continued onwards and upwards, so much so that they wound up crawling back down (for all the aforementioned reasons). We reconvened at a café and had some tea with leaves in ball form, that bloomed with the hot water. Highly recommended.