Day two in China was, in a word, speedy.
It was our last day in Beijing, and we had
to check out of our hotel by 10 and then do a blitz through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City before catching a 2:00 bullet train to Xi’an. It was as crazy as it sounds but it was also a very representative look at China itself: The Communist monuments and military presence in Tiananmen Square, the iconic picture of Mao on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. And then, a super-fast and modern bullet train with “soft seats” for people with money, and “hard seats” for people that don’t. (Was this was Mao had in mind?)
Anyway, it’s all here, from my notes, which I’ve again kept as they were written.
I’m actually writing this on day 3, because yesterday was action-packed. I started Saturday by waking up at 3:30 a.m., but that’s not as bad as it sounds because I’d gone to sleep at 8:30 p.m. Bini was wide awake at 4, and Steve and I are finding that it’s infinitely more difficult to tune him out in the hotel versus home. So, I waited until 6, and went to the gym. It was decent – not great.
The Crowne Plaza Wangfujin in general wasn’t that great. The hotel room really needed a makeover. The bathroom had a rain shower and a regular shower — very luxurious, right? Yeah, except the ceiling above the rain shower was bubbling, cracked and leaking, and the lighting in the bathroom was dim. The shower room did have a wall-to-wall mirror, so you could watch yourself get clean. If that’s your thing.
The room itself was tired, carelessly cleaned and poorly laid out. The white leather sofa was worn and discolored. The strange yellow carpet was both strange and yellow. But it was a nice respite from the grimy streets of Beijing.
I am well aware of how this all makes me sound – spoiled, entitled, high-maintenance. And that’s not untrue. But I will say that none of the aforementioned nits are taking away from the experience of being here. I point them out simply as a comparison with the hotel we’re in now, in Xi’an. But more on that later.
After the gym, we went to breakfast and then hurried upstairs to pack up and go. We were to meet Michael, our guide, downstairs with our luggage for some speed sightseeing before we left for Xi’an. We put our stuff in the Mercedes van, which reeked of cigarette smoke, and took off for Tiananmen Square.
Once we got there, we were hit with thick lines of people waiting patiently to have their bags checked before being admitted to the square. Michael told us that the Party Congress was meeting in the Great Hall of People, inside the square, and that security was particularly tight. Michael vanished for a minute, and we stood waiting; conspicuous Westerners among a sea of Chinese people. The stares were unabashedly curious, and people smiled or waved at Bini to get his attention.
Michael came back and whisked us through the crowd, which seemed not to mind that we were cutting in line. He led us to a side area where police stood ready, and they waved away our extended passports as we walked through this side gate. Michael had apparently explained to the police that we were catching a train that afternoon, but wanted to see China’s great communist monuments. The police and military police seemed so young — 18-and-19-year-old kids wielding great power over a sea of patient people.
Once inside the square, we walked. And walked. Tiananmen Square is enormous – the largest city square in the world. The Tiananmen Gate has been the scene of much change and tumult over the years. In 1949, Mao stood on top of The Gate of Heavenly Peace and proclaimed the beginning of the People’s Republic of China. Mao’s picture is still displayed there, and Michael said that he’d know communism had been replaced with something else when that picture was no longer there.
He also told us that while older people still revered Mao and the Party, the younger generation was largely indifferent. He said this quietly, though, and shushed me when I asked about the 1999 protests, and where the student protester had stood in front of the line of moving tanks.
From the square, we crossed under the busy street via tunnel and passed through the Gate of Heavenly Peace to the Forbidden City. Like everything else in China, it was huge. Layers upon layers upon layers of temples and former government buildings used hundreds of years ago. We saw giant pots made of copper and gold, used to store water in case of fire during the Emperor’s reign. You can still see the scratches where soldiers attempted to get gold shavings during the Boxer’s Rebellion of 1899.
Throughout, people were trying to snap surreptitious pictures of Bini, and he was getting mad. Michael told us it was impolite to do that without asking permission, so I started scowling at people and blocking their phones with my body. Bini used his little point-and-shoot to take pictures of their butts – his revenge for being made a subject of interest.
After the Forbidden City, we hustled into the van and went to the train station. It was massively huge and confusing, but Michael helped us navigate and we got on without any problems. Compared to the cramped plane flight from Sea-Tac, the bullet train was plush: Big, comfortable seats and plenty of space to stretch out. It was a long trip – four-and-a-half hours of Chinese countryside peppered with occasional middle-of-nowhere cities with rows and rows of new, drab high-rise buildings and towering cranes. Bini played with the iPad and I read. The bathrooms were gross.
We pulled into the train station at 6:30 p.m., and were met by our guide, Sherry. Where Michael was personable and friendly, Sherry was all business. She led us to the waiting van and shuttled us to the Sheraton. First impressions of Xi’an were not terribly favorable: traffic-choked highways, dusty, nondescript city streets and air thick with smog. Unlike in Beijing, we saw very, very few Westerners. Except at the Sheraton.
The Sheraton seemed to be way overstaffed: There were greeters at the elevators, in the lobby, lining our way to the restaurant, where there was yet another army of uniformed staff waiting to greet us, to pour us half cups of coffee, to present the bill.
That first night, we staggered into the upscale Chinese restaurant on the 3rd floor, which was, again, lousy with staff and too few customers. I ordered a Cosmopolitan, which was on the drink list, and our server went to check with some invisible person to see if they could make that. Answer: no. So I ordered a Margarita (spelled “Margerita” on the drink menu) and it came in a wine glass. Hell, at that point it could have been in a shoe and I’d have drunk it.
We went to bed nervous, knowing that the next day, we’d meet Xiao-Jie.