August 23, 2008

Getting There is Half the Fun

Friday I visited the Forbidden City. I had hoped to do it Thursday, but torrential rains delayed me. Yesterday I was slowed by some sort of bug. But no matter -- I was determined!!

The day started off badly: I got three quarters of the way to breakfast when I realized I didn't have my credential. So, back to get that. When I arrived at breakfast, I was a little more than warm (probably feverish, too). I had some fruit, some dumplings, then off to the bus.

Some euro woman decided on the bus that it's perfectly nice summer weather and we don't need the a/c on in the bus. She makes that decision for all of us. Rather than putting on a sweater, the rest of us should sweat. Doesn't get why we would want it. I know this is a euro thing; I lived among them. And I'm even betting it's part of why I'm sick. But it's hot and humid out, and I sure would like the a/c on. No luck.

At the press center, I stop for a bottle of cold water and some Tylenol Cold at the pharmacy. I'm all set.

I decide to take the subway and walk from the MPC over to the station. This would have been a better idea if I had checked the Athletics schedule -- then I would have known I was trying to cross the street in the middle of the men's 50km race walk. On the upside, I finally got to see an Olympic event as the world's greatest waddlers streamed past. On the downside, did I mention it was hot?

OK. I manage to get past all these roadblocks, check my map and my guidebook ... two transfers and smooth sailing to the Tiananmen Square metro stop.

I had big ambitions when I left the hotel: I was going to hit the Forbidden City, then stroll over to Wangfujing street for some lunch.

I was coughing severely on the metro, and was obviously self-conscious about it. Bad enough that I'm a foreigner, but I'm infecting the locals. But nobody seemed to mind. I tried not to touch anything, but I was still embarrassed. I got a few stares, but mostly because of the credential around my neck (which is beginning to feel like a leash) and not because of the cough or the fact I'm not Chinese. We had been warned in guidebooks that the Chinese tend to stare a lot; I think they must have already had their fill. We are no longer novelties.

When I got to the metro, I asked one of the volunteers which way to the Forbidden City? Up till that point, things had been pretty well-marked in English. The volunteer gave me directions -- literally. Go through the tunnel and then north. Since I neglected to bring my trusty compass, I just blundered out of the station. I don't know north on a good day, and the since the sun was directly overhead, I couldn't exactly use that as a guide. (And if you know how to do this -- well, don't tell me.)

Given a choice of two options -- despite statistical realities -- I will almost always pick the wrong option. Without fail. It's uncanny. And, I did. My map showed the Forbidden City behind Tiananmen Square. But it didn't suggest that Tiananmen Square isn't really a square. Or at least I didn't grasp that. There are several squares, with museums and monuments and displays etc. I asked at least six more policemen where to go. One of them sent me the wrong way. I wandered for over an hour before I realized behind Tiananmen Square meant behind the wall. Where the big old Mao portrait is hanging.

So I did get to see a few more things. See photos here. But it's also hot. Have I mentioned that? In the 90s hot, with high humidity. One of the worst days so far, even though the air is relatively clear. All the women on the street have light-colored umbrellas, for the shade. There is no shade in this part of the city. None. People stand in each other's shadows for shade. I'm sweating like crazy. But I am determined (!!) to see the Forbidden City.

I finally go with the crowd toward the Mao portrait. It's pretty cool. There are soldiers everywhere, but most are unarmed. I take their pictures, and they don't seem to mind. I start to go through a gate, and show a soldier the words Forbidden City, in Chinese. He tells me to go the middle gate. There are so many tourists here and they are almost all Chinese. They can't be local -- not on a Friday afternoon. The ones who aren't Chinese are wearing Olympic garb -- athletes and coaches and journalists.

I get into, I think, Tiananmen Square. It is not what I thought it would be like. Behind the square is another square and another and this goes on for about seven squares. At some point (probably the second or third square?) I have hit the Forbidden City. I know this because they are charging admission. Because of my credential I don't have to pay.

By this time, I am so hot and so sick that I don't much care. I want to see things, but not with a lot of effort. I don't rent the audio guide, and I probably should have. There are random signs and my guidebook has an entry, but it's sort of a pocket guidebook, and so it isn't very useful.

The buildings are wood, they date to the 1400s, they have burned down several times, this was the imperial palace. Forbidden City in a nutshell.

I take lots of pictures. I don't know how to identify them, because, frankly, they all look alike. Everything is lovely, but not amazing. I don't know if this is because I am jaded, after living in Europe, or because it's hot and crowded or because it just isn't that spectacular. I think probably all three.

I have seen old things before: the ruins in Egypt are magnificent, with the painted walls and the carved hieroglyphics, the palace at Versailles -- which is certainly as old as the actual buildings here, and much more elaborate. I feel bad that I am not more impressed. There is nothing that makes me ooh or aah. I feel like a failure. A sick failure. That I can see something that is lovely enough to be on Unesco's list of World Heritage Sights and just say, hmmm, that's nice.

I like to think if I weren't deathly ill (as it turns out I was) and ready to die from sunstroke perhaps I could have appreciated it more. At least that's what I tell myself.

I skipped the lunch and shopping. I had no more energy, much as I wanted to explore the hutongs (alley-ways) of Beijing. I ignored all the rickshaw hawkers and walked toward what I hoped was a taxi stand. The sign said 50 meters. In addition to being bad with directions, I have no idea how far 50 meters is. When I tired of walking, I crossed the street to Jingshan Park, thinking there might be something to eat there, or a taxi.

There were loads of stores selling memory chips, batteries, sim cards and film. Not much food. Then, I didn't even care. I just wanted to get to bed. A run-down sort of man tried to help me flag a taxi. I was leery of him; in most countries people don't help you for no reason. I thought he would ask me for money. But he was just helping me. He was very nice, and I probably wasn't gracious enough.

The taxi took me straight to the MPC, and it was quick. Surprisingly so, since it took 35 minutes on the subway and the cab ride was fast and cheap back. My clothes were soaked, I had no voice and I could barely stand.

This is how sick I was: I went to the doctor. They gave me some medicine, I went back to the hotel and slept for 15 hours.

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