Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Well Today I Learned What it Feels like to Smoke 3.5 Packs of Cigarettes...

Hello from the other side of tomorrow.

It's now just past midnight here in the Middle Kingdom (a name still used by Chinese today to refer to themselves) and I am going to fire out a quick entry telling everyone what happened in the last 48 hours.

Monday, February 9th, was an opportunity for the three of us (Ed rejoined the group) to experience first-hand the majesty of the Forbidden City. The Royal Palace of the last two Imperial Dynasties (circa 1400-1911) was home to the Emperor, the Empress, multiple concubines, a veritable army of maids and, of course, eunuchs. Bummer. Castration aside the palace is an enormous masterpiece. The compound has always been at the center of Beijing and is nearly 1 square kilometer. Every single building has a specific purpose and its rank within the palace is designated by the number of animals on the corners of the roofs. The places which belonged to the Emperor himself had 11 animals, other important officials/royal family members/the Empress had 9, concubines between 5 and 7, and everything else seemed to have 3. But, of course, there were many holy temples or sacred constructions which had 9 or 11 animals but were used only once or twice during an Emperor's reign.

Each building in the Forbidden City has a truly impressive name, such as the Palace of Condensed Beauty or the Temple of Accumulating Purity. This led Edward and I to naming every building we arrived at the most obscene string of nonsensical titles we could achieve at the given moment. Example: The Temple of Everlasting Glory to the Eastward-Facing Dragon of the Half-Impregnated Flowering Lotus Belonging to the Inner Sanctum of Expansive Knowledge, Inner Harmony and Dancing-Confucius Dreaming Ancestral Spirits of the Terrestrial Moon-Shaped Singing Orchid. This...never got old.

Our childish yet witty antics aside, the Forbidden City is an astonishing place, and it is sort of numbing to try and conceive of what it would be like for this Emperor, a living god, to go about his day-to-day life. There were countless stone carvings or jade sculptures which took hundreds of horses and thousands of workers a number of decades to drag from one end of the country to another. A seemingly endless series of vignettes were related to us by the audio guide about how no one could cough or twitch or look back or stand or scratch themselves while standing near the Emperor during long meetings...or how one concubine would become jealous and murder all the sons born of other concubines...or how the Empress Dowager Cixi did something cruel and controlling to yet another individual. But the simple fact remains that the man who lived at the center of this palace, rarely ever leaving, was revered by half a billion people as a god and his word was absolute law. If he wanted to have a thousand people beheaded for his own amusement (didn't happen), all he had to do was ask; if he wanted a new concubine or wife or temple erected in his honor, all he had to do was tilt his head slightly and hundreds of thousands of lives would be changed instantly (did happen).

As one might expect of a compound this size, it took us the better part of a day to go through it. We were left with little time but Dad still had an agenda. So what did we do? We raced to the Children's Palace and the Imperial Park located outside the Forbidden City, then caught a cab up to the Drum and Bell Towers. While we were in the first tower we were able to witness a performance of musicians working the massive drums. It was really cool and should be in video form in the post below. At any rate, as this day progressed we noticed the continual creep of a fog-like substance until, by nightfall, it was impossible to see more than 1/2 a mile. This fog-like substance is referred to by the Chinese as "mist" and by the rest of the civilized world as "smog" or "pollution" or "lung-scorching-asthma-inducing-headache-causing-slow-acting-death-clouds". That last one was another one of those naming tangents courtesy of Sixer and I. But the point remains the same. Ed - being asthmatic - has been complaining of the effects the pollution was having on him for the last two days but Dad and I had yet to experience this. Yesterday, however, gave us ample opportunity. The symptoms include a burning sensation down one's trachea, a tightening of the lungs and a dull-ever-present headache in the back of the skull, plus a sort of stupefying sensation behind the eyes. Experts say that Beijing is the most polluted city in the world and that an average day is equal to smoking 70 cigarettes in 24 hours, but it was definitely worse than an average day on Monday.

Evening brought to us dinner at a Taiwanese dumpling restaurant which was Delicious (yes with a capital "D") and a fireworks show of epic proportions. If anyone wants to know what a city experiencing heavy urban warfare sounds like, hangout in Beijing during the celebration of the New Year or of the end of the Spring Festival, which Monday was. We were also treated to the sight of the 40+ story Mandarin Oriental Hotel going up in flames as we drove past in a cab. So...not exactly an average day at all.

Today we woke up entirely too early after all three of us got shitty, brief sleeps and caught a cab to the airport. (Oh PS - Ed has moved in down the hall in the Raffles). We got China Air Flight 1231 to Xi'an and found ourselves 595 miles Southwest of Beijing before 10 am. A guide named "Sarah" picked us up at the airport and led us on a tour of the ancient capital of China, home to 8 million people and the 8,000 Terracotta Warriors. But, like all good guides in China, our excursion didn't really begin until after a "tour" of the Terracotta Replica Factory which, coincidentally, was also a fully functioning store selling everything from life size warriors to lacquer boxes to carpets. Industrious people.

The self-proclaimed 8th Wonder of the World is...really impressive. The first pit is home to over 6,000 warriors and is several times the size of a football field. These eternal soldiers stand in battle formation, 1.3 kilometers east of China's first emperor, facing away from him, ready to protect his earthbound soul for as long as they exist. This emperor was a really big douchebag though so it's no wonder he built an army of soldiers to guard him in the afterlife. During his reign it took 720,000 "labourers" 38 years to build his burial complex which remains, to this day, the largest tomb ever constructed. It's not that the tomb itself is the largest (the pyramids dwarf it), but rather that the entire amount of land given to this emperor's final resting place, and the number of buildings and walls that marked it, take up the most amount of space. It is true that the three of us agreed these warriors could be presented to the public a little better; that aside it was amazing to not only get the chance to see these ancient warriors but to act upon it.

Following the tour of all 3 pits and a library, we headed to the Pagoda of the Bigger Wild Goose. What is the Pagoda of the Bigger Wild Goose you might ask? Well...it's a pagoda (which I take to mean - in this case - a large tower) which has been turned into an upscale version of another such model found in India. The original was simply the Wild Goose Pagoda, so when a Buddhist master came to China, this one was erected in honour of that. The Buddhist lama who this particular tower was built for was one of the many who worked their way Eastward. He was the type of guy who had hundreds of disciples and untold thousands of books, all of which he brought on this journey to China. Of course, as any good Buddhist teacher would do, he tossed all these books in a river one day causing his students to nearly drown themselves in an attempt to save these holy texts. The point here was undoubtedly to prove the fragile nature of life.

When this Buddhist lama arrived in Xi'an he asked the Emperor to build him a tower akin to one from India in order to house his many volumes. This was done and, in the 7th century, the Pagoda of the Bigger Wild Goose was completed. The lama himself was one of those self-righteous types who insisted everyone fast constantly and beat themselves with sticks and pray to the gods by sliding his body up and down against hard rocks. He was also one of those lamas who, before dying, asked his students some mind-bending question such as: "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie-pop?" The top 13 lead disciples, who had been with him the longest were so worn down from swimming after books and starving and stick-beating, that this last meaning-of-life question caused them all to simultaneously suffer brain aneurysms. However, the looks of exasperation on their faces were mistaken for looks of understanding and it was said that they had all achieved Nirvana.

Is any of this true? Hard to say, I totally zoned out during the guide's speech and just got lost staring at a carving of some monks swimming after books and about a baker's dozen of bald dudes lying in peaceful poses. I do know for certain that the PBWG (as we shall call it) was built after the smaller WGP in India and that it was built to hold some Lama's massive book collection. The rest, while the brainchild of a tired and under-caffeinated 22-year-old American tourist, actually doesn't sound far off the truth, so we're going to go with it.

As for the rest of the day: we hopped a flight back at 7:30 pm, arrived at 9 and, after a failed attempt to see how impressive the mag-lift train was, ended up getting home at around 11...Edward, I'm looking at you here for this whole train-taking idea.

Also in other news Edward and I are now clean-shaven, no longer having need for extra-warmth on our faces. The result? We look like overgrown 12 year-olds.

Well everyone, it's late here and I think that spinning feeling in my head means it's time for bed. Either that or a tumor is forming from all of the pollutants I have been sucking in for the last few days. I'm going to go with the former for now but I think Beijing will be lung-cancer central in the next ten years. Also, according to the same fanciful-half-checked-out 22 year-old mind, it will be like some terrible futuristic dystopia with continual acid-rain and mile-high towers, where only the rich can see above the layer of smog and everyone else lives miserably short lives, never having seen sunlight. But as I've said before, there are 1.3 billion people here, they can stand to lose a view to Vitamin D deficiencies.

On that cheery note: I wish you all a good day.

From Peiking,


PS - Everyone should go back to using the British names for places, Beijing to Peiking, Mumbai to Bombay, France to Le Land de MIlitarie Failures etc. They sound so much more Romantic...except for that last one, that kind of sucks...sorry France.

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