07 November 2007

Forbidden Cities and Great Walls

I like China!

That said, it is so much more modern than I expected. I mean, it's really modern. Those Communists really know how to build a shopping mall. On Day 1, I blearily, jet-laggedly wandered through the Forbidden City after being deterred by large crowds from Chairmain Mao's embalmed corpse. The Forbidden City is BIG. I've seen quite a few of these Chinese-style palaces now, in Vietnam, Japan, and Korea, but the mothership is absolutely ginormous. I am beginning to have some thoughts about them, too, in wondering how I should be reacting to what are somewhat interesting structures but not as awe-inspiring as the palaces and castles of Europe. I think other travelers find them a bit blah, too, but I think they combine an aesthetics of austerity with a design that is meant to confound not with lavishness but rather with a richly symbolic architecture--and this is what it takes some effort to appreciate if you've only a passing interest in Asian palaces. The entire social universe is represented by the palace and its arrangement of halls, chambers, and antechambers. The main hall, for example, is the Temple of Supreme Harmony, which is surely the kind of ideal aspired to by the most totalitarian governments. The views were not great this day--too much smog, perhaps.

The following day, I took it rather more easily. I bought even more pairs of cheap glasses, as planned, in the morning and then made my way to the US Embassy. As I mentioned in a prior post, I think it would be interesting to travel around the world comparing US Embassy complexes. This one was not as colossal as the one in Lima, but it does occupy its own security-sealed neighborhood. I flashed my passport and was easily admitted, of course, and there was nobody in the Citizen Services office. I can't believe this happened, but I got new pages put into my passport *while I waited*. That's right, the US government provided fast and friendly service! Unfortunately, they couldn't tell me exactly where the Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic is located, so I was more on my own for that one. I headed north for a few hours--Beijing is mind-bendingly huge--and finally located the multiple-embassy-housing building I was looking for. I asked for directions at one point, and this gave me a chance to reflect on how difficult it is to communicate when you aren't able to understand a single word of what someone else says to you. Just point! I frantically exhorted, and I showed her this expression in my phrasebook (I can't get those tones right to save my life), and finally she pointed, and soon enough I was standing before the closed and locked door of the Kyrgyz embassy. I considered this something of a sign.. perhaps I don't really need to go to Kyrgyzstan. And someone today told me that Americans don't need a visa to visit Mongolia, so that has given me further food for thought. Afterward, I visited the Lama Temple, the largest Tibetan temple outside of Tibet and containing the largest, Guinness-record holding statue of Buddha carved from a single piece of wood and also a subway station. Impressive. I almost (almost) wanted to prostrate myself (I worship convenient subway stations). Across the street was the Confucius temple. So nice of them to build these attractions in close proximity! The great attraction there is the Imperial University next door, which has a giant golden throne from which the emperor once lectured enormous bodies of congregated students on Confucianism or something. Since I want to be a professor some day, I could feel the power. Alas, no gold thrones for me. That evening, I went to a really great kung-fu show that I fell asleep during due to travel fatigue and jet lag.

Today, I went on a tour arranged by my hostel to the "secret Great Wall", a section unvisited by any tourists except those from my hostel and without an admission fee. The other attraction is that this section is also unrestored, so I got to see it in its dilapidated state, and lunch was included, too. I think I will visit the restored bit, too, so I can see both versions and also so I can properly collect my infamous photo-op. I met these nice Americans from Brooklyn--Alexis and Russell--and we hung out for awhile afterward, chatting amicably about hippies and Eurotrash. There are few topics I enjoy discussing more.

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