Never mind The Cultural Revolution. Never mind human rights abuses and dictatorship. When you stumble upon the Mao Zedong Mausoleum, while looking for scorpions on a stick to munch on during your evening walk, you are awed. You are in one of the most famous places on the globe. Breathe, smile, take it all in, it is truly exceptional. At night, it is really pretty, all lit up with red and white lights. It is currently a national holiday, so there are more decorations I assume than on a regular day. It is not as crowded as I would have assumed. The mood is very cheerful, everybody is trying to snap a selfie in front on Mao’s portrait. We did too! I was pleasantly surprised at the fact that people were casual and relaxed. There were a few guards but no obvious heavy security was noticeable. I had been to the USSR in 1983, while is was still ruled by a heavy Communist hand. The line on the Red Square leading to the Lenin mausoleum was long and dark. People were somber and serious as if Lenin had died the week before. Fast forward 32 years, and the world is a different place. A little girl was sitting on her father’s shoulders, surrounded by 3 or 4 family members and started to cry, probably tired. I looked at her, waved and smiled. Her face slowly uncrumpled, she smiled back, and then said in perfect American English “Good morning, how are you? I am fine, thank you, how are you? I am fine.” We all laughed.
Beijing is not one bit what I expected. I had Cold War Era imagery in my mind, blue uniforms everywhere and people walking with their heads down. But this is as modern and Western as New York. Maybe even cleaner than New York. I am aware that not all of China, nor Beijing are like that. As mentioned before, it is currently a national holiday week. A mandatory week of vacation to celebrate National Day, imagine that! The Communist regime started 70 years ago, so the city is nicely decorated to commemorate. We live in the equivalent of the Wall Street area, a block away for E.’s office. It is deserted. I mean there isn’t a soul in the streets. A city of 30 million and through the window I see maybe one or two people. Even when going for walks around here, there is nobody to bump into you or invade your personal space like I had readied myself for. E. says there was a zombie apocalypse! On my second day, we found a nice little park close to here, thanks to Google maps (censored here). A peaceful area, very clean, with a beautiful pagoda sitting on a hill, and plenty of opportunities for people watching, one of my favorite activities. So what did we see?
- A little girl and her family fishing in the pond. And taking home a plastic container full of (stolen?) goldfish!
- A Chinese woman grabbing a tree branch above her head and doing ab exercises.
- A young white man doing something that looked to me like Tai Chi mixed with brain seizures. It may be a form of Tai Chi I have not seen on TV before.
- Some older men playing dominoes on a rock, with money laying around.
- Tucked in a corner, several ping pong tables, with people of all ages playing.
- A few lovebirds.
We walk a lot. We just wander around, looking for nothing in particular. We found the Russian section of town. At first I was surprised at how big it is, then remember the close relationship between China and the USSR/Russia. We walked into a pharmacy where I mimed to the lady that I wanted earplugs. She understood me right away, starting talking loudly, gestured inserting the earplugs in her ears, and talked again whispering. We all laughed, I had gotten the message across. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any.
The weather has been in my favor. Beautiful blue skies, rather warm temperatures but blood curdling wind on my first day. The real estate agent who handed us the key to our apartment told me it is exceptional weather, in other words, don’t get used to that! And the pollution level is low, so no need to wear a protective breathing mask. But we need to find me a helmet for the scooter. Because, yes, we have a scooter. And it’s a good thing that the people of Beijing have left the city so “we” can learn how to ride an electric scooter. It’s a different beast than the Italian made Vespa we had a Bangalore. I miss the Vespa. I miss the dirt roads. Here, well, imagine riding a scooter in Manhattan and you have a pretty good idea of our surroundings. It’s still super fun. We found Wa Er Ma. It’s Chinese for Walmart. I promise, we were not looking for it, it was just there! So we went in. A lot of the products are the Walmart brands: MainStays, Equate, or True Value. The soy sauce aisle is the size of an American cereal aisle, and I am not exaggerating. The size of the alcohol section also makes me believe that booze is widely consumed here. Of course they sell some strange looking Chinese things, alongside typical American fare. Chicken feet, pigs feet, octopus of all sizes, fish with or without heads, frog legs the size of a small dog. Maybe dog too, who knows! We bought drinks. It’s not easy finding low calorie drinks.
I wanted to see the giant pandas. I wanted to go to the Beijing zoo. Taking the subway is rather easy, everything is marked in Chinese and in English. Most of the time. Around our neighborhood, it’s easy. Venture a bit into town and English becomes optional. Without difficulty, we found the subway to the zoo. But not the zoo. To be specific, we did found the zoo exit, but could not find the entrance. We kept asking and people were sending us back into the subway. We stood in line to get a ticket which we thought would let us go inside the zoo, but no, she sent us back outside, ticketless. We stood in line at a window that showed the prices for the zoo admittance only, and the zoo admittance with the Panda House. But no, we were in the wrong line again. A few feet away, we saw hundreds of people waiting to buy their ticket. So that’s where all the people are on this holiday! The line – scratch that – the pack of people, hunger and heat got the best of us. We had lunch at a Yoshinoya, a Japanese restaurant, where I, by mistake, ordered Indian food. Then we took a cab home.
I did not see the giant pandas.