Dispatch 2

Date:  June 13, 2001

Location:  Beijing

Hello, everyone.

This morning, in the predawn light, Beijing showed another side from eleven stories up:  cheek by jowl to our sparkling hotel was a hutong, a maze of interconnected, one-story, dirt-colored buildings that began to come alive at about 5 am. A few hours later, we wandered into the hutong under the guise of taking a shortcut, only to be cut off by our embarrassment.  These winding, intimate ways, though technically public, come off as intensely private, so clearly people’s homes.  We felt like voyeurs, traipsing down the hallways of a huge apartment house.  Before we retreated to the avenue, however, we did learn that the grey-brown hue we’d taken for advanced age was explained by a fine layer of dust covering essentially unglazed earthenware construction.   We’ve since walked past the avenue entranceways to dozens of such little enclaves, but will wait until we’re invited before we try another walk-through. We’ve been told the hutong is a traditional building style that has persisted for several thousand years, though the ones we saw today were only at the most a hundred years old (they certainly looked a whole lot older than that).


Breakfast buffet at the hotel was complimentary–and wonderful,a mix of Chinese and Western. Free breakfast means we tank up on every major food group:  there was congee with salty, pickled radishes, fresh fruit and yogurt, bean sprouts, tofu, and tomatoes, then, to demonstrate that we are also genuine, all-American types, mixed vegetable omlettes, sauteed zucchini and mushrooms, and our particular vice, hash browns with ketchup.  We managed to squeak past the pastry and cereal tables, but just barely.  And this is not to mention the selection of bacon, sausages, pork, steamed chicken and pork dumplings, fried rice with pork and shrimp, etc. that we didn’t sample.  There really is more than enough for anyone’s tastes.


The Forbidden City is awesome!

This was the home of the Chinese emperors up until the 1920’s (remember “The Last Emperor”?), turned into a museum in 1925. Think parade grounds fifteen bricks thick(to foil tunneling assassins, we’re told).  Think room for a thousand concubines.


We hired a guide to take us through the place because there’s so much to see, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.  Our guide was a guy who was off work that day and wanted to do two things:  make a little money, and improve his English.  The best place for him to do that is to  snag tourists outside of Forbidden City and talk them, actually us, into spending $12 for him plus 40 yuan or $5 for his ticket.


We then went to a public park just north of Forbidden City, and climbed a hill to overlook the city. Rain clouds were brewing, so we started back for the hotel.  Back at the hotel room, Susannah picked up the phone and fielded a very strange phone call.  A woman said something, then handed over the phone to a man.  The man then said to Susannah, “Mr. Massage for you, ok?”  Susannah said, “Huh?”  The man then said a little more emphatically, “Mr. Sex Massage for you, ok?”

No, we don’t have pictures of him.  We declined his offer.  But people are constantly trying to sell you something over here.  You are constantly approached by people trying to sell postcards, books, Chairman Mao’s Little Red book in a dual translation edition, and yes, Mao cigarette lighters that play “The East is Red” when you open them.

We bought two.  Gotta find some more of those.

We’re meeting with the documentary film maker this evening to discuss the possibilities of participating in his documentary about adoption from China.

Only a few more days until we meet Eleanor!  But we’re having a blast in Beijing.  A very nice city, even though there are clearly many parts of the city that are still in what you would call the Developing World.


Robert & Susannah / http://eleanorjean.com