Dispatch 4

Date:  June 15, 2001

Location:  Beijing

Greetings again.  It was yet another busy day for the Badger and the Otter.  Up and at ’em by 5:00 am, we went to breakfast and lo and behold, the dining room is suddenly half-filled with American tourists.  Previously, there was us and a German couple and a couple of locals.  It being Friday, there were at least a half dozen American couples eating at the same time as us and surely more to follow.  We expect that by Saturday morning, the place will be swarming with Americans.

Back to the ancient observatory.

This time in a very excellent taxicab that was really remarkably cheap and fast (we must have been thinking about New York prices).  The Chinese have a long record of having developed a detailed understanding of the heavens, and many inventions for making observations.  The remaining Beijing Observatory was built in 1442. It is a stone tower that is 14 meters high and has eight large astronomical instruments set up on it.   These instruments include astrolabes, sextants, and all manner of devices to track the movement of the stars with great accuracy. And, they are all ornately decorated with dragons.

We ended up buying a working replica of one of the more complicated armillary spheres from the friendly staff, pictured below.  Like many or most cultural relic operations in Beijing, these men were operating on a shoestring budget and were eager to sell anything they could to support the observatory.  We obliged them by taking them up on very good deals on a couple of very nice art pieces as well.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ….. We had made arrangements for a documentary filmmaker to visit us in Beijing and tape an interview.  Larry is a very nice man who spent a good while rearranging our room to create a decent set and backdrop for the video.  He had brought his professional lights with him, and man oh man do they ever generate a lot of heat.

IMAGINATION TIME:  Imagine that you are working the Concierge desk at a very nice hotel in Beijing and receive the following phone call.

Concierge:  Hello, Concierge Desk.
Room 1108:   Hi, this is Room 1108.  Do you speak English?
Concierge: English, yes, ok.  How can I help you, sir?
Room 1108:  Well, we are in Room 1108, shooting ……  No, I mean FILMING some video.  And the diffuser on one of the lights overheated and caught fire.  Not a big fire but a very small one.  It’s out now.  But it did create a bit of smoke.  There’s a chance that the smoke alarm is going to, um, go off any minute.  I thought I should call you and let you know in advance just in case it does go off.  We’re trying to clear the smoke out of the room, but the windows are locked.  Can you please send Housekeeping by with the key so we can open the windows?

While I used a pillow to try to fan smoke out of the room and into the hallway, Susannah snapped this photo of Larry working with the curtains to try to get to the windows so housekeeping could unlock them.

The video shoot over, we went back out.  This time, it was to the Beijing Museum of Natural History (BMNH).

We both came away from the BMNH wondering if it had been sacked during the Cultural Revolution.  They had very few artifacts on display.  Mostly, it was posters and photos of artifacts.  Many of these posters seemed to be recycled from Western museums from about 30 years ago, as they showed Caucasian people wearing 1970s style haircuts and clothes.  But I admire the staff at the BMNH for making do with what they’ve got.  From that perspective, they have done a wonderful job.  And their dinosaurs are a prime collection of specimens.  This is the one part of the museum where they had the actual specimens on display.  This makes sense, as a lot of paleontology work has come out of China and particularly the deserts of western China and Mongolia. Susannah was attacked by an Allosaurus and barely managed to escape.

And now for the money shot.  Everyone always wants to see the famous Chinese pit toilets.  Here’s a shot of one from outside the BMNH.  A pit toilet typically  consists of a 6″ x 18″ slot, about 8″ deep, in a raised, tiled platform, over which you squat (if you’re smart).  Susannah says that she’s seen similar ones in Italy and Spain.  The ones we’ve encountered have been made of porcelain, like this one, have a splash guard, and have a plumbing connection and a flushing mechanism (at the Temple of Heaven all the toilets opened into a single tiled channel which was evidently flushed periodically).  The waste basket near it is for all paper materials that are used coincidentally with the pit toilet, as they don’t use nearly as much water as the Western seat toilets do.  We quickly concluded that if you can manage to use these toilets throughout your life you will always remain flexible and agile, and have a good sense of balance.

There are many, many free public toilets in Beijing, and, from the dress of the patrons, everybody uses them when they’re out and about, but some must be mostly the domain of the very poor, as they have little plumbing except a direct connection to a semi-open septic sewer, and, from the look of them, cleaning schedules must be very, ah, spotty. Our cinematographer told us that people who live in the hutong depend on the public toilets near their homes, mostly otherwise using a chamber pot.  If you want a really clean toilet, you’ve gotta pay for it.  The cost for the BMNH’s facility was 20 jiao per man, woman, or child.  The jiao is to the yuan as the dime is to the dollar:  one tenth.  One yuan is about 12.5 cents, so one jiao is 1.25 cents and the cost of a trip to this toilet is 2.5 cents.  This leads me to conclude that in a Communist country like China, when it comes to toilets the motto is:

“To each according to his ability, from each according to his need (to go).”

At long last, we went to the Temple of Heaven.  This is yet another Imperial Retreat within Beijing.  By the time we got there the grounds were still open but the temples within were closed.  We’re planning on going back tomorrow early in the morning before the rest of our group joins us.

Speaking of the rest of our group, they’ve apparently had a hell of a trip so far.  They were supposed to be with us on Friday evening.  Due to weather problems they will not be arriving until perhaps 9:30 or 10:00 on Saturday morning.  The agency had scheduled and paid for a trip for all of us to go to the Great Wall on Saturday after they arrive.  I rather doubt that the majority of the group will want to go.  They will have been in planes, buses, and/or airports for almost 42 hours by the time they arrive at the hotel.  If this were your situation, would YOU then want to get on a bus and go climb a wall?  Or would you like to rest, especially as the next day, Sunday, is the day that we all receive our children?

Once they’re here, we think we’ll not mention how much fun we’ve had for the last three days in Beijing.

Here’s a preview of the Temple of Heaven.

It’s appropriately named.

We’re going to bed now to get ready for our final day before we meet up with Eleanor.


Robert and Susannah / http://eleanorjean.com