One of my goals during our trip to China to fetch the Ladybug was to post pictures to Flickr and to update the site with stories from the Far East. Unfortunately, I neglected to remember the fact that I can’t remember to do anything on time, and so I didn’t. Nevertheless, I’d still like to document the voyage (no matter how late) simply for myself, so that I can remember all the interesting details when I tell the story to the Ladybug years down the road. So, I present The Ladybug Chronicles.
Day 1: Touring the palaces of Beijing
We awoke on the morning of Friday, November 10, 2006, rested, refreshed, and only slightly traumatized by the experience of Chinese traffic the day before. The “rested” bit in particular surprised me, since Chinese mattresses are only slightly less flexible than, say, a block of concrete. Our adoption agency set us up in the Peace Hotel, a five-star hotel in central Beijing and, with the exception of the beyond-firm mattresses, a helluva lot nicer than any hotel I’d ever stayed in before. (Thanks, Holt!)
The official purpose of arriving in Beijing was for the Orientation Meeting scheduled on Sunday, but the Queen B and I arrived several days early in order to experience, at least minutely, the culture of China and to explore its rich and ancient history. By which I mean see all the tourist traps we could before we had a screaming, crying poop-machine with us at all times. So after breakfast, me, the Queen B, the Nana and Papa B, Nana Shoo, and one other adoptive couple met up with tour guide Mei and set off for our first taste of ancient China, the Forbidden City.
Mei decided to take us there on foot. If Chinese traffic was frightening inside the relative safety of the steel confines a van, it’s absolutely terrifying by foot. (Quick trivia question: how do you spot pedestrian tourists in China? They’re the ones in who cross the street running… with tears… down their legs.) Fortunately, it was only a few blocks to the Forbidden City, which was nice, because it meant that we only lost one of our tour group to vehicular manslaughter. The City itself is a massive walled palace complex in the heart of Beijing, which at 180 acres, is the largest such complex on Earth. The perimeter of this massive City is protected by an enormous stone wall thirty feet tall, which is itself surrounded by a brackish moat twenty feet deep and a hundred feet wide. Numbers do little to convey the sheer bloody massive hugeness this (although this satellite picture might help), but having being there in the first-person, let me just say it’s GINORMOUS.
We approached the city from the Eastern Gate, a place where the grey stone wall gives way to a massive red one, upon which rested a magnificent building of wooden pillars, tiled windows, and rafters intricately painted blue and green, topped by an imperial yellow roof. The thirty foot face of the wall itself was featureless, save for three long, narrow archways at its base leading into the palace complex:
And that’s just the doggy door. This is the main entrance:
The Meridian Gate consists of three sections of thirty-foot-high red stone walls meeting at right angles, forming a large square plaza just outside the southern wall of the Forbidden City. Atop the main span of the Gate is an imperial pavilion, similar in decoration to the Eastern Gate — red wooden pillars, tiled windows, yellow roofs and blue-green rafters — but on an insanely grander scale. Atop the each corner of the red wall stands a smaller watch-tower, similarly decorated. The Gate’s walls themselves are completely featureless, except for three massive wooden doors, painted bright red and lined with row after row of large brass buttons.
Let’s just say that the ancient Chinese really knew how to make an entrance.
Past the Meridian Gate lies the actual Forbidden City, which might be best described as a maze of ornate wooden gates that connect ever larger plazas that in turn house ever more ornate pavilions, like some kind of architectural brinkmanship. The pavilions themselves are decorated in the same style as those on the Gates, and have wonderfully long names such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, or the Palace of Heavenly Purity, or the Really Big Room of the Superlative Transcendental Adjective, and so forth.
One interesting feature of each pavilion, aside from the sheer length of its name, is that at every corner of every roof stands a row of carved animals. It’s reminiscent of Noah’s Ark, except that instead of marching two-by-two after a old prophet away from a divine flood, these animals are marching single file after a dude riding a big chicken and away from what appears to be an evil giant jackelope. Further up past the line of animals, along the either top edge of the roof, are a pair of carvings, each depicting a dragon with a sword plunged into its open mouth.
When I asked about the animals, Mei explained that they were a way of indicating the relative importance of the building’s function: a paltry two animals, for example, might indicate a building for low-level bureaucrats, while a mystical nine animals meant the building was reserved only for the emperor for ceremonial duties. When I asked about the dragon, Mei explained that they symbolized a creature from ancient Chinese mythology that devoured anything it saw: gold, stone, brick, and so on. To prevent the dragon from devouring these important buildings, a sword was thrust down its throat, holding it at bay. When I asked why, if the dragon could eat anything, didn’t it just eat the sword, Mei explained that I was most likely a problem child when I was growing up, and left the matter at that.
After three hours of touring, we made a pit stop at the Forbidden Restrooms, wherein I had my first experience with a non-Western lavatory. In the stall was what Mei refereed to as a “Chinese toilet,” which may be charmingly referred to as a “squatty potty,” or, more accurately, as “a hole in the ground.” From this experience, I was able to draw two subsequent observations during my stay in China: (1) Chinese chicks have awesome legs, and (2) I’m so glad I’m a guy.
From the Forbidden City, we took a terrifying twenty-minute bus ride northwest of Beijing to the Summer Palace, another imperial palace complex on the shore of Lake Kunming. According to Mei, the Summer Palace was originally built by an emperor as a birthday present for his mother, initiating several hours of guilt as my mother repeatedly pointed out that “You haven’t built a palace for me, why don’t you love me?” Thanks a lot, Emperor Qianglong.
The Summer Palace famous for a number of its magnificent structures. There is the multi-story octagonal Buddhist temple that towers magnificently on the hillside looking south upon the lake. There is the Marble Boat, a magnificently detailed two-story replica of a paddle-boat made of marble and stained glass. There is the Long Corridor, and half-mile covered wooden walkway that magnificently depicts different scenes of ancient imperial Chinese life through hand-painted murals on its rafters and beams. And, of course, there is a souvenir shop in which you can have your picture taken as a Chinese Emperor, with lovely Chinese concubines draped magnificently on either arm. Dude, the Chinese knew how to vacation.
From the Summer Palace, it was another bus ride back into town. Along the way, we hit bumper-to-bumper Chinese rush hour traffic, which is more or less identical to American rush-hour traffic, with the notable exception that folks routinely hop out their cars to pee in the bushes along the median. We returned to Beijing just in time to head to the Red Theater, a massive red building that is best described as a real-life incarnation of Escher’s Cubic Space Division, but with more neon.
There we saw “The Legend of Kung Fu,” a martial-arts ballet that can best be described as Cirque du Soliel meets The Matrix. The basic plot involves a small boy sent away to live with Shiolin monks who… blah blah training and discipline blah blah… blah blah confronts his fears blah blah… blah blah spiritual quest blah blah… who beats the crap outta everyone else with his mad kung fu skillz. And there’s a kid that does back flips… on his head. I pointed out that that kid could totally kick my ass up and down six ways to Sunday, a comment with which the Queen B agreed with considerably less argument than I would have liked. Nevertheless, the show was sweet.
You can check out more pictures from our sightseeing adventure over at Flickr.