Friday, April 10, 2009

Winter Oblivion, Or How I Barbecued with a Mongolian Migrant Worker (part one)

I know what you all must be thinking. I spent the entire winter buried under twenty feet of snow with all lines of communication knocked out, and having to fend off wolves and protect my coal stockpiles from Dickensian street urchins. The answer is yes. But now spring is here and I can return safely to the Internet.

Taking advantage of perhaps my first free Friday night in the six months that I’ve been here (as in I don’t have to teach English on Saturday) I recently made a trip to Beijing to check out one of its underground rock clubs. And to make a day of it I started with a visit to the zoo and caught my first real-life glimpse of a bona-fide Ailuropoda melanoleuca (which was really just a view of its backside sprawled out in its cage as if it were indeed a rug). Thankfully there were plenty of other pandas to ogle, some of which were actually showing signs of life.
I began the visit by taking pictures of the animals, then slowly transitioned into taking pictures of the other zoo-goers taking pictures of the animals (taking a hint from DeLillo) and finally just getting bored with the whole thing. All in all, I’d say the experience was anticlimactic, which really has more to do with me than it does the bears, bless their hearts. The same goes for the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, which I took the time to grace with my indifference over the winter.I suppose my well-I-might-as-well-go-do-this-touristy-thing-while-I’m-out-here attitude is not the best way to capture memories, but what are you gonna do? To further deepen my apathy/shame of being a tourist, I later met a young Indian gentleman—a self-described practitioner of parkour, which he explained that if you don’t know what it is, it was recently publicized by one of the villains in Casino Royale, to which I said, “Ohhhh! Freestyle walking!” and he sort of winced (“extreme walking” would also have been (un)acceptable)—at the hostel I stayed at, who named the same three tourism hotspots as the first three he’d gone to as well, though in different order, which nevertheless made me feel predictable. Though I suppose my whole attitude toward tourism is about being just that. While we're at it you can throw in the national stadium and aquatics center (of the 2008 Beijing Olympics fame), but I didn’t have to pay to see those and was really just trying to use up the time of whatever day I had decided to go to Beijing (much of which is often spent on looking for food I can't get in Tangshan), so they don’t really count, right? Oh, but then there was also the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (or the “Mao-soleum” as I’m sure I’m not the only one to have thought to call it), which you don’t have to pay for, but you do have to pay for a locker to store your bag if you have one, because you can’t take anything inside. That was actually something I found interesting, which coincidentally took the least amount of time to do. Allow me to digress.

Basically, you start off in a line that wraps around the hall from the outside and in order to move on to the lines that pass through the security gates, you have to show either your Chinese ID card or your passport to guards waiting at a metal barrier—which I didn’t have but they let me in anyway after I tried to look genuinely upset about not having it. Once you’ve cleared the security checkpoint, you’re herded very quickly in groups of thirty or so people, up the steps where attendants offer you an informational brochure (redundant?) for two yuan and into the main lobby, which has a huge marble sculpture of Mao sitting in a chair looking avuncular and cheerful, as I recall, about which hundreds of potted flowers are lain at his feet (the statue’s). The odor in the hall was distinctly that of a columbarium, which shouldn’t have been surprising save for the fact of the distance between the two places I was comparing. You’re then instructed to remain absolutely silent by various attendants (I don’t recall if any of this is done in English) while entering through a doorway on the left side (or the right, depending on which security gate you passed through) of the lobby above which a scrolling LED marquee instructs you to do the same. After passing through a dimly lit hallway—which adds to the solemnity of the moment—you reach the holding chamber which seems much smaller than it is due to the low-lighting and protective glass walls surrounding none other than Mao’s transparent and trapezoidal coffin (think of a Fort Knox-style gold bullion or a single piece of a Hershey bar, or maybe it really isn’t so difficult to imagine a trapezoidal glass coffin). You only have about a minute or so view his remains as you circumvent the glass walls in front of which four stoic PLA soldiers stand guard at either corner. Mao’s corpse looks to be made of rubber with his nostrils illuminated to a fleshy pink translucence by the overhead lighting. His hair looks brittle and is nearly the same color as his steel grey... well Mao-suit. From the shoulders down the rest of his body is shrouded not by the emblematic flag of the People’s Republic of China, but of the Chinese Communist Party, which is just the iconic golden hammer and sickle against a red backdrop (and here you thought that only the Soviets were into that sort of thing). Then out you go, and feel free to purchase something commemorative at the souvenir booths outside!

Some interesting information I picked up while writing this entry, but didn’t bother to verify:
-The coffin is actually made of crystal.
-It’s trapezoidal shape is specifically designed to diffract glare.
-There is some controversy over the authenticity of Mao’s remains as China did not have the technological know-how that was used by the Soviets to preserve Lenin & C. due to the deteriorated state of their relations at the time. (Was it really such a coveted secret?)
- This place can pimp out your coffin if you were in the military or a firefighter, or if you just want your loved ones to feel really embarrassed at your funeral because you weren't either(I'm waiting for the camo-casket):

Well that’s about all I have time for. Tune in next time for the exciting beginning (and possibly the conclusion) of the story I had meant to tell you!

1 comment:

Rachel S said...

Ah, that picture of you with your hand up-- evocative of many wonderful pictures past! I miss you Ryguy