What little remains

Like most cities in Imperial China, Beijing at one time had a wall around it. And like the Great Wall, it was built in stages, which due to the whims of rulers and circumstances, were not exactly regular in shape. During the 1950s and 1960s almost all of Beijing’s city wall was demolished to make way for the second ring road and other development, but a kilometer and a half of its southeast section still stands.
This segment dates from 1419, during the Ming Dynasty.
The park dedicated to it is quite new, and is in fact still under construction, though most of it is open to the public. A lovely landscaped garden runs along what was the outside of the wall. On the other side, not far away, is the main Beijing train station.
It is also apparently a camping area, as long as your tent is makeshift.
Though I didn’t see any tents on this day.
In this picture you can see how the grass is kept green. That’s a water truck going along the sidewalk, while a guy walks behind it spraying water out of a big fat hose onto the grass. You can also see a couple getting pictures taken, probably for their engagement.
A little further along you can see some restoration work under way. In the background is Beijing’s tallest building, Guomao #3.
I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the warning signs on the construction fence:
This archway in the wall dates from 1915, when it was knocked out to allow the city’s first railroad to come in.
And this is the Southeast Tower. It was built from 1436-1440, a little later than the rest of the wall, and was the largest corner tower on any city wall in China. In case you’re wondering, there are 144 arrow holes for archers to shoot from in case of attack.
Like any large open area in Beijing, the park is also a place for kite enthusiasts to do their thing. These guys have some serious rigs.
For Ұ10 (about US$1.50) you can go through the railway entrance and get onto the top of the wall. This is the back side of the corner tower seen from the top of the stairs.
Inside the tower there are three levels. On the first and third, there is an art gallery, and on the second some exhibits about the history of the Ming Wall, including scale models of all nine of the original gates.
From the tower windows you can see both sides of the wall. I think that’s one of the bullet trains to Tianjin leaving the station.

Along the side of the tower, there is some graffiti.
This dates from 1900, when the forces of the Eight Powers invaded Beijing and took the tower. Russian and American soldiers carved names and dates into the bricks, “criminal evidence” as the explanatory sign informs us.

There was a sign for the “underground exhibit” but when I tried to enter, a guy in a uniform waved me away. I’m not sure what’s down there. As it was, I was the last one out of the park for the day, and they locked the gate behind me when I left.

It looks like they’re adding a little street for souvenir shops and food stalls, but it’s not open yet.


You better watch your steppe

Several months ago one of my Chinese friends (who is not generally active in the music scene) told me she had been to see a band called Hanggai. It’s a name I’ve seen around for a long time, and their descriptions always mention Genghis Khan and the sound of the Mongolian steppes, so I’ve been curious, but somehow never caught them live. My friend even had their CD, which was given to her by someone else, but she didn’t really like it (said it didn’t sound like they did live) so she gave it to me to check out. I do like it, so I added them to the list of bands I wanted to see.

On Wednesday I finally got my chance. I met the friend who gave me the CD, and we had a pretty good dinner at a restaurant called The Park, which is in the same block as Yugong Yishan (yes, that place again). It being a weeknight, I was hoping the music would start earlier than usual, but no luck: they didn’t start playing till about 10.
For this show, there were seven guys on stage.
The drummer had one of the more interesting kits I’ve seen, and in general there were lots of beautiful folk instruments used.
And there was an electric guitar as well, though it was generally low in the mix and not featured prominently in the arrangements.
The horsehead fiddle featured in virtually every song. It’s pitched in about the same register as a cello, and can be played with one string as a drone and the other for melody, or, as was often the case, with a very percussive attack on the strings.
This guy was also really good at the throat singing, producing an amazing low droning tone at the same time as a higher melody tone from his voice.
The electric guitarist also played the fiddle at times, for a dual horsehead assault. His instrument has the traditional headstock ornament as well as a “tail.”
For one song they had a dancer come out, but with the crowd all around her, I couldn’t really see what she was doing.
When all three of the singers were singing, it was quite an impressive sound.

They finished up around midnight. It was still uncomfortably hot outside for my bike ride home, and it was certainly hard to get to work the next morning, but I’m so glad I was finally able to see this amazing band.


tianxia meiyou busande yanxi
In this world, there is no endless banquet.

That saying is the Chinese equivalent of “All good things must come to an end.” And my time in China has been a Good Thing. Sadly, but not entirely unexpectedly, it is coming to an end soon.

One of the major topics of conversation here, as everywhere, is 全球经济危机 (quanqiu jingji weiji or Global Economic Crisis), and I suppose I can consider myself a victim of the Global Economic Crisis. Every day in Beijing we hear stories about businesses that cater to foreign residents falling on hard times. The number of foreigners living and working here seems to get smaller and smaller as companies conserve their resources by not supporting expats. Admittedly, we are expensive. Our packages generally include housing and living allowances that are quite generous.

As it stands today, my departure date has been set at July 31, but beyond that very little is clear. I’m taking things a day at a time and trying to enjoy what is left here, checking things off that list I kept in my head of things I wanted to do in China.

Like so many things in life, this is a mixture of good and bad. I love Seattle, and will be happy to return to family and friends there, as well as the clean air and all the wonderful things the city has to offer. But I will certainly miss Beijing, this crazy, crowded, incomprehensible city that I have also come to love. The experiences I’ve had here, and the friends I’ve made, have been such a benefit to my life that I can’t put it in words. Yes, me, the one who always has words, is left with no way to describe this. But one thing is certain: I cannot imagine that my life will not bring me back here sometime, somehow. Whether it is business or pleasure, I will be back.


Pigs are flying

It’s been in the international news how the Chinese government has reacted to the H1N1 flu situation. Here’s a little bit of it coming close to home.
It’s a memo to Seasons Park residents.

Re: H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) Preventive Measures

Since an increasing number of Beijing hospitals have reported cases of novel H1N1 influenza, Seasons Park management has implemented precautionary measures to ensure the safety of residents and reduce the spread of any respiratory illness.

The measures include:

Disinfection locationNumber of disinfection procedures
Building lobbies, B1/B2 entry, staircase halls, elevator cars, fire escape stairs and other common areasAt least three times a day
Common area facilities (outdoor benches, fitness equipment, children’s recreational facilities, garbage cans, etc.)At least three times a day
Property Management OfficeAt least three times a day
Fitness equipment, pools in the clubhouseAt least three times a day
Garbage rooms, public toiletsAt least three times a day

We will continue to take prudent steps to ensure public safety is protected and keep in touch with our residents to report additional measures.

If you require any assistance or have any questions regarding the above, please contact the Management Office at...

I would like to point out that this memo, aside from the odd use of the word “novel,” has no mistakes in its English, which is definitely a first around here. So how clean is your home?


Wondering what sort of rights statues should have

One of the few Chinese bands known outside of China is Rebuilding the Rights of Statues (called ReTROS for short, and occasionally known by their Chinese name, 重塑雕像的权利 ). Their first EP was on Tag Team records, which has distribution in the US, and they even played SXSW in 2007, and have a page in the All Music Guide.

I’ve seen them before, but when I found out they have a new CD, I had to go see them again.

They were playing at Yugong Yishan (愚公移山), which is pretty convenient for me. I rode my bike again.

The opening band was The Offset: Spectacles – or something like that, involving one or more gratuitous punctuation marks.
They’re originally from Hong Kong, but have relocated to Beijing because the music scene here is more suitable to their style.
I’d say they fit right in with this scene. For one thing, they’re a trio with a female member.
They use neither a drummer nor a drum machine, relying on the guitars and keyboard to keep the rhythms going. The use of violin and a very distorted combo organ gives their music some variety, but on the whole I would not rank them near the top of the capital’s bands. They are noisy and deliberately noncommercial, both of which are also Beijing standards.

ReTROS, on the other hand, are near the top.
They are intense, unique, and artistic, and in spite of a complete lack of typical stage presence, are really entertaining. Hua Dong (华东 ) rarely faces the audience when singing or playing guitar, but he is so into the performance that he gets away with it.
Liu Min (刘敏 ) also doesn’t face the crowd. They seemlessly integrated recorded guitar, bass, and rhythm parts into the show, allowing them to play melodica, or concentrate on singing.
They played pretty much everything on their first EP as well as the whole new album, and while their studio work is very good, they are so intense and energetic live that even the memory of it makes listening to the CDs a little bit of a letdown.
After they finished, I bought the new release, which is on Modern Sky, the premier “indie” label in China – I’m not sure what kind of distribution that gives them outside the country. I also picked up another recent Modern Sky CD that they had at the table – Casino Demon’s Teenager.

The fruits of someone’s labor

Many readers outside China will have encountered the fruit known as 荔枝 (Mandarin lizhi, traditionally spelled lychee in English, along with several other similar variations) as a flavor in Asian desserts, or maybe in a juice or even liqueur. In Beijing you can buy them pretty readily at the right time of the year, which happens to include now. There are several varieties.

The other day I was at the nearby vegetable market, and stopped by a fruit stand to get some bananas. The woman tending the stand tried to sell me everything else she had, which was quite a selection: mangoes, papayas, dragon fruit, several kinds of pears and citrus, pineapples, and so on. She offered me a lizhi, and when she saw my hands were full, even peeled it for me. It was sweet and juicy, so I bought a few of them to take with me.
Here you see some whole on the stem, one half peeled, one completely peeled, and a peeled one opened up to show the seed. If you’ve never tasted one, it’s pretty hard to describe the flavor. Mostly sweet, though sometimes a little tart near the seed, with a flowery fragrant aftertaste.

This ends the educational portion of our program.

Get ur geek on

In my continuing quest to see everything there is to see in Beijing, today I checked off another of the city’s museums. This time it was the Natural History Museum (北京自然博物馆), which is located near the Temple of Heaven. It took me around an hour to get there on my bike. When I waled up to the ticket office, I was confronted with a confusing sign about how the tickets are free, but you have to call to reserve them five days in advance, and those without reservations will not get tickets. So I rode all that way for nothing?

Well, there was a second ticket office for the Special Exhibit: Mammoth China Tour. I bought a Ұ40 ticket for that, and the kid selling tickets told me I could buy a ticket for the regular museum around the corner. Yes, a third ticket office, this one with no signs pointing you to it, and I know the characters 售票处. The regular museum ticket was Ұ10.

The mammoth show started out rather unpromising.
There were several little souvenir booths and refreshment stands along the outside of the museum building. Note the little toy elephant wandering around in front of the booth.

Inside, you are greeted with a life-size mammoth.
There are some displays about the evolution of the different kinds of elephants that have lived, illustrated with little models or paintings.
You get to see some mammoth bones and tusks, as well as saber tooth cat and other creatures of similar vintage.
The highlight of the exhibit is a display of some actual mammoth parts, with skin and hair still on them.
It’s too dark in this area to get a picture, and anyway there’s a sign that says no photographs along with a guard to enforce it. The guard didn’t look a day over 14, but whatever. I took a picture of the sign as a replacement. The remains are in a glass-walled cold room to preserve them.

And that’s what you get for Ұ40. You exit out the back of the building and go around to get to the main museum.
Outside, they’ve got a couple of small dinosaur statues.
When you walk into the entrance, there are three halls you can go into. I went to the right.
This section mainly had old taxidermy and corny displays about our animal friends.
The part about insects reminded me of a low budget version of the Bug’s Life feature at Disneyland.

The dinosaur part of the museum is much better.
There’s a big central room with a bunch of reconstructed skeletons.
These are mostly dinosaurs that lived in the area that is now China, like the Szechuanosaurus.

Then you go through a dark hall to the other big room...
...where they have some big plastic dinos.
Note that the L and A from __TE have fallen down and are resting on a little shelf of the fake rock. Maybe the missing R from T_IASSIC is there too – can’t tell.

When I saw this one:
...I realized that they’re supposed to be motorized in some way and move, but are either broken down or on a coffee break.

There was a little kiddie arcade and refreshment stand in the area below the dino world.

The steps up from there took me to the earliest life on Earth. The most interesting part here was the part about the Chengjiang Fauna.
This is the name given to a bizarre group of fossils dating from the Cambrian Period found in Chengjiang County of Yunnan. They are similar to the Burgess Shale creatures found in Canada.
They’ve even got a sculpture with giant versions of some of the creatures.

After that they’ve got some pretty nice fossil displays.
And then a room with Pleistocene megafauna, including mammoths.
That one’s a megatherium, I think, though its neck seems too long.

I guess I was spoiled by the wonderful new museums in Chengdu, but this one mostly seemed kind of old and run-down. As a dinosaur enthusiast, it was cool to see the Chinese species instead of the ones we always see in North America. I’d say the Ұ40 for the mammoth exhibit was a rip-off, but Ұ10 for the main museum was fair – especially considering it works out to US$1.77 or so. And yes, there were some items “borrowed” from the Ice Age movies.