Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Notes on the Middle Kingdom

I just saw Jon off in a cab to the Beijing airport for his flight back to Toronto. I will hop in my cab in two hours to return to lovely Ha Noi. I've taken a two week hiatus from my blog to spend time with Jon and focus on China. It was very difficult to say goodbye again. It will be four months until our next reunion in Ha Noi, Laos and Bangkok. In any case, we had a great visit together. Now I've got to try to capture some of the experience in writing as well.

It's a strange experience coming to China from Viet Nam. I couldn't help but always be comparing the two countries. I think some of the things that Western travellers experience as foreign and "typically Asian" (like the two-wheeled traffic) were not novelties for me. Instead the contrast with Viet Nam highlighted other things.

Two weeks ago I arrived in Beijing and wandered around until Jon arrived a day later. I was struck by how modern and First World the city appeared. I got to see more of the suburbs than I wanted that first day because the cab driver took me to two wrong hotels before I realized he was cheating me and I fired him. Frankly, the suburbs looked like a larger version of North York. Some of the more charming areas downtown near my hotel could have been mistaken for shopping streets in some North American cities, if it weren't for the Chinese signs and the bicycles. On the surface it seemed so familiar - and yet, I felt so helpless. I will never again take for granted the use of the Roman alphabet in Vietnamese (quoc ngu). The lack of shared writing system in China complicates communication enormously. We had to walk out of many restaurants without English menus; food glossaries in phrasebooks are of little use in China. In addition, there is surprisingly little English spoken even in the capital. You can get by much easier in Viet Nam with English. Viet Nam is a country of 80 million and the future of the country lies to a great extent in its ability to forge connections with the rest of the world. With one billion people, China is not so much a country as a universe and so the need to engage with the "outside world" must seem less pressing. If anything the onus is on the rest of us to learn Chinese, and you certainly feel this reversal in this mammoth nation.

In any case, in China I experienced a paradoxical feeling of First World foreignness. Viet Nam appears much more exotic than China. There is not one street in Ha Noi that could ever been mistaken for a Western city. The plastic stool restaurants, the yoked vendors with their conical hats, the sea of motos all prevent that. However, there is a sort of impenetrability in China despite the familiarity of its modern face.

And then there is the scale of things. I don't just mean it's obviously large population and land mass. I mean the massive boulevards and highways, historical monuments, towering modern buildings, sea of pavement that is Tiananmen, and the most absurdly large train station one could ever imagine (pulling up to Beijing West Station was like docking into the Death Star - but without the evil connotations). And then in dramatic contrast, there are the hutongs. These neighbourhoods are are like an alternate world. You could crisscross Beijing by either of these networks: the god-sized grid of boulevards and monuments or the intensely human-scaled world of the hutongs with their courtyards, gateways, tea houses, and street markets. There is such a disconnect between these two scales. Sadly the hutongs are quickly being ripped up for modern mega-projects in preparation for the Olympics. Apparently there is a Chinese expression: "If the old doesn't go, the new won't come." I guess that was the excuse of the Cultural Revolution as well. Again this is in contrast to Viet Nam, which as far as I can tell does not share this view of history. Hanoi feels as if it developed by accretion over the ages, not through a series of grand statements and violent obliterations.

Enough of my musings. Here are some of the highlights.

Beijing: First day at the incredible Forbidden City. It takes a full day and even then there were sections we didn't get to. Unfortunately the haze was bad for pictures. How did this survive the Cultural Revolution intact? The grand ceremonial plazas and imperial gates were spectacular, but my favourite part was actually the maze of little courtyards and gardens at the back where the court lived and worked. The haze on the second day at the Temple of Heaven was even worse and obscured the buildings, but lent a kind of mystery to the gardens surrounding it. We walked back from the Temple through Qianmen District with its little laneways and shopping alleys, around the Qianmen Gate and into Tiananmen Square. The Square affords some great views and is a must-see, but the vast featureless expanse (not to mention its history) felt oppressive to me. Stalinist architecture at its best! Great Peking Duck for dinner. The next day we intended to go to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, but were instead "Shanghaied" by our tour operator into visiting the Badaling section. It was still spectacular but I could have done without the cheeseball circus at the bottom (what does tossing tomatoes at black bears have to do with ancient China?). A day at the Summer Palace. The haze was gone, but unfortunately the main palace building was closed for renovation (damn the Olympics!). One of my favourite days in Beijing was our last day after our return from Shanghai. We rented bikes, rode to the Lama Temple (Tibetan holy site, ceremonial home of the Panchen Lama), back through the alleyways getting as disoriented as possible in the hutongs. We ended up at Jinshan Park and then followed the walls of the Forbidden City around to the entry gate in time for a military parade. We were lucky enough to stay in a historic hutong guesthouse which had once been the residence of an official in the Qing court.

Xi'an: Took the overnight train to Xi'an. We wondered if this was a mistake when we arrived at the intimidatingly huge Beijing West Station, but in fact the train was easy to figure out and well run. The main reason for visiting Xi'an is to see the Terracotta Warriors which are truly stupendous. It was also fascinating to be in a place which was once one of the great centers of the world: the first center of a unified China, and in a later era, the first (or last) stop on the Silk Road. The Silk Road influence can still be felt in the Muslim Quarter. I'm always a sucker for any old district with laneways, hole-in-the-wall noodle joints, and street vendors. We were lucky enough to visit the Great Mosque during a call to prayer and watched as the Hiu elders gathered in their white skull caps. Also an afternoon at the Large Goose Pagoda.

Shanghai: We overheard a lecture in our hotel in which millenial Shanghai was compared with its other great boom era in the 1920s and 30s. The time is now for this city which is in a constant state of metamorphosis. Shanghai felt like a (much!) larger version of Chicago. There are so many parallels: the Bund felt like Michigan Ave. facing as it does on a park and waterfront; both are showcases of architecture, from the vintage early 20th Century, City Beautiful and Art Deco to the experimental modern buildings; and both cities share a home-grown gangster mythology. We stayed at the top of the Bund in the largest hotel room in history in the beautiful Pujiang Hotel which dates from the 1840s and feels like the 1920s. The neon on Nanjing Ave. is spectacular at night if you can stand the "lady-bar" touts and "Rolex" sales creeps, but Huaihai Road is really where it's at. My favourite: our day in the Old Quarter, which felt paradoxically like entering a Chinatown. The Yuyuan Bazaar was a bit Disneyesque, but it didn't take long to get away from it all and get lost in the maze of old Shanghai alleyways, which were once a notorious nest of opium dens. We ate at a little fried beef noodle shop. Our noodles were about 2 minutes from dough to bowl. We also wandered around a flower market, a insect and (pet) bird market (yeah, yeah, I know...the bird flu!) and through the French Concession. Another day we made it up the Jinmao Tower in Pudong.

Well, there is so much more, but I'm sure I'm testing the patience of even my more faithful readers. Also, I am no longer in Beijing. I am now in the little internet cafe behind my house on Vo Thi Sau. There is nothing like returning to make a place feel like home.

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