13 May 2011

The Story within the Story within the Story of the Forbidden City (The Long Version)

Then things got interesting. Feel free to skip this paragraph if you’ve maxxed out on it's-really-difficult-to-get-anywhere-in-a-foreign-country-when-you-don't-speak-the-fucking-language-stories.

We tried to walk to the Lama Temple but somehow missed it completely. There’s so many temples, pagodas + gated tourists sites, that when things aren't clearly marked, it’s anyone’s guess what you’re walking into. Eventually, we thought we’d found it, but it turned we’d just paid to enter a park. It was pretty and calm—the perfect respite from dusty, loud, insane Beijing—but still, we realized really quickly we weren’t any closer to the important Tibetan Buddhist heritage site at all + had no way of knowing where it was without a better map, so we decided to abandon the Lama Temple + asked the security guard at the random/pretty/calm park for directions to Confucius’s Temple instead. She pointed + we walked, uncertain. skeptical. Then we asked a woman inside a convenience store who gave me instructions in spit-fire Mandarin that sounded like angry darts. Later, after walking through a park filled with homeless guys + old people, we got desperate + asked a salesgirl inside a cell phone store. Out of Confucian tradition, she deferred to an older woman who told us to stay on the same side of the sidewalk we were already walking on + soon we’d find the temple.

—Big door, she said, motioning a big door. Then she paused. —Big gate, I mean.

Well, we didn’t see the big gate. Or the small gate. Or the big door. Or anything resembling a gate or a door—with Beijing’s bustle, heat, dust, somehow we missed it entirely. Or did we? We must have walked for at least another mile before we gave up. Eventually, we decided we would take the subway to this health store called World Health Store we’d read about on Happy Cow (a vegetarian website) to buy food for breakfast since the Chinese aren’t big on breakfast. So we walked in the wrong direction (it was hot, we were parched, confused, feisty, dust was going in our mouth, up our nose, in our ears). Eventually, we figured it out, walked another 10 blocks to the nearest subway station according to one of our laminated maps. Then we transferred easily from Beixinqiao on the 5 line to Guomao on the 1 line at the transfer station Dongdan, got off at the station closest to the scribbled circle on our map the concierge had marked for us in the morning. After walking maybe another 15 blocks, accidentally mistaking the Silk Market for the SoHo Shangdu Tower, we kept pushing + pushing. Our feet were really starting to kick our ass, but we just kept soldering on. Breakfast, after all, especially in a foreign country, deserve its own place in the hierarchy of needs.

Eventually, LB noticed a tower in the distance that said SOHO. We weaved around several ancient houses, through some gate, into a miniature park, then took a right until we’d arrived at the building LB had pointed at. Ignoring the security guard who politely pointed in another direction when I’d asked for SOHO Shangdu, we entered this SOHO building and took the escalator up + walked past every single store before I got so desperate (feet pounding, an insane thirst burning my throat) I asked this little girl who was sitting behind a desk, waiting for her mom to come back. In my mind: Maybe Shangdu is like part of the Chaoyang district, I thought. You know, a small, hip, upscale subculture of Chaoyang. Anyway, the little girl, who spoke as much English as anyone else we’d met, smiled and told us we were in the wrong building. We walked back down through a counterintuitive maze of energy-efficient escalators that accelerate once you step on them. I asked the girl at the information desk if she’d heard of SOHO Shangdu. She nodded, pointed in the same direction as the security guard had earlier. Oh right: Him.

After walking for another 20 minutes, and just about when we’d given up, we spotted the sign for the garage: SoHo Shangdu. I almost screamed. Turns out: There are three fucking SoHo buildings in Chaoyang, so confusing it’s murderous. So we walked through what looked like a bank, but was actually the mall’s entrance before discovering that there were two towers in SOHO Shangdu, North + South + of course, we were in the wrong one. Finally finally finally we made it to the World Health Store (it wasn’t about the goddamn store anymore, it was about the principle, like finding the Temple of Confucius—see where that got us?). And this is where the story becomes ridiculous: We quickly discovered the World Health Market was a vitamin store, not a health food store. Or if it was a health food store, everything was dehydrated or in powder form. Not exactly what you’d call fresh.

On the flipside, we did discover a cute little teashop where we drank tea with one of the saleswomen who spoken English quite well. She had a friend in Santa Barbara, she explained. If we had more time, she said, we should stop by again + drink tea with her. We were quite fond of her. Eventually, I bought a nicely decorated tin of Taiwanese green tea. Then we walked to Jenny Lou’s, a Western kind of supermarket the salesgirl at World Vitamins had been kind enough to point out to us + there we bought a bunch of snacks:

Rolls, juiceboxes, preserves, nuts covered in nori, Japanese Pringles, bananas + Mandarin oranges (kinda ironic). It's like we were in college all over again.

Then we took a taxi back to the hotel, which was another adventure. At this point, I’m thinking: Fuck I love adventures as much as the next traveler in love with the world, but I don’t want another one fucking adventure right now. Give me anything but another goddamn adventure. After the taxi driver took us to the Silk Market by accident—that place again—eventually, I grabbed the map + said the name of the street that our hotel was on + everything clicked into place, until it was time to sort out the payment. The meter said 13 Yuan, so I forked that over but the taxi driver kept shaking his head. He motioned for more money, I didn’t understand, he grabbed three 5 Yuan bills from my hands, put one back, grabbed another bill, put it back, then he put all of the bills back in my head, shook his head, motioned for something else, eventually, he took a 20 Yuan bill and a five + then gave me back 10 Yuan in return. I had no idea what the hell just happened. It turns out that the meter said 13 + there was a 2 Yuan surcharge, all of which makes sense retrospectively. But why he didn’t just accept three 5 Yuan bills to start with makes no sense to me. Twenty minutes later, we were inside our hotel room. I was chugging mango juice + LB was rubbing her feet.

Slowly, we decided to eat Japanese food at Sakuraya (located on the 3rd floor of our hotel) + I have to say that even though it was lazy of us + crazy expensive too, it felt so good to suddenly be able to speak a language I could do something with. Japanese was a place I could call home for a little while.

A few other things I've noticed in Beijing:

1. We saw a dude. . .

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