22 March 2006

Hello T-Shirt!


There are some things I am enjoying about Beijing. The Bookworm, where I had my event, is one of them. Every city would be lucky to have at least one. It's a cafe / bar / lounge / event venue / lending library / bookshop, run by Alex Pearson, an extremely smart, funny, pleasant person to spend some time with. You can also get a really good salad there - a rarity in Asia.

The event itself was well attended, maybe 45 or so people. At the end they asked a lot of questions, mostly to do with prostitution; about which it seems I am assumed to be some sort of expert, or at least willing to talk honestly about from a male perspective. One shy young Chinese woman in a lot of frilly pink wanted to know why I wrote The Living Room of the Dead, then she wanted to know if I'd been influenced by writers like Kafka. I could only guess that she hadn't read the book, but she was so charming and ernest that I answered her quite seriously. Later, after the event, she came up to me and wanted to know if I liked writing strong moral messages into my books. I told her no, but that I hoped my books would stimulate people to think for themselves about a variety of issues, including moral ones. I asked if she liked reading books with strong moral messages. She said "no." I then teased her a little, asking if she liked books with "immoral messages," to which she giggled, turned tail and ran out of the room. Hmmmm.

The day after the event was spent at the Summer Palace, which was largely closed for rennovation - no doubt for the Olympics year in 2008. They do need to do more than simply renovate though. The feeble efforts at informing visitors about the places they are seeing, are just not enough, especially when for the most part all you can look at is the exterior of buildings. Even if you were let into the interior, most of the historical artifacts are long gone.

After that we walked around in a slightly less bombed out looking hutong. Maybe it was that it was the middle of a weekday, but the old neighborhood was far from lively. Like nearly everything else in Beijing it was drab, colorless, desultory. We did walk alongside a small lake where there are a great many bars and pubs. At night it might be festive. We'll try to go back on the weekend. We ascended to the top of the old Drum Tower - sort of a huge, municipal clock from which the time was announced by drums. From it there were views over all the city. There isn't much point. It only drove home what an ugly and uninspiring place Beijing is.

Yesterday we had a car and driver take us on a three hour drive to Jinshanling, up in the mountains, from where we hiked on the Great Wall for ten kilometers to Simatai. This, if you are physically capable of doing it, is something I can unresevedly recommend. Although it might be nicer in the mid to late spring or the fall when there is some color in the landscape. Some of the wall that you walk on has not been restored and it is remarkable to know that you're walking on something massive that was built anywhere from 450 to, for a short while, nearly 2000 years ago. The hike takes you up some extremely steep portions of the wall and down others, as it snakes along ridges above deep gorges, through 33 watchtowers.

As you leave Jinshanling you first run a gauntlet of vendors. Their shrill greeting of "Hello t-shirt!" is quite familiar to any foreigner who walks around nearly anywhere in China. (In nightmarkets that have a lot of food stalls you will hear the variant: "Hello dumpling!" which I don't think is meant as either a term of affection or a comment on the shape of many foreign tourists.) As you pass through the welcoming committee, a tag team duo will attach themselves to you. Even if you make it clear that you want to walk alone, they will be nearby - either in front or behind - as you walk. Every so often, as you pause to catch your breath, they will come up and in tortured English tell you small facts that you are very likely to have already read in the most abbreviated guidebook, or can read for yourself on the poorly written signs along the way: "Ming Dynasty, 450 year. Mongolia north, China south, brick, 33 guard tower..."

The good ones don't try to sell you anything until you've reached the halfway point -where the torturous path turns, mostly, downhill. Then it's out with the photo book, the scrolled photograph, the postcards and finally, the t-shirt - in just that order of descending profit margin for them. If you say no, you don't want to buy, much less carry any of that crap, even politely, out comes the hard luck story. They're simple, poor farmers. The crops are terrible. All they can do every day is come to the Great Wall and sell to tourists or their families will go hungry and their children won't go to school. They won't leave you alone. They won't take no for an answer. If you speak to them in some language other than English, they don't care, they either speak enough of it too to sell you something, or they are pretty good with sign language. Finally, wanting to be left alone, you have to buy something to make them go away. (If you simply give them the money and tell them to scram, it is extremely insulting, even though that's, in essence, what it's all about.)

A word of advice: buy something from one of them right away. Overpay a little for it and tell them the money is for the both of them. Then tell them to go away and they will. Buy something light though, it's a hard hike. You don't want the book. You don't even want the postcards. The t-shirt or the rolled up photo aren't so bad. You can also use what you've bought to ward off the vendors from the town you're walking to who meet you at the halfway point and threaten to accompany you the rest of the way.

Yet again, it's the Communist worker's paradise in action. Villages have all been told that they have to fend for themselves. They have to provide for their own health care and education and sanitation and pretty much everything else. They are not given very much money from the central government to do any of this. So, instead of getting together to find reasonable ways to raise money, they in turn tell their residents to fend for themselves. So, when you leave Jinshanling you pay a 30 yuan (about US$3.75) fee to start the hike; and you're pestered by Jinshanling vendors. At the halfway point you must pay - or turn back - the 40 yuan (US$5) fee to Simatai; and get pestered by the Simatai vendors. Then you get to a suspension bridge not far from Simatai and you must pay five yuan to cross it.

None of this is a lot of money - although it would be to a typical Chinese tourist. The question is, why can't the two towns get together and charge one higher fee to make the hike, and organize the vendor gauntlets at either end leaving tourists alone in the middle, and find a way to share revenue to the benefit of everyone in the villages? I guess that might reek too much of socialism, or just plain common sense; or maybe it doesn't provide enough opportunity for graft. I also suspect, among other things, that the central government finds ways to discourage cooperation between villages - that might give them a chance at a little power of their own.

Communism was a really dumb idea. The sad thing is that for a great many Chinese people, especially those who don't live in the big, fast developing cities, they haven't come up with a better one yet.

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