27 November, 2006


back to Beijing. before venturing farther afield to see the Great Wall and the terracotta army (details coming soon), we saw some of the other big draws in and around town. one of the most impressive was the Summer Palace, a place as big or bigger than the Forbidden City, that would equally take a day or more to see in its entirety. situated Northwest of town, the palace is a complex of buildings set mostly on two edges of a large lake. not surprisingly, given the name, the imperial families would come here during the summer to escape the brutal heat of the city, and though many of the buildings are quite samey looking, the whole site is quite beautiful.

clockwise from top left: one of the palace buildings as seen from the lake; a marble replica of the boats that used to ply the lake for the emperors; Jill and the sunset from the tops of the mountains; and the chairlift up to the top of Fragrant Hills Park.

from the palace complex, however, we ventured further out of town to what became a highlight of the whole trip: Fragrant Hills Park. just why they're called the fragrant hills i'm not sure, something to do with what happens to the armpits of the many thrifty souls who try to climb all the way to the top i guess. as for us, we took the chairlift that is apparently the pride of homegrown Chinese engineering: there's a big sign at the top that proclaims it to be the first all-Chinese built, made and installed ever. it is pretty impressive; we were not expecting it to cover so much distance or take as long as it did--about 20 minutes--to get to the top. the view from there was worth all that time and the five bucks or so we bourgeois pigs spent on the ride. Beijing is a huge, and a sprawling city, extending as far as the eye can see in about a 150-degree arc. of course, with the filthy smog the eye can't see too far, but there again is the beauty of Fragrant Hills park: you know you're above that thick layer of grime that otherwise would be the constant fodder for your poor, blackening lungs. mine still haven't forgiven me for taking them on this vacation.

Jill looks so happy not only because she's with thejayfather, but because she's taking a brief break from breathing all that crap in the Beijing air below Fragrant Hills Park. smog this bad makes the idea of sucking on a Peterbuilt exhaust seem appealing.

truly, even Japan's surprisingly dirty air was nice to come back to after inhaling Beijing's for so long; i really can't say enough bad things about it. they may be able to slap a few coats of paint on some key structures by the time the Olympics roll into town, but i'll dance naked through the insanely chaotic streets of that city if they're able to clean up the air in time for the games. one of the reasons it can be so bad is that China's capital is quite rapidly being taken over by the Gobi desert, whose incursions from the North even the great Great Wall hasn't been able to check so far. each summer, apparently, the city suffers from near-drought conditions and violent sandstorms sweeping through town. we didn't experience anything as dramatic as described in the guidebooks, but we were often able to taste the grit in between our teeth. we saw numerous people walking around with their whole heads covered by thin linen or silk scarves to keep the debris out.

what that means is that Beijing is reliant on other parts of China for its water and food needs. it wasn't always this way, and the new forced humility for the proud capital may be explained by the hard line the conquering Communists take against religion. one of the great symbols of Beijing today is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, located in the quiet Temple of Heaven Park, to the South of town. once again, the ruling party was foresightful enough to appreciate the tourist revenues this place might generate in spite of its religious purpose, but perhaps if they allowed those prayers that were intended to be offered there, the city would struggle less for food and water needs. who knows?

Jill and i stand in front of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, at the Temple of Heaven, one of the few sights already looking ready for the Olympics; and me contemplating the Hall's greatness, and perhaps offering a prayer of my own...

in any case, the Temple of Heaven complex is one of the most enjoyable in Beijing, if only because of the small entry fee they charge, which seems to have the effect of keeping out most of the hawkers and hustlers--a seriously welcome break. there are so many scams going on in Beijing, all of which we were fortunate enough to avoid. one that almost got us on our first or second day was the well-meaning, struggling college student who is having a display of his artwork and will get credit if you come along and look. apparently, once you go into wherever they are set up, you are virtually held hostage until you can come up with a way to fork over big bucks--like thousands of them--for seriously bad "art". but hey, you get to use their phone to call your bank or credit card company or whatever. the weird thing was that the scam artists would be everywhere, inside legitimate tourist sights and everything.

as were the street sellers, though they are a whole other issue, and just one of the reasons i kept having bad flashbacks to Tijuana the whole time i was in China. more about them later; for now i leave you with a few more views of the beautiful sights described (so beautifully) above:

a bamboo forest at the Summer Palace; the nighttime view of Beijing from the top of Fragrant Hills Park; and a larger than life decorative knot hanging at the Temple of Heaven. you can't really tell, but this thing is about two or three times my height. some kind of boyscouts they have here.

23 November, 2006


it's a little hard to trust statements that begin with "i don't usually do this sort of thing...", but really, i don't usually do this sort of thing. that is, comment on current events. mostly that's because the news is so inane: not really news but the same old thing being done again by different people. and though the man pictured at right is getting his fair share of glowing tributes in the papers right now, Milton Friedman should have received many more of those in life than he has done since his death a week ago. a rather good article in the rather good magazine Reason will elucidate the finer points of why that is so, while i will say that of all the economists i have read, Friedman's ideas are consistently the most persuasive. his is the most lamentable public death since that of the great Hugh Nibley early last year, whose excellent book Approaching Zion was, incidentally, the first thing that prompted me to a formal study of economics. to my two favorite scholars: thanks, and a fond farewell.

20 November, 2006


our first Beijing outing, and the subsequent staging ground for most of our trips, was to Tian an men square, or the square of the gate of heavenly peace. like Beijing itself, the square is much bigger than you can gather from looking at maps beforehand, and beyond its own borders it seems to merge almost seamlessly with the Forbidden City to the North.

the main attraction of the square proper is the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, which sits roughly in the center. it's free to go in, which i did, only to learn that the freeness is a scam designed to nickel-and-dime unwitting Chinese tourists to death. even after all Mao did to... sorry, for, his countrypeople, they still line up in droves to be hurried past a glass case that contains what looks suspiciously like Madame Tussaud's vision of the Chairman, draped in a Soviet flag. before going in, however, the faithful are supposed to pay ridiculous fees to leave their bags at an off-site storage facility (for security), spend three times an ordinary bus fare to buy a yellow flower to drop at the feet of Mao's statue (which flowers i'm certain are collected up and resold later), and then splash out another whole bus fee on a flimsy propaganda pamphlet. and that's all before you get to the huge shop full of the gaudiest and tackiest Mao "souvenirs" and are then ushered back out into the daylight. i can understand why the Chinese go there, but i can't really fathom why there aren't more people cursing the Chairman's infamous name than paying homage to a ridiculous statue of him. the whole time i was in there i struggled to think of someone else who had perpetrated greater crimes against his own people. in vain.

Jill stands outside the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, much oversized to match the man's ego.

so there's no love lost between Mao 'n me. but the size of his personality cult is amazing, as is the picture of him hanging over the famous Gate of Heavenly Peace. that's the same heaven, i suppose, that those practical Commos aren't supposed to believe in, unless of course they smell future earnings from tourists. most of the big tourist sites in Beijing are of a religious or some other such quality strictly anathema to the Communist credo, but they don't seem to have a big problem buying off their consciences with your dollars. in fact, there's a sense of the money grab going on everywhere, and they certainly are good at planning for future sell-outs. take the Olympics, for instance. to look around Beijing you'd think the Chinese were related to Homer and Plato, the amount of propaganda they have up about the games. the canny observer will note however, that the average "man on the street" doesn't seem to care one iota, so to speak, about les jeus, or about the official bid to bring some credibility to the otherwise integrity-bankrupt nation.

the characters in marble say Tian an men, which has been translated to mean Gate of Heavenly Peace. then there is the strange inclusion of a Tibetan monastery with the Olympic exhibits ornamenting the square.

nevertheless, i do have to give some credit to the Olympic planners for the clever names they gave to the five mascots. there's a beibei, a jingjing, a huanhuan, a yingying and a nini, all different colored bear-like animals. if you take just one of the syllables from each name and put it together, you get beijing huanying ni, which means "Beijing welcomes you". okay it may well be that the names are less clever than i think i am for figuing that out, but you can make your own mind up about that.

across the main street to the North of the square stands the Tian an men itself, which is, to my mind, the symbol of Beijing today. adorned with Mao's image it, like the Forbidden city beyond and all else in this part of town, is heavily guarded by very young-looking men in shockingly ill-fitting and ragged uniforms. or multiforms, since there are so many different official security services with a hand in ensuring your safety.

our visit to Uncle Mao at the Heavenly Peace Gate, and various scenes from inside the Forbidden City that lies beyond.

the gate is quite impressive, but not like the sprawling Forbidden City behind it. it would literally take a day or more to explore the whole vast campus, even allowing for the number of buildings that were shut down for Olympic refurbishing. these included the biggest and most important ones, of course, so we were able to race through in a comparatively scant few hours. it really is a city in there, though no actual Chinese people were ever allowed in there while the emperors were still around. quite a playground, and one that the new Communist emperors wisely stayed out of, giving the overwhelming bourgeois connotations of the place. nevertheless, they now all live in what is often referred to as the New Forbidden City, Zhongnanhai, right next door. that and much more on the apparent contradictions in official communist policy still to come.

05 November, 2006


thanks to China's impressive countrywide internet firewall, i haven't
been able to check the blog the whole time we've been here--too many
references to Taiwan on it, i assume. nevertheless, i did want to
give a little info on what we've done here, if only to remind myself
which pictures to put up when we get back.

we stayed mostly in and around Beijing, visiting the big sites like
the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven, but we did manage to get out
to Xi'an, a city about 750 miles Southwest of here that is famous for
its underground army of terracotta warriors. they date back about
3,000 years, to the time of the Qin (say "chin") Dynasty, and they are
buried near the tomb of one of the Qin emperors. it is quite a cool
site, and was worth the trip despite the distance and the near dearth
of other things to do in Xi'an.

and despite the air quality, which is just as bad there as here in
Beijing. for all the complaining that people in Southern California
do about the smog there, one trip here would be enough to shut them up
forever. it's unbelievable. but there are many cool things to see
and do, and many great bargains to be had, like our "North Face" coats
and our "Sony" memory sticks. good times and good prices--bargaining
is fun. we also went to see a cool Chinese acrobatics show last
night; not quite like the Amazing Chen from the movie Ocean's 11, but
very entertaining nonetheless. pictures from that and all else soon
to follow.