BEIJING: Palace hopping, art factories, Super Gambei

Two weeks later, with my body recovered and my trip processed (mentally, photographically), here’s the first batch of scenes from my China adventure: Beijing. The city bookended my 12-day (abbreviated from 14-day) journey. Click the pics to enlarge. Note on the movies that there’s a button you can click to go full screen.

I left Minneapolis at 3pm. The on-flight programming looked like 1970s Canadian TV. I laid over in Tokyo, saw Seoul out the window and arrived in Beijing at 9pm the following day.

I had one day to be a solo tourist, which happened to be the day of a global financial summit (the French flag is not typically flown in front of the Forbidden City). A lot of areas were blocked and more soldiers than usual stood around the main attractions. A mob of pedestrians was undeterred.

You can wander the symmetrical labyrinth of the Forbidden City with a GPS-controlled audio guide in 25 different languages, including Esperanto.

Nothing about the weather suggested I was in one of the world’s most polluted cities.

The palaces were dark and the windows smudgy. But peering in and taking pictures was obligatory.

Lots of sunshine made the lavish color and terracotta details all the more impressive.

As you make the rounds, you keep ducking through gates into new courtyards. This courtyard contained a half-built structure notable for its Western architecture and giant moat (empty). This, said the voice on my automatic tour, marks the moment when the Qing Dynasty ran out of money.

There are rows of bleechers in the larger courtyards. Two people sat down (quite close, I felt) to watch me draw and offer encouragement.

I took in an exhibit of paintings by one of the Four Wangs (I forget which). A museum guard informed me there were “not many foreigners today” and because I seemed nice, proceeded to give me a convoluted and unintelligible history lesson in English. He mentioned Germany, England, America—something about the rise and fall of great powers?—before shaking my hand multiple times.

The City is surrounded by a massive corridor, sort of a pedestrian expressway around the grounds.

I had only an apple and a candy bar that day (I kept waiting for something appetizing to materialize that I didn’t have to struggle with my lame phrasebook to get). When a fiery-hot Sizhuanese meal presented itself, I was ready. Other than the paté, this meal was excellent. Kirk ordered the sweet dough logs with the entrées, but I think they were supposed to be dessert.

Austin lives alone in a quiet apartment that combines old charm with many modern amenities. Heat in October, however, is not one of them.

To get to his place, you turn off a busy main road onto a hutong, a sort of neighborhood alley that’s been part of Beijing life for centuries (little plaques tell the history of many of the streets). You walk past the neighborhood toilet and turn into the sixth gate, then meander to the end of a winding corridor and open a big steel door. And you’re in.

The circuitous entry makes you unsure how far you’re removed from the main road. It feels like the block is one interconnected fortress, a sense reinforced when you head up the stairs onto the roof deck.

Here’s a glimpse of us moving from the inside passage out into the alley.

We went in search of wacky gifts at a giant mall complex (the kind of place you couldn’t drag me to back home). You can see the life-like animals mounted on the facade.

Kirk did not purchase these, which is a shame.

The 798 Art District is a converted factory complex that includes a museum and long avenues of galleries and studio spaces. I was told 798 is only the most well-known of several such art zones in Beijing.

Sculpture and wallpaper inside the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Plastic and projections.

We celebrated Austin’s 34th b-day with a few friends over all-you-can-eat teppanyaki in Sanlitun, a slick shopping district filled with super-fashionable Chinese and foreigners.

The flat fee included unlimited saki and beer. “Super Gambei” became the evening’s mantra: “Gambei” means “bottoms up,” and well, this was a Super special occasion, so, you know…

…somebody’s gonna end up passed out in a planter.

After dinner, we made our way to a club called D-22. Kirk found another planter to camp in outside. Someone said to him, “you give foreigners a bad name” (the correct response, of course, was “your mom gives foreigners a bad name”).

The evening’s bands were the best of the Beijing scene (so the bar’s house photographer told me). We caught the set by Guai Li (show here and below) and Carsick Cars, who toured with Sonic Youth and were the clear favorite. I didn’t notice when Austin fell down, but we left shortly thereafter.

Guai Li, Club D-22, Beijing from Jake, Sarah & Johanna on Vimeo.

Since the big milk scare, the childrens’ hospital is hopping.

As much as I shun the American Food Fix Abroad program, this “True North American Diner” hit the spot. The comical face of Paul, the Canadian owner, is all over the restaurant.

This was tasty. But what felt like an antidote to 11 days of foreign food assault actually made some of my persistent digestive problems worse (I know, TMI).

Here’s a shot from one of our 50 taxi rides, which captures two faces I saw a lot on my trip; one famous, one not so much.


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