21: Homeward Bound
16 August 2002
Beijing is our final destination before flying back home to San Francisco tomorrow. From Lhasa, we’d flown to Xi’an and then taken the train onwards to Beijing. After a brief diversion in Mongolia, we’re back in Beijing again. Both Beijing and Xi’an seem to be in epitome of hot, crowded, polluted Chinese cities.
Xi’an’s redeeming quality for me was the food. We happily ate our way through the main street and the Muslim quarter, stopping every half a block or so to sample yet another delicious and unknown treat from a street vendor. We has some bites of Peking duck, tons of meat skewers, various deep-friend dumpling things, and endless exotically-flavored popsicles.
The food helped to make up for the disappointment of the Terracotta Stone Warriors. The warrior site looked like a typical Chinese tourist attraction. The long street leading up to the entrance was filled with souvenir shops and restaurants. You could buy any imaginable trinket available from the Chinatowns around the world, as well as kitschy items like watches with Chairman Mao happily waving his arm to count off the seconds. Of course, there were 1001 replicas of the stone warriors, from inch-high miniatures to life-size statues.
After that onslaught, we struggled our way through the Chinese tour groups to enter the three cavernous Russian-style block buildings that held the warriors. It was quite a letdown for me. Each building overlooked a pit that had lines of the soldiers in it. The soldiers looked identical to the lines of replicas in the storefronts we’d just hustled by… but put in a little more scenic setting of a “genuine” archaeological dig. Not quite the Eighth Wonder of the World, as the Chinese were touting it.
Some of Beijing’s attractions are not so different, but happily, the Great Wall was magnificent. We headed several hours outside of Beijing to reach a section of the wall that is relatively untouristed. At the Simatai location, you can see the unimpressive restored wall, as well as the untouched wild wall, complete with crumbling stones and plants pushing up through the cracks. The setting was awe-inspiring, as the wall climbed up and down several craggy mountain peaks. While walking along the wall, we were surrounded by beautiful lush green mountain peaks. Looking off through the distance in both directions, you could see the wall extend off into the infinite haze. It’s quite amazing to think of the years of man-effort and deaths that were sacrificed to build a wall that proved pretty useless in keeping out the Mongols. And today it’s simply become a tourist attraction and a symbol of Chinese pride.
Beijing’s other “must-sees” include the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, so we dutifully trooped over to see them. Unfortunately, I’m somewhat indifferent to new sights at this point in our trip, and this indifference is not helped by the swarms of Chinese tourists and sweltering smoggy heat in Beijing right now. The Forbidden City was a disappointment, as most of the pagoda structures look virtually the same – your basic orange roofed structure that’s all empty inside (the Taiwanese took most of the treasures with them when they retreated to their island). The Summer Palace was pleasant, but mainly because the grounds were spacious enough that you could get away from the crowds a bit.
Ultimately China just has too many people. The overpopulation makes the current populace struggle for whatever breathing room they can have, making them sometimes unpleasant to interact with. The Beijing buses could quite appropriately be whisked away to one of Dante’s circles of hell. It’s extremely hot and people, dripping with sweat, are packed in like sardines for long periods of time when the ring-roads are gridlocked with traffic. Several times a seat has opened up in front of me, but before I can even make a move to sit down, someone from halfway across the bus has already barreled their way into the seat. I guess if they’re that desperate, they can have the seat.
Anyway, we’re homeward bound now. I’ll be sad later that the trip is done, but there’ll be more trips, and right now I can’t wait to start eating good Bay Area food again!