In the morning, my first goal was to sort out the cash mess. My guidebook told me there were a few branches of major banks offering cash advances on foreign credit cards, for a commission. I rode to one, wheeling the bike inside. They couldn’t help me. After about twenty minutes of circling phrases in my guidebook, with several bank employees, I emerged with only a few Chinese characters written on a slip of paper to help me, offered with directional gestures. Even in European languages unknown to me, it’s usually possible to tell a proper noun from another part of speech, to pronounce unknown written words however badly, or to tell from inflection whether you are being asked questions, offered advice, or told to buzz off. Chinese is much more, well, inscrutable than that to me; the feeling of helplessness is pretty complete. I was ready to call Kenny. I returned to the hotel to do this, as the state of charge of the cell phone he provided me with was plummeting, and his number was stored in its memory. If I lost that, it might have been the end of my rope.
To make a long, tedious story shorter, it wasn’t until early afternoon that I had pocket money. Kenny made me a loan. In the interim we had made two visits to another bank that was supposed to be able to help (the paper I had been given identified the branch), with at least an hour in between being transferred from one extension to another on my bank’s international assistance line, with the connection dropping twice. It turns out that all international ATM transactions in the region had been failing for a few days for reasons unknown, and to make things worse, the fraud detection people had put my credit on ice because it looked suspicious that I hadn’t returned their call to my home phone asking for confirmation that I had charged a small item in Tokyo’s Narita airport on the way over. I was peeved. Perhaps the fraud people could have looked at my charge history to find the plane tickets I had booked? Traveler’s checks are not obsolete, not even in the thoroughly wired capital of the largest nation on earth in 2006. Guanshi is even less obsolete: thanks Kenny!
Yuan in hand, I was ready to haggle for a yam on a stick roasted in an oil drum welded to a tricycle, or other street delicacies, maybe even a mahsajee! Or not. I made for Tiananmen Square. On the way I passed a high school with lots of students on the street, and took a not particularly fascinating video clip of the scene.
I had this idea that tourist destinations in Beijing would be full of foreigners and a minority of jaded Chinese people trying to sell them stuff; conversely, I believed that by sticking to the areas where ordinary Beijingers lived and worked, somehow more real and cool-strange experiences would unfold. It turns out this is almost completely backwards, due to my poor grasp of the scale of China. Ordinary Beijingers see foreigners all the time; it’s almost cosmopolitan. Tourist destinations in Beijing, on the other hand, are full of people mostly from elsewhere in China — sometimes remotest China — and this may well be the trip of a lifetime for them. And you, as a foreigner, are part of the exotic tourist experience they’re after. So in ten minutes under Mao’s portrait I saw more interesting varieties of Chinese physiognomy and traditional dress than I had among Beijingers the whole time. They stared at me, and the bike, and wanted to take pictures. This is where, for the first time as I reported earlier, a large crowd gathered as I folded the Brompton, wanting to know how much it cost.
As I tried to enter Tiananmen Square pushing the bike, a soldier blocked my way, gestured toward the bike and said “No.” I tried another entrance — same response. It seems bicycles aren’t allowed on Tiananmen Square. So I dug deep in my bag of tricks and … folded the bike. I did it with a bit of fanfare, as quickly and smoothly as I could, demonstratively turning it the thin way as I folded the left pedal as a last step. The soldier smiled and waved me in.
Once inside, I unfolded it just enough to permit easy pushing on its skate-wheel “elbows,” and began my stroll. I mentioned earlier how dominated the built environment in China is by barriers of all kinds. Tiananmen is said to be the largest public square in the world: no barriers. The contrast is emphatic. The square feels like a place where little things can easily become big things, like dust devils becoming tornadoes in the flat open plains of America. It felt like the obvious place for a revolution to start, or not.
The odd bike and I attracted attention there like filings to a magnet. Again and again crowds formed around me as soon as I indicated a willingness to show the bike in various states of fold, with the same conversation about cost. People wanted to lift it, and especially to ride it, or at least see me ride it. I wouldn’t do that because I wasn’t supposed to be there with a bike at all, and I was nothing if not conspicuous already. I felt like I had my own circus show. One especially interested man, who had followed me around for several repeat performances as crowds gathered, gestured that he wanted to straddle it. OK, maybe that would satisfy him. As soon as he got on, he pedaled hard and shot ahead as I grabbed him saying “bu bu bu bu sheer!” (sp?) meaning basically no. The crowd laughed loud, maybe fifty strong, and there at the edge of it I saw a group of five or six police eyeing the proceedings warily. The crowd dispersed. I folded the bike again and didn’t do anymore demonstrations on Tiananmen Square.
Later that afternoon, after some exploration of the relatively funky southwest neighborhoods and a fried dough snack from a street vendor, I visited the Temple of Heavenly Peace, or rather the large walled park in which it sits with other ancient buildings. They wouldn’t allow the bike in, folded or not, but they did let me check it at the entrance.
The main temple complex was closed for renovations; I was more interested in the grounds anyway. On foot I found myself more subject to hawkers and various other come-ons, such as the ubiquitous “free student art show right around the corner.” Nearing a Chinese tour group whose small women wore elaborate headdresses, I was dismayed when two men emerged from the group simultaneously snapping open their briefcases saying “Rolex, sir?” So I set off for quieter corners of the park. In mid-March Beijing was quite warm, but there was no sign of new growth on the bare trees or ground, and the hazy sun gave the park a somber character. I’m sure the park is quite beautiful now, in spring. I came upon a couple practicing some Chinese classical music, and took a video clip of the scene.
Returning to the hotel in the dusk rush hour, I was pulled aside gently by two traffic police women at a major intersection as I waited with dozens of other cyclists for an opening. They were simply fascinated by the bike, especially the lights I had on it. They gave enthusiastic thumbs-up and waved me on my way. I think they had never seen bicycle lighting before.
I ate dinner in the hotel as planned. I wanted something spicy, and had learned the word for it. I ordered the “spicy pork leg” from the English menu among other things, using the Chinese “spicy” word a few times questioningly/approvingly as I did (probably changing its meaning as many times — darn tonal language). I was eager to show off that ten percent of my Chinese vocabulary, I guess. The server repeated the word, nodding. What I received a few moments later was the lean skin and heavy bone and sinew of a single pig knuckle, smoked somehow, served on top of a two-inch-high pile of dried red chilies in hot oil with some scallions for color. My eyes watered as I pulled the knuckle apart looking in vain for anything remotely edible on it, covering my fingers in searing chili oil. It was hopeless. Was I just supposed to suck on the bones? I gestured to the server to come over. I tried to explain that I couldn’t eat it, but before I got five words out she went and returned with a fork and large kitchen knife for my convenience. I waved that away, bemused. Another server came over, who seemed to understand more English. I explained the difference between the words “leg” and “knuckle,” drawing a little picture of a pig with nested braces and labels. She seemed grateful for the menu translational help, and offered to bring me something else. She did, and it was good — and hot. I still don’t understand how the knuckle even made its way onto the menu in the first place, priced the same as items containing edible material.