Brrr in Beijing
As a New Englander I usually look down on complaining about cold weather but I will admit that even though Beijing was only around freezing it felt much colder. The wind chill made it seem even more bitter but the wind was good, it blew away the pollution so for the first week I only saw blue skies, a rare sight in the city of 21 million. Beijingers know how to handle the cold, they wear fluffy panda earmuffs, long puffy coats, scarves, boots, and bring a thermos of hot tea. Their bicycles have gloves attached to the handlebars and scooters come with lap blankets. They even have fleece face masks keeping their lungs clear and their noses defrosted. There were only a few Very Unhealthy days of pollution when the air had a foggy haze to it but I was sick with a fever so I had bigger things to worry about than a little smog.
Beijing is a very tall city, there are many skyscrapers and miles of apartment blocks but there are some parks and even a few lakes. Walking around is my favorite way to explore a new city but my couchsurfing host Bin warned me that as a pedestrian I had to watch out. I was bottom of the pecking order, first came trucks and buses, then cars, then tuk-tuks, then motorbikes, then bicycles, then pedestrians. Even with the green walk signal the traffic got right of way.
I noticed that people often stared at me on the subway and while I walked around. Usually just for a moment but sometimes they would turn around to watch me go. At first it made me uneasy as it reminded me of the unwelcome attention I had gotten in Africa but no one shouted or called out at me. No one asked for my number or tried to sell me anything, except in the very touristy spots. I asked Bin why people stared and he said foreigners are like pandas, they’re interesting and stand out. Even if you see a whole bunch you still think “Look a panda!” when you see another. Thank goodness I’m not blond or worse, a redhead.
What do Chinese eat for breakfast?
I never thought about it before I arrived. When you eat Americanized Chinese food in the US you go for lunch or dinner, I don’t think they’re even open for breakfast.
Yet again I asked Bin, who was very patient with my many questions about China. He said the traditional breakfast was noodles with vegetables, sometimes porridge or soup. Baked goods are a new addition to Chinese culture, unlike in the US and Europe where typical breakfast is toast and coffee, maybe eggs or cereal. One morning before he left for work he made us some noodle soup with veggies and I had my first Chinese breakfast. Most meals have a base of rice or noodles with tofu, egg and vegetables. Luckily my chopstick skills aren’t too shabby or I would have gone hungry a long time ago.
The Great Wall
Bin wrote out directions and notes in Chinese to make sure I got to the right place for the right price. After a bus, a taxi and a shuttle I arrived at the bottom of the mountain. Being a stubborn hiker I climbed up staircases for 20 minutes rather than take the expensive gondola to the wall. At the top I could see for miles as the pollution was low and the weather was clear. The wall disappeared over the blue mountain ranges in either direction. Even though most of the wall I saw was restored it was still mighty impressive. I walked along the wall and up more stairs, the views were getting better while the tourists were fewer. I saw a really steep section of uneven stairs that was at least 6 stories high and I decided to climb them because stairs like that are meant for climbing. I posed for a few photos with locals along the way:
At the top I was out of breath but the scenery was worth it. I still had more time before I had to turn around so I looked up at the next section of the wall. A guy who had just come down said it was great and that they have beer. I thought he was being silly, the joke is that at the top of anything there is beer (or cake or a helicopter or a waterslide). I looked at the can in his hand and realized he was serious. Damn I had to go get a beer. So I continued, huffing and puffing up the Great Stairmaster. When I thought I couldn’t go further pushed myself to keep going, I still had time. I finally reached the top where the wall ended. In fact the wall kept going but it was the original wall, crumbly and broken unlike the refurbished wall I had hiked up. I bought a celebratory beer and carefully descended, snapping beer selfies along the way. I walked down the final staircase back to the shuttle as the sun set.
The Great Firewall
China has a firewall on internet traffic which blocks many websites like Facebook and Google. Even though it’s blocked the Chinese president has a page on Facebook which I find a bit odd. Within China there are similar services that people use like Wechat, a messaging and social network app that combines Facebook with Instagram and Whatsapp. Some people use a VPN (virtual private network) as a way to get through the wall as I have been doing but I have heard these can be unreliable so luckily mine has held up.
I learned from expat friends about the Golden Shield, as China calls it, which catches posts by keyword and then it is manually reviewed by one of 50,000 to 75,000 reviewers, no one knows how many. There are also the three T’s: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen; if you search for any of these without a VPN then you will show up on their radar screens. Don’t worry China can’t find me, most days I forget where I am.
No Punning Indoors
On the note of Chinese surveillance in December puns and plays on language were outlawed in Chinese media. I asked about the reasoning behind the word play crackdown and actually it has nothing to do with Chinese pun-haters.
Mandarin is a tonal language so saying the same word (yes.) with a different tone (yes?) changes the meaning of the word. There are also many words that have the same tones but mean something different based on the context, like in English “tea” and “tee”. They sound the same so when speaking you would use the context to understand if someone wants a hot beverage or to play golf. There’s even a poem with only the sound “sh” emphasizing the tonal language.
In China people use these words as a code to discuss subjects that could be controversial or monitored. For example the word “river crab” sounds very similar to “harmonious society” in Chinese. The government justifies its censorship by saying that it is essential in order to have a harmonious society. Therefore to say something was censored you would say that it was “river crabbed” or “harmonized”. There is a website dedicated to tracking all of the euphemisms for politically taboo topics and this is what the government is trying to crack down on. Sometimes a river crab is more than a river crab.