i have been inducted into the real china, and here is a smattering of what i've been witnessing over the past few days:
- major fights at train stations (i never used to understand it when i read newspaper articles about people getting trampled in crowded temples and things like that but now i TOTALLY see how that is possible)
- constant hawking of phlegm and spitting in the street
- people carrying their own tea thermos everywhere
- hard-core bargaining
- lots and lots of weird street food (apparently i have a stomach of steel!! go me)
- people who choose not to use the bathroom stall door even though it is RIGHT THERE
- snoring in overnight trains
- lots of pushing and shoving on trains and buses
- public signs with super-awesome chinglish... think i might need to start a photo set exclusively devoted to phrases such as "no striding" (in a public square), "no asembling a crawd" and "don't be moved by the hand" (in a public restroom, still not quite sure what that one means)
- kids with holes cut into their pants so they can squat and... relieve themselves (i've never seen so many butt cracks in my life. how do their butts not get ridiculously chapped in the INSANE COLD? it's a fascinating mystery)
i am also happy to report that i am no longer a wussy tourist clinging desperately to the hem of my mandarin-speaking cousins. this past thursday i wandered out on my own to see the forbidden city and tianenmen square. i took the subway out there (along with three million of my fellow black-haired friends), and i think my (very eloquent) response when i came out at the tianenmen west subway stop was "whoa." it's hard to describe the immense SCALE of the place... pictures don't quite do it justice. i spent the entire morning wending my way through the forbidden city, looking at temple after temple and imagining what life must have been like its inhabitants (lame but true = i kept thinking of the disney movie mulan! i need to get out more). afterward i went to tianenmen square, which is actually quite serious and not touristy at all. you have to go through security to even get into the square and then once you're in there are uniformed policemen EVERYwhere and signs telling you not to disturb the public order.
later that day after my first solo meal of noodles and dumplings, i ended up in the temple of heaven park. i was a bit nervous at first because it was almost dusk and i didn't want to wander around such a tree-filled place by myself but it turns out i was in the company of a bunch of local people just doing their thing. there were tons of people of all ages in the park doing everything from playing cards, kicking around a hackysack (it was like 1996 up in there, i half-expected to hear nirvana or pearl jam over the speakers), ballroom dancing, singing karaoke (they had their own amp and everything, it was hard core), practicing gymnastics, flirting... there was even one gentleman who was strolling around the manicured sidewalks with his hands clasped contentedly behind his back, singing opera at the top of his lungs. i felt like i had been invited into a scene from the play "daily life in beijing," and felt immensely privileged to have been part of the whole experience.
fast-forward to friday, when i went to lama temple. the smell of incense was palpable even in the subway station below ground, and once you got into the temple the scent was incredibly overpowering. there was a handful of tourists looking around but we were outnumbered by the local chinese people who had come to the temple to pray. i had expected it to be mostly white-haired older folk, but the worshippers were mostly young 20- and 30-somethings who held their smoking sticks of incense in the air with a look of intense concentration on their faces before prostrating themselves before the shining buddha statues.
later that day i went to the train station and boarded my overnight train to xi'an... my first chinese train experience! i had a lower bed in a four-bed berth, and i was pretty much spoiled by the whole experience. my cabin mates were a 50-something woman, a 40-something businessman who looked like he had eaten a LOT of extra dumplings during his life (even his hands sort of resembled pale and doughy dumplings) and a 30-something real estate developer named jiang. the ride to xi'an was blissfully uneventful aside from the insane crowds (crawds? heh) at the train station, and with the aid of my friends Advil PM and Awesome Earplugs From REI, i was able to get a good night's sleep before arriving in xi'an at 6:20 the next morning.
the main attraction in xi'an is of course the terra cotta soldiers but i actually found the city itself to be a lot more fascinating. we spent two days in the city and although day one was mostly devoted to the warriors, we actually spent a lot of time in the city's muslim quarter, exploring the mosque and eating weird food from street vendors and then perusing the "antiques" in the various stalls (anyone want a north face jacket for cheap? if so, i'm your girl). of course the warriors were impressive but the whole experience was kind of dampened by the fact that my entire body was frozen despite my three layers and down jacket on top and two pairs of pants on the bottom. for me, the most fascinating aspect of the whole terra cotta warriors experience is the fact that one man commissioned the whole thing... furthermore, he didn't just say "hey peasants, build me some warriors to protect me during the afterlife," he decided to go all out and create a ginormous army with a ridiculous amount of detail, like hairstyles and facial expressions and cavalry types and battle formations. i was rather impressed by the sheer selfishness of it all, you know?
...which brings me to today, if you're still reading. today is a catch-up day (you know, catching up on important details like booking flights and eating peking duck), but tomorrow we will be hiking the great wall. i can't wait! cross your fingers that i don't die of frostbite!