Beijing through the years
Having completed my tour of Olympic venues and events, I spent my last full day in Beijing chilling out. I got up relatively late, watched more NBC coverage on the Armed Forces Network (in spite of my growing aversion to the militaristic PSAs), and bummed around my cousin's house. We had made plans to go into town for dinner, and my cousin and his wife selected a restaurant that was reputed to have the best Sichuan food in all of Beijing. It's called Chuan Dan and is located in the Sichuan provincial building on Jianguomennei Dajie. "Dajie" means "avenue" (literally "big street"), "nei" means "inner," "men" means "gate," and "guo" means "country." But I had to turn to the trusty Wikipedia to figure out what the words in Jianguomen mean together: Gate of Founding of the Nation. So the street translates as "Gate of the Founding of the Nation Inner Avenue." A veritable mouthful.
When we arrived at the the restaurant, we all noticed that it seemed very "Chinese," meaning that there were a) no Westerners in sight, b) the decor was not gussied up, and c) the food looked very authentic. For those who haven't tried Sichuanese cuisine before, it's dominated by chili peppers that originally were introduced to China by the Spaniards (who discovered them in the New World). I find that bit of historical trivia very interesting because Spanish food itself is not spicy or anything close to it. Anyway, we ordered way too much food and sweated through it as best we could. One of the dishes, la ji ("spicy chicken"), came out in this enormous shallow dish that was over a foot in diameter. The small pieces of skinless (but not boneless) chicken had been deep-fried with a huge amount of chili peppers, so we couldn't even really see the chicken. Rather, we had to fish through the peppers to find the meat. It actually wasn't all that hot, but just the sight of the whole presentation was pretty searing.
This restaurant had the best mapo tofu that I've ever eaten - since this dish is a hallmark of Sichuanese cooking, it's used to judge the authenticity of the restaurant. Mapo tofu has ground pork, cubes of soft tofu, Sichuan peppercorns (which slightly numb the mouth)...usually there's a noticeable layer of oil at the bottom. It shouldn't be too spicy because that would overwhelm the other flavors.
Afterwards the three boys wanted to get dessert, so we went to a part of town nearby where the China World Trade Center is located. I had made plans to get together with Herbert again, mainly to pick up the sample of green coffee from Yunnan that he had found for me after our first meeting. We decided on the Starbucks on the ground floor of the shopping center attached to the China World Trade Center. Afterwards I wandered around looking for a bathroom and was absolutely blown away by the shops I saw- we're talking extremely high-end stuff, mostly European houses of fashion, that you would find only on Fifth Avenue, Michigan Avenue, or Rodeo Drive. Right next to each other in a shopping mall in Beijing. The mall itself seemed to be constructed entirely of white marble. As I was riding an escalator, I couldn't help but think how many times Mao has turned over in his grave ever since Deng declared "To get rich is glorious." There are certainly loads of rich people in China, especially in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities. You really have to see these malls to believe them...you wouldn't think for a nanosecond that you're in a communist country.
I wanted to do some last-minute Olympics shopping, and my cousin told me that there was an Olympics superstore on Wangfujing Dajie. This is the original Western shopping street in Beijing, and it was already fairly upscale when I first visited in 2000. The store was a mob scene, even more so than the one on the Olympic Green. To confuse the situation even more, you couldn't just select an item, pay for it on the spot, and walk out. A shopkeeper had to find the right size and write up a ticket, after which I had to walk over to a cash register, pay for the item, and return to the original place where I found it to retrive my purchase. It's basically a shoplifting prevention method, but having to jostle with the overeager crowd of people was jarring. The funny thing was that I saw a young American guy with a Georgetown Rowing t-shirt on, and he indeed was a Georgetown student. I think I caught him off-guard by coming up to him.
Upon escaping the store I realized that I was pretty close to Tian'anmen Square, so I made a last-minute decision to walk over. There were tons of people on the street and the weather was beautiful once again. I recall having done that same walk back in 2000, and it blew my mind to see how much had changed. The main street that divides Tian'anmen from the Forbidden City is Chang'an Jie - the section to the east, close to Wangfujing, is lined with monstrous hotels and office buildings that are all lit up. Tian'anmen Square itself is nothing like I remembered it. There were multiple Olympics-related decorations, signs, monument-type things, flower beds, etc., most of which was pretty tacky. You could barely see Mao's mausoleum that sits in the middle of the square. Also, there were a zillion cars going up and down Chang'an Jie...in 2000, my aunt and I walked back to our hotel at night in near-silence.
I don't need to say anything here about what happened at Tian'anmen in 1989 - you all know the story. After taking a few pictures of the front gate of the Forbidden City where Mao's portrait hangs, I stood there and thought about all of the things that had happened over the past 100+ years at that very spot. In the movie "The Last Emperor," the boy emperor, Puyi, watches the Qing Dynasty come to an end without being able to do anything about it. Then the Japanese invade prior to World War II. Then the Communists defeat the Nationalists (the side on which both of my grandfathers served, one in intelligence and the other in the navy) and Mao declares the birth of the People's Republic of China. Then the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Then the student protests in 1989. And now throngs of people, mostly Chinese but some Westerners as well, celebrating the Olympics. It was enough to make my head spin.
My final part of the pedestrian pilgrimage was to head a couple more blocks west to the National Performing Arts Center (or something like that), which is an enormous structure that looks like half of an egg lying on its side, with a large moat-like lake surrounding it. Metal panels cover the building, and on that night there were a ton of spotlights shining on it. The color of the building changed from white to blue and back to white - I couldn't tell if that was happening externally or internally, but either way it was both cool and over-the-top. What was especially weird was the juxtaposition of that building and the large, stately granite one across the street.
It was in front of that granite building where I caught a taxi to go back to my cousin's house. The driver seemed to think I was unaware of how much the fare would be, and he returned to the topic a couple of times before we even got to the Second Ring Road. It ended up being 90RMB, which is close to $13...a huge sum in China, especially for transportation. For me, though, I gladly paid the price - I couldn't have left Beijing without at least going to Tian'anmen, as gaudy as it was on that night.