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Thursday, April 10, 2008

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So, you like big cities. Arriving Beijing… They don’t come any bigger than this. Feeling lucky, punk? It takes three hours to cross the five circular roads of the city, and its residents can never fully explore their own town. The new airport terminal—all steel, glass and lights—built just days ago, extends beyond the horizon, and probably ends somewhere in a different city. Crawling through a six-story-high hotel entrance, trotting across the football-field lobby, you are suddenly in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids movie, or, better yet, in an ant farm, among your tourist peers from California, all dragging our ant luggage (you carry your own, no bell boys). Chairman Mao’s gaze follows you across the largest in the world Tian An Men Square. Following the millennia-old imperial tradition, making people feel like ants proven time and again useful for the state. Communists did not invent “your life is but a tiny speck of dust in our country’s grandiose construction” model, they just learned how to use it fast. From a hotel window on a 36th floor you see an after-theatre crowd pulsating on Bong Chang An Avenue downstairs. The same crowd is still whirling there in an hour, in two, in three. Gradually, it dawns on you that there is no theatre there—it’s just the hourly reality of never ever receding crowd. “We stay glued to each other,” warned our lovely tour guide, Anna. “You unglue, and you are lost, maybe, forever.” Of course, we unglued. Were we sorry for that! Once unglued, there is no way you can look around and see your tour group anywhere ahead or behind. All you see is a crowd of strangers. Some in semi-chaotic movement around you, some in well-organized groups of Chinese tourists—all in red or orange caps, all shouting angry “cheese” (or something like it) in front of their cameramen, all looking at you with restrained curiosity. “Big nose, blue eyes, that’s how you are being called here,” explained our Shanghai guide, Michelle, who admittedly picked up her name from a dictionary just for our group. She shared insider jokes, street smarts, and bits of reality with us, like strange facts that people from Shanghai (all 16 mil. of them) dislike out-of-towners (just 4 mil. of those), consider Beijing residents floozies, and enjoy a 10-minute grace period at the start of each workday just to use an elevator. (You better believe it. Office buildings are huge, dozens of speedy elevators in each of them are not enough to carry up loads of disciplined workers all at the same time). Shanghai is so big, it has its own Chinatown. Construction is everywhere. Welding sparkles way into the wee hours. Shanghai skyline is beautiful beyond belief with new, newer, newest, and still in progress skyscrapers, bridges, and multi-layered highway overpasses. You are in Fifth Element now! Far below, at the base of the ant farm, garbage piles, weeds, and dirt surround gray tenements, spiked with laundry, over-crawling with tiny gray people. Tap water is not safe to drink. Not in a restaurant, not in a posh hotel. Future wars will be for water, not oil. Street food looks tempting, but you don’t dare, and tourist food is mixed with something as dark, harsh and ill effective as machine oil, so you mostly eat and run, run, run, or get nauseated and don’t eat at all. Next to imperial palaces with their red, blue, and golden tiles, next to poetic pagodas, half-concealed by weeping willows and blossoming peach trees, next to serene Buddhist temples and miraculous gardens, there are overcrowded unsanitary public restrooms, crazy star-shaped traffic jams, disabled panhandlers, and “hello people:” hello, hello, Gucci bags, Rolex watch! You wake at six, you engage on a jaw-dropping journey through China’s endless wonders, you fall asleep late at night for a couple of hours to dream of dungeons and dragons, and to wake up with a stomach flu, and you know that there will be winners and there will be losers in this human race. And that’s the way the fortune cookie crumbles. Photo by Yuri Krasov. Forbidden City is not that forbidden any more.


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