Hi. Miss me? So, China: What the fuck? Beijing is the land of women with glittery umbrellas and pudgy men with mid-sections bared, their shirts balled up to their solar plexi as though they’re auditioning for a cameo on “Saved by the Bell.” Last week I got back from seven days in the People’s Republic and those are my impressions. Also: Cleaner than I’d thought. Also: More capitalistic than I’d thought. Also: They will not be taking over the United States, no matter how much debt we give them. I have this on good authority from a well-placed source in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Plus, the Chinese are terrible at translating menu items and civil instructions into English. Exhibit A: This blog post’s title, which was the actual wording of the actual name of an actual dish at an actual restaurant in Beijing. God knows what it really means; none of us ordered it. If the Chinese do take over the United States, they will likely rename it “Confrontation of the Horses Divided by 50 Lemonades.”
Anyway. China! Beijing: A bit bland. I much preferred our sojourns to the north and south. Northward: The Great Wall, whose un-restored Jinshanling section we scaled as it crumbled beneath our feet.
It was a precipitous climb. An exhausting three hours teetering on narrow byways and scrambling — almost on hands and knees — up steep stairways. If this wall was in America, we would’ve signed a 10-page liability form.
With the Wall in my pocket, I have now seen three of the seven wonders of the “medieval” world (including Stonehenge and the Colosseum), or four of the 11 if you go by Wikipedia (which counts the Taj Mahal, which I’ve seen and kissed extensively). By next month I will be able to check off the Hagia Sophia. One day I will complete my wonder wander.
After the Wall, we stayed at the Commune by the Great Wall, a collection of modern architecture nestled in the hills near the Badaling section. Our bamboo villa was designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. It was very zen. Or ch’an, as it were.
Southward: After a 3-hour flight to Guilin and a 90-minute drive from the airport, we arrived at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, which was idyllic. Stone balcony overlooking the Yulong River. Tall green bottles of Tsing-Tao beer. A dwarf named Angel with brittle bone syndrome at the front desk. Everything you’d expect.
The topography was unlike anything I’ve seen. Behold, the karst mountains, a lumbering herd of leafy limestone monsters wrought by rainwater and carbonic acid.
We spent our time drinking coffee on the squishy banks of the Yulong, feeling a bit like imperialists, watching an endless stream of rafting Chinese families. We biked to downtown Yangshuo, scoured merchants’ wares (sandalwood carvings, sterling silver jewelry, cheeky Obamao T-shirts), drank double-double chocolate milkshakes, bar-hopped at night between holes in the wall featuring bottled Jack-and-Cokes and pairs of 20-something Chinese dudes singing American pop songs (Green Day, Maroon 5), and shared a night cap with three rambunctious Chinese youths, an Israeli, a Spaniard and a couple blokes from the British Isles on the rickety rooftop of Monkey Jane’s Guesthouse.
After some kayaking and water-buffalo-bothering on the Li River, I read a bit of Michael Meyer’s “The Last Days of Old Beijing,” a memoir of the vanishing hutong slums of the capital. In it, an old Chinese landlord bemoans the razing of the hutong to make way for real-estate development. She talks about the concept of “jie diqi,” which means a connection to the Earth’s energy. You can’t be connected if you live on the 14th floor of something, she says. You can if you live in a house, on the ground. Or in a slum, as it were.
It’s nice to know that my clinical aversion to apartments and condos has an actual name.