It still catches me off guard every once in a while: I'm living in Asia. As you can guess, this thought recurred often throughout the course of my first day in China.
I got about 12 solid hours of sleep after arriving in Beijing, so I woke up around 6 am, and I needed to leave for the airport at 4pm. What would you do in Beijing if you had about 10 hours to kill? Well first off, I definitely needed to solve the problem of not being able to reach my contact by phone, as he was supposed to pick me up from the airport in Wuhan that night. That was still secondary to the overwhelming fact that I was in China, so the first thing I did after I woke up was I went outside and walked around the streets. In about 45 minutes of walking I started to get a headache because there were so many different things I was trying to focus on. Here's a glimpse at what my inner monologue sounded like: “A Peugeot! A Citroen! Some brand of car I cant read... right, that's going to constantly be an issue. What type of tree is that? Is that a weed in the US? Oooo I wonder what's in that alley? How old is that lady? I wonder what wars or crazy Chinese historical events she's witnessed, or how she feels about Mao Zedong or Sun Yat-Sen or Genghis Khan. Maybe she was at Tianenmen Square in '89. Speaking of, I need to see tha... hey look at that dog! (laugh at how adorable it is).”
So once my head started thumpin from all the activity, I decided to get some down time. I went back in the hotel and found a computer to send an e-mail to my contact telling him that I couldn't reach his phone and that everything was going as planned. I then sent my little sis an e-mail telling her I was alive, and then checked facebook. Old habits die hard. An old friend who I was in contact with about getting an ESL teaching job in Asia (Emily, she is teaching in Pyeongchang, S. Korea, not to be confused with Pyongyang, N. Korea) had posted on my wall sometime during my travel. Anyway it was an odd coincidence -- she didn't know exactly when I was arriving in China, but it basically summarized the crazy experience I just had about 10 minutes before of walking around the streets of Beijing. It was also nice to know that I wasn't the only one who was feeling a bit out of place...
After finishing that task, I still had oodles of time to do whatever I wanted in Beijing. The guy who helped me bring my luggage to my room the night before, Michael (definitely not his real name), told me he could hold my stuff for me at the hotel concierge while I toured the city. So I dropped my luggage off with my new buddy, grabbed a free McDonald's brand map that showed all of their locations in Beijing and headed out.
Mission 1: find Tianenmen Square
Mission 2: find something cool to bring back.
Mission 3: eat in a McDonald's.
Mission 4: take a bunch of pictures.
Mission 5: get back in time to go to the airport without having a watch or cell phone to help.
Mission 6: Try not to look like a tourist.
Mission 1 was also priority #1. The McDonald's map clearly labelled where it was, and Michael indicated where the hotel was, so I was really confident that I'd be able to find it despite the obstacles of being illiterate and Beijing being huge as hell. About being illiterate though, I always felt that products or maps, really anything involving directions were always designed for dumb people (e.g. directions for making ramen noodles, with pictures of boiling water and then putting the noodles into the water). So, I was fairly certain there would be maps along the sides of the road to help people like me figure out where I was going, especially since Beijing is probably the biggest international tourism city in China. And indeed there were, so I just followed those and kept track of where I was by finding the big red "you are here" spot. What made these maps hilarious though was that to get from the hotel to Tianenmen Square, it was about 5 blocks east, and then 1 block south. Not far right? Far as fuck. Walking one block in Pittsburgh takes, on average, between 1-2 minutes. In Beijing it takes about 10 minutes; to get to Tianenmen Square it took a little under an hour. The roads are also wide as hell. Crossing for the inexperienced should be limited to only intersections or designated crossing points, the number of which the city tries to limit by putting a fence between both sides of the road (the picture to the right was taken on the way to Tianenmen Square). If you're really uneasy there are also pedestrian bridges or tunnels for you at major intersections or on streets with an absurd number of lanes.
It didn't take me long, though, to learn the subtle nuances of walking the streets like the Chinese do. I've always been one to overanalyze the art of being a pedestrian, being a 5-year veteran of Oakland city walking, so I was quickly able to adjust. But the codes of Oakland and Beijing walking are vastly different. In Oakland, pedestrians have the right of way, all the time. If you're driving and get a green light, you expect college students to walk blindly in front of you. However, the pedestrians are pretty patient, and many will wait for a walk sign to begin crossing the street. In Beijing, you aren't patient, and you don't walk blindly in front of cars or you will get hit. Traffic in Beijing can be best correlated to the motion of fish in an ocean. The busses do whatever the hell they want, because they're the biggest. Cars come next and they are more plentiful than busses, but yield only to them. Motorcycles, Mopeds, and Bikes are after cars in the food chain, but have access to their own lanes in the streets. People are definitely at the bottom, and in Beijing it really does look like a school of fish avoiding a bigger fish whenever a car makes a right turn across a pedestrian lane that's giving the "walk" sign.
Anyway the walk to accomplish mission 1 was, as you can guess, overstimulating. Along the way I only took one picture, what I believe was probably an old gate to the Forbidden City. It was the first place I saw Chinese people taking pictures of, so I decided to take one as well (to the right). It was also the first place I saw a military presence in the city. A little further down the road there was a much larger presence.
Two minutes further down Chang'an avenue was my destination. I tried to take pictures of all four sides of the square, but because I arrived from the north side of the street on the northwest corner of the square (and crossing Chang'an ave. was going to actually be impossible), I visited the north side of the square first. This is where the Tian'anmen is, a gate that leads to the Forbidden City. It's also very famous for the picture of Mao on its facade. Tons of people were taking pictures of their friends or family standing in front of the gate (see picture on right). I still haven't figured out if the people take pictures like this (i.e. near pictures or statues of Chairman Mao, of which there are a ton) because of the obvious historical significance that Mao has himself imposed upon the country of China, or because they look up to his image. This guy is probably the biggest historical figure to the Chinese; his presence still pervades many levels of their society. The fact that his picture adorns the Tian'anmen is example enough. If you see a statue though, chances are it's of Mao. The currency is probably the most obvious example of his omnipresence. Guess which value of RMB his image is on -- 1, 10, 20, 50, or 100? Answer: all of them. I'm sure in China's thousands of years old history, there's someone else they could honor with a headshot on the 10 RMB bill. But like I said, I haven't asked anyone if it's something they're OK with or not -- I've always understood Mao's image as one of controversy; but given the survival of these images and statues, he is clearly still a very big deal here.
Anyway, Tiananmen Square is frickin huge. According to Wikipedia, it is the largest open air city square in the world; this doesn't surprise me at all. Chang'an Avenue divides it from the Tian'anmen north gate, a road that by my count is between 16-20 lanes wide (see left). Thus, the only way to get into the square is through a tunnel that goes underneath a street. That tunnel also exists because tons of people are always visiting this place (I learned later on that it's often said that every Chinese person needs to see two places: the Great Wall and Tian'anmen Square).
I tried to take as many pictures to give ya'll an idea of how bonkers this place is and how crowded it was. To the east was a probably very famous museum, the west was probably a very important government building, to the south was a relatively smaller building which was obviously a big tourist attraction, and in the center was a monument to war heroes (A little research indicates that the museum is The National Museum of China, the government building is The Great Hall of the People, the smaller building to the south is The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, and the monument is the Monument of the People's Heroes).
Here are some pictures I took standing still in the square:
to my right:
to my left: