Sunday, December 30, 2007

a happy afternoon

In many posts I've included criticisms of what I've seen. Today, I had a perfectly happy afternoon, and it's only fair we give Beijing credit for that.

I found out just at the last moment I'd have Monday off, so we had no plans to travel anywhere these days. And so, after spending a good part of the day doing nothing (then again, what's wrong with that when you usually spend most of your days doing SOMETHING?), we decided to go to the Drum and Bell Towers. Built in the 13th centuries, when Beijing was a Mongol capital, they're set in a nice area with traditional (and restored) alleys, close to Houhai (one of Beijing's lakes).

And so, we got dressed quickly, lest our sudden impulse vanish (you can get so lazy when you live somewhere, always thinking "oh, there will be plenty of time for that later!"), and headed for the Drum Tower (Gulou, 鼓楼), which in these 2 1/2 years we had not visited (remember what I told you about getting lazy?).

Well, we got there, and promptly got our tickets to climb up. It's got some steep steps but, once you finish that unexpected rear exercise, you're rewarded with views of the Bell Tower (which has some beautiful soft green decoration on top, which harmonises beautifully with the gray stone and tiles), views of surrounding alleys and traditional houses, of Jingshan Park, of Houhai, and even of the modern structures of the Central Business District in the distance. The Drum Tower used to mark (with, of course, drums!) the time of day and, lucky us, there was a drum performance shortly after we arrived! We were standing there, just watching the city from above, when we heard a sudden and rhythmic beating of drums, so we rushed around the tower into the inner hall for this surprise performance!

Afterwards, and reinvigorated by the cold air and the drums, we headed down, to visit the other tower which, alas, was closed. So, since I was STARVING, we stopped at a Yunnanese restaurant (that is, food from the Southern province of Yunnan) right on the small square sandwiched between both towers (what a wonderful site, I must say).

And this restaurant was yet another pleasant surprise: cosy, welcoming, and with a menu so packed with vegetarian dishes I had a hard time choosing! We ordered some delicious, woody rice tea, some fried scallions with mint, thinly shredded tofu with a light chili sauce, fried mushrooms (some short, thin, dark kind), some glutinous-starchy vegetable (it's the disgusting looking one in the pic, and I know you'll all agree which one it is!) with garlic and whatever, and sweet pineapple rice! I was HAPPY. And to top it all (the delicious food, the cosiness of warm rice tea and a place resembling more a friend's living room than a restaurant), we had the most interesting of music as background (friends, this is going to sound weird, but it's the best explanation I can find): imagine the lead singer of "The Cure" (or similar band), singing in Mandarin, with Mongolian throat harmonics reinforcing the vocals at key points, with some industrial "urbanness" for good measure. Awesome. Honestly. That's a kind of cultural mix that makes me feel soooo good.

And so, in the best of moods, we finished our afternoon taking a restored alley to Houhai, stopping to buy a couple of delicious traditional Beijing pastries (one of them with sesame seeds on the outside and filled with sweet red bean paste, heaven!) that made me that much more happy, and arriving at Houhai (后海) for a soft, beautiful sunset light over the lake.

We headed back home, with just the biggest of smiles and the best of moods.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

four Beijing scenes

It's been more than a month since my last post, and it's almost year's end! so, instead of cooking up a list of excuses which could in itself constitute a lengthy post, let's get down to... FOUR BEIJING SCENES


On December 18th we had the honour of being invited to a special performance at the theatre of China's flaming new National Centre for the Performing Arts (also known as "The Egg") to watch a performance of the "Army of the Red Detachment of Women" ballet. Located in the centre of Beijing, with Tian'anmen Square east of it, the Forbidden City across the street, and next to the Stalinist style House of the People, the "Egg" (please forgive my use of this word, but it's so much shorter than the full name) definitely stands out: designed by French architect Paul Andreu, the building has received its fair share of criticism by many Chinese, complaining that it's unsafe (referring to the unfortunate accident at the new terminal, designed by Andreu, at Charles de Gaulle airport in 2004) or that it's not Chinese enough. Personally, I love the contrast, I praise the idea of not being mired in old ideas about what is Chinese and what's not or whether it even matters, and the water surrounding the building gives it a wonderful calm atmosphere during the day.

As for the performance, what can I say: we watched a ballet that glorified the fight of decent, hard-working Chinese women for a new, Communist China, free from debasement and corruption. Living in Beijing, watching malls springing like mushrooms, women buying Louis Vuitton in astonishing quantities, knowing peasants and commoners had the hardest of times approaching officers at this year's National People's Congress, the ballet was a most interesting cultural experience, and incredibly removed from today's reality.


On December 23rd, a Sunday, my habib had his Taichi exam! Yes, martial arts are something that many people do for spiritual development, for health, for broadening their horizons, etc. etc., but in China it is also a SPORT, just like any other, and along with that come competitions, ratings, examinations... If anything, taichi's (an other martial arts') spiritual aspect may be less important in China than in other places, as you have a far greater number of people practicing the SPORT, aiming for technique, performance, and maybe an "awe" effect. And so, in the most unceremonious of ways, my habib and a huge group of people performed a simple routine, and passed. And when I say unceremonious, I'm not exaggerating, the atmosphere was that of any ordinary school examination, the place was noisy, everything looked disorganised... All in all, it was an intriguing contrast, seeing some fantastic martial artists compete (there was a competition first, and then the exam) in an ancient art that's become a sport as accessible as jogging, though with definitely more caché. My habib was way above the level he tested, as he practices with his teacher longer, more complex and more varied forms of taichi, but bureaucracy would only let him test for 3rd Duan.


(as usual, this post is getting longer than intended...) A Beijing X-mas dinner which, for me, meant being with family and close friends, sharing a special meal and giving presents. Honestly, it IS weird celebrating X-mas when everything around you is "un-christmas-y" (no, lit-up tress and merry X-mas signs in malls a X-mas do not make), but we tried, my habib turned my vegan dinner fiasco into something not only edible but actually yummy, we toasted (with champagne, a custom inherited from very dear Lebanese friends of ours when we lived in Beirut), and we exchanged gifts (my gift for my habib made it just on time, you have no idea what bureaucracy packages go through at customs! but in the end he, as usual, outdid me at gift-giving, lol). It was, in fact, a very merry X-mas.


Finally (at least for this post), on the 25th we went to the Today Art Museum. A fairly new museum in Beijing, it often features interesting exhibitions. But that day, on the 25th, the exhibition we were visiting, by a foreign artist, was not as stimulating as we had thought, and yet it led us, inadvertently, to another exhibition which was something between surprising, stimulating and disturbing. You can appreciate in contemporary Chinese art a number of artists who feature quite obsessive pieces, repeating a theme over and over. Some of them have become quite famous, sparking a series of artists who've simply copied the idea, and who picked out any one theme to obsess with (sort of like artistic piracy). As you can imagine, many of those works are interesting just as a creative exercise, leaving you wondering half-jokingly what they'll start repeating next (legs? ears? cats?), but this one artist we came across, Wang Haiyang (王海洋), did cause some impression on us, having painted himself in dozens of different positions, wearing different clothes, playing different roles and genders. There, in the gallery, as the only visitors, we were almost haunted by the dozens of eyes staring back at us, and yet we were still drawn to the paintings. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, so this is all I could take:

And here's a picture of some sculptures by Yue Minjun (岳敏君), just outside the museum.