Saturday, March 7, 2009

Another visit to Tiananmen

March 5th was a mostly uneventful day.  We had been hoping to leave earlier in the day, but the night before when we tried to arrange train tickets to Pingyao (our next destination), they told us the only tickets available were a night train.  The hostel desk worker kept assuming we'd want to take the shorter duration train that left at 5pm and arrived in Pingyao at 3am, despite Marisa repeatedly saying we'd rather take the train that left at 7am and got into Pingyao at 7am.  We were a little concerned about arriving with nowhere to go at a city we'd never been to at 3am, not to mention that it'd be in the freezing cold.  

Since we had nothing planned, we putzed around all day.  We decided to go back to Tiananmen square again.  Our first day in Beijing we had a bizarre experience where we got into a Taxi and said 'Tiananmen square', and the taxi driver refused to take us.  We showed him the Chinese text in the book, so we think he knew where we wanted to go, but we had a frustrating 5 minute argument with him in Chinese and us in English where at the end we still had no idea what we were arguing about.  Eventually we all just shrugged and Marisa and I got out of the cab and walked to Tiananmen square.  It was all fenced off, although you could walk on the sidewalks across from it, so we don't know if the fences had anything to do with him not wanting to take us.  Perhaps relatedly, Mao's mausoleum was also closed.  Unfortunately it seemed to be closed again, so we still didn't get to see Mao's pickled body.  We did get to walk around the gate to the old city wall of Beijing.  (The city walls are torn down, but the gate is still there and is huge.)

Tiananmen square was otherwise uneventful.  There are a massive number of security personnel around it.  There actually seem to be four types of them: what looks to be the normal army with green uniforms who march around in columns around the square and also stand around watching with walkietalkies, other people standing around in similar looking but silver-colored uniforms, city police in police uniforms, and, lastly, people in civilian clothes but red armbands with yellow letters.  I don't know what each of these groups are, but ignoring the civilian clothed people, there's a uniformed security person about every 10 feet around the square.  (if you average, because sometimes they're in clusters of 4 or 5 sitting around shooting the shit)
Things you are not allowed to do in Tianenmen Square. From 20090305_Beijing_TianenmenSquare_LamaTemple_Starredf

On our first visit to Tiananmen Square we saw a woman who was wearing a red banner with black Chinese letters around her chest who was in the process of being carted off by the police. We had to use our imagination to guess what her deal was, however we heard a Tibetan supporter was shot after lighting himself on fire in Tianenmen Square recently.  This second time we went I was curious to see if we'd see any other protestors and was thinking about trying to snap a picture of them.  We didn't see any, which is perhaps fortunate because I don't know what would happen if they saw me taking a picture.  We did surreptitiously snap pictures of the police checking random people's bags as they walked around the sidewalk.  It mostly seemed to happen near Mao's Mausoleum, so I wonder if that's a place where people try to protest.

At the risk of being political, we thought that was all pretty interesting to see because it's something I couldn't imagine in the US, where you can protest at least up to a certain level of obnoxiousness wherever you want (It's hard to imagine getting carted away for simply wearing a shirt),  On the other hand, our government now claims (or recently claimed) the power to detain anyone indefinitely for ill-defined 'terrorist' activities, so I'm not feeling particularly smug about our relative freedoms.

Marisa's foot was hurting more after our walking on the previous two days, so we ended up stopping at 4 or 5 little shops to get warm and rest.  We had some fantastic snacks (a pastry stuffed with green onions, mushroom noodle soup, tofu and sauce at a fast food place) and we usually drank tea and beer.  One unforeseen-to-me consequence of water being undrinkable is that given the choice between buying bottled water and similarly-priced-beer, it's easy and perhaps providential to choose beer everytime.  burp.  (At least with beer you know for sure that the bottle hasn't been refilled with tap water)  Most days we drink nothing but beer and coffee.  (well, ok, and tea)
Fresh food delivery to our noodle house. From 20090305_Beijing_TianenmenSquare_LamaTemple_Starredf

Before heading to the train station, we also took a taxi to the Tibetan-Buddhist temple in Beijing, which is supposed to be the biggest outside of Tibet.  Interestingly, it was a former imperial residence that was converted to a Tibetan temple for political reasons, as a kind of compliment to the Tibetans.  (The temple information said this, and that it was intended as a way to help the unification of the different ethnic groups in China)  As visitors and certainly not Tibet experts, we didn't have the full context to know if whether the information they had in the temple was correct or not.  There were people keeping watch in the temple who were dressed up as monks, but we've read that these people are often not buddhists and are just paid to sit there and keep an eye on tourists who might try to rip stuff off the walls.  :-)  

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