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DISPATCH: Beijing, China
October 25, 2000

When is a secret not a secret?
When it is forbidden.

       …ancient Chinese riddle

With a short stretch of logic, this formula of Secret + Forbidden = No Secret can be easily applied to my recent five-day trip to Beijing: its impulsiveness made my disappearance go unnoticed to all but my closest friends (the secret part), and its cost vs. time of travel approached the prohibitive for someone in my loosely employed status (forbidden). These salient factors, it's no secret, made it something I couldn't resist.

Inspiration and temptation for this momentary lapse of judgment came through a friend of mine, Mary, a flight attendant for United Airlines. She has recently been laying-over in Beijing, raving about the sights and swooning over the shopping. Add to these accolades her offer of round-trip Buddy Passes and a couple of nights in a nifty hotel and in a heartbeat my carry-on was packed.

Fortunately, ten hours in Business Class is still my idea of travel heaven. On this flight, I was invited to move to a seat dead-center in the back and was happy to sprawl across all three seats, some trick given the immovable arm rests, but since I counted my laptop to my left as an extension of my being, my feet lapping into the right seat designated the whole row as my domain. An equally true but opposite riddle might be: "When is luxury extra sumptuous? When it is free." I was offered orange juice or champagne; I took both and made a Mimosa welcome-drink to accompany the little cup of salty nuts. White wine was served with the first course, red with the main, sherry with dessert and Grand Marnier as a nightcap with my two Tylenol PMs. This is a sure recipe for a good six hours of sleep, extra easy after a movie like Dreaming of Africa. Kim Basinger can only overact or move like a leaden beauty, and Vincent Perez doesn't need to do more than grin to be engaging. Only the true-story aspect made the tale worth telling.

There exists a few moments in every Business Class experience where the perfect quantity of ingested substances plus the availability of nearly every sensory stimulation approaches the sublime. With the video on, the audio tuned to music, my computer on the dinner tray, a book in my lap, drink in hand, chocolate not far down memory lane, and my mind a synesthetic blur, nirvana seemed immanent: there was absolutely nothing I could imagine changing. I wantonly channel-surfed the audio for awhile ("I'll be your secret, if you can keep it…" Tim James) before I sank into the bliss of oblivion. I hope I never become so jaded that I miss enjoying this always salvific ten minutes before passing out into airplane dreamland.

We arrived at 4:30 PM on Wednesday, apparently robbed of an entire day by the dateline. There was time to do a little exploratory shopping in the arcade near the hotel and I was thrilled to see a few old things: shagreen eyeglass cases and colorful appliquéd children's hats from southwest China, along with wood carvings and jade trinkets that probably had no real age. I bought a counterfeit Nike polypro jacket ($6) to wear the next morning for the certain chill of the Great Wall. A delicious dinner was then shared with the other flight attendants at the cost of little more than a song.

Up pre-dawn, we met Mary's regular driver, Gao Yong, a crisply dressed young man with a spectacularly clean car, for the 90-minute drive to the Mutianyu Great Wall of China. The vendors were just setting up shop as we arrived and we were the first visitors to ride the five-minute chair lift to the top. I savored the hushed quiet as we slowly levitated above the trees and bushes below, not knowing how very rare and precious this peaceful moment was at this terrifically popular tourist destination. Once on the wall, mists swirling about the crenellated brick enclosure, we decided to trek north toward a watchtower that seemed easily attainable. "Fat chance" was the look on Mary's face, but I had just inhaled a cup of Chinese tea and was throbbing with caffeine. Besides, I wanted to try out my new digital camera: I knew the view would be worth the effort.

After no more than 50 feet, the first fully costumed "Mongol warrior" leapt in our path, shouting and brandishing a long sword, nearly giving my already amped-up heart a jolt, offering us a photo opportunity that we sternly resisted. This reminded me of the annoying "pirate" on the cruise ship who would jump from table to table for photos. I knew then that we were in yet another theme park with a slightly different flavor. This would be confirmed and underlined when after half an hour loud speakers began blasting the countryside with Chinese rock and roll. I wonder which tourists were interviewed as to the desirability of such a travesty? Someone must think it's what we want.

This Mutianyu section of the Great Wall was built in 555 during the Northern Qi Dynasty, then renovated and reinforced during the Ming. We strolled through Zhengguantai, two block towers standing side by side, and I bought a pack of postcards from an ingratiatingly insistent "Mongol." Now before us were steps, some vertiginously steep, up to the major northern watchtower, which is the last restored area before brush engulfs brick in an impassable but picturesque tangle. I incautiously sprinted ahead, never imagining that my weight-trained calves would be nearly frozen with lactic acid two days hence. As I scrambled to the roof of every tower for photos, Mary became the perfect human-scale model as she climbed the stairs at a more leisurely pace. The trip down was treacherous in a more subtly entertaining way, with the cartilage-crushing weight-bearing bends of our knees causing much cellular wailing and screaming.

Happily again on level, though high, ground, we were more than ready for the final descent. The so-called 'speed chute' is a luge of some sort that we had eyed snaking below us on the chair lift uphill. We made this concession to theme-parkdom, thus sealing the fate of every future Great Wall site, but it looked like a gas and neither of us had ever been on one. I went first, knowing that I would try not to use the brake unless terrified, and Mary wisely wanted the option of going at her own speed. I figured that the thing was constructed with side walls banking high enough to accommodate a fair speed, and so ignored most of the signs saying Slow Down, Please Brake Here. In fact, at the end, the sign said Zoom to Finish, which I sort of did, but was vindicated for my uncharacteristic slower speed when Mary told me that it really said 200M to Finish: so much for the contest between wishful thinking and subliminal instruction. Invigorated, we walked the gauntlet of vendors, each buying a Great Wall tee shirt. I further succumbed to a couple of Mongol fur hats, one in fox and civet, with dangling tail, very un-PC, and another in passable black rabbit. Mary was a knockout in both, so they will be offered to brave fur-wearing friends. I have a permanent hat of hair on my head and don't thrill to the prospect of being gunned down in Berkeley.

We found Gao Yong in the parking lot and after a few frustrated moments of sign language and unsuccessful phrase book attempts, he decided to call his English-speaking friend, Lian. Mary was looking for a particular style of old box, and since Lian was in the antique furniture business, we thought she might be of some help. A few un-productive shopping stops later, the four of us ended up eating a fabulous Chinese lunch for a total of $10, with beer. Food is not where the money goes in China. Our next stop was the Silk Market, an uncomfortably crowded maze of shops that yielded a few cashmere sweaters and pashmina shawls. At the Pearl Market I found mabe pearl earrings for Mother. A last stop was the Russian Market, bursting with fur coats of every imaginable color and breed. I was looking for a simple fur vest (bulletproof) but ended up buying a white Mongolian lambskin, that may one day be transformed into something wearable if I can ever get rid of its pungent animal smell. We called it a night and went back to the hotel for another early wake up. I was going off solo to the Forbidden City while Mary would gather herself together for the working trip home that afternoon. I had made plans to stay on at another hotel for two more nights.

Everyone has seen the brilliance of The Forbidden City in the movie The Last Emperor. I arrived on a grey morning with fog so dense all color was leached from those dazzling ornate rooftops. The fact that all 10,000 tourists who visit the place daily were there at the same time also tainted my experience a bit. In addition, in a land of poker straight hair, my curly locks garnered the attention of every female I passed, since the vast majority of the tourists were Chinese. I find relentless attention exhausting, and was almost buoyed to see the Starbucks half-way into the city. With a curiously mixed sense of shame and glee, I marched right in and bought a latte and muffin, which I ate looking back out over the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Starbucks in the Forbidden City: imagine. The most moving experience was at the end, moments before I was to meet Gao Yong in the Imperial Garden, where I was surrounded by ancient fantastic trees, rock formations, curious sculptures and swarming tourists: a mysteriously poignant, semi-tragic moment.

I thought of the respite I might find in the Lama Temple, a monastery from the 1700s that survived the Cultural Revolution unscarred. It, too, was streaming with people, but I found it beautiful and fascinating nonetheless, with its colorful mixture of Mongolian, Tibetan and Han styles of architecture. Each of the five main halls contained deities more fabulous and arresting than the previous, ending with an 18 meter-high statue of the Maitraya Buddha carved from a single sandalwood log. It was incredible. The smoke from the sheaves of incense offered by those in supplication wafted through the air, their prayers carried in tangible yet ephemeral form. Again, I met Gao Yong at the appointed hour, way before I was ready to leave.

I wanted to see one more place, the Niujie Mosque, the largest of the 40 mosques in Beijing. China is home to some 180,000 ethnic Chinese Muslims, and I couldn't imagine what the architecture might look like. Unfortunately, it was dark by the time we arrived, but I could still see that it was largely in the classic Chinese palace style, similar to the Forbidden City. There were hints of Arabic lettering and my peek into the main prayer hall was intriguing but not grand. The women's prayer hall was in the back and very plain, but at least there I was allowed to take a photo. I also snapped a picture of the Chinese Muslim caretaker, complete with long grey beard and scull cap, in front of the main prayer hall, with his smiling permission. I left happily.

If I ever thought the temples of China would most move me, I couldn't have been more wrong, as I oddly found out the next day. Lian had told me that the Sunday Dirt Market as a place where some older things could be found, so I had Gao Yong drop me off at 7:30 Saturday morning. I excitedly walked to the entrance of a flea market so vast and so full of humanity and wild and incredible things that I nearly went into a delirium. Truly, hysteria was at the edges of my perception as I looked over the thousands of people selling millions of astonishing things. I was nearly giddy. But I am nothing if not a shopper, so I gathered my wits, toned down my grin and went methodically up and then down each row, squatting to look closely at treasures from all over China and Tibet. Almost no one spoke English, but they all had calculators. I soon learned the drill. I would point at something of interest and nod toward their calculator. They would thoughtfully punch the numbers and show me their price. I would sometimes feign shock and dismay, but always with a twinkling eye. They would then hand the calculator to me and I would tap in a figure a little lower than I wanted to pay. They would say "How, how can I possibly…?" with their expressive faces. I would motion for them to come down. They would. They would motion for me to come up. I did. And on it went until we were both happy, which was often, or not, which happened as well. I saw that things would sell for the right price, only. And even when they made me understand that I had broken their back with my bargaining, I saw them smile as I left, and I can safely say that nothing was stolen that day. These people are not fools. I only wish I'd had a thousand dollars - I would have spent every penny. The old textiles, the Tibetan artifacts and rugs, the jade, the carvings, the furniture, pearls, clothing, weapons, beads, ivory, etc, etc. Acres of heaven.

I came back the next day for a few more hours, a few more photographs, a few more beads. I left in the afternoon for another Business Class trip home, and jet-lagged with great satisfaction for the next few days. A truly flawless trip, a teasing taste of a mysterious culture that deserves much more time. And on the bookshelf of the house where I now sit, I see Sexual Life in Ancient China. No wonder the eunuchs had so much power - they were the only ones without the distraction. A few tidbits: the ancient Chinese believed that frequent sex with young girls could sustain one's youth, which is why the emperor was so concerned with his harem (haram in Arabic, it means forbidden…). I believe this thinking prevails in modern times, at which I throw no stones. Some of my friend's are nodding their heads, knowing all along that they were on to something eternal. And back to those eunuchs: since mutilation of any kind excluded one from participation in the next life, many of them carried their desiccated appendages with them in a little bag, hoping, like me with my laptop, that it would be considered part of their being by extension, fooling gods and flight attendants alike.

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