My wife worries whenever I head off for what she considers exotic parts of the world. This time I was going to Hong Kong, Japan, and the People’s Republic of China.
China? Japan? OK, maybe a little worrying was appropriate. But not Hong Kong. Hong Kong is British. It was an uninhabited island off the southern coast of China when the British colonized it in 1841. The official language is English. British policemen patrol the streets. The streets themselves have names like Central Boulevard, Harbourview Lane, and Victoria Peak Road. Polo and horse-racing are the primary sports, played at the Happy Valley race track. And the towns themselves bear names like Stanleyville, Aberdeen, North Point and—in the case of the central business district— merely “Central.” You can’t get much more British than that. To top it off they have bright red double-decker buses and everyone drives on the wrong side of the road.
Of course I expected to find a few Chinese on the island. They had immigrated throughout Hong Kong’s history, and especially during China’s “cultural revolution” in the 1960’s. Yes, I was quite certain there would be a strong Chinese minority in Hong Kong even though the colony itself was completely British.
The United 747 descended rapidly from its high-altitude, non-stop flight from San Francisco. After fourteen hours in the air the fuel tanks must have been nearly dry. It was four in the afternoon local time, and the sun was low in the western sky, casting warm shadows across a sea filled with small mountainous islands, most of them seemingly uninhabited. Craft of all sort were plying these waters, although other than variations in size it was not obvious what types of craft they were. I was looking forward to my first view of an old sailing junk, that quintessential Chinese vessel in use for hundreds of years. I used the telephoto lens feature of my camera to examine one of the small dots below me in the water. It wasn’t a junk, it was a container ship, a freighter. The beautiful 19th century sailing clippers had been replaced by vessels that looked like a bundle of trucks strapped together. I’d read that Hong Kong is today the largest container-ship port in the world.
The plane banked sharply onto its final approach. We were flying low over the area called “The New Territories.” Many people think Hong Kong is a city. It isn’t. There is no city called “Hong Kong.” Hong Kong is a country, and is— like the country of Gibraltar — a colony of Great Britain. But unlike Gibraltar the country of Hong Kong is not tiny. It consists of Hong Kong island itself, twenty-nine square miles. Then there are the important surrounding islands like Lan Tau (bigger than Hong Kong island), Cheng Chau, and a few others — all of which are inhabited and which have their own collection of towns and villages. Directly across from Hong Kong island, a distance of only a few hundred yards, is the Kowloon peninsula sticking out from the Chinese mainland. Kowloon is a large city in its own right. Beyond Kowloon are the “New Territories,” a large land area covering 366 square miles, much of it heavily populated but the outer sections of which are sprinkled with small villages and a great deal of agricultural land extending up to the border of China itself. And if all that weren’t enough, the country of Hong Kong also includes about 12,000 small, uninhabited offshore islands scattered about the South China Sea.
The plane was now flying over the densely populated section of the New Territories, approaching Kai Tak airport on the eastern side of the Kowloon peninsula. I was surprised to see the terrain so mountainous. Somehow I hadn’t expected that. It reminded me vaguely of Honolulu, with the dark green hills rising sharply out of the sea. But there was a certain “hovel” quality to the infinity of high rise apartment buildings that seemed jammed up against each other in third-world fashion. They did not look especially clean or orderly. Not especially British in other words. I was not concerned. This was, after all, the mainland of China. No doubt the island of Hong Kong itself—which contained the primary metropolitan area of the colony: Central, North Point, Happy Valley, Victoria and so forth —would be more British in flavor.
The 747 settled awkwardly onto the runway and came quickly to a stop. I was glad it did for the runway was jutting directly into the ocean. As we taxied to the terminal I was excited to see an entirely different collection of airlines represented at this airport: Air Philippines, Malaysia Airlines, South-China Air, Cathay Pacific, and so forth. The phrase “Toto, I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore…” came to mind. Things became even more exotic inside the terminal itself. The electronic sign-boards announced flights heading for Kuala Lampur, Singapore, Manila, New Delhi, Bangkok, and even Kathmandu. This was an embarrassment of riches to one who has so long dreamed of such places. According to this airport, these destinations actually existed, and could be reached from Hong Kong as easily as Ft. Worth, Seattle, or Milwaukee could be reached from Denver. I was tempted to just sit down and gaze longingly at the signboards, but this would not do. I had an appointment for dinner.
I passed through passport control and customs easily enough and found myself outside the airport near the taxi stand. I was struck by the heat and humidity. Of course whenever I leave Summit County I’m struck by the heat and humidity. I climbed into the first available cab and announced my destination: “New World Harborview Hotel.” I believed this would earn me respect in the eyes of the cab driver, as the Harborview is one of the newest, most luxurious hotels in Hong Kong. I could never have afforded it myself, but since I was staying with my sister Beth, who was in Hong Kong on business attending the Watch and Jewellery Show, cost was not an issue.
I noticed the cab wasn’t moving, and now the cab driver, Chinese apparently, was turning around asking me something—in Chinese! Like, I’m sure! Well, perhaps he had not heard me correctly the first time. What else could he be saying?
“Harborview Hotel, please,” I said again, speaking slowly in case his English was poor.
He replied with a torrent of Chinese.
What was going on here? Wasn’t this Hong Kong, a British Colony? Wasn’t English the official language. Was it possible that in a British Colony there could be a cab driver—a licensed cab driver—who spoke no English whatsoever? I tried again:
“New World Har — bor — view Hotel.”
He looked at me as if I were speaking Swahili.
OK, I’m an experienced world traveler. I wasn’t about to admit defeat in the simple task of taking a cab from the Hong Kong airport to my hotel. I remembered when Beth had called me in Colorado the night before, to confirm travel plans. “Just hop in a cab at the airport,” she’d said breezily. “You’ll get to the hotel in about fifteen minutes.”
Beth and I had been running neck and neck in the world travel sweepstakes since we were teenagers. I’d been to Venezuela, Morocco, and Russia, and she hadn’t. On the other hand she’d been to India, Thailand and Fiji—and I hadn’t. And she’d also been to Hong Kong before, which was rapidly adding salt to the wound.
“Just hop in a cab at the airport!” she’d said innocently. Yeah, right, sister! You planned this didn’t you?
I rummaged in my backpack and found the map of Hong Kong I’d purchased in Denver. That was one of the things experience had taught me: buy maps at fancy bookstores in big cities, before you get to the weird places. I opened it up to the inset of the downtown area and identified the New World Harborview Hotel. My God it was so big it even showed up on a map! The words were right beside the building: New World Harborview. I held the map out to the cab driver and he studied it carefully.
Then he looked back at me helplessly, shrugged his shoulders, and favored me with another burst of Chinese. I was about ready to climb out and find another cab, or maybe a policeman to have the man arrested, when finally—from the depth of his ingenuity—the driver pulled out a 4 x 6 pre-printed card with some writing on it and handed it to me deferentially. Ah ha! In one column was a list of major hotels. In the other was their translation into Chinese characters (kanji characters.) I located the Harborview, and pointed it out to him. He touched the English word carefully and then meticulously followed the dotted line over to the kanji version. We both knew that if he slipped on that dotted line he would end up at a different set of kanji characters and take me to a totally different place. I held my breath as his finger moved slowly across the card, finally arriving at what I believed was the correct destination. He pronounced it for me in Chinese with a questioning tone, as if asking “Is that the hotel you wanted?”
Uh, sure, no problem. How foolish of me not to have pronounced it in Chinese the first time.
We were moving now, out of the airport at last. I’d scoffed at my wife’s suggestion that Hong Kong probably looked like one big Chinatown. Actually it did look like one big Chinatown. We were driving through Kowloon, the peninsula that sticks out from the Chinese mainland. It wasn’t exactly like New York’s Chinatown. There were no sidewalk merchants selling everything from raw fish to wind-up toys out of makeshift stalls. Traffic was moving normally, unlike Chinatown where the press of tourists in cars and on foot brings everything to a crawl. Actually, I couldn’t see any tourists at all. Everyone was Chinese. This area appeared to be high-density residential. Tall, unkempt apartment buildings towered over us, most with laundry hanging out to dry. If one considered only the architecture of the buildings, it would be hard not to compare it with Harlem. But it didn’t feel like Harlem. What was the difference? It took me a moment to identify. It was the energy. Everyone I saw was walking rapidly, bustling about like stockbrokers during lunch hour in lower Manhattan. These people didn’t seem to be aware they were living in a slum-like setting, and that to be in keeping with their surroundings it would have been more appropriate for them to be lounging apathetically in the doorways of apartment buildings, while stray dogs scavenged through refuse piles. No, these people looked like they were on their way to important appointments, high-paying jobs or urgent conferences. I saw thousands of faces but I so no trace of apathy or despair or even resentment towards one riding in a cab. It was very obvious that these people were too busy making money to worry about anyone else.
That was one thing different from Harlem. The other was the signs. And it was these signs that gave me my first taste of what life was going to be like in Asia. All signs were in kanji characters.
Now I’ve always kind of liked kanji characters. They make for pretty decoration on the outside of Chinese restaurants, or engraved on chopsticks. I remembered that the Chase Manhattan bank in Chinatown had two or three large Chinese characters over its doorway, providing local color. But it didn’t look to me like these signs had anything to do with local color. These signs were conveying information! And they were conveying it right over my head. There were no signs in English anywhere.
This was not good. In Morocco the Arabic script at least had English-alphabet translations directly below. Even if you didn’t speak the language you could follow the signs. But in Hong Kong I saw no signs I could read at all, and for the first time I understood what it must be like to be illiterate. It’s very scary.
The cab entered a long tunnel. This was obviously the tunnel underneath Hong Kong harbour. Hong Kong harbour is actually more like a strait than a regular harbour. It’s the sheltered water between Hong Kong island and the Kowloon peninsula. Soon we broke out of the tunnel and I looked around, eagerly expecting to find the real Hong Kong: the British Hong Kong. What I saw were towering skyscrapers, rows upon rows of them. Very modern and very tall. This was a cleaner area than Kowloon, more organized, less cluttered. And there were fewer signs. But to my dismay, the signs were still in Chinese. There was no English writing anywhere!
Using my map and guide book I learned that the Harborview hotel was in the area known as Wan Chai, made famous as “the waterfront world of Suzie Wong.” Perhaps, but this was no red light district today. The towering glass and chrome office buildings were as impressive as any in Manhattan, and more numerous if that’s possible. The taxi pulled up in front of one of them, and I was pleased to see the words “New World Harborview Hotel” in small letters under the larger kanji characters. A huge man in a turban, no doubt transplanted from that other formerly-British colony, India, opened my door. I handed the driver some Hong Kong dollars, based on the meter reading, and included some extra, not yet aware that tipping is not customary in Hong Kong. Nor is tipping customary in Japan or China, I discovered later, which perhaps explains why this part of the world is ascending economically. Tipping is a truly barbarous custom, one that everyone agrees should be eliminated. But it is no easier to eliminate tipping in Western countries than it is to convert America to the metric system, or to convert Great Britain to a country that drives on the right side of the road. Speaking of which, that was at least one thing the British had apparently bestowed upon Hong Kong before taking down all their signs: cars still drove on the left.
I manhandled my overladen backpack suitcase onto my back and walked through the glittering doorway into the lobby of the New World Harborview. It was much as I expected: escalators, atrium ceilings, spaciousness, and towering plants. Many tables were set out for cocktails and nearby a string quartet played elevator music. Important looking business people in suits hurried about, and presiding over it all was a beautiful wood and chrome trimmed front desk garrisoned by a young, attractive and uniformed staff—almost a dozen of them, so long was the desk—all nodding their heads and smiling and generally being helpful. And all very Chinese. An opening appeared and I approached the desk. I had to fight down the urge to ask if the girl spoke English. In a foreign country I never like to assume, but this wasn’t supposed to be that foreign a country. “Good afternoon,” I began, deciding this phrase would serve equally for being polite, opening a conversation, and determining if the girl spoke English, all at the same time.
“Good afternoon,” she responded with a smile. Good. I wouldn’t need my Chinese phrase book here at the front desk, at least. All the better, since I didn’t have a Chinese phrase book. But there was no doubt the girl was speaking with a heavy accent, and I would need to speak slowly myself, and listen carefully. I explained that I was sharing a room with a Beth Walter, who was supposed to have left a key for me here at the desk. Sure enough, she had, and the Chinese girl handed it over with a smile. The room itself was as modern and elegant as the rest of the hotel. I looked out the window, which is the first thing I do in any hotel room. We were facing south, away from the harbor, so there was no Harborview per se. Mostly what I saw were other skyscrapers, towering nearly out of sight above me. Near the ground was a park-like setting, with trees, tennis courts, and a jogging path. No doubt this was an enclosed area within the hotel itself. Adjacent would be the pool, I suspected, just out of eyesight. I took a quick shower, all the more necessary after the long plane ride, changed into evening clothes, and in walked Beth.
“I can’t believe you got here so fast,” she exclaimed.
“No problem,” I lied. “I had carry-on luggage, so I was first in line at passport control and customs, and they didn’t even bother to check my suitcase. Changed my currency and hopped in a cab and came right here. By the way, have you noticed that the cab drivers don’t speak English?”
“That’s right,” she confirmed. “You want to be very careful when you leave the hotel to always take along a book of matches from the room. The matches have the name of the hotel on them in Chinese characters, so you can show it to a cab driver. Otherwise you might never be able to get back.”
“Uh, Beth, I thought Hong Kong was going to be like London. I thought everything would be in English, and of course everyone—especially cab drivers—would speak English.”
“Ha, ha!” she responded. Beth has a Ph.D. in International Relations, and has traveled in this part of the world extensively. Yet unlike most academicians she is able to get right to the point.
“Ha, ha!” She said again for emphasis. Beth changed clothes quickly and we headed out together to meet the others for dinner.
The others, in this case, consisted of the Polygon Asia Tour, an annual event organized by subscriber Bob Weiner of Blue Diamond Co. in Los Angeles. The Polygon Asia tour is less a tour of Asia and more a tour of Thailand, where the group goes to buy colored stones. Usually they also stop briefly in Hong Kong for the Hong Kong jewelry show before heading home, and that is what they’d done this time. Also joining us for dinner would be Howard Hauben, publisher of National Jeweler, who was in Hong Kong for the same reason as the rest of us: the Hong Kong Jewelry show. Beth explained to me that the Hong Kong Jewelry show was in a state of civil war this year. A competitor had come along and set up another show at the same time. The original show was in the Hong Kong convention center in Wan Chai, the huge complex bordered by the towering hotel sky scrapers such as the Harborview. The insolent newcomer-show was back on the other side of the harbor, in Kowloon, where it had taken over the Shangri-La hotel. This caused havoc for the exhibitors. Which show to choose? Or should we do both?
“It’s quite ridiculous,” explained Beth. “The company that was putting on the original show was doing a fine job of it, and had been for years. But the Hong Kong chamber of commerce decided they wanted to cash in on the profits, so they created their own show, and scheduled it at the same time. The exhibitors get squeezed, the buyers get confused, and the whole things a big mess.”
Beth’s company was exhibiting at the original show, at the convention center in Wan Chai. But the Polygon group, and Howard Hauben, were staying in hotels near the Shangri-La in Kowloon. We were to meet them at one of these for dinner at 7:00 pm.
There are several ways to get from Hong Kong island to Kowloon. One is by taxi, through the tunnel, which is how I’d arrived from the airport. There is also a very modern subway system in Hong Kong, which will get you to Kowloon very quickly. But only a fool would choose either of these, for to do so would be to miss an opportunity to experience the best thing about Hong Kong: the Star Ferry. The Star Ferry is Hong Kong’s equivalent to New York’s Staten Island ferry. It’s much smaller, and serves pedestrians only (no cars), and the trip takes about ten minutes instead of thirty five, but—as in New York—it’s the best way to see the city. The Wan Chai star ferry terminal was quite close to our hotel, and I followed Beth as she led me through the labyrinthine walkways towards the water. The developed waterfront business section of Hong Kong island is so crowded with high-rises and multi-lane avenues that there is no room for pedestrians. Realizing this, the city planners have erected a complex system of walkways above the streets. These walkways connect the second stories of the various buildings. I think it must be possible to walk all the way from Wan Chai to Central without ever descending to street level and having to interact with traffic.
The sun had completely set by the time we arrived at the Star Ferry terminal, placed a few coins in the slot (I was not yet familiar enough with Hong Kong money to know what they were) and walked on board. The benches filled up quickly and soon the ropes were cast off and we were moving out into the harbor. Of the hundred or so people visible from our seat, Beth and I were the only westerners. Everyone else was Chinese. In a few minutes we were in mid channel. The decks were open to the air and we could see out both sides of the ferry, as well as directly behind us towards Hong Kong Island itself. I was certain I’d seen more spectacular sights, but it was difficult to remember when. The majestic skyscrapers of Hong Kong were spread out before us like giant guardians of capitalism, all aglow with lights coming from within, and garish neon corporate titles crowning each. These were huge signs—some perhaps fifty feet high, and they cast beautiful reflections across the dark waters of the harbour, a glittering “who’s who” of Corporate Asia: NEC, Sony, Nissan, Toshiba, HITACHI, and my personal favorite: CupO’Noodles.
“Do you believe it?” said Beth, equally awed, “We’re actually in Hong Kong!” Beth has never lost her child-like wonder of travel, nor have I, I like to think. Yet it was always fun to travel with Beth because she could be so enthusiastic about merely being in a place. When we’d traveled together for eight weeks in Europe as teenagers we’d quickly realized that it was always worth it to go somewhere new, even if only for a couple of days, because when you’re traveling a couple of days can be filled with so many new sights and experiences that it feels, to the brain, like a couple of weeks. I had been in Hong Kong slightly less than ninety minutes, yet if I’d been heading to the airport already for my flight home, I would have considered the whole trip worthwhile. Crossing Hong Kong harbour at night on the Star Ferry is bound to be the pinnacle of any trip to Asia.
Back in Kowloon, we walked fifteen minutes to our meeting place: the New World Hotel. Not the New World Harborview hotel, just New World Hotel—a completely different place. Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising the taxi driver was confused. In the lobby we found all the familiar faces we were hoping to find: Paul Reiser, Bob Weiner, George Thompson, and others. It was like a Polygon conclave. And Howard Hauben had already joined the group. We had a round of drinks upstairs in the lounge, where I announced it was my tenth wedding anniversary and that we should have a toast to my wife, which we did.
“Wait a minute,” said Howard. “This is your tenth wedding anniversary and your wife let’s you run off to Hong Kong?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“How do you do that?” asked Howard.
I let everyone think I could do such things because my wife loved me so much. I didn’t tell them about the secret deal I’d made last spring, where Derry got to buy a Pomeranian puppy (which I detested, as I do all dogs) and in return I got to go to Asia in the fall. The whole affair had turned out greatly to my benefit, because after four weeks of cleaning up after an untrained puppy, Derry had decided she hated the creature even more than I did and returned it to its original owner, conveniently satisfying her dog-ownership frenzy that descends upon her every two years, yet leaving my part of the deal intact.
After awhile we headed out into the streets of Kowloon looking for a restaurant. Kowloon was, by this time, looking more and more like one big Chinatown to me. Banners with Chinese characters were strung across almost every street, as if proclaiming the Chinese new Year, or the month of the Horse, or perhaps a sale at Macy’s. I don’t know if there was a Macy’s but there were certainly plenty of American establishments in Hong Kong: McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s, of course. But aside from the American service establishments, and the huge Japanese corporations proclaiming their supremacy from across the water, Kowloon really was one big china town.
Bob Weiner, being the head of the Poly-Asian group, took the lead and navigated us to a nearby restaurant: a Chinese restaurant of course. We sat at a large table and studied the menu. There was the usual assortment of Chinese dishes: mo shu pork, Scezhuan Beef, Vegetarians Delight, Shrimp chowmein and the like. But Beth and I were drawn to the exotic and one item caught our interest: Deer Tendon. No one else seemed inclined to order Deer Tendon, so we did, understanding that we would all be sharing the dishes anyway.
When the deer tendon arrived it looked much as one would expect: long and stringy and rubbery—like a plate of petite eels. And it tasted much as one would expect deer tendon to taste, if one had thought about it which one usually would not, nor had I, more’s the pity. It occurred to me that the deer tendon was probably not one of the more popular items on the menu, and I wondered if anyone had ever actually ordered it before, which led me to suspect that this particular deer tendon might well have lain fallow in some Chinese freezer for long periods of time, waiting for a call that might never come.
The provenance of the deer tendon began to fascinate me the more I considered it. It seemed likely that years ago the owner of the establishment might once have been hunting and shot the deer, and—not knowing what to do with its tendons, had frozen them, and then—perhaps to scandalize tourists, had added the item to his menu as a kind of private joke, or perhaps to see if anyone would be silly enough to order such a thing. If so, and it seemed more and more likely to be so the more thought I gave it, this demand for tendon must have caught the chef quite by surprise. He would have had to find the thing buried down deep in his freezer, thawed it, and then chosen a means to prepare it, quite using his own resources of imagination. If so, the Chef was certain to be curious how this unusual delicacy was being received, and he would certainly be standing nearby watching our expressions. I turned around and saw, against a far corner, a Chinese man who looked as if he might be a chef, and he was looking at me and nodding and smiling, as if to say “That’s right, you ordered it. Now you eat it!”
After dinner we followed Paul Reiser to the silk shop the group had patronized the night before. As we walked through the Chinatown-like streets, Howard casually struck up a conversation.
“We got such good response on that card deck mailing,” he said, “that we’ve decided to go ahead and produce a full price report as a separate publication.”
“You know, the question on the card about ‘would you like to see the price sheet expanded into a separate publication.’ Well, we’re doing it!”
“Oh really?” I managed to blurt out. This was my worst nightmare. Well, my worst nightmare other than thinking of deer tendon for breakfast. Polygon was able to produce the present price sheet as consistently and as accurately as we did only because it confined itself to round, brilliant diamonds, within reasonably normal gradations of color, clarity, and carat weight. Producing accurate numbers for fancy shapes, or—God forbid—colored stones, was simply not possible. Yet Howard had decided to expand the thing into a separate publication just on the strength of some response-card feedback. And he was mentioning it to me casually in a back-alleyway in Kowloon.
I remembered the first time I’d sat down with him and Lynn Diamond and tried to convince them that it was just not that difficult to replicate what Rapaport was doing in producing accurate wholesale price sheets for diamonds. “Anyone could do what Rap’s doing,” I’d explained. “All he has going for himself is market position. But National Jeweler has five times the market position of Rap!” This had been my theme, and finally they’d been convinced we could actually produce numbers that would not be laughed at. And now there was no stopping Howard. Realizing I’d been right about the value to the reader in having such a price report in National Jeweler, he was going to expand it into fancy shapes and colored stones. But where was he going to get the information?
“So, uh, this new publication, will you be looking to Polygon to provide the data, or will you have the news department produce the numbers?
“Don’t know yet,” said Howard, entirely unconcerned. “What would you suggest?”
“I think I’d like to give it some thought,” I replied, pleased to have come up with such a good answer, even after three beers and a plate of deer tendon. “By the way, when are you scheduling the first issue?”
“January,” said Howard.
“January, ‘93?” I asked, hoping he hadn’t noticed I’d gone quite pale.
“You bet! We’re going to have to hustle!”
“Here it is!” announced Paul Reiser, just in time to save me from having to reply.
The silk store was a small shop, mostly open to the street like a Manhattan vegetable market. Inside everything was made of silk: shirts, nightgowns, robes, sports coats, dresses, ties, and so forth. It took each of us a moment to examine some price tags, mentally deduct half the asking price, and then convert the Hong Kong dollars into real money. But we all came to the same conclusion.
“These prices are incredible!” said Beth.
“Outstanding!” said Howard.
“I’m going to buy the whole store!” said George Thompson.
“OK, hold everything,” I announced. “First things first. This is my tenth wedding anniversary. I want to buy something sexy for my wife.”
So everyone helped me look through the stacks of clothing, and finally we found an intimate little frilly night thing which I bought, not quite knowing how it was supposed to be worn but confident that Derry would understand it. I also loaded up on a silk shirt and three silk ties.
After half an hour of silk-buying frenzy we forced ourselves to leave, not quite knowing if we should feel guilty at having bought so much, or guilty at having bought so little. Howard himself was carrying thirty ties, which—at $1.00 each—had cost him less than a round of drinks. Beth and I bid the others farewell and made our way back to the star ferry and Hong Kong island.
The next morning I considered my options. I had arrived in Hong Kong Saturday afternoon and I was scheduled to leave Thursday morning. This gave me four days to spend as I wished, but I felt at least one of these days should be spent touring the jewelry shows, and if that were true then it made sense to get that day over with as quickly as possible.
“I think I’ll visit the shows today,” I announced to Beth as we sipped coffee in lounge chairs after our morning swim, and gazed out at the 180 degree view of Hong Kong harbor at our feet. The hotel/convention complex was quite dramatic. It consisted of the convention center itself, with eight floors for exhibits, and on the roof was the sprawling, park-like development I’d looked down on from my room, and which boasted the largest hotel-pool in Hong Kong (so said the brochure). But it wasn’t just a simple, rectangular swimming area. The whole thing was impeccably landscaped, with trees and bushes and tropical flowers, and a created knoll-like structure from which a waterfall flowed directly into the pool, and surrounding it all were at least three, possibly four (who can keep track?), Jacuzzi hot-tubs. Much more impressive than the landscaping, however, were the brilliant, shimmery skyscrapers shooting upwards on all sides, their mirror-like finishes aglow in the morning sunlight, and so bright one could not even look at them directly. Anyone seeking a suntan would not have to wait long on a bright day, I imagined, since the skyscrapers would focus all the rays in the area directly on any exposed flesh.
But more impressive still was the harbor, spread out beneath our feet, and almost overflowing with energy as scores of little sampans motored back and forth between the anchored freighters, and star ferries continued their round-trip rituals, and Boeing 747’s glided in on their final approach to Kai Tak airport, and helicopters buzzed about keeping tabs on everything, and overlooking all of it from less than a mile away: the dark mountainous coastline of mainland China.
Every morning Beth and I would come down to the pool, swim a few laps, wrap ourselves in the elegant terry-cloth robes provided free by the hotel, have some coffee served by a pretty Chinese cocktail waitress, read the “South China Daily” and stare dreamily out at the harbor. This life bore all the trappings of wealth, I decided, even if not the wealth per se, and even if only temporary. As I basked in luxury my mind looked ahead and I worried about the difficulties I would encounter after leaving Hong Kong. In a few days I would be trying to get around in Japan on a tight budget while speaking none of the language, and having to negotiate business deals with Japanese businessmen while trying to remember the complicated rules of Japanese etiquette: entering doors, bowing, removing shoes, never pouring one’s own drink, always saying something slightly different than what you’re thinking, etc., etc. I would probably screw it up completely. And after Japan there would be China itself, that mysterious, somewhat frightening country where protesting students were run over by tanks, and the population was so vast that one out of every four people on earth lived there, and birth control was mandatory, and private ownership of automobiles was outlawed, and the language was almost impossible to learn, and the borders had been closed to outsiders for a thousand years while dynastic emperors closeted themselves inside the fabulously rich Forbidden City of Peking, protected from foreign invasion by a three-thousand year old Great Wall: so vast it remains today the only man-made structure visible from outer space.
“Another croissant?” asked the waitress.
Japan and China could wait. I was in Hong Kong, the capital of Asia. And the capital of Asia is the capital of the world.
“Thank you,” I said, and spread strawberry jam liberally over the croissant while the waitress poured me more coffee.
I accompanied Beth to the convention center, having exchanged the terry-cloth robe for a normal business suit. It seemed a typical large jewelry show: several thousand booths, and unimaginable dollars spent on them. I watched as Beth and Charley, Andrew Cody’s domestic marketing manager, spread out their opals and arranged their booth for another day of exhibiting. I was feeling out of place, and wondering what value it was for me to even be here. Then a dark-haired man walked past and I realized that I knew him.
“Harel?” I said. He stopped and turned around. “Jacques?”
So, maybe I was not out of place after all. I followed him to the cafeteria where we had coffee. Harel Lalzi is president of Aerodiam, the Israeli company that provides software to diamond cutters and wholesalers. I’d met Harel in New York two months earlier and we made arrangements for Harel’s Israeli customers to access Polygon’s communication network via Aerodiam software. This had been going on for over thirty days so we had plenty to talk about. We agreed on a few changes to the downloading protocol, and also on a plan for expanding the service to Antwerp, where Aerodiam has a large customer base. I headed back towards the Andrew Cody booth, taking the long way around to see more of the exhibits, and came across a booth displaying the name “Michael Couch, Inc.”
Michael Couch, Inc., I knew, was an Ames, Iowa-based colored stone wholesaler and—more importantly—a Polygon subscriber. I stopped and introduced myself.
“Oh yes, Polygon, said one of the three people staffing the exhibit. “I don’t use it myself, actually, but I know Michael does. He’s not here right now, but he’ll be back this afternoon.”
“What’s Polygon?” asked one of the others. She was a very attractive woman perhaps in her mid thirties, quite tall, with long brown hair and a look of competence about her. She got up from her chair and came over to the counter. I introduced myself and explained what Polygon was. She’d never heard of it, which disappointed me vaguely. I made a mental note to see if Howard would give us bigger ads next year.
“So you’re here at the show to promote Polygon?” she asked.
“Not exactly. I’m really here in Hong Kong on vacation, and to visit my sister who’s exhibiting. I leave in a few days for Japan, where I’m hoping to do some business.”
I figured that would impress her. How many Americans go to Japan on business, after all?
“Oh really?” she said, her interest perking up. “That’s what I do for Michael Couch. I’m his Japanese representative. I’m going there in a few days myself.”
“His ‘Japanese’ representative? Michael Couch has a Japanese representative? What does that mean exactly?”
“I sell colored stones to Japanese dealers. Japan is my territory.”
Now it was my turn to be impressed.
“You must speak Japanese,” I said, expecting her to demur politely. No Americans speak Japanese.
“Oh yes,” she replied. “Fluently. You see, I grew up in Japan.”
I thought about mentioning that I’d lived in Switzerland for a year, but realized it was hopeless. In the place-dropping game enjoyed by international travelers, growing up in Japan was a trump card.
“What kind of business are you hoping to do in Japan?” she asked, politely diverting attention away from her one-upmanship. I explained my relationship with Kobayashi and the Yuri International Group.
“I’m really nervous,” I admitted. “I know it’s difficult to do business in Japan with all the customs and etiquette and everything. All I know how to say is ‘Konichiwa!”
“Well, that’s a start,” she said, smiling. “Look, take my card. Here’s the name of the hotel I’m staying at. If you need any help with anything, give me a call.”
I looked at the card. “Mary Ducor,” it said. “Japanese representative for Michael Couch, Inc.” It gave an address in Connecticut. On the back it repeated the same information in Japanese. I gave her my Polygon card, glad that it, also, had Japanese characters on the back.
“That was smart,” she said, noticing the Japanese. “Business cards are a big deal in Japan.”
I wrote down for her the hotel I would be staying at in Tokyo, and then said good-bye to everyone in the booth. “Say hi to Michael for me!” I said as I left. Actually, I’d never met Michael but I saw no reason to mention it.
Back at the Andrew Cody Opals booth, I told Beth I was thinking of heading over to Kowloon to see the other show. “I’ll go with you,” she said on impulse.
The competition between the shows was really quite brazen. Just outside the Headway show were signs advertising the Trade Council upstart, and a full booth was set up to give entrance credentials to anyone with Headway badges.
“There’s a free shuttle launch over at the Star Ferry terminal that will take you right to the Shangri-La hotel pier,” explained the attendant. In a few minutes we found ourselves on a small, enclosed motor launch, heading out again into Hong Kong harbor towards the mainland of China. The imposing skyline behind us was just as impressive as it had been at night, when it was all aglow. But now, on a clear day, and with harbor activity in full-swing it had more of a business air about it, less magical.
The other show was quite cumbersome, actually. The Shangri-La had no convention space per se but had merely turned all the rooms of the hotel into exhibit booths. The hundreds of people working their way through the narrow corridors, combined with the lavish display signs crowding every hall, made the whole affair claustrophobic. Beth stopped at a few opal booths to inspect the competition, and paid courtesy visits to some of Andrew Cody’s customers who were jewelry manufacturers. But in 45 minutes we’d seen enough and adjourned to a restaurant on the second floor of the hotel, with a view over the main boulevard of Kowloon. Following another Chinese meal eaten with chopsticks, Beth headed back to Wan Chai and I set out to buy a custom tailored suit. The concierge directed me to a nearby tailor, and promised that I would receive a discount by being sent from the hotel. I suspected that whatever discount I received would not make much of a dent in the premium charged by a tailor who had arranged for the Shangri-La concierge to refer business his way. On the other hand I was slowly getting it through my head that I couldn’t expect to wander around Hong Kong on my own. Hong Kong was no longer British, it was completely Chinese. A few steps away from the major business hotels everyone was Chinese, the signs were in kanji, and almost no one spoke English.
I located the tailor quickly enough. He had a simple shop in the lobby of an office building. The concierge had called ahead and the tailor actually noticed me before I saw him, and he now beckoned me inside, smiling and with his hands pressed together in a motion Americans would liken to praying. Perhaps he was giving thanks to his deity for sending him another gullible westerner who had heard how inexpensive were Hong Kong custom-tailored suits.
I had never been fitted for a suit before, but I figured that would be the easy part. First would come the haggling. No problem there. I was a veteran of Morocco.
I took the initiative by explaining that I would love to have a suit made, but that it was probably too expensive for my budget. “My Budget” thus became an inanimate party to the negotiation. The tailor could work his wiles on me all he wanted but it was My Budget that would have to be convinced, and—unfortunately for the tailor—My Budget was an ethereal, vaporous thing that he could not see or touch.
“Ah, no expensive!” he assured me, smiling to beat the band. “On’y fo’ thousand dolla.”
Of course I knew these were Hong Kong dollars and needed to be divided by seven. Understanding the difficulty of dividing 4,000 by seven, the tailor handed me a pocket calculator, still smiling fit to burst. $571, said the calculator, and I chuckled wistfully.
“Yes, I said, with a look of resignation. “It’s just as I suspected. There’s no way my budget could accommodate such an amount. It’s a pity, as I’m certain you make a wonderful suit.”
“How much you want spend?” asked the tailor, his smile diminished only slightly.
“Well, of course any amount is a lot of money,” I explained, just to buy time. “But my budget might allow me to spend as much as a thousand Hong Kong dollars.”
“Hong Kong dolla?” he asked, incredulously. “You mean thousand American dolla.”
“No, I mean thousand Hong Kong dolla,” I replied, finding the accent infectious.
“Ahhhh!” he said with a mischievous grin, that managed to be both knowing and leering. “Nowhere Hong Kong you buy custom suit fo’ on’y thousand dolla.”
“But there are many tailors in Hong Kong,” I protested.
“No tailo’ Hong Kong make suit thousand dolla. Wait. I tell you somet’ing. Even Indian tailo’—lots Indian tailo’—even Indian tailo’ you pay two thousand dolla. Mo’ maybe.”
“I suppose I should go to an Indian tailor, then,” I said, wondering how I would find an Indian tailor in the alleyways of Kowloon.
He looked at me as if I’d suggested I jump off a tall building.
“No! No!” he exclaimed. “No go Indian tailo.’ Indian tailo’ make veddy po’ suit. Th’eads no tight. Suit no fit light. Suit come apa’t! You waste yo’ money!”
Well, that might be true. No doubt someone in Hong Kong was making a sub-standard suit, and perhaps that segment of the market had been cornered by the Indians.
“You wait moment!” said the tailor. He called to his two assistants, and they scurried over to the counter, where the three of them began discussing the situation in frenzied Cantonese, using pencils literally on the back of an envelope. At last he stepped forward, a look of concern on his face, almost of conspiracy.
“You f’om Amedica. I give you special plice, make you happy. I think po-haps you tell yo’ fliends ‘bout me. They come Hong Kong. Buy suit. I make money. What yo’ tink?”
“Sure, I’d be happy to tell my friends about you. But what price can you give me? My Budget, you understand…”
“Hey, I give you special plice. You no tell fliends ‘bout special plice. I no can give yo’ fliends same plice. You unde’stand?”
“What price?” I asked.
“I give yo veddy special plice. I make suit only twenty-five hund’ed dolla. Veddy special plice.”
I went through my same act again, and we played with the calculator, and he talked to his assistants, and in the end we finally agreed on $2,100 Hong Kong dollars: $300 U.S. Perhaps a veteran Hong Kong haggler could have gotten him lower but at some point one tires of the game. A good suit in the states costs $300 off the rack, and this price for a custom tailored suit, 100% wool, and fully lined, and not made by Indians, seemed reasonable. The business completed, he took all my measurements and soon I was on my way back to Hong Kong island, having promised I would return Tuesday before 7pm for my first “fitting.”
Having returned to Wan Chai, I retreated to the relative luxury of my hotel room, primarily to escape the heat and humidity. Wondering what to do, I decided to see if I could send a message over Polygon, back to the states. The concierge had loaned me a transformer which converted the hotel’s 220v power down to 110. The laptop’s power cord itself was almost twice the size of the computer. The transformer was three times as large and ten times as heavy: about the dimensions and weight of half a car battery. But it worked, the message went right through the first time. That was encouraging. But I was frustrated that the laptop’s internal battery still wasn’t working. We’d replaced it before I left, but this new battery wasn’t working either. Obviously there was something else wrong with the computer. I examined the thing carefully. On the bottom was a tiny indentation, and inside this were two almost microscopic dip switches. Ah ha! These might relate to the power supply in some way. That was probably the problem! The switch that activated the battery was turned off! Couldn’t hurt to try. I flipped one of the switches. The battery still didn’t come on. I flipped another, and then tried switching both their positions. Nothing worked. Oh well, at least I’d tried.
I hooked the computer back up to the power cord and turned it on. It seemed to be booting up, but then stopped cold. It’s internal memory had been erased. There was nothing in the computer!
Damnation! I knew instantly what I’d done. Flipping those dip switches had wiped out the computers memory! I should have thought of that. And there was no way to load the Polygon program back in because I hadn’t brought the external disk drive!
After hauling this stupid little thing half way round the world, it now was utterly useless. I’d have to lug it with me for two more weeks like an albatross around my neck. I was furious! The fact that I was completely responsible for the accident only made me madder. I couldn’t believe this incredible, disgusting, rotten luck! I wanted to cry.
I decided to take a walk over to Happy Valley. That would make me feel better. I was familiar with Happy Valley on account of James Clavell’s novel “Tai-Pan.” Actually, now that I recalled, Happy Valley was where everyone in the book got malaria and died. Somehow that fit my mood.
It was a good thirty minute walk but I didn’t mind. This was my first chance to really tour the streets, as it were, although the streets of Wan Chai were much like the streets of Kowloon, and Wan Chai merged into Happy Valley with no particular fanfare. All these little villages were today much like what the villages of Manhattan are today: Chelsea, Yorkville, Grammercy Park, Bowling Green, and so forth. A hundred years ago they were distinct towns, with farmland in between. Today they are one big metropolis. So it is with Hong Kong.
I arrived back at the hotel, feeling better after the walk to Happy Valley, and to keep the momentum going Beth and I decided to go to the restaurant atop Victoria Peak for dinner. Victoria Peak is the top of the highest “mountain” on Hong Kong island, rising more or less directly above the central business district (Central.) You get to the top, these days, by what they call a “tram,” although in Europe they would call it a funicular. We had made reservations for the restaurant atop the peak, but were dismayed to discover upon arrival that there was no Chinese food available at this restaurant. The menu contained such exciting entrees as “Broiled Chicken” and “Filet of Sole.” And they didn’t even provide chopsticks to eat them with. We demurred, and chose instead a nearby open-air cafe, styled after a German beer garden. Part way through dinner we saw a young man walk past wearing a Tintin t-shirt. I’d never seen a Tintin t-shirt, nor had Beth, and she asked him where he’d found it.
“Stanleyville Market!” he replied proudly.
I made a mental note to find out where Stanleyville market was, and pay it a visit.
I left early the next morning for Macao, which is a Portuguese colony founded in 1543 (three hundred years before Hong Kong). Macao is located forty miles southwest across the mouth of the Pearl river, which flows down from Canton in China. Hong Kong island is so close to the Chinese mainland it’s almost an isthmus. Macao, by contrast is such a thin isthmus it’s almost an island. There are several ways to get there, explained my guidebook: JumboCat, JetCat, Ferry, Hi-speed Ferry, HoverFerry, and Jetfoil. Am embarrassment of riches, in other words, and the choice was daunting. I asked the concierge for advice.
“Jetfoil,” he said. I found my way to the Jetfoil terminal, managed to buy a ticket in Cantonese (I said “Macao” and held up one finger), and climbed aboard. As was the case with the Star ferries I was the only non-Chinese passenger. The Jetfoil was a fully-enclosed boat, with two decks of seating. I wasn’t quite sure what it was: hovercraft, hydrofoil, jet boat, or some combination thereof. But once away from the dock it began moving at remarkable speed. Like every day in Hong Kong, this one was warm and humid. A haze permeated the atmosphere, restricting visibility to only a couple of miles. As we left Hong Kong behind we began passing island after island, each of them small, barren, and uninhabited. It seemed strange to find unpopulated wilderness, so to speak, this close to one of the densest population areas on the planet. I would have guessed each one would have been purchased by a Hong Kong millionaire and turned into a weekend retreat, complete with pool, boat dock, and heliport. Of course maybe Hong Kong millionaires were too busy making money back in Hong Kong.
Macao reminded me of Kowloon— sort of a déclassé Hong Kong. I was expecting to find a Little Portugal, tucked up against the south coast of China. The only sign that the colony was Portuguese was just that: a sign. It said Welcome to Macao in Portuguese. Once past the customs and immigration desks, Macao was every bit as Chinese as Hong Kong. I wasn’t quite sure what to do when I left the Ferry Terminal. The main, urban part of the colony was several miles away and the ferry terminal neighborhood was nothing but a hot seedy waterfront.
An old Chinese man approached me, complete with white hair and beard. I would have guessed his age at perhaps 85 or 90. He had a pedicab with him. A pedicab is a combination rickshaw/tricycle, with room for two in the back seat. He offered to give me a two-hour tour of Macao for ten dollars. It was unthinkable that I, a relatively young man in good health, should have to be hauled around for two hours on a pedicab by a ninety year old man. On the other hand it was the best offer I’d had so far. I climbed in.
Macao was pretty much put out of business as a trading center when Hong Kong was established. It survives today as the Las Vegas of Asia. Gambling is the primary activity and casinos are under construction all along the waterway. My guide kept pointing out uninteresting monuments as we toured the peninsula. At each one he would stop and try to explain to me why it was important. This was truly pathetic, as he spoke no English, and my Cantonese was not up to the challenge. As he came to a stop at each point of interest and would urge me to take a picture, I would shake my head and wave him on. Finally I realized what a terrible thing I was doing. The monuments were the man’s only periods of rest! At the next one I resolved to take some pictures.
Luck was with me for the next one was interesting: it was a Buddhist temple. I knew I would see many Buddhist temples before I left Asia, but this was my first and I was quite excited about it. Westerners have this prejudice that Buddhist temples are kind of creepy affairs: gaudy red and gold dragons, craven images, incense burning , and people bowing down before a big, fat idol.
In fact, this image is quite accurate. Some adolescent Chinese boys were hanging out at the temple, and took it into their heads to show me what you’re supposed to do at a temple. First you take some incense, and then you hold it into the little flame that’s always burning in front of the altar. And when you have the incense well-lit you stick it upright in the incense box where dozens of other sticks of incense have been left, many of them still smoking away. And then you put your hands together flat—more or less in front of your face, and you bow your head in worship. If you want to get serious about it you get down your on your knees in front of the altar and bow your head. I tried all these things and thanked the boys and went back to the pedicab. The octogenarian motioned me across the street, to a new modern low-rise building. I had no idea what it was, and he had no way to explain it to me, but—thinking perhaps he still needed a rest—I made my way over to it. Inside was a quite nicely-done maritime history museum. It had all the requisite exhibits: terrascapes of the founding of Macao, and ancient drawings, and miniatures of old sailing ships and sampans, and a large anchor or two, but the most interesting exhibit showed what all those ferries were from Hong Kong: Jet Cats, JumboCats, HiSpeed Ferries, Hoover ferries, and Jetfoils. I spent considerable time looking at this exhibit and figuring it all out. Hi Speed ferry’s are merely ships built for speed. Hoover Ferry’s are hovercraft. Jumbo Cats are large catamarans that can go quite fast, although conventionally driven. Jet cats are a smaller version of the same thing, but powered with hydrojets like the motorboats that run rivers in New Zealand. And finally, JetFoils (my own mode of transportation) are hydrofoils that are powered by hydrojet engines. It was all quite interesting, and left me with the impression that there must be a large demand for Hong Kong citizens to come to Macao and gamble, if so many different craft could find employment on the forty mile run.
After the museum I refused to get back into the pedicab and made the driver understand that I wanted to peddle while he rode in the seat. After all, I was up for some exercise and he could certainly use some rest. It took quite awhile to explain to him what I wanted, the concept being so far outside his frame of reference, but when at last he understood he became very agitated and started shaking his head and in this way made it clear that what I was proposing was utterly unacceptable. I would have insisted but was worried that any greater confrontation might give the man a stroke, and at least I’d offered. I climbed back in and off we went, this time into the heart of Macao which is on a hill. Here were the little alleyways and tiny side streets that one associates with Chinatowns everywhere. At the very highest point in Macao sits the most famous tourist attraction: the ruins of an ancient Jesuit cathedral. All that is left is one wall, although it is quite a high wall, a full eighty feet high, I judged. And it is quite ornamental as one would expect of Jesuits in the 16th century: lots of Corinthian-style architecture and carvings and leaves and such. But when all is said and done it is only a wall and I was not much impressed by it.
We were nearing the end of the two hours and only a few miles away from our starting point at the ferry terminal when the pedicab’s chain fell off. I had been worrying about the physical condition of the pedicab but had dismissed these thoughts as those of a Westerner accustomed to seeing everything bright and shiny. I got out of the back seat and the guide quickly fixed the problem by flipping the pedicab upright and repositioning the chain.
A half mile down the road the chain came off again. Again he fixed it. After the sixth time he realized it wasn’t going to stay on and so he began pushing the pedicab while he walked along beside it. This was too much. I climbed out and helped him push the vehicle the final mile back to the terminal, where I paid him his ten dollars and said good-bye.
It was barely noon and I was certain I’d not seen all there is to see in Macao, but was quite certain I’d seen all I cared to. The next jetfoil didn’t leave for another forty five minutes, and I was hungry. I walked around the area hoping to find someplace to eat but as I’d noticed before, the ferry-terminal neighborhood is not especially developed. There were certainly no restaurants. Over against one wall of a construction project I spotted several score of Chinese men and women sitting on the ground eating from Styrofoam containers. Nearby were several of them gathered about a person who was handing out these containers from a large cardboard box, apparently selling them. Each person handed the man a few coins, then took the box away, sat down, and began eating whatever was inside, with chopsticks.
Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and one of my strengths is that it is almost impossible for me to encounter food I don’t like. The truth is, I like food. And I especially like food when I’m hungry. I had no idea what was in those Styrofoam containers, but I went up to the man with the box and I bought one from him, quite to his surprise I think, and I took the proffered chopsticks and went and sat up against the wall and began eating. To tell the truth I still have no idea what was in the Styrofoam container, and I’d be lying if I said it was the best meal I’d ever had, but it was a meal and I did eat it, and afterward felt much better for having done so. This is one of the advantages of traveling alone: you can stop for a meal whenever you wish, and obtain food in whatever manner you choose, and you don’t have to think twice about it.
On the jetfoil back to Hong Kong there was one other non-Chinese, and he was an American and sat next to me. He was about fifty or sixty years old and was what is called an “expatriate,” which means someone who lives outside their own country for prolonged periods. The term is used heavily in Asia, where many people are expatriates, although I’d never heard it before. It’s used so often, in fact, that they’ve contracted it to “expate” as in “I used to live in KL and there’s really a large expate community there.” (KL being Kuala Lampur, I discovered during the conversation, although given half a chance I would have figured it out.) Anyway this man was with a firm that provided consulting on executive compensation. He was paid a good salary and his company provided his housing: in this case a luxury apartment that overlooked Hong Kong harbor, near the Wan Chai area, and which cost $4,000 per month. I found it outlandish that our global economy should waste its resources on hiring people to do nothing but advise others on how much they should pay their executives, and while doing this advising, should pay the consultants themselves heavily and provide $4,000 a month apartments for them. I mean, how confusing is the subject of executive compensation, after all? You pay what you need to hire the people you want. What’s to consult about?
But I didn’t express these thoughts, since it would have been rude. I was more interested in what advice this man could give me concerning what to see in Hong Kong.
“What kind of thing are you looking for?” he asked.
“I’m looking for floating villages: junks, sampans, that kind of thing. I’m told the harbor at Aberdeen is the place to go.”
“Well, Aberdeen is a bit too discovered for my taste,” he said. “If you really want to see floating villages like they used to be, go to some of the outlying islands.”
“Which one!” I asked, suddenly very attentive. This was useful information.
“My favorite is Cheung Chau,” he said. “It’s very small, but it has the best harbor of junks anywhere in the area. If you want to see junks, go to Cheung Chau.”
By two pm I was back in my hotel room. Surprisingly, I wasn’t planning an excursion to Cheung Chau. I’d decided to allocate the whole of next day to that. No, I had resolved to tackle a real challenge: I was going to get my computer fixed.
Now that wasn’t as foolish as it sounds in a foreign country. This was Hong Kong, after all. Hong Kong is the free-enterprise center of Asia. You can buy anything in Hong Kong, and if you can buy anything, you should be able to fix anything. Furthermore the computer itself was made by NEC, a Japanese electronics company, and one of the huge neon signs atop one of the skyscrapers said NEC! There were probably people on every street corner who could fix my NEC computer.
Of course the computer wasn’t really broken. It was more complicated than that. I needed to copy the program from my floppy disk into the internal memory of the computer, and I didn’t have the external floppy disk drive to do it with. If I could find a replica of that disk drive the problem would be solved. Or if someone could figure out how to copy the data without using that particular external drive—via the serial port for example—that would serve as well.
My search began with the yellow pages. English was still the official language of Hong Kong, even if no one spoke it, and I was not going to be intimidated in using the telephone.
I dialed the first number, NEC’s corporate Hong Kong headquarters. After hearing about my problem, and being passed through half a dozen different departments, each person in which spoke English with a heavy Cantonese accent, I finally found a woman who provided useful advice.
“Go to this company,” she said. “They are an authorized NEC repair center, and they can help you.”
She gave me the address and it was easy walking distance in Wan Chai. It was an upstairs office, and just inside the door were two stunning Chinese girls, smiling brightly with their red lipstick and long black hair. I determined that one of them spoke English and I explained my problem to her. She spoke some words into the phone and soon a man came out who examined my computer. When he understood what I needed he said I should go to their service center, which was across town, and speak to a Mr. Chan. He gave me his business card and wrote Mr. Chan’s name on it, and circled the address on the back—the side with kanji characters, for he knew this would be my only way of communicating with the cab driver. I thanked him profusely, said good-bye to the receptionists, and took a cab to the new location.
The service center was in a very seedy part of town, kind of a warehouse district, and lots of Chinese laborers were scurrying about, loading trucks, checking off bills of lading, driving forklifts, and so forth. The cab driver had pointed me in the right direction, and I went in through one of the warehouse doors. Inside I discovered a freight elevator which took me to the third floor, and down the hall I found the service center. Inside were two more beautiful Chinese receptionists, and I wondered why they always seem to come in pairs. This time I had an appointment, so to speak, for Mr. Chan had been notified of my visit by phone. I presented my business card to the receptionists, and also the card with Mr. Chan’s name on it and—who knows—perhaps they were impressed. Mr. Chan came out and shook my hand and smiled and ushered me into his office. I explained the problem and showed him the computer. He gathered several assistants together and all of them begin speaking at once in rapid Cantonese while they examined the tiny laptop NEC. Occasionally I would hear a word I would recognize, like “serialcable,” and “internalmemory,” and once: “externalfloppydiskdrive.” Finally Mr. Chan turned back to me.
“Is possible, you reave with us?”
“Certainly,” I said. “I’m departing Hong Kong Thursday morning, but I can leave it until then.”
I wrote down the phone number of the New World Harborview, thanked him for his kindness in trying to help me solve the problem, and rode the freight elevator back to the street.
I had a vague notion of where I was and decided to try getting back to my hotel on one of the double-decker trolleys. Unfortunately I had no idea how you paid for them, or whether it required tokens, or even what routes there were. But there was no doubt I was east of my Hotel, and the line seemed to be running East/West. I found a trolley stop and tried to do just what everyone else was doing. Surprisingly, I found they were boarding the trolley at the back door, and passengers were leaving out the front door. So upon boarding you pay no money, apparently. I rode the trolley for about fifteen minutes until I judged I was in the vicinity of Wan Chai, and then worked my way forward as I’d seen others do, and tried to pay the driver. The old trick of holding out my hand filled with coins and letting him pick worked well, and soon I was off the bus, and feeling quite pleased with myself that I’d been able to get home by public transportation, without a map and without understanding any of the kanji characters. From the time I’d left my hotel over an hour ago, I had not seen a single non-Chinese.
Perhaps because of this I found Beth a welcome sight that evening. She informed me that we would be going out to dinner with the entire Australian delegation, which consisted mostly of opal dealers. We were going to a private club that one of them was a member of, or knew someone who was a member, or something like that. It was a fun, typically-Australian group of about a dozen, and we all sat around a large table in a very opulent dinning room and ate whole mountains of Cantonese food. The daughter of one of the dealers was seated next to me, and had the most beautiful long blond hair, but she seemed a bit immature when I tried to make conversation. This explained itself when I discovered later she was only fifteen years old. Surprisingly, I’d seen her running the company’s booth single-handed for hours during the show. No doubt they start them young in the opal mines.
The next morning I took the hovercraft to Cheung Chau. It was about a thirty minute ride by hovercraft, roughly south-southwest from Hong Kong, and we passed more of the little uninhabited islands on the way. The Harbor at Cheung Chau is quite large, and it is, in fact, filled with junks. Many of them appeared to be fishing junks, because they had large outriggers attached to them and piles of netting on their decks. Many others appeared to be people’s homes. Little children were playing on them and laundry was hung out to dry over the rails. My guidebook suggested that, after walking along the waterfront for awhile, one should take a motor-taxi over to San Mai, which is a tiny village at the south end of the harbor, and from there one can walk back. I wasn’t sure where to find the motor-taxi departure point but as I was looking around a woman in a sampan caught my eye and waved to me to come aboard.
There were half a dozen others already sitting in this sampan, and it was obviously going to be taking them someplace.
“How much?” I asked, and she held up three fingers, implying three Hong Kong dollars which is about thirty-five cents, U.S. I hopped aboard and off we went. Of course I had no idea where we were going, but thirty-five cents seemed a reasonable price to get there. The woman, who was quite deeply tanned despite her conical sun-hat, navigated the sampan efficiently through the junks in the harbor, and deftly operated the controls of the diesel engine I could hear thump-thumping under the deck. Finally we came up against one of the junks, bow first, and a man waved good-bye and hopped aboard. Then the sampan went to another of the junks and several other people got off. After two more junk-stops I was the only one left and the woman looked to me and said something in Cantonese which I assumed was, “Well, which junk do you want to go to?”
“San Mai!” I said.
This took her by surprise, as San Mai was quite a ways away. She considered the matter and finally held up ten fingers, which translates into $1.25, U.S. I nodded my assent and she turned the tiller hard alee, and off we went.
The sampan is an interesting craft. It stretches perhaps thirty-feet in length, with eleven feet of beam, very high freeboard all around, and a flush-deck. The tiller is mounted on a sternpost and the engine controls are nearby. Approximately half the length of the sampan is covered with a curved awning made of tightly-fitted bamboo stringers. A person can walk under this awning if they are willing to bow their head deeply. I preferred to lean back against the hard bench seat near the bow and close my eyes and enjoy the sun on my face and smell the sea breeze. We arrived at San Mai in fifteen minutes. I paid the woman and waved good-bye and hopped off on the stone jetty. San Mai is a dirty little place, and the tiny harbor stinks of fish offal and a perennial low tide. A person could throw a baseball from one end of the town to another, although no one was doing that at the moment. Actually I could see no one doing anything. San Mai appeared to be deserted. After prowling around I discovered a tiny open-air store where cans of soda were for sale. I bought a ginger beer which tasted terrible so I drank it quickly and got rid of the can. My body was grateful for the liquid, as I’d been sweating for sometime in the hot sun and Asian humidity. A sign near the outskirts of the village pointed towards a temple, and I followed the path. There was a temple, of sorts, although it was a miniature affair, more like a shrine to my way of thinking. Some rotting vegetables had been left at the altar, obviously a gift to Buddha, and I lit some incense and bowed my head with as much respect as I could muster while facing week-old cabbage. The trail continued beyond the shrine and at last I found myself at the southwest tip of Cheung Chau, overlooking the South China Sea. A strong breeze was blowing and the waves were whitecapped. Several miles away I could see the large island of Lan Tau: twice as large as Hong Kong island according to the guidebook, and the home of two Buddhist monasteries and many temples and shrines. I climbed onto a large boulder, and lay down and read Shogun for half an hour.
Back in San Mai I found myself reluctant to take the advice of the guidebook and walk by road thirty minutes back to Cheung Chau. It was simply too hot. And adding impetus to my rebellion I saw another little sampan tied up at the waterfront. This one was obviously the real water-taxi, for it was already taking on passengers and appeared ready for departure. I hurried to it and hopped aboard, finding I needed to pay only the equivalent of fifteen cents for the ride back. Sharing this sampan were a dozen or so little Chinese school children in their dark blue uniforms and caps, perhaps first graders, and accompanied by several adults.
I wandered around Cheung Chau for an hour, finding nothing more noteworthy than another Buddhist temple, where I burned more incense, before catching the 1:00 hoverferry back to Hong Kong.
I’d done so well finding junks and sampans in Cheung Chau that I decided to keep the momentum going. I caught a bus in Central going to Aberdeen, which is a village—formerly a pirate’s lair—on the south side of Hong Kong island, famous for its “floating restaurants.” I found Aberdeen more like a city than a village, with dozens of high rise apartment buildings overlooking the harbor. Aberdeen’s harbor is a small affair, not much more than a river actually, but it is definitely filled up with junks and that’s what I was after. Walking from the bus stop the several blocks to the harbor itself I was accosted by a woman who just-barely spoke English. She wanted to give me a tour of the harbor in her sampan. One hundred Hong Kong dollars was her asking price ($14 US.) but I negotiated down to thirty. She wailed and protested over this price because, as she tried to explain, normally there would be five or ten people going on the sampan but in this case I would be the sole passenger.
Well, don’t blame me for the condition of the sampan-tour market. She escorted me to one of the sampans that was tied up at the dock and we climbed aboard. She introduced me to her husband who was already at the tiller. We cast off and were soon underway, motoring through the junks much like we had earlier in the morning at Cheung Chau. This was well and good, but I’d already motored through junks before, and was something of an old hand at it by this time. I wanted additional excitement.
“We agreed thirty dollars, right?” I asked the wife of the sampan driver, “even though you wanted one hundred?”
“Yes, we ag-ee, thirty dolla,” she said, not happy to be reminded of how little they were earning on this cruise.
“Well, if you let me drive the sampan, I’ll give you the full one hundred!”
Oh, how they agonized over this! No self-respecting Hong Kong sampan owner could let slip seventy dollars. But to let an American take control of the tiller in the crowded bustle of Aberdeen harbor? It would be madness.
They handed me the tiller.
It took a few moments to get the feel of the craft. It was maneuverable, but not overly so. And Aberdeen harbor was extremely congested with junks and other sampans. The husband stayed very close to me, obviously wanting to make sure I knew what I was doing, but eventually he decided I knew how to steer boats in a crowded harbor so he relaxed and let me go where I wished.
After forty minutes of wandering amongst the wooden Chinese ships and gaudy, tourist-infested floating restaurants I felt I knew Aberdeen harbor quite intimately and it was time to go back. I bid the couple good-bye, climbed back up on the jetty, and wondered what to do next. Nearby a herd of buses were parked, and one of them said “Stanleyville” on the front.
Stanleyville market! Of course! That’s where the guy had bought the Tintin t-shirt. So I hopped on the bus and off we went. According to my guidebook Stanleyville is on the southeast corner of Hong Kong island. It was a good thirty minute ride getting there. The back side of Hong Kong island is mostly jungle, and the bus went up and down tiny wandering mountain roads, past beautiful overlooks and through villages with names like “Deepwater Bay” and “Repulse Bay.” Looking at a map and reading names like these, one would never guess that Hong Kong is no longer British. I had seen only Chinese in Aberdeen. There were only Chinese on this bus. And in every village we passed through I saw only Chinese.
Perhaps this was because all the Americans were at Stanleyville market. Stanleyville market is a long street filled with dozens of little shops and boutiques, and here—at last—I found an area of Hong Kong where almost everyone was speaking English, and was at least European if not American. Almost every shop had Tintin t-shirts. That was the only reason I’d come here so I bought two and headed back to Wan Chai, on another bus.
Leaving a note for Beth in the hotel room, I took a quick shower and boarded the star ferry for Kowloon. I’d remembered that I needed to be at the tailor’s before seven p.m. to have my first “fitting” for my suit. It was six-thirty now, and I walked at high speed through the streets of Kowloon, the heat and humidity almost overpowering me. When I arrived at the tailor’s I stood for a few moments under the air-conditioning vent just inside the door.
“Walked fast!” I explained to the tailor. “Got too hot!”
“Ah, I unerstan’!” said the tailor. “You wait light heh.”
He returned in a few moments with two cold beers, and we drank them under the air-conditioning.
Cold beer never tasted so good, and after a few minutes I had cooled off enough to try out my suit. The tailor’s assistants brought it out, with pins and needles and thread sticking all over it. I tried it on and they spoke in Cantonese to each other as they adjusted the pins and needles and threads. Then they were finished and I changed back into my regular clothes.
The tailor let me borrow his phone, I called Beth at the Harborview hotel, and we agreed she’d meet me for dinner in Kowloon, rendezvousing at the Peninsula Hotel, which is roughly half way between the ferry terminal and the tailors.
The Peninsula Hotel is the “grande damme” of the Hong Kong hotels, built during the nineteenth century, and still surfeited with old world elegance: high ceilings supported by Corinthian marble columns, tuxedoed waiters in the lobby, and Europeans in suits sitting in lounge chairs smoking cigars, drinking brandy, and considering new ways to oppress the heathen.
I sat in one of these chairs myself, while I waited for Beth, although I didn’t smoke any cigars and I didn’t drink any brandy. It was fun considering new ways to oppress the heathen, though. I discovered later that this very hotel had been featured in the James Bond film, Man With The Golden Gun.
Most of the restaurants Beth and I tried to eat in had long waiting lines but at last we discovered a quiet place off a side street that not only had no lines, it had almost no customers.
We had already been seated and served ice-water before we realized that with the exception of another couple, who were just leaving, we were the only customers in the whole restaurant. And there were about fifteen waitresses. This was really quite awkward, for all through the meal these fifteen waitresses, fourteen of whom were apparently “in training” hovered over us, desperate to find something they could do or some need they could fill. Beth and I ate our Cantonese food quickly, desperate to escape these “waitresses from hell” and get back on the street. We passed on dessert, engaged in another buying frenzy at the silk shop, and then returned to Wan Chai on the Star Ferry.
The next morning I decided not to go to Canton. I already had a visa to enter the People’s Republic of China but the logistics for getting there and back in one day were looking impossible. The only sensible way to do it is by train, and there were no seats available on the trains I wanted. Also, I wouldn’t get back before seven p.m. and then how would I ever retrieve my computer? I was leaving early the following morning for Tokyo. So I spent my last day in Hong Kong relaxing instead of rushing around. I did take a harbor cruise, which was pleasant, and I retrieved my computer. Mr. Chan apologized profusely but they hadn’t been able to fix my problem. Apparently my particular model of computer was not made any more, and no one had any parts for it. They’d tried to build a customized-serial cable connection from scratch, but it hadn’t worked. I thanked them for their efforts, and offered to pay for their time but they would not accept any money for their failure. Their shame was almost more than they could bear.
I just had time to pick up my newly-completed suit from the tailor, and by eight p.m. was back in Wan Chai at the hotel. Beth and Charley had had a fantastic last day, which made up for a miserable week, and they were in the mood to celebrate. They couldn’t go anywhere because their million dollar+ opal supply was spread all over the two rooms, so we ordered a lavish Chinese dinner from room service and sat in Charley’s room overlooking beautiful Hong Kong harbor. No restaurant could have afforded a view half as spectacular, and their were just the right number of waitresses: none.
The food was delicious and the wine was excellent. I’d had a wonderful time in Hong Kong, had seen most of what I’d wanted to see, and was beginning to feel almost at home in the colony, despite the fact that no one spoke English. I had mastered the public transportation system, interacted a bit with the business community, steered a sampan in Aberdeen harbor, and even had a custom suit tailored. If I’d been heading home the next day I would have felt very pleased with myself, and quite relaxed.
But I wasn’t relaxed. Hong Kong was the calm before the storm. Tomorrow I was heading for Japan.
Most of my knowledge of Japan derives from eating in Japanese restaurants, and the rest from reading James Clavell’s Shogun. Between the two I was certain I would have no trouble in Japan.
Or so I tried to pretend. Actually I was scared.
My fear was vague, and based on the difficulties I envisioned during the coming week. First was the dual nature of the visit. I was coming to Japan to meet with some Japanese business people. And also to sightsee.
I’ve found it’s comfortable being a tourist, and comfortable being a business traveler, but very difficult to be both. For example a business traveler stays in nice hotels and spends his time getting ready for his meetings. A tourist stays in hotels recommended by Arthur Frommer and spends his time trying to find them.
A business traveler hails a cab to take him to his meetings. A tourist wrestles with the public transportation system, both to save money and to “experience the local culture.”
A business traveler wears a suit and tie, and is always organized, well-rested, perfectly groomed and likely to make a good impression.
A tourist wears jeans and a wrinkled shirt, looks exhausted, and probably needs a shower.
Again, I’m comfortable in either role but not quite sure how you do them together. Buried deep inside my backpack was a carefully folded suit, and three silk ties. The suit had been purchased specifically for this trip, and was of a material that resists wrinkles miraculously. (It would need a few miracles if it hoped to survive.) The ties had been purchased in Kowloon and had recently looked new. Also consuming backpack space were a pair of black dress shoes and two folded and dry-cleaned white shirts. Given a good shower and a few minutes in front of a mirror, I would be able to transform myself from scruffy tourist to professional business person.
But when I needed it would I even get a good shower and a few minutes in front of a mirror? That was the question.
My second reason for being nervous was the daunting prospect of having to conduct business with Japanese. I’d met two of them a year previously in New York, and they’d seemed pleasant enough. But New York is my turf and perhaps they’d been on good behavior. Whole guidebooks have been written about doing business with Japanese: everything from surface-etiquette (bowing and so forth) to maintaining a mask behind which your real emotions are hidden, to the Oriental art of negotiation and deal-making. I hadn’t read any of those guidebooks and now I was feeling unprepared: like a school boy who had failed to do his homework. I was certain I would make a complete hash of the whole business and embarrass both myself and my company.
My third reason for being nervous was the obvious one: the language. I knew two words of Japanese: Konichiwa (good afternoon) and Hai (yes.) I thought I knew two more words: Dozo (please) and Domo (thank you), but I was wrong. Domo and dozo do not translate well into please and thank you, I learned later. And my Frommer guidebook—usually quick to make light of problems that might be posed by, say, a yak trip across Tibet—starts off with this discouraging comment about Japan:
“Without a doubt, the hardest part of traveling in Japan is the language barrier. Suddenly you find yourself transported to a crowded land of 120 million people where you can neither speak nor read the language. To make matters worse, few Japanese speak English. And the menus, signs at train stations, and shop names are usually in Japanese only.”
Well, that was just great. The Frommer guidebook to Hong Kong hadn’t even mentioned that language would be a problem. And it was a big problem. And now I was heading for Japan, where things were obviously going to be much worse.
But a cause for nervousness greater even than the dual-nature of the trip, the problems of etiquette and negotiation, and even the language, was the difficulty posed by Kahori Sekiguchi.
Kahori, (or “Sekiguchi-san” as she’d once told me was the polite “Japanese” way for me to address her) was one of the two business-people I’d met in New York. Kahori, at the time, was traveling with Mr. Kobayashi, the very wealthy president of Yuri International, Ltd., a London-based jewelry wholesaling firm with offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Bombay. Mr. Kobayashi spoke no English and Kahori was his translator, although when a middle-aged man travels around the world with a young, single, and attractive female, one can’t help but wonder about the relationship.
And she didn’t even speak English that well, as I recalled.
That had been a year ago. Now, I had learned through correspondence, Kahori was in charge of Yuri’s Tokyo office, and lived in Japan full-time while Kobayashi was still headquartered in London. So it was Kahori who had communicated with me about my trip to Japan, and who had lined up the meetings with Kobayashi and others, and who had made hotel reservations for me in a section of town near Yuri’s offices. And it was Kahori who had suggested light-heartedly that she could be my tour guide in Japan, although that could mean much or little.
But it certainly added stress. How was I supposed to conduct myself with a young Japanese woman, in Japan? Especially a Japanese woman who could prove pivotal in my business negotiations.
On the flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo I was reading Shogun at a frantic pace, hoping—I suppose—for clues to understanding Japanese culture. But I was not having much luck because the elderly American woman seated next to me was a talker. The United Airlines flight was enroute to San Francisco, with only a brief stop in Tokyo, and when the woman discovered I was getting off there she was quite disapproving.
“I’ve traveled all over the Orient,” she explained. “But I refuse to visit Japan. I just can’t forgive them for what they did in the war.”
What they did in what war? Oh yeah, World War II. Hmmm. Interesting point. I’d kind of forgotten that we used to be at war with Japan, and that Japanese soldiers were renowned for atrocities and cruelty in the lands they invaded. I tried to juxtapose the Japanese culture as portrayed in black and white John Wayne movies with Japanese culture as experienced over a pair of chopsticks and a plate of delicately-wrapped sushi. It was hard to believe they were connected. An apologist might note that all cultures have their barbarisms, which usually surface during warfare. But certainly some cultures are worse than others in this regard. Rigid, heavily-militaristic societies seem to correlate with excessive barbarism, as evidenced by the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II, and the Cambodians under Pol Pot.
But did the cruelty of Japanese soldiers in World War II have anything to do with Japan today? It was something to keep in mind, I decided, but it was not going to interfere with my enjoyment of the country.
“I’m here on business,” I said to the woman on my right, implying that I’d had no choice in the matter of visiting the country.
“Well, if you’re going to Japan on business,” she said, “make sure you bring gifts. I’d recommend one or two bottles of good Scotch. The Japanese are very fond of Scotch.”
I’d heard this before, about Japanese and Scotch and bringing gifts, so I took advantage of the in-flight, duty-free store provided by United Airlines and purchased two bottles of Chivas Regal, not quite sure how they would fit in my near-bursting backpack, but determined to find the room.
My first sight of Japan was Mt. Fuji. I spotted it on the left side of the plane, rising several thousand feet above a low-level cloud layer. As famous sights tend to do, Mt. Fuji corresponded to its photographs: a perfect white cone, quite majestic and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, I never saw it again the whole time I was in Japan. The plane descended as the sky cleared over Narita. We crossed a long white beach and at last I could see something of the countryside. My first impression was of blue roofs, scattered haphazardly across the landscape. This was agricultural land, for the fields were very visible, but they resembled the fields of Europe: a patchwork of uneven shapes, and not the perfectly-square rectangles of the American Midwest. The blue roofs must belong to barns or farmhouses, although why they should all be blue was a mystery, and they seemed to be reflective of light in a scintillating kind of way. I discovered later that these blue roofs were made of curved, glazed tile, and are as common to Japan as red barns are to Iowa.
The Tokyo airport is called “Narita” because it is near the town of Narita, fifty miles from Tokyo. After clearing customs I looked around to get my bearings. Everyone looked Oriental, but I was used to that coming from Hong Kong. And all the signs were in kanji characters, but I was used to that also. I kept looking and at last came upon a desk that said Tourist Information in small letters underneath a flurry of kanji. From there I was directed to another desk, where I purchased a ticket on the Narita Express—one of the two trains that run from the airport to downtown Tokyo.
I knew to do this because I was operating on instructions that had been faxed to me in Hong Kong from Kahori. These instructions represented my only life-line to survival in Japan. Without them I would be like a shipwrecked sailor marooned on a raft in the middle of the ocean: completely cut-off from civilization. The instructions read:
“…I recommend you take “Narita Express train” from Narita to Tokyo station. This train is really comfortable. It takes just one hour from Narita to Tokyo without any stops. From Tokyo station, can you take Taxi? It is about 2,000 yen from Tokyo station to Asakusa Vista Hotel. You can show following Japanese sentence to taxi driver.
Or, if you would like save some money and you have no big luggage with you, you can take JR Yamanote line from Tokyo to Ueno station and take taxi from Ueno. (JR is Japan Railways and Yamanote is commuter loop line around central Tokyo) Could you please phone me when you arrive at hotel. 3865-7919. Mr. Kobayashi is on business trip until 26th Sept. So I will see you on 24th.
You see, the problems were already starting. An expense-account business traveler would hop in a cab upon leaving the Narita Express, and the cab would deliver him safely to his hotel. But a tourist on a limited budget is forced by self-esteem to do it the hard way: haul his luggage through Tokyo station, find the right commuter train, figure out how to buy a ticket, and figure out where to get off.
One thing at a time. I’d made it onto the Narita Express itself, and was sitting back in comfortably-reclining seats, arranged facing each other. A young woman took the seat next to me, smiled shyly, and disappeared into a book. A middle aged couple was opposite us. They seemed friendly, but no one was brave enough to try communicating.
As we waited for the train to leave the underground station, I read this from my guidebook:
“In many respects it’s much harder to meet the inhabitants in Japan than in many other countries. The Japanese are simply much more shy. Even though most of them have studied English, few Japanese have had the opportunity to use the language and most feel totally unable to communicate in it. That’s one reason why you may find that the empty seat beside you in the subway is the last one to be occupied—most Japanese are deathly afraid you’ll ask them a question they won’t be able to understand.”
I stole a glance at the middle-aged couple and they did appear a bit nervous. But I was nervous as well. I was far underground, sitting in an inside seat on a train occupied 100% (except for me) with Japanese people. This was probably a good experience, I rationalized. This was how it must have been like being a black person in America during the first half of the century. Of course I didn’t detect any hostility from anyone. There was no danger of being beaten up just because I was a Westerner. No, it was more a feeling of being, just, different.
The train pulled out of the station and soon we were going through a pastoral landscape with an occasional village or cluster of houses. I could see the blue roofs everywhere, but even non-blue roofs were made of tile. It was curved tile, like we’d use for drainpipes, inverted in parallel rows. Each house had just a hint of upwards flare on the corners of the roofs, as if they hadn’t quite forgotten their pagoda ancestry.
And the houses, and the villages, and the fences, and railroad crossings, and the—well, everything, had a petite feel to it. It was smaller-scale than America. And everything seemed cleaner, and better cared for. A train traveling through America would expose the passenger to unkempt surroundings: piles of rusting automobiles, overflowing garbage cans, slum-like housing, etc. I couldn’t see anything comparable from this train’s windows. The homes were well-cared for, even if small. There was no grass in need of mowing, no gardens in need of weeding, no wooden structures in need of paint. It was as if the whole population had come out the day before and fixed everything up just for my visit.
What did it remind me of? I couldn’t quite place it. Switzerland! That was it. Japan was an oriental copy of Switzerland.
Turning again to the guidebook, I read:
“English words are quite fashionable in Japanese advertising, with the result that you’ll often see English on shop signs, posters, shopping bags and T-shirts. However, words are often wonderfully misspelled, or used in such unusual contexts that you can only guess at the intent. I don’t know how many times my day has been brightened by the discovery of some zany or unfathomable English. What, for example, could possibly be the meaning behind “Today birds, tomorrow men“ which appeared under a picture of birds on a shopping bag?
I looked up as we passed a billboard. It showed an attractive Japanese woman somewhat out of place in a lavish western-style white wedding dress. “Let’s Wedding!” said the caption.
Yes, I thought. By all means, let’s!
We were thirty minutes from Tokyo station and I figured I’d better study my map of Tokyo commuter trains which I’d picked up from the Information Desk. Most of it was kanji but English sub-titles were shown for the station and route names. I spread it out on my lap and tried to reconcile it with the information Kahori had sent me.
“Whell you want go?”
I looked up, surprised, and saw the middle-aged man across from me smiling, but looking nervous. His wife nudged him on, forcing him to be brave.
“I help,” he said, obviously scared to death of trying to speak English, and trying inadequately to bow while seated.
“Ah so, domo!” I said, even more scared of trying to speak Japanese, and trying to bow in turn. The girl had put her book down, and was looking at us curiously, captivated by the drama.
“Go here,” I explained. “Ueno station.” I pointed to the map. I’d located Ueno station, but could see no mention of the JR Yamanote line, and could see no easy way to get from Tokyo to Ueno without changing trains three or four times. Then I showed him Kahori’s note, and pointed to JR Yamanote line. He studied it intently for awhile, and then his wife leaned across, took the map out of my hands, and turned it over.
“Ah so!” said the man. And he proceeded to explain to me, in a mixture of Japanese and English and hand signals that I’d been looking at the subway map, and the JR Yamanote line was a commuter train. The other side of the map showed the commuter routes, and everything now made sense.
We bowed and smiled to each other most of the rest of the way to Tokyo, and when we left the train the couple were determined to point me in the right direction so I followed them.
It was three p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and rush hour had not yet quite bloomed, but there was no shortage of people in Tokyo station. I stayed close to my rescuers as they went up escalators, through passageways, and down corridors until at last they pointed me towards a large room, and spoke some Japanese in farewell. I thanked them in English, we both bowed, and they disappeared.
Alone in Tokyo station.
OK, I could handle this. Train stations are my turf. I could no more get lost in a train station than I could… Uh oh. Wait a minute. All the signs were in kanji. I fought down a growing panic. Ah, over there, on the far side of the room, was a sign in English. “Yamanote Line” it said. I headed in that direction. I saw a group of people putting coins in a line of machines. Out would come tickets. I studied the machines for awhile, and found one that said Ueno in the midst of its kanji scribbling. I put some coins in and out came a ticket, covered with kanji. Following the occasional English sign, I thus made my way through Tokyo station to the Yamanote line, and even found the right platform.
The cars were quite modern for a commuter train. They looked as if they had entered service only last week. There was no dirt, no graffiti, no cigarette butts. There were straps to hang from, however, and I chose one and hung from it, doing my best not to turn quickly and wipe out whole families with my backpack suitcase. I was much taller than anyone on the train. In fact I wasn’t exactly holding on to the strap. I was holding onto the steel latticework on the ceiling which the strap attached to, a fact which those nearby noticed with some awe. Above each doorway was a simple, easily-understood display that showed the entire Yamanote Line, each station on the line, what station we were presently at, and which direction we were going: all done with cute little blinking lights and arrows. I contrasted this with the indecipherable maps of the New York subways, set in the wall directly behind the person occupying the seat most likely to be occupied, and encased in glass made opaque from years of graffiti buildup. What must the Japanese think of New York, I wondered.
In about fifteen minutes we arrived at Ueno Station, the station from hell as I would come to call it.
Unlike other stations in Tokyo, Ueno has not been anglicized. There are almost no English signs anywhere. All directions are in kanji. It seemed bigger, even, than Tokyo station. There are numerous subways and commuter lines which intersect at Ueno, and the building accommodating them all was designed by a committee. Hitherto I had only found one place on the surface of the earth in which I would lose my sense of direction upon entering: the Port Authority bus terminal in lower Manhattan. Of course the Port Authority terminal had never bothered me because the signs were so clear. If you knew where you wanted to go, you just followed the signs. I realized with dismay that Ueno station was the equivalent of the Port Authority bus terminal with no signs! My God, an American could be lost for days! There would be no way of finding food or water! I looked around, to my right and left, up and down. Everywhere I looked kanji gibberish screamed back at me. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese surged past in all directions, oblivious to my growing claustrophobia. There was no way to fight down the panic this time. In a moment I would have to scream.
Wait! Over there, down one of the corridors, across a large room at the end, was there—? Yes! Daylight! That was an exit. I could escape from Ueno!
I hurried there with the speed of adrenaline-filled muscles, and gasped in relief as I emerged out of the darkness, onto a street corner. My luck was obviously turning, for directly in front of me was a taxi! I waved to it and thankfully collapsed in the back seat.
The driver waited politely while I collected myself. I was sweating profusely, but had the presence of mind to remember where I’d stashed Kahori’s letter. I produced it now and showed the kanji characters which it contained to the driver. He nodded understanding (or was it a bow?), and off we went.
The hotel was much nicer than I expected. Kahori had given me a choice of a regular business hotel, at which their firm could get a discount, or a “small Japanese business hotel,” which was less expensive. I’d chosen the small hotel, despite Kahori’s admonishment that the rooms were “extremely small,” about the size of a bathroom in America.
Well, actually they weren’t. There was enough space to accommodate a double bed, tucked in a corner, and even a miniature desk and chair. Astonishingly there was even a small bathroom, with shower.
OK, next step was to make contact with Kahori. I was supposed to call her at her office. I used the phone in my room to dial. The person on the other end answered in Japanese, and it didn’t sound like Kahori.
“Sekiguchi-san,” I said questioningly into the receiver.
Another woman came on the line and spoke some more Japanese.
“Sekiguchi-san,” I said again. What else could I say? If a foreigner had called my office and had kept repeating: “Mr. Voorhees” they would eventually have reached me.
“Jacques, is that you?”
Ahh. The sweetest sound in the world. I had made contact. I felt the tension drain away.
Kahori gave me directions to her office, only a brief walk from the hotel, and I had no difficulty finding it. This section of Tokyo, at least, seemed architecturally uninspired. It was very clean, as is all Japan apparently, but it was as if the city planners hadn’t had much time or money and so had hired draftsmen instead of architects to design their buildings. The streets and sidewalks were wide, and more than ample for the traffic. But much of the traffic consisted of bicycles. A number of times I saw a man or woman in business dress fly past peddling a bicycle along the sidewalk. This would be considered scandalous in Manhattan, where only the delivery boys are foolish enough to use bicycles in the city, but here there seemed no stigma attached.
Yuri International occupied one floor of a very small, three story office building on a sidestreet. We would call it an alley in America but that word denotes something dark and dirty, and this sidestreet was well lit and so clean it almost sparkled. There were about six employees at Yuri, all women, and they were mostly sitting around a large conference table sorting jewelry.
Kahori greeted me warmly and we bowed ritually. Then she introduced to me to everyone else, none of whom spoke English, and we all bowed some more.
It was Thursday night, and I wouldn’t be meeting the important business people until Tuesday morning. So I had four days in which to see Japan. I was not at all sure how much help I could or should expect from Ms. Sekiguchi. Her English was just barely adequate and anything complicated had to be conveyed slowly and simply. So there was a language gap as well as a cultural one, yet it was important that I try to understand just how much I was “on my own.” I decided to play it by ear, and in any case Kahori explained that tonight we would go out for dinner, and her younger sister would come along.
Meia, her sister, was 19, but looked younger. She spoke a little English and seemed a stereotype of a young Japanese girl: all smiles and giggles and embarrassment. And eager to practice English. Kahori suggested that before dinner we visit the Sensoji Temple, a pleasant twenty minute walk from the office, and located in the heart of the Asakusa district. My guidebook had this to say about Asakusa:
“Located in the northeastern part of central Tokyo, Asakusa served as the pleasure quarters for old Edo. Today, it is known throughout Japan as the site of the famous Sensoji Temple, one of Tokyo’s top attractions. It also has a wealth of tiny shops selling traditional Japanese crafts. When Tokyoites talk about shitamachi (old downtown), they are referring to the traditional homes and tiny narrow streets of the Asakusa and Ueno areas.”
And regarding Sensoji itself:
“Sensoji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest temple, dating from AD 628. According to popular lore, the temple was erected to enshrine a tiny golden statue of Kannon that was fished out of the nearby Sumida River by two brothers. Kannon is the Buddhist goddess of mercy and happiness, and is empowered with the ability to release humans from suffering.”
Why is it that Buddhism reminds me so much of a big Nintendo fantasy game? Of course Nintendo was invented in Japan. We arrived at Sensoji just after it closed, which meant I, at least, would not get a chance to be released from human suffering. On the other hand my suffering was largely offset by the fact that I was going to dinner with two pretty Japanese girls.
The shops around Sensoji are as famous as Sensoji itself. The whole area is one big open market, with souvenir stalls, boutiques, T-shirt shops, etc. AS we toured the area Kahori asked me what kind of food I wanted for dinner.
“Japanese food!” I said.
“Well, of course,” said Kahori. “This is Japan. But there are many types of Japanese food. We could go to a sushi restaurant, or a tempura restaurant, or a yakitori restaurant, or a…”
In the end we chose tempura, and Kahori deftly navigated us down a side street and up a flight of stairs, to a small room where we were greeted by a kimono-clad woman. Here another choice presented itself.
“Do you want to sit in chairs, or Japanese-style on tatami mats?” asked Kahori.
This was the question I’d been dreading. I’m physically incapable of sitting cross legged, but figured I could sit on my knees, or somehow with my legs off to the side. It was my first night in Japan and I didn’t want to appear an uncultured barbarian. Honor was at stake.
“I think we should try the tatami mats,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic.
We were ushered onto a raised-platform area, which we were not allowed to ascend until we had removed our shoes. Once seated, so to speak, the dinner proceeded in typical Japanese fashion, with hot towels for our hands, miso soup, rice, shrimp, vegetable tempura, and Asahi beer. Meia was charming, and loved the chance to practice her English. We talked about her school, the problems posed by the fact that she still lived with her parents, and in general what life was like in Japan. She of course, was very curious about America. Kahori helped out by translating concepts too difficult for either of us to express. Near the end of dinner Meia said something in Japanese to Kahori and giggled shyly.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“Oh, she was just saying how stiff her legs are from sitting on these darn tatami mats. She prefers chairs!”
“Oh no, “ I confessed. “I chose tatamis because I assumed that was preferred.”
“Not among younger Japanese. At home my parents always sit on tatamis for dinner but Meia hates it. Of course a lot of it is just teen-age rebellion…”
We agreed I would come to the office the next day, have lunch together, and then Kahori would take me to the famous Ueno zoo. Kahori was quite proud of the Ueno zoo, partially because it was the only place in Japan that had Panda bears, and also because her father worked at the zoo. Her father was in charge of the monkeys, not the pandas, but he was friends with the guy who was in charge of the pandas, which counted for something.
Back at my room in the hotel that night I noticed that the maid had prepared my bed, and on the bed were two perfectly-folded robes. Beside each robe was a cotton belt, beautifully wrapped in a cloverleaf pattern, and beside the bed were two pairs of slippers—obviously meant to be worn in place of shoes while occupying the room. Barbarian that I was I tossed it all aside, climbed into bed, and went to sleep. Soon, I am sure, I was snoring arrogantly.
Kahori had taken me to dinner with her sister. For lunch she arranged for her mother to accompany us. I was beginning to wonder if it would be scandalous for us to have a meal unchaperoned, or if this was simply Kahori’s way of protecting herself from my advances (which is what it might have implied in America) or if rather she was doing me great honor by introducing me to her family.
Kahori’s mother was a very pleasant and unassuming woman, of perhaps late forties, and she spoke not a word of English. We walked to a very small cafe nearby, where the tables were almost touching, and ordered noodles for lunch. They came on a plate, unadorned except for the requisite decorative seaweed, always at hand nearby. We poured soya on them and ate with chopsticks. And we drank tea.
I’d had Japanese food for dinner the night before. At the hotel I’d had a Japanese breakfast: cold pickle, smoked fish, ginger, rice, and seaweed. And now we were eating more Japanese food for lunch.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Japanese food. I love how it tastes, how it looks, how it is arranged. Everything. But three meals in a row?
“Kahori,” I asked, “I’m curious. Do you eat Japanese food for every meal? I mean do you have noodles, and sushi, and smoked fish with ginger, and pickled seaweed, and tempura, and rice—all the time?”
“Yes, isn’t it wonderful?” she said, beaming. “I used to live overseas, in Vancouver, and I could have taken a job in London, but I really wanted to come back to Japan because the food is so good. You can’t get it anywhere else.”
“And do you really eat with chopsticks at every meal? I mean, it’s not just something you do for special occasions?”
She giggled, and translated for her mother.
“Of course we eat with chopsticks. Why wouldn’t we use chopsticks? It’s much more difficult eating with a knife and fork. You have to get used to a knife and fork and it never feels really comfortable.”
“But of course it’s easier with a knife and fork! I thought Japanese ate with chopsticks because knives and forks hadn’t been discovered yet, and now it was just tradition or something.”
“Knives and forks are barbarous,” said Kahori. “There is no delicacy to them. You just hack away. With chopsticks, each bite is an artistic expression.”
“But you don’t actually mean to tell me it’s easier for you with chopsticks?”
“It’s much, much easier. For example, how can you pick up a pea with a knife and a fork? With chopsticks it’s very simple!”
“But what about these noodles? How can you eat noodles with chopsticks?”
“You’re doing it all wrong,” she explained, obviously enjoying herself. “You’re trying to use the chopsticks to pick up an entire group of noodles.”
“What else can I do?”
“Use the chopsticks to place a few noodles in your mouth, then use your mouth to suck them up with a big slurping noise.”
“You’re not serious!”
“I am serious. In Japan, it’s considered an insult to the cook for you not to make a big slurping noise when you eat his noodles. He will think you don’t like them.”
I looked around the room. Everyone was slurping their noodles, and the cook was beaming. I tried it and it was fun. I hadn’t slurped noodles since I’d been eight years old and had been sent to my room for doing it. I was glad my mother couldn’t see me.
We took a cab to the Ueno zoo and went in the back way, for free. Kahori’s father was on hand to meet us. Like everyone in Japan he looked very Japanese, and very short. I had already learned not to shake hands, and we both bowed earnestly when Kahori introduced us.
He took us to see the pandas and they looked much as one would expect pandas to look: kind of black and white. Then he showed us the monkeys. But it was awkward socially, as Kahori’s father spoke no more English than did Kahori’s mother. Soon the father had to get back to work, and the three of us left the zoo and began walking through Ueno park. We came upon a pleasant little cafe with low, concrete tables set outdoors under a vast ceiling of tree branches. These tables were no more than a foot off the ground, and it was obvious that one was supposed to sit on the ground to use them, for no chairs were provided. Kahori suggested we stop here for tea and, not wanting to appear uncultured, I showed them immediately that I knew how to sit on the ground, which I did.
Kahori reached out and pulled me to my feet.
“No, no!” she said with a giggle. “There are no tatami mats here! You sit on the tables, with your feet off to the side.”
I brushed off the leaves and dirt from my jeans and, mustering as much dignity as was left me, sat on the little concrete tables.
“I knew that,” I said, and we laughed.
While Kahori ordered refreshments I gave some thought to a decision I’d been postponing. Before arriving in Japan I had been unable to plan my stay because I did not know what kind of suggestions or arrangements—if any—Kahori might have made for showing me around. It was Friday afternoon, and I would not be meeting with the business people until Tuesday morning. Kahori seemed willing to spend as much time as possible with me, in terms of going to restaurants, visiting zoos, and so forth. No doubt we could continue doing such things over the weekend. But this was my first time in Japan. I wanted to see more of the country than just the Tokyo suburbs. And so far Kahori had advanced no grand suggestion, such as going to Sapporo for the weekend.
And then there was Mary Ducor. Mary was the woman I’d met at the Hong Kong show, the “Japanese representative for Michael Couch.” Judging by what I’d seen so far, it was likely she and I were the only two Americans in the whole country. Also, she was presumably familiar with the Japanese jewelry industry and could give me advice, or at least some things to be aware of. I should at least call her. I’d left a message for Mary at her hotel that morning, just before going to lunch.
But the real question was what to do over the next several days. My Frommer guidebook covered all Japan, not just Tokyo, but how could one see all Japan in three days? There were limitless attractions and places to visit. I could join a tour, but I’d tried joining tours before and all you do is get shuffled from one famous site to another, surrounded by obnoxious Americans in a big bus.
It was foolish to think I could travel around Japan on my own, speaking no Japanese. Heck, getting from Tokyo station to Ueno had almost done me in. On the other hand I had gotten from Tokyo to Ueno. And I’d even gone from Ueno station out into the street. Things couldn’t get much harder than that, could they?
Coming to a conclusion, I turned to Kahori and said: “I’ve been giving it some thought, and I think I’d like to go to Kyoto for the weekend. It’s supposed to be a beautiful city, and I probably shouldn’t miss it. I’ll probably get completely lost and get in all kinds of trouble, but I don’t mind. What do you think? Am I crazy?”
“Well,” said Kahori, “I think you might be able to do it. You can take the bullet train right to Kyoto, and I could make a reservation at a hotel for you. It is possible, even if you don’t know the language. But it could be difficult.”
Kahori said there was a travel agency we would pass on the way back to Asakusa, and after tea we headed in that direction. We had not gone very far before we came upon a crowd of people. As one does we maneuvered our way towards the front, to see what there was to see.
It was very odd. Three beautiful Japanese women were there, in bright, lovely kimonos. I thought they might be models for nearby were television cameras set up for taping.
In the center of a clearing was a pile of dolls. They were stacked carelessly over six feet high, and they seemed of all types: cheap rubber dolls, old ratty dolls, beautiful hand-crafted porcelain dolls, and even rag dolls. Nearby a fire was burning, and at hand were several Buddhist monks, with shaved heads and brown robes.
We must have arrived at the moment of climax, for as we looked one of the models was handed an unlit torch. She placed it in the fire until it was burning, and then she walked over and, with some ritualistic bowing and accompanying ceremonial on the part of the monks, she thrust the burning torch in to the pile of dolls.
The dolls erupted into flame. The other models lit torches and cast them into the burning pyre as well. One of them turned away from the fire and I noticed she was crying—or perhaps smoke had gotten in her eyes.
Soon the pile of dolls had been reduced to ash, and as the fire burnt out the crowd dissipated.
“What was all that about?” I asked.
“A doll-burning ceremony,” said Kahori. “It’s a custom in Japan. We don’t like to throw dolls away because we believe the dolls have souls. So we burn them—cremate them—and that way they will be reborn. It’s not as common now as it once was. That’s why they had the TV cameras, I think. You were very lucky to see it. I had no idea there was going to be a doll-burning ceremony in the park.”
“Did you have dolls when you were young?”
“Oh yes,” she said, smiling in remembrance.
“And do you believe they have souls? Did you burn them?”
“No, I didn’t burn them. I love them too much. I still have them.” She was smiling shyly, as if embarrassed. “But, yes, I do think they have souls. I’m quite certain my dolls, at least, have souls. I don’t know about other people’s dolls.”
After leaving the park Kahori guided me to the travel agency where she set about helping me arrange accommodations in Kyoto. I explained to Kahori that if possible I was hoping to stay in a Ryokan in Kyoto. Ryokans, or Japanese Inns, are where you stay if you want to experience the real Japan: tatami mats, rice-paper walls, futons, etc. Kahori discussed this with the travel agent, who made some phone calls, and then reported back that all the ryokans were full this weekend in Kyoto. I would have to settle for a regular-style hotel. This was disappointing. Maybe I shouldn’t be going to Kyoto at all.
“Am I doing the right thing?” I asked Kahori, hoping for some guidance. “I really don’t know where I should be going, and am very open to suggestions.”
“Well, it’s your choice, she said. One idea I had was that we could go visit my hometown, where I grew up. It’s north, in the mountains. But I really shouldn’t. I have too much work to do over the weekend. It’s probably best that you go to Kyoto.”
Well, there it was. The invitation I’d been hoping for. She didn’t sound all that determined to work over the weekend. I probably could have jumped on the suggestion and eagerly promoted it. A weekend trip with Kahori was appealing.
On the other hand this was probably just the kind of thing I shouldn’t do. I did not need or want another platonic relationship with a young, single woman: the one in Peking was enough.
So I went ahead and made reservations for Kyoto. I would take the bullet train leaving at 8:00 a.m. the next morning from Tokyo station.
Back at my hotel I found that Mary Ducor had returned my call and we agreed to have dinner together. The question was where to meet. She was staying in a completely different section of Tokyo called Suidobashi. I could go there. Or she could come to Asakusa. Or we could meet somewhere in between. Mary knew Tokyo well, but the more she tried to give me directions for finding her the more complicated it became. Finally she suggested it might be easier if she came to Asakusa, since there was less danger of her getting lost.
I wouldn’t hear of it. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning for Kyoto,” I explained. “I need all the practice I can get.”
So we compromised. I would take the subway to Suidobashi, call when I arrived at the station, and she would walk the short distance from her hotel and meet me there.
In Hong Kong Beth had shared with me an observation that when a person has been surrounded by Orientals for prolonged periods, Caucasians start looking very strange: almost bulbous and deformed. “You realize,” she’d said, “that that’s how we must look to them all the time.”
Waiting for Mary at the Suidobashi subway station I had a chance to reflect on this phenomenon. Since leaving Narita airport more than twenty four hours ago I had not seen a single westerner and when Mary arrived, walking briskly through the light rain with an umbrella, she seemed like a giant, though hardly deformed.
We ordered sashimi at a nearby Japanese restaurant. I was slowly getting used to the fact that every restaurant in Japan is a Japanese restaurant, but I still found it an amazing phenomenon. Echoing the night before, we split a large Asahi beer and then another, and finally another after that. Mary was teaching me how to order things in Japanese, and ordering beer was good practice.
“Biiru o ni bai, kudasai,” I said to the waiter, and he bowed and ran off to fetch another bottle of beer.
We talked a little about the Japanese jewelry market and the prospects of establishing a computerized trading network, but I wasn’t especially interested in talking about the jewelry business, nor was Mary.
So I queried her about how she had happened to grow up in Japan. Her father had been in the military and she had lived in Japan from age 3 to age 12, but during that time they’d had to move frequently within the country, and every time they moved, young Mary lost all her friends.
“It got to the point where I built a shell around myself,” she explained, “so I couldn’t be hurt by friends leaving, or me leaving them. I just quit having feelings. It’s still a problem for me. I’m still trying to recover from that shell.”
Mary had met her husband ( a veterinarian) at Iowa State University in Ames, and now they lived in Connecticut. One of their mutual friends from ISU, Michael Couch, had made a trip to Brazil one year, bought a few gemstones, and sold them at a huge profit back in the states. Seeing an opportunity, he became a colored stone dealer. And Mary had become his free-lance marketing representative for Japan, since she could speak the language.
“So you can even read kanji?” I asked, prepared to be infinitely impressed.
“Oh no. I can’t read kanji at all. I can read katagana and hiragana, of course. That’s easy. But kanji takes years of practice. I was just beginning to study it in school when I left Japan.”
“But you left at age 12. You mean that Japanese 12-year olds can’t read all these kanji signs either?”
“That’s right,” said Mary. “You start learning kanji right around that age. Of course by then most kids know a little of it, but certainly not enough to read a newspaper, for example.”
“So what you’re telling me is that you could get just as lost in these subways and train stations as I could?”
“No way! If I didn’t know where something was, I’d just ask!”
Good point. Speaking fluent Japanese would probably make a difference.
As we were saying goodnight, and discussing my plans for visiting Kyoto over the weekend, I thought I detected some interest.
“You’re certainly welcome to come with me,” I said impetuously. Mary Ducor would be great to travel with. She could speak Japanese as well as Kahori, and English as well as me.
“Yes, I was considering that,” she said. “But you know I should really spend the weekend getting organized for my sales trip next week.”
Sounded like a lame excuse to me. I considered pushing her, but for the second time that day prudently decided against it.
And there was another reason. Traveling with Mary would make everything too easy. She spoke the language. She knew the country. And she was American. Somehow it wouldn’t count as traveling in Japan. It would be like cheating. I wanted to do it on my own.
“I understand,” I replied, letting the matter drop. Mary walked me back to the station which was fortunate as otherwise I would have gotten lost. I was glad I’d bought my return ticket already as I was a little drunk from the Asahi, although I managed to find the right train and then the right subway. Was it really only yesterday I’d arrived in Japan? Even so, when I reached my hotel the laid-out slippers and robe were comforting, as if my wife were somehow nearby, and I did not feel lonely.
The next morning, Saturday, I woke early. This was the day I would be heading out totally on my own with only my knowledge of the Japanese language, and my wits, to help me.
In other words, my wits.
I took the subway to Ueno and easily made the connection to the southbound JR Yamanote line. The day before Kahori had tried to explain to me that the southbound trains all had a green stripe on them, and the northbound all had a blue stripe. That’s how I could tell which one I should get on.
“Does the color of the stripe change?” I asked, beginning to be confused.
“Oh no! It’s painted on the outside of the car.”
“Then how does that work? I mean, up north there must be thousands of cards with blue stripes and down south there must be thousands with green stripes, and they can never change direction!”
This was too complicated a concept for Kahori’s English and we went round and round trying to explain things to each other. Finally it dawned on her what I was saying. She burst out laughing.
“No! No! It’s not the direction that counts, it’s whether they’re operating north or south of Ueno! North of Ueno the trains are all blue, south of Ueno they’re all green.
I found the southbound train and it was in fact green. This was actually quite easy after the practice last night getting to Suidobashi. Soon we’d reached Tokyo station and it was only a little difficult finding the right platform for the bullet train to Kyoto. I’d left myself a huge margin of error and now had over an hour before the train departed. Time to get some breakfast.
Inside the station was a little take-out shop that had half a dozen tables set about for the convenience of those with time to sit and eat. In America such a place would be doing a brisk business in coffee, croissants, and bacon and eggs on Styrofoam plates. Nothing of the sort was offered here. Instead, the man behind the counter was doing a brisk business in little boxes, about eight-inches square by one inch thick, made of thin, light, balsa wood. The customer would buy one of these boxes, take it over to a nearby table, open it up and eat what was in it.
This was similar to my experience in Macao, and I again blessed the fact that—especially when hungry—I can eat anything. Whatever was in the curious little boxes would be welcome. Across the room I spied a coffee vending machine. These coffee vending machines I’d discovered previously on the streets around Asakusa, and they are one of the best things about Japan. It’s not hot coffee that’s served, it’s cold coffee (we’d call it “iced coffee”) in little cans—about half the size of a Pepsi can—and the coffee is heavily laden with cream and sugar. It takes awhile to get used to but then becomes addictive. I hadn’t yet reached the addiction stage but—at 7:30 a.m.—was quite happy to take my caffeine in any form I could find it.
So I bought one of the little boxes (using hand signals), and then obtained coffee from the machine. My appetite had grown quite large in anticipation and curiosity over what might be in the box, and I opened it eagerly. (The wooden cover was held in place by two long chopstick—like pieces of wood, secured by rubber bands around the box). I’m not sure what I expected to find inside, but it certainly wasn’t what I got. After removing the cover I found myself looking at a dozen little cylinders of wrapped seaweed, each about two inches long. Inside the seaweed was rice, and inside the rice was a thin sliver of raw fish.
I’d been up a couple hours. I was hungry. And I can eat anything, right? At least that’s what I said to myself as I took my first bite. It was surprisingly good. And it went well with cold coffee out of a vending machine. I opened my book and read some more Shogun, feeling very Japanese.
Tokyo station was all but deserted at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning as the bullet train eased to a stop. The bullet train is blue, and very fast-looking, but not greatly different from the Trans Europe Express (“T.E.E.”) unless you count the fact that it’s filled with Japanese people who don’t even speak French, let alone English. I located my car and my seat with no difficulty, thanking the Gods once again for the fact that numbers in Japan are not written in kanji. The seat next to me was empty as we pulled out of the station and headed south towards Kyoto. It was not a clear day; a low overcast clung to the Tokyo suburbs as we swished through them at 100 miles per hour. I set my book aside and stared out the window, trying to absorb the essence of Japan.
The essence of Japan was obscured by clouds, and all I could see was building after building, suburb after suburb, roads, bridges, skyscrapers, cars, and pretty much what a person would see in America if they were taking a train through— I paused, wondering what American city this was similar to. None, actually. This was more like a northern European city, perhaps Strasbourg, minus cathedral spires.
Fifteen minutes after leaving Tokyo station the train pulled to a stop at Yokohama, and I could see many people lined up on the platform waiting to board. The vacant seat next to me was sure to be taken and I began to worry whom I would be sharing the 2-hour long trip to Kyoto with. Most of the new passengers were young Japanese businessmen in western-style suits and ties, with an occasional old woman shuffling along. I was hoping for an old woman, or a diminutive man, as the seats were not large and were quite close together—at least by American standards.
Then someone quite different entered the car, and my breath was taken away. She was the most beautiful woman in all Japan, a country filled with beautiful women. She had long black hair, worn straight down her back, with thick bangs. She was tall and slender, with dark red lipstick and an expensive business-style suit. She was probably a receptionist for Fujimoto Industries, or perhaps an administrative assistant to the vice-president of Mitsubishi. Or maybe even a movie star.
“Sit here! Sit here!,” part of my being cried.
“Don’t sit here! For God’s sake, don’t sit here!,” another, more sensible part, cried. Of course it was out of anyone’s control. The seats were reserved. She paused by my empty seat, looked at the number, and sat down.
The stress level went off the charts. I knew no more than a dozen words of Japanese by this time, and they would be exhausted quickly in a two hour conversation. But there was nothing for it. I called up the first word, the one of the twelve most appropriate to the situation: Ohaiyo gozaimas! (good morning). I played mentally with the pronunciation, getting it ready for launch, timing it to come forth gracefully as soon as she glanced at me and smiled.
I knew she would glance at me and smile. The social situation required it. A brief smile, acknowledging her seatmate, was unavoidable.
But it didn’t happen. She fiddled with her bag, extracted her ticket, and leaned back in the seat, staring straight ahead.
I knew what she was thinking. “My God, a two hour trip and I, of everyone on the train, have to sit next to the gaijin (barbarian). May Buddha protect me! Better yet, let me die now, so I do not have to bear this shame!”
I could hardly blame her. I was feeling a bit barbarian-ish. It was my second day wearing the same shirt. I’d showered hastily that morning and had not shaved as well as I might. I’d lost my comb somewhere in Hong Kong and was having to content myself with running my hand through my hair. My jeans had a bit of dirt on them from having knelt on the ground at the would-be tatami table in the park yesterday. On top of everything, I seemed to be at least twice the size of anyone else on the train.
I stole another glance and was alarmed to see that she had fallen asleep, or at least was pretending to sleep. That solved the conversation problem. Even barbarians know how to take a hint.
The train gathered speed as it rushed across the Izu peninsula. This was quite hilly country, almost mountainous, and I knew with frustrated certainty that Mount Fuji was just out of view, hidden by the clouds. Little towns and villages flew past at 140 miles per hour as the bullet train reached its cruising speed. 140 miles per hour is faster than most small planes can fly and I wondered what would happen if the train were to suddenly sprout wings.
The topography and foliage in this mountainous area reminded me vaguely of Hawaii, with its lush plant life and heavy rainfall. But soon we had left the Izu peninsula and the train now rolled swiftly across agricultural lands, the little blue-roof houses and barns as much in evidence here as they had been at Narita.
I alternated my reading between Shogun and the Frommer guidebook. From the latter I read this introduction to Kyoto:
If you go to only one place in all of Japan, Kyoto should be it. As the only major Japanese city spared bombing attacks during World War II, Kyoto is charming and captivating. AS you walk its narrow streets and along its tiny canals, you will be struck with images of yesterday. Old women in kimonos bend over their “garden,” which may consist of only a couple of gnarled bonsai’s beside their front door. An open-fronted shop reveals a man making tatami mats, the musty smell of the rice mats reminiscent of earth itself. Perhaps you’ll see a geisha shuffling to her evening appointment in Gion, a small enclave of solemn-brown wooden houses where the sounds of laughter and traditional Japanese music escape through shoji screens.
The famous Ryoanji rock garden is here, a Zen garden of pebbles and stones. There is a pleasant stroll from Kyomizu Temple to Heian Shrine, with tea gardens, pottery shops, and temples along the way. In the evening in the summertime, couples sit along the banks of the Kamo River which cuts through the heart of the city.
“…scattered throughout Kyoto are an incredible 1,700 Buddhist temples and 300 Shinto shrines, narrow alleyways and willow-lined canals, and enough history to fill many volumes.”
It was not going to be easy to do justice to 1700 Buddhist temples and 300 Shinto shrines in only two days. There was less time than that, even. Kahori and my guidebook had made it clear that I should take a side trip to the city of Nara, 45 minutes away by train. The reason: more Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
The train slowed as it approached the Kyoto suburbs, and finally eased smoothly to a full stop at the station. The girl was awake now and, realizing I was de-training, moved her legs politely out of my way. I maneuvered myself into the aisle and just as I was leaving stole a final glance. To my utter surprise she looked up, smiled broadly, and nodded imperceptibly— just a hint of a bow. I smiled back and nodded in turn.
This exchange might be translated as follows:
Girl: “Thank you, barbarian, for behaving in a civilized fashion and not trying to talk to me. You did me much honor, and I bow to you now to show my gratitude.”
Me: “It was difficult to keep my barbarian rudeness under control, but I am pleased that I did not fail too horribly. I am honored that you were able to tolerate my miserable existence and I bow in return, to thank you for your patience.”
“Konichiwa!” I said as I was leaving, testing my luck.
“Konichiwa!” said the girl, smiling again, and this time with a more distinct bow.
Gee, what rotten luck. Just as the conversation was getting interesting I had to leave the train. But there was no turning back, and anyway the train was heading towards Hiroshima which is probably not the best place for an American to try to make a good impression.
Finding my way out of Kyoto station was simple enough for one who has survived Ueno. I had a large-scale map of the city provided by the tourist office in Tokyo and they had marked on it where to find my hotel: a short walk from the station. So far, Kyoto was not looking especially exotic. It seemed a bit like downtown Milwaukee but then, the guidebook had warned of that:
“As your Shinkansen bullet train glides into Kyoto station your first reaction is likely to be one of great disappointment. There’s Kyoto Tower looming in the foreground, looking like some misplaced spaceship. Modern buildings and hotels surround you on all sides, making Kyoto look like just any other Japanese town.”
That hardly seemed an indictment, but I understood what was meant. This was the same kind of uninspired, urban architecture I’d seen in the northeast Tokyo suburbs. The hotel, also, was very similar to the one in Asakusa, with another set of folded robes and slippers awaiting my arrival in the room.
First things first. I used the lavatory in the tiny bathroom to run a load of wash, and set it out by the open window to dry. The weather had cleared and it was a bright, sunny day. I had a quick lunch in the hotel’s restaurant (a Japanese restaurant, of course) and used the time to plan my next 48 hours. With 2,000 temples and half again that number in Nara, it was not going to be easy.
Gradually a rough plan took shape. I would take a bus to eastern Kyoto and locate the Kyomizu Temple. From there, according to the guidebook, it was a very pleasant walk northwards, passing through the old section of town with shops and so forth, and ending up at the Heian Shrine. I found the bus, figured out how much money to give the driver, and—when the time seemed right, got off.
There were low wooden-structures clustered here and there that might have implied the approach to the Kyomizu temple, and tourists—all Japanese—were milling about with their 35 mm cameras, but I needed confirmation that this really was Kyomizu. Nearby was a large sign that explained what was going on and I approached it curiously.
No luck. It was all in kanji.
Ah, here we go! Some flyers were in a little box beneath the sign.
No luck. They were all in kanji too.
The thought occurred to me that if Mary Ducor had been here, she would “have just asked.” That did me a lot of good. (And if I’d already finished the Japanese course I took some months later at Colorado Mountain College, I would have known to say “Are wa, Kyomizu desu ka?” )
Oh well, who cared if I didn’t know where I was? It was obviously some kind of attraction. I began walking up the pathway. Kyoto is surrounded in most directions by forested hills rising above the plain of the city. I was amongst these hills now and had left the drab urban flavor of Kyoto far behind. As I walked through the trees I discovered many large and small wooden buildings, obviously representing tourist attractions inasmuch as many tourists were standing in front of them taking pictures. I had no clue what they were but they looked ancient enough. And well they might.
“Kyoto served as Japan’s capital for more than 1,000 years, from 794 to the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It’s first few hundred years, from about 800 to the 12th century, were perhaps its grandest, a time when culture blossomed and the court nobility led luxurious and splendid lives. If you have any fantasies about old Japan, perhaps they fit into the Heian Period. There were poetry-composing parties and moon-gazing events. Buddhism flourished and temples were built. Despite the civil wars that rocked the nation in the 15th and 16th century culture flourished. During these turbulent times Noh drama, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and landscape gardening gradually took form.
So I was properly impressed with these old wooden buildings, even if I did not understand their function. Climbing on up the hill, the mystery buildings thinned and were replaced by a cemetery. My map showed that the actual Kyomizu temple was quite a way from the road so I was not unprepared for what was becoming a considerable hike. But it seemed likely that I had missed the main trail for the cemetery was all but deserted and there was no clear path through it other than random wandering.
This Buddhist cemetery was quite similar to its Christian counterparts, except that the marker stones tended to be larger and more elaborate, and of course there were no crosses to be found anywhere.
A shrine dotted the landscape here and there, but these shrines were empty of people, as was the cemetery itself. It was dawning on me that this whole thing was kind of creepy: alone on a forested hillside in a Buddhist cemetery, ten thousand miles from home, unable to speak the language, and all but lost.
Thankfully I found a break in a nearby fence and by following a side-path through it came at last onto the main thoroughfare of tourists heading up to the Kyomizu temple. Souvenir shops and tea houses lined the way and I was grateful to be back amidst civilization, such as it was.
The temple itself, when finally I reach it, seemed not much different from the centuries-old wooden buildings down at the foot of the hill. Again the problem was one of not being able to read any of the voluminous explanations posted everywhere. No doubt the Kyomizu temple was awash in history and fascinating lore, but I was limited to what Frommer had to say:
First founded in 798 and rebuilt in 1633 by the third Tokugawa shogun, the temple occupies an exalted spot with a grand view of the city below. The main hall is built over a cliff and features a large wooden verandah supported by 139 pillars, each 49 feet high. The magnificence of the height and view is so well known to the Japanese that the idiom “jumping from the verandah of Kyomizu Temple” means that they’re about to undertake some particularly bold or daring adventure. To appreciate the grandeur of the main hall with its pillars and dark wood, walk to the three story pagoda which affords the best view of the main hall, built without the use of a single nail.
It took several hours to walk from Kyomizu temple to the Heian Shrine in northeast Kyoto, but when I had done so I felt that I had truly “seen Japan.” I lost count of the little gardens, canals, bridges, tea shops, temples and shrines that I passed but there were many, and in sufficient quantity to capture my heart. Anyone who loves Japanese architecture and design should skip Tokyo and come straight to Kyoto, where it is all still preserved and looking much as it did hundreds of years ago.
The Heian Shrine itself is a vast array of buildings that date from 1895, when they were erected in duplication of the first imperial palace, built in Kyoto in 794. As the guidebook said: “If orange and green are your favorite colors you’re going to love this shrine.”
This was a good warning because in fact all the buildings were painted in bright, bright vermilion orange, with dark green roofs. The sun had reached a low angle by this time of the day, and beautiful shadows played across the grounds while the last rays brilliantly illuminated the fiery orange colorings. In the courtyard of the shrine I came across a young couple dressed formally, and holding what apparently was a new born baby. Grandparents clustered nearby, including two elderly women in rich and elegant kimonos. Several yards away a photographer was preparing to take a picture of what was obviously the Shinto version of a Christening. I stood close to the photographer and took my own picture, finding the scene appealing. The young mother smiled at me gratefully. In her mind perhaps I was doing her young son great honor by photographing him.
Actually I was more interested in the kimono-clad old women. Japan has become largely Westernized in dress, but the kimonos have not disappeared. They are still worn at formal occasions such as this one, and even on the streets of Tokyo the sight of a kimono is not infrequent. Usually it is the older women who wear them, and statistically they seemed to occur on about one out of every two hundred women. So you might say that at any time in Japan, approximately one half of one percent of the women are wearing kimonos.
Kimonos are also frequently worn by waitresses in the nicer restaurants, and of course always by the geishas.
Gion, where I went after leaving Heian, is the geisha-district of Kyoto and Frommer recommended a walk through Gion as part of the quintessential Kyoto experience.
Gion is a small district of Kyoto, an area of plain wooden buildings devoid of flashing neon signs. In fact, as the geisha entertainment district of the city, there’s something almost austere and solemn about Gion, as though its raison d’être were infinitely more important and sacred than that of mere entertainment. Gion is a shrine of Kyoto’s past, an era when geishas numbered thousands in the city. Now there are only a couple of hundred. After all, in today’s high-tech world, few women are willing to undergo the years of training to learn how to conduct the tea ceremony, to play the samisen, or to perform ancient court dances. And contrary to popular Western misconceptions, geishas are not prostitutes. Rather they are trained experts in conversation and coquettishness, and their primary role is to make men feel like kings while in the soothing enclave of the geisha house.
As you stroll the narrow streets of Gion, perhaps you will see a geisha clattering in her wooden shoes on her way to her evening appointment.”
I saw two, actually. They were walking together, clattering away in their wooden shoes, and on the opposite side of the street. I pulled out my camera and quickly took a picture, a fact which one of them noticed. She nudged her companion and they turned towards me and waved, smiling coquettishly.
I tried to imagine a city filled with “thousands of geishas” and found myself pleased at the thought.
It was nearing 6:00 pm and I was quite worn-out from the hours of walking and sight-seeing. I found a bus which deposited me near my hotel, and I turned to the problem of finding a place to eat dinner. There were many restaurants around Kyoto station—Japanese restaurants of course—and I selected one more or less at random, on a tiny side-street.
Like every other restaurant I’d been in, this one included a tatami-mat section, and a regular table-and-chairs section. I choose table and chairs and the waitress (not dressed in a kimono) brought me tea and a menu. I opened the menu and found myself staring into pure kanji. There was no alphabet writing anywhere.
Kanji is indeed the curse of Japan, but the curse is mitigated by the fact that many restaurants have rubberized renditions of their menu items displayed outside behind a lighted window. Therefore you can see what the choices are going to look like before you order them.
The waitress returned to take my order, realizing I was going to have a big problem with a kanji menu but not sure what to do about it since they had no English versions. But the solution was obvious. I stood up and motioned to her to follow me outside, where I pointed to one of the rubber dinners and smiled. She understood, smiled, bowed solemnly, and hurried off to the kitchen. My selection had nothing to do with what I would have preferred. It was simply the easiest thing to point to. Beggars, and people who speak no Japanese, can’t be choosers.
I’d tried to glimpse something of the “soul of Japan” by looking out the window of the bullet train from Tokyo, yet I’d seen more rain than soul on that trip. The walk through eastern Kyoto had been exotic, and had taught me much of Japanese architecture and Shinto shrines. And seeing the geishas had been icing on the cake. But somehow I could not escape the feeling that I was experiencing merely a facade. I had not yet touched the essence of the Japanese people.
Than I began noticing my waitress. It was a small restaurant, with seating for no more than twenty or so. And she was the only waitress on duty. She would pick up the dishes from a little window at the front of the room, deliver them swiftly to their destinations, and return used dishes in the same fashion.
Soon my food was set before me and it was delicious, even if not identifiable.
When the waitress was not scurrying to deliver food or set up the tables, she would stand at the front of the room, hands clasped in front of her, and look out over her customers with absolute attentiveness, her eyes darting across the tables intelligently yet unobtrusively.
To get her attention, one had merely to make eye contact. She would nod her head in an acknowledging bow, and rush over to be of service. I had seen her do this with the other diners and was quite impressed.
There came a point when I needed more rice and she came swiftly the moment I glanced at her.
“Gohan, kudasai?” I asked, using up two more of my 12 Japanese words. She bowed earnestly, and ran—literally ran—to bring me more rice.
I was all but out of soy sauce, and as she was turning away I used another of my declining store of words:
“Sumimasen,” I said gently, which translates more or less as “pardon me.”
The word stopped her in her tracks as if it were a magic incantation. She pivoted around and came rushing back to my table.
“Hai?” she said, overwhelmed with concern lest their be some problem, or lack, in my dining experience. Like all Japanese, she said “hai” as if timed for speed: a sudden expulsion of air and a tightening of the abdomen: like a marine snapping off a salute.
I tried to relax her with a friendly smile as I did not want her to commit seppuku on my account.
“Shoyu, kudasai,” I said placatingly.
“Hai!” she snapped again, and ran to the kitchen to bring me more soy sauce.
Tipping is not a custom in Japan, yet if any waitress had ever deserved a tip this one did. But there was more to it than that. Watching her rush back and forth so eagerly and diligently, it occurred to me that perhaps in a small way I was seeing here what I’d been seeking: the soul of Japan. In America such behavior would be humiliating for a waitress, and to expect it would be insulting.
But Japan has developed a different culture. By such perfect execution of her duties the waitress was not demeaning herself, she was gaining honor. In Japan there is no higher achievement than faithful execution of one’s duty. There is no greater honor, and honor can be gained in no other way. In America a waitress-position is considered somewhat menial. In Japan that’s not relevant. It’s only how well one performs as a waitress that counts.
This was a good thing for a culture to have developed, I decided. It was not the only thing, but it was a good thing.
The next morning as I stepped into the hallway I surprised the maid, who was getting ready to knock on my door.
The poor woman, she was abject with apology.
“Sumimasen, sumimasen,” she said over and over, bowing repeatedly as she backed away down the hall.
I thought the apology a bit overdone. I mean, what was the problem?
But perhaps this, too, was a glimpse into the soul of Japan. The maid apologizes and bows, but that is not degrading for her, as we westerners would consider it. By bowing she executes her duty and shows her respect. Correctly performing this ritual gives her honor. Bottom line: she bowed much better than I acknowledged her bows. So she was raised up by the encounter. I was the one shamed.
But I wasn’t going to let it ruin my day.
My ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, and my hotel reservation, had been obtained for me by Kahori at the travel agency. Now, Sunday morning, I was going to try something similar on my own. I was going to walk back to the station, buy a ticket to Nara, and somehow find the right train to get me there. Why Nara? Everyone agreed I had to go to Nara: Kahori, the travel agent, and the Frommer guidebook.
“Nara is celebrated as the cradle of Japanese culture. The Japanese flock here because it gives them the feeling that they are communing with their ancestors. Foreigners come here because Nara offers them a glimpse of a Japan that was.”
I was able to obtain a ticket to Nara, and even had a reasonably-good idea where the right platform was located. As I navigated my way through Kyoto station I found myself on an up-escalator, surrounded by Japanese. This was not surprising. But on the descending escalator I noticed a young blonde woman with a backpack. She, also, was surrounded by Japanese.
This was disorienting. She was the first non-Oriental I had seen since arriving in Japan four days ago. The girl was no less astonished at my appearance. She smiled, waved, and even laughed out loud.
It was a natural reaction. Here was a blond Caucasian surrounded by Orientals descending an escalator in the middle of Japan, while another more-or-less blond Caucasian surrounded by Orientals was ascending the escalator right beside her. There was something very comical about it. I laughed too, and waved back. Of course I never saw her again. She was whisked away by the combined force of the escalator and the oriental masses, just as I was propelled inexorably in the other direction. But it was comforting to know I wasn’t the only American crazy enough to travel around Japan alone.
I spent the time on the train to Nara studying my Japanese map and while doing this I discovered something quite amazing. Kyoto and Nara were extremely close to Japan’s second largest city: Osaka. In fact the three cities formed almost an equilateral triangle, no more than 45 minutes apart by train.
To anyone who has read Shogun the name is electrifying. Here was the seat of power during the reign of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, builder of Osaka castle, the character in Shogun known as the Taiko. In fact, a good third of the book takes place within the walls of Osaka castle. A terrible idea began growing in my mind. If I could take a train all the way from Tokyo to Kyoto and not get lost, and take another train from Kyoto to Nara (as I was doing), why couldn’t I change my plans and go to Osaka!
The idea was madness in a world where I couldn’t read street signs or even ask a passerby for help. But if I could get to Osaka I might even be able to find the original site of Osaka castle. There must be something left of the place, even if only ruins. It was built in 1598 which isn’t that long ago. London’s Westminster Abbey dates from the twelfth century.
I opened up the map still further and could not believe my eyes. There was an inset map of the city of Osaka, and near the outskirts was a park: Osaka Castle Park! And inside Osaka Castle Park was… Osaka Castle itself!
This was too good to be true. It was as if one could step into the pages of their favorite novel and meet the characters, or at least experience their setting.
But was I brave enough to travel to Osaka? No one would know I was going there. Even Kahori would never guess I’d gone to Osaka. On the other hand where was the danger? At worst I’d get completely lost and have to find someone who spoke English and ask directions. That would be horrible. Men hate asking directions. But it would not be life-threatening.
In truth this internal conflict was only a matter of form. The moment I realized that Osaka Castle still existed the die had been cast. I was going to get there.
With this new goal in mind I turned my attention impatiently to Nara. I was no longer interested in Nara. It was merely a place to change trains on the way to Osaka. But the guidebook was quite impressed with the town. Perhaps I could spend a couple of hours there, just to say I’d done so.
By this point I had become adept at sifting through the guidebook for the important stuff, the meat, as it were. It was quite obvious that the meat, as far as Nara was concerned, lay in Nara park.
And the meat was venison.
With its ponds, grassy lawns, trees, and temples, Nara Park covers about 1,300 acres and is home to more than 1,000 deer, which roam freely through the park. If you don’t have much time, the most important sites to see are Todaiji Temple, Kasuga Shrine, and Kofukuji Temple, which you can see in about two or three hours. If you have more time, add Horyuji Temple.
I had less time so I would skip Horyuji and Kofukuji Temple both. I continued reading.
Todaiji Temple, along with its Daibutsu (Great Buddha) is Nara’s premier attraction. When Emperor Shomu ordered construction of both the temple and the Daibutsu back in the mid-700’s, he intended to make Todaiji the headquarters of all Buddhist temples in the land. As part of his plans to create a Buddhist utopia, he commissioned work on an overwhelmingly huge bronze statue of Buddha. It took eight castings to finally complete this remarkable work of art, which remains the largest bronze statue of Buddha in Japan. At a height of more than 50 feet, the Daibutsu is made of 437 tons of bronze, 286 pounds of pure gold, 165 pounds of mercury, and seven tons of vegetable wax. The wooden structure housing the Great Buddha, called Daibutsuden, is the largest wooden structure in the world.
So as the train arrived in Nara and I quickly exited the station I had only one goal in mind: find the Big Guy, check him out, and then split for Osaka.
Nara Park, home of the great Buddha, was a very pleasant place. Almost on a scale with New York’s Central Park, it was very clean, and consisted of rolling green hills, forests, walkways, and deer. I hadn’t taken the warning about the deer seriously enough, doubting I would see any. But the deer of Nara park are not to be trifled with, any more than are the baboons of Gibraltar. They are tame. Some might say too tame. And they come up and beg for food. If they aren’t given any they are prone to stick their snouts into your pocket, to see what they can find.
The guidebook said there were roughly a thousand deer in the park but I would swear at least twice that number accosted me and begged for food, not that it did them any good. I’d purchased another Japanese meal in a wooden box on the short walk from the train station and had devoured it completely, seaweed and all.
Aside from the deer, Nara park seemed mostly inhabited by young Japanese women taking a stroll with their pre-school age children. Like all women in Japan, they were slender and wore bright red lipstick, and often as not they had their children on a leash.
None of these women would normally make eye contact with me, or even acknowledge my presence at all even though I was something of an oddity, being the only Caucasian in Nara. (Or perhaps because of it.) But the children were adorable and I couldn’t help taking their pictures. Whenever I did this the mother would simply melt and smile oh-so-warmly at me, relishing the honor I was bestowing upon her child.
Their expressions translated into: “Yes, isn’t he/she the cutest thing in the world? Thank you for noticing, but of course how could you not?”
In contrast to the miniature children was the giant Buddha. Like all Westerners I have trouble understanding the attraction. How can someone kneel down and worship a big fat guy with a silly expression on his face?
Of course Christians kneel down in front of a man nailed to a cross. I suppose that’s even weirder. I burned some incense and knelt down myself. Liturgy is its own reward, and the form itself means nothing. Yet means everything.
With that Zen-like concept in my head I was ready for the second attraction: the Kasuga Shinto Shrine.
A stroll through Nara Park will bring you to Kasuga Shrine, one of the my favorite Shinto shrines in all Japan. Originally the tutelary shrine of the Fujiwarea family it was founded in 768 and, according to Shinto concepts of purity, was torn down and rebuilt every 20 years in its original form until 1863. One of the fun things to do at Kasuga Shrine is to pay Y100 (70 Cents) for a slip of paper on which your fortune in written in English. If the fortune is unfavorable, you can conveniently negate it by tying the piece of paper to the twig of a tree.
I tried this and didn’t find the fortune all that favorable. Others must have felt the same for a nearby tree was completely decorated with tied-on fortune papers. I was tempted to tie mine on as well, but decided it would serve better as a souvenir than another ornament. By keeping it as souvenir, I reasoned, I was humiliating the fortune rather than merely negating it.
An hour later I had retraced my steps out of the park, past the deer, around the children, and back to the station. With the help of an English-speaking woman at an information counter I was able to buy a ticket and was soon on yet another train, rolling swiftly through the Japanese countryside and—having thrown caution to the winds—bound for Osaka.
The inset map of Osaka was proving very useful. I had been given complicated instructions for getting to downtown Osaka but I realized there was a better way. I hopped off the train early, at the Tsuruhasi commuter station, and caught the Osaka Loop Line train which took me right to Osaka Castle park.
This was my second Japanese park in one day and I looked around carefully, checking for deer and mothers with small children. But Osaka Castle park was inhabited by very different creatures, and was in a very different setting.
While Nara had been dreamlike and pastoral, Osaka castle park was urban. Glittering, modern, skyscrapers surrounded it, wide concrete pathways cut through it, and Japanese teenagers dominated it.
Japanese punk-rock street musicians were everywhere, having set up their electric guitars and amplifiers anywhere there was open concrete. As they played at full volume, it was difficult to distinguish one band’s music from its neighbors’. Pretty Japanese girls sat around listening and admiring the musicians. I sat against a rock outcropping for awhile and tried to listen as well.
“B-a-a-b-y-y!” screamed one of the guitarists, “L-e-t’-s G-e-t I-t O-n-n-n-n-n !-!-!” This subtle lyric was followed by guitar noises that tried to mimic the sounds of a multi-car pile up on a Los Angeles freeway. And succeeded.
Being in the mood of the park’s casual informality, I was tempted to stand up and shout: “Hey, man, that music sucks! I’m an American, and I would know. That music sucks!”
But I decided this would be impolite and very un-Japanese. So I finished off the last of my little seaweed-wrapped rice cylinders I’d purchased, and moved on.
I came to a break in the trees and through it I could see, perhaps a half mile away, a towering Pagoda-like structure. A kanji sign with English subtitles pointed towards it and said “Osaka Castle.” I worked my way towards my destination, passing as I did at least half a dozen baseball games. I remembered that baseball is all the rage in Japan. These were not sand-lot games, set up spontaneously. These were league games. The players wore uniforms and had sophisticated equipment like face masks for the catchers. Each game occupied one of the many baseball diamonds set up in the park, complete with bleachers and even a few spectators.
Osaka Castle Park was more and more resembling New York’s Central Park, except for two obvious differences. Everything was clean, even the dirt baseball diamonds seemed to have been recently swept. And, second, there was no racial diversity here. Part of the fun of Central Park is the smorgasbord of ethnicity on display. One finds Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Orientals, East Indians, Jamaicans, and all sizes and types of Caucasians, mingling pleasantly. Here there was only one race: Japanese. And while Japanese no longer “looked all alike” to me, they did look similar.
When at last I reached Osaka Castle I found it surrounded by a moat, but I was expecting that. The moat had been much talked-about in Shogun. I crossed over a stone bridge, went through a large gate in a stone wall, and climbed up a fairly steep ramp, eventually entering a second gate. Now I was in the main courtyard, and the central “donjon” towered over me, still looking more like a quaint pagoda than a fierce military stronghold. But I could imagine that it could be scary enough, garrisoned by two million fighting-mad samurai.
I discovered that I’d entered the castle courtyard by a kind of back-door, and the front entrance was ablaze with souvenir stands, t-shirt boutiques, and sidewalk food-vendors. Here at last were some non-Japanese tourists, but the several I came upon seemed to be European, not American. I overheard German and Swedish and even Italian, but no English.
The central pagoda-like structure of the castle has been turned into a museum, with seven stories, each one containing a different theme. For example on level 3 were displays pertaining to the life of Hideyoshi Totomi, the builder of the castle.
Hideyoshi is the Japanese equivalent of George Washington: their primary national hero. He was the first warlord to truly unify Japan, even though it split apart shortly after his death in 1598. Out of those battles emerged the reign of the Tokugawa shoguns, the founder of which served as the basis for the lead character in the book Shogun: Toronaga. His dynasty endured until the end of feudal Japan in 1863.
On level 4 were displays abut the castle itself: it’s building, architecture, etc.
Level 5 focused on the lifestyle of the samurai: clothing, obedience to the liege lord, and so forth.
Level 7—the top—was a 360 degree observation deck complete with postcard stand.
There was much to see from this height. All of Osaka lay before us, looking much as a modern American city might look from a distance: skyscrapers, highways, and—in the distance—jumbo jets making their approach to the international airport. The day was bright and clear and a substantial wind was blowing out of the east.
I decided this would be a good place to read my book, so I found a corner of the deck out of the way of the tourists, and sat down and opened up Shogun, turning to the section where Blackthorne first enters Osaka Castle in the year 1600.
Blackthorne’s mind whirled from the impact of Osaka, its immensity, the teaming anthills of people, and the enormous castle that dominated the city. From within the castle’s vastness came the soaring beauty of the donjon—the central keep—seven or eight stories high, pointed gables with curved roofs at each level, the tiles all gilded and the walls blue.
The gigantic stone gate of the castle was in front of him. It was set into a thirty foot wall with interlocking battlements, bastions, and outworks. The door was huge and iron plated and open, the forged iron portcullis up. Beyond was a wooden bridge, twenty paces wide and two hundred long, that spanned the moat and ended at an enormous drawbridge, and another gate that was set into the second wall, equally vast.
Hundreds of samurai were everywhere. All wore the same somber gray uniform—belted kimonos, each with five small circular insignias, one on each arm, on each breast, and one in the center of the back. The insignia was blue, seemingly a flower of flowers.
The surface of the deep moat was fifty feet below and stretched about three hundred paces on either side, then followed the walls as they turned north and Blackthorne thought, Lord God, I’d hate to have to try to mount an attack here. The defenders could let the outer-wall garrison perish and burn the bridge, then they’re safe inside. Jesus God, the outer wall must be nearly a mile square and look, it must be twenty-thirty feet thick—the inner one, too. And it’s made out of huge blocks of stone. Each one must be ten feet by ten feet. At least! And cut perfectly and set into place without mortar.
It makes the Tower of London look like a pigsty. and the whole of Hampton Court would fit into one corner!
There was something cool about reading this description while sitting at the top of Osaka Castle itself. But the sun was getting low in the sky, and while I had succeeded in reaching Osaka, I knew it would take some work to find my way back to my hotel room in Kyoto. Furthermore I was hungry.
I worked my way back out of the castle, across the moat, and into the park itself. Here I found more food stalls, and I gazed at them longingly. The food sellers were cooking their offerings over hot skillets, and the aroma of exotic spices and unusual delicacies nearly drove me crazy.
I approached one who seemed to have a standard plate of stuff he was serving each customer so I would not have to place an order per se. I managed to mumble something in Japanese that I hoped would be taken as “Good afternoon, sir. May I have one of those please!”
He handed me a plate of orange goop on rice, and I was hungry enough to think it good, if not delicious. From another vendor I purchased a soda, and soon felt ready to face the challenge of returning to Kyoto.
I used the Osaka Loop line to get to Kyobashi, from where, according to my map, I could catch a train to Kyoto. I made the connection at Kyobashi, onto what I believed was a northeast bound train, but after a few stops I began to have an uneasy feeling about the direction. I got off the train and managed to ask a station attendant if this was the right way to Kyoto.
He understood my question and became quite alarmed, speaking to me in highly-excited Japanese, accompanied by urgent hand motions. I understood none of the words, but the meaning was crystal clear:
“You screwed up, white man, and you screwed up big time!”
I nodded my thanks, smiled and turned back to the platform.
OK, I could handle this. I’d tried to take the shortcut back to Kyoto and something had gone wrong. No problem. I would have to do it the old fashioned way.
Catching a train going in the opposite direction, I retraced my steps to Kyobashi, got back on the Loop Line, and stayed on it all the way to Osaka station. From there I was able to find the correct train and by six p.m. was back in Kyoto, which was already seeming like home.
That night I celebrated my great adventure by going to a restaurant recommended by the Frommer guidebook. Here I was lucky enough to find menus available in English, even if the waitresses were not. I used my fingers to point, as I was becoming accustomed to doing, and soon I was served a tray of many strange things, none of which I’d ever seen before. It was from this tray that I finally encountered the first specimen of Japanese food that I actually could not swallow. It was so bad I had to put it back on the tray. Some time later, back in Tokyo, I’d tried to describe it to Kahori and she finally figured out what it was and identified it for me. “Sesame paste,” she said. “It’s not my favorite thing either.”
But the nice thing about Japanese restaurants is you can always order more rice, and I did so now, trying to practice a few of the Japanese words I’d acquired.
“Sumimasen,” I said to the waitress, and she rushed over to my table and bowed and did everything but kneel and put her head to the floor. Perhaps this was another case of glimpsing the soul of Japan. (Or maybe her eagerness wasn’t the culture. Maybe it was because it was near closing time.)
“Hai? Nan desu ka?” she asked. (Yes, what is it?)
“Gohan, kudasai,” (More rice please)
“Hai!” Off she ran to fetch the rice, and when she returned I said:
“Arigato.” (Thank you.)
“Doo itasimasite,” (you’re welcome) she said and bowed.
Damn! I was hot stuff. Of course we’d consumed nearly my entire vocabulary, but that was OK. If a person knew how to politely ask for more rice, that covered most situations in Japan.
That night I discovered a vending machine at the end of the hall in my hotel. There was the normal assortment of sodas and iced coffee, of course, but there was more. Guests could obtain Scotch whiskey, Kirin beer, and even sake. I purchased some sake, took it back to my room, and heated it to the right temperature on the hot plate. The next morning I bought some iced coffee and heated it in the same fashion.
Traveling alone makes one resourceful.
I had a reservation on the 1:00 pm bullet train to Tokyo, which—I decided—left me just time for one temple the next morning. And I knew which temple I wanted: Ryoanji.
In far northwestern Kyoto is Ryoanji Temple, with what is probably the most famous Zen rock garden in all of Japan. Fifteen rocks set in waves of raked, white pebbles are surrounded on three sides by a wall and on the fourth by a wooden verandah. Sit down here and contemplate what the artist was trying to communicate. The interpretation of what the rocks are supposed to represent is up to the individual.
I caught a bus at the train station, and I followed its progress closely on my map, to make sure it was going in the right direction. According to my information it should pass very close to the entrance of Ryoanji temple. It was a long trip and the bus made many stops, and many turns, but it was still on track, more or less.
Finally the urban sprawl of Kyoto was left behind and we were in forested hills, twisting and turning up a mountain road. We came to little meadows where a kind of yellow grain was growing, and the blue-roofed houses made their appearance again. Everyone had gotten off the bus but me and now I was getting nervous. Our route was no longer corresponding to the map. I went forward at the next stop and said to the driver: “Ryoanji?”
He became as upset as the train station attendant back in Osaka. “Iye! Iye!” he said. (No! No!) “Ryoanji back! Back there!” He motioned in the direction we came. I got off the bus and watched somewhat forlornly as he drove away.
This was the very thing I’d been scared would happen. I was some place far outside Kyoto, in the countryside. There was very little sign of civilization about, except for the houses and the cultivated fields. A few farmers walked along the road, eyeing me curiously.
Try to look on the bright side, I said to myself. There is no kanji anywhere!
But even that satisfaction was short-lived. I crossed the street and started walking back the way I had come, until I arrived at the stop for buses going in the opposite direction. Here was a complete schedule and route map for the buses: all in kanji and all utterly worthless.
A half hour went by and no bus had come. The sun was getting high in the sky , and the day which had started so cool and refreshing was becoming hot and muggy. But still I waited. Soon others joined me at the bus stop, all of them elderly Japanese women, and they bowed respectfully but we made no effort to communicate. Yet I found their presence comforting as it implied the imminent arrival of a bus.
After forty five minutes my wait was rewarded. An old rickety bus did arrive, but this time I sat up front near the driver, and after a few moments swallowed my pride and said to him: “Ryoanji?” which I hoped he would translate as “Excuse me, sir, but could you tell me when we get to the stop for the Ryoanji Temple?”
He nodded eagerly and, with a combination of hand signals and English and Japanese words, managed to explain to me that he would tell me where to get off, but I would have to change buses to get to Ryoanji.
After several miles the bus came to a stop and he motioned me to descend, pointing out for me as he did where the other bus stop was for my intended direction. He also gave me a transfer ticket. I confessed my need for assistance to the new bus driver as well, and with his help I disembarked at the correct location. A path through the woods led to the Ryoanji Temple, and soon I had arrived at my destination. Just inside the entrance to the temple grounds was a little tea house and here I stopped for a late breakfast, using hand signals to order tea and a plate of cold noodles, which tasted marvelous.
Afterwards I toured Ryoanji itself and was much impressed. This was my first experience with a Zen temple, after seeing dozens of the regular Buddhist variety, and it was astonishingly different.
There was no giant Buddha, or vegetable-laden shrine, or suffocating incense, or wood carvings of angry lions. In fact, there was almost nothing at all, which is what I found so appealing. The Ryoanji temple consisted merely of large, bare rooms, with beautiful wood floors clean past the point of cleanliness. (Shoes were forbidden, and had to be left outside.) Between the rooms, with their paper Shoji screens, were elegant little covered walkways that meandered through the grounds and around the lush forested hillsides.
The famous rock garden was set off to the side of one of the temple rooms, and I sat on the wooden verandah and contemplated it. Measuring about sixty feet by twenty-five feet, it was surrounded on three sides with low rock walls, above which soared majestic pine trees. Mostly it consisted of fine, white gravel, lovingly raked in straight rows. Set about, were perhaps a dozen rocks, none smaller than a cantaloupe and the largest about the size of a thirty-gallon drum. They had been placed just so, and it was up the viewer to decide what meaning, or message, was intended.
Of course I wasn’t going to fall for it. I knew perfectly well that Zen riddles of this type have no answer. Seeking an answer is a logical, western concept. The point of the rocks was to put one in a meditative state of mind and—through trying to understand the point of the rocks (when there was no point)—it was hoped that at least a modest amount of enlightenment would result.
I’m not sure that it worked in my case. I came away from the rock garden enlightened only to the extent that I decided contemplating rocks was a more worthwhile and healthy pursuit than burning incense in front of decayed vegetables while kneeling to a big fat man.
But then, these things are relative.
Of more interest than the temple itself was the beautiful park-like setting of Ryoanji. There were lush pine forests, and wandering pathways, and a delightful pond with just the right quantity of lily pads. Sitting on a rock in the pond was a huge turtle, nicely completing the scene.
As I was contemplating the turtle a group of two dozen Japanese school-boys came up to me and each wanted to shake my hand. Then they wanted their school teacher to take my picture with all of them together, and this was done. I guessed their age at about twelve, and was curious to see that they all wore identical school uniforms: white shirts with navy-blue slacks and blazers. I had their teacher take a second picture, with my camera this time, because it isn’t everyday that one is surrounded by two dozen Japanese school boys and I wasn’t sure when I would get another chance.
I returned by bus to the Kyoto train station and caught the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Shinkansen is the Japanese word for bullet train, but it doesn’t mean bullet train. It means “New Main Route.” The main route is the one going essentially through the island of Honshu: starting in the north, and going past Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and finally Hiroshima. The bullet train goes so fast that it required a new set of tracks to be laid. Hence: New Main Route, or Shinkansen. The name “bullet train” was obviously a publicity gimmick for overseas tourists. Although it’s not a bad name for something that travels 140 miles per hour. (Bullets travel approximately six times as fast but who’s counting?)
The seat next to me was empty, until we reached Nagoya where a young Japanese man sat down. He proved to be a “talker,” but I was in the mood for a talker. He spoke just enough English that a rough conversation could be held and through this I learned that he lived in Kyoto and worked as a horse trainer.
He asked me how much it cost to buy a horse in America and I knew something about this subject, actually, as my whole family had gone horse-crazy over the summer and had flirted with the notion of actually owning a horse.
“Between $200 and $1,000 I said, depending on the type and quality of the horse.”
He was astounded at this, and explained to me that in Japan it cost at least $200,000 to buy a horse. I assumed this was a mis-translation, or he was converting the Yen incorrectly, or maybe there were too many zero’s on the number. But even at $20,000 it seemed an astonishing price. I began to calculate how difficult it might be to bring a horse from Colorado to Japan. There would be the problems of shipping, caring for the horse in transit and so forth, but it seemed obvious that a person could make a huge profit.
Later in the conversation it became clear the man was talking about thoroughbred race horses, and my get-rich-quick scheme was dashed.
As we continued to discuss such matters, the man said “Next time you come to Kyoto, you stay with my wife and me, at our house. We show you the real Kyoto!” He wrote down his name and address.
I immediately reciprocated. Derry certainly wouldn’t mind having a horse trainer stay with us for a few days. But in any case this was quite an invitation, coming from a Japanese. It was certainly more than had been offered by my seat-mate on the train going down.
When the Shinkansen reached Tokyo station I returned to the Asakusa area by commuter line and subway. Traveling around Tokyo now seemed effortless, after my experiences in Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka. And making things even easier, I’d managed to learn a few of the kanji characters. I could recognize the kanji signs for “entrance” and “exit,” and even “men” and “women” (as in restrooms.) But Ueno station wasn’t through with me yet. Connecting to the subway, I had difficulty finding the ticket machine and when I finally did it seemed somehow different. The denominations of coin it would accept were wrong, and it was a different shape. This seemed unimportant. I bought a ticket at a slightly higher denomination than I knew would be necessary to get to my destination, and proceeded to enter through the turnstiles. As I put my ticket into the automatic slot there was a sharp ringing noise and a nearby attendant motioned me over. He looked at my ticket, frowning, and then up at me.
“Where buy?” he asked, confused.
I mumbled something about having bought it in the machine upstairs.
“Food,” he said. “Food ticket. Not subway!”
“Ah so!” I exclaimed, understanding now why the price had seemed wrong. I purchased a subway ticket and was soon back on the street in Asakusa. As instructed, I called Kahori from a pay phone.
“Jacques! You made it! You didn’t have any trouble?”
“Other than getting lost outside Kyoto, and buying a food ticket in Ueno, no trouble at all. I even went to Osaka and saw the castle.”
“That’s wonderful. I’m very proud of you!”
I tried to sound nonchalant, as if traveling around Japan was no big deal. But in truth I was desperately glad to be back among people I knew; people who would take care of me.
Knowing how much I’d wanted to stay in a ryokan, Kahori had found one for me in Tokyo, near Senshoji Temple. The guidebook had this to say about ryokans:
“Nothing quite conveys the simplicity and beauty, indeed the very atmosphere of old Japan as a stay at a Japanese inn, called a ryokan, with its gleaming polished wood, tatami floors, rice-paper sliding doors, and meticulously pruned gardens. Personalized service, offered by kimono-clad hostesses, and exquisitely prepared meals are the trademarks of such inns, some of them of ancient vintage. Staying in one of these inns is like taking a trip back in time.”
I met Kahori at her office and we shared a cab to the Senshoji Temple neighborhood, where she wrote down the name of the ryokan, and with help from the driver gave me directions for finding it. The streets around Senshoji are a rabbit-warren of alleyways and walkways, and cars are not allowed. So I said good-bye to Kahori, after agreeing to meet her at the Taramawachi subway stop for a dinner date that evening.
Thankful for the convenience of my backpack suitcase, I headed into the labyrinth of Asakusa, armed only with the name of the ryokan written in both English and Japanese.
I got lost twice, and had to ask help of passersby both times, but eventually I came to a tiny cleft between two small buildings and a sign over the walkway said “Ryokan Mikawaya Bekkan.”
Kahori had called ahead and warned them that an American would be arriving, who spoke no Japanese, and was assured that they could handle the situation. Just inside the doorway I was met by a kimono-clad hostess who bowed in greeting, and showed me where I was to leave my shoes: a little rack by the door. And nearby were a dozen pair of leather slippers, from which apparently one selected any that fit. Donning my slippers I followed the hostess, who was smiling and bowing almost to distraction, down a long wooden corridor, past a little interior garden complete with a gold fish pond and a miniature waterfall flowing in from somewhere between overhanging trees, to a shoji (rice paper) screen. She slid this open and bowed low, ushering me into my room.
It was almost void of furniture: a low table in the middle, floor cushions, an antique scroll hanging in an alcove, a simple flower arrangement, and— that was it. There was no bed, or chest of drawers, or desk, or any of the things a hotel would normally provide. The room measured less than ten feet square, and was covered with wall-to-wall tatami mats.
I had barely time to take stock of my surroundings (not a difficult task) when the hostess returned with a welcoming tray of hot tea and a little snack of biscuits. Also on the tray was a pamphlet in English prepared, it said, by the “Japanese Inn Group,” perhaps in response to the problem of how to handle foreigners in a ryokan.
It became clear to me, reading the pamphlet, that etiquette in a Ryokan was taken very seriously. Aside from the obvious imperative of removing one’s shoes at the entrance, there was a caution against loud or unruly behavior that might disturb the other guests through the (literally) paper-thin walls, an explanation of how and when the hostess would deliver and prepare the “futon” for sleeping, and a complete chapter on how to partake of the Japanese-style bath. Barbarian that I was I found myself terrified I would break something or cause unbearable offense in this delicate world of rice-paper screens and kimono-clad hostesses.
I hadn’t seen any other guests and the ryokan was very small to begin with, no more than 1500 square feet including all rooms, I estimated.
When I was finished with the tea the hostess appeared and removed the tray, taking the opportunity to show me the location of the bath.
This bath did not fit my image of a Japanese bath at all. It was obviously not a communal bath for it was no larger than an average American bathtub. But there was nothing else in the bathroom, no toilet or sink for example. Just the single tub, surrounded by a tile floor. And the tub was filled with hot water and covered over with boards. Near the tub, lying on the floor, was a telephone-style shower head, and a hose connecting it into the wall. Several inches above the floor were the two faucets, presumably for hot and cold water.
I decided to experiment with this Japanese bath as it had been a long day and I was not as clean as I might be. The guidebook explained the procedure. You use the shower-head and soap to clean and rinse off completely before you even get in the bath. I did this as best I could, though it is not easy to kneel on a hard tile floor and try to clean oneself with a telephone-style shower head and a small bar of soap. Perhaps it becomes easier with practice.
The thing was accomplished in the end and I was ready for the bath. I removed the wood boards and began to ease myself into the hot water—no hotter than a good Jacuzzi in Colorado I was glad to see—and then realized this wasn’t going to work.
There was too much water in the tub. I could not immerse more than my legs without a tremendous surge of water overflowing onto the floor, and certainly that would violate all the etiquette rules of the Ryokan and then some. I had to face the sad truth that I was just too big, apparently, for a Japanese bath.
Returning to my room I discovered that the hostess had set out my futon, a futon being merely a mattress filled with a straw-like substance. The futon was actually the one piece of furniture that I knew what to do with. Being in a ryokan was fun, up to a point, but ultimately one’s lodging must provide a means of relaxation. And so far everything about the ryokan experience had been a challenge. There being nothing else to do in the tiny bare cubicle of my room, I finally just stretched out on the futon and took a nap, which was the most fun of all.
I met Kahori at 7:00 pm at the subway stop, and she arrived, breathless, riding a bicycle and looking quite elegant in her jumpsuit-style evening attire, and jewelry. She locked her bike to a nearby post and accompanied me down into the subway.
Kahori explained that she was taking me to the Ginza district, which is the glitzy section of Tokyo: kind of a combination Times Square and Fifth Avenue. When we came up out of the underground station I was nearly blinded by the lights.
Times Square has some big signs. The waterfront in Hong Kong is impressive. London’s Picadilly Circus uses up some wattage. But these are flickering night-lights compared to the Ginza district of Tokyo. Here, without doubt, was the Mother of all Neon.
I could not guess the size of these Brobdingnagian signs, for I could not estimate how far away they were. The flashing and scintillating was so intense as to cause disorientation. 100 feet square? 200 feet square? A mile square? It certainly seemed possible as our hands, faces, and clothing were bathed in shimmering greens, blues, reds, and whites, all overlapping and competing for attention. Not surprisingly, the electronics companies seemed to have the most gargantuan displays. Marlboro and Toyoto were drowned out by NEC and Sony as if the latter were saying “Our engineers needed a break from creating miniaturized electronics, so we turned them loose in Ginza and gave them a budget of fifty billion watts.”
After our eyes adjusted to the light, we walked to one of Kahori’s favorite restaurants, traversing the heart of Ginza. Majestic skyscrapers towered above us in shadow behind the neon, and throngs of Japanese hurried about in pursuit of their evening activities. The streets were much wider than those of urban America. This was more like Paris or Leningrad with their broad boulevards. But unlike those cities there was no attempt at maintaining historical buildings, no glimmer of an architecture from an earlier age, no monuments to ancient battles. Tokyo, leveled during World War II, rose from the ashes as a modern, westernized city.
We passed store after store offering fashionable and expensive merchandise: clothing, luggage, jewelry, furs. We came at last to a doorway which opened onto a lobby, and from there we took an elevator up to the second floor. This was obviously a very expensive restaurant, but Kahori had made it clear that this evening I was her guest. This eliminated the need to convert menu prices from Yen to dollars, a process that would have—in our present surroundings—no doubt produced horrifying results.
Amid much bowing and smiling we were led to our booth by kimono-clad hostesses, shuffling along deftly in their wooden shoes. Kahori had been greeted warmly at the door by the maitre d,’ and now a woman who appeared to be the head hostess came over and engaged her in lively conversation. It seemed obvious that Kahori was well-known here, and liked.
“I used to be a hostess in this restaurant myself,” she explained, after ordering our dinner.
“Oh really? Did you wear a kimono and wooden shoes, like these women?”
“Yes, certainly. And Meia is going to apply to be a hostess here. She, also, can wear a kimono.”
I was puzzled by the syntax.
“What do you mean ‘can’ wear a kimono? Don’t you just put it on and wear it?
“Oh no!” Kahori said, scandalized. “Not everyone can wear a kimono!”
“I don’t understand.”
“Wearing a kimono is an art-form. It takes years of practice to do it right. You have to learn how to adjust the sash just so, and how to walk in wooden shoes using that difficult shuffling technique, and how to wear your hair with the hairpins, and how to kneel correctly, and…”
“OK, I get the picture! That’s quite impressive, then, that you can wear a kimono. How did you learn? How did Meia learn?”
“Our mother taught us. She still practices the old ways, and she was determined that her daughters learned them as well. You see, my mother is samurai. Her ancestors were samurai.”
“Oh really? So you would be considered samurai as well? I’m having dinner with a samurai?”
“Yes. Of course these days it’s meaningless because we don’t have samurai.”
The courses arrived, one after another. Kahori had finally become convinced that there was almost nothing I didn’t like, food-wise, and she acted on that knowledge. I began to suspect that she’d ordered the entire menu, so frequently did new dishes arrive in succession. There was tempura, sushi, sashimi, hot noodles, cold noodles, shrimp, seaweed, ginger, rice, broiled fish, miso soup, and of course dozens of things I could not identify.
“But no sesame paste!” said Kahori, and we laughed.
By the time I returned to the ryokan I was very tired. It was only that morning that I’d been stranded in the countryside northwest of Kyoto, and I was determined to get a good night’s sleep. As I collapsed onto the futon it seemed the most comfortable bed I’d ever experienced.
The next morning was the one I’d been dreading. This was the day I was scheduled to have actual business meetings. I was going to have to metamorphose from a backpack-laden tourist, staying at a Japanese-style Inn whose only amenities consisted of rice-paper walls and bamboo floors, into a polished briefcase-toting executive at home in boardrooms and corner offices.
Which was the real me? By this time I wasn’t sure, although the fact that I’d been toying with the idea of redecorating my corner office back home with tatami mats was a clue.
I was up early, before the other ryokan guests, so I would have first dibs on the bathtub room. I managed to shave and wash my hair just adequately, and even take a few moments to reflect on the meaning of the Ryoanji rock garden while immersed in the bath. (Kahori had explained that in Japan it is considered polite to immerse so totally in the bath that water flows out all over the floor—kind of a bathroom version of slurping noodles…)
My suit—the one that had been designed to withstand all wrinkles—had tried valiantly to unwrinkle itself while hanging from the one hook provided in my tatami room and—even if it hadn’t succeeded—at least wearing it would cover-up the wrinkles in my shirt. Best of all, three of the silk ties I’d purchased at the market in Hong Kong were completely free of wrinkles, and brand new besides. I choose a bright yellow one, hoping it would distract from the suit.
My black dress shoes, crammed into the bottom of my backpack, were— well, the less said about the shoes the better. At least they matched the suit. Equipped in this way I left the Ryokan and walked briskly through the streets of Asakusa, expecting and receiving, a bit higher regard by the many Japanese I passed. My suit and briefcase (yes, I even had a tiny briefcase stored in my pack) stated firmly that I was no longer a scruffy tourist in jeans deserving of contempt. I was a Business Executive on my way to Important Meetings. Unfortunately almost everyone else on the street was also a Business Executive on their way to Important Meetings, judging by the dress. Some even rode bicycles with their briefcases held by bungee cords to the handlebars.
The plan was simple. I was to meet Kahori and Mr. Kobayashi at the same subway stop where I’d met Kahori the night before. From there we would proceed to a different section of Tokyo, have some coffee and get reacquainted. Then I would be taken to meet two other important business people, who were among those interested in starting a clone of Polygon in Japan.
Mr. Kobayashi was the fabulously wealthy president of Yuri, International based in London, with offices all over the globe. He and Kahori had flown by Concord a year ago just to meet me in New York. We had accomplished almost nothing during those three days, except to get to know each other. Which is to say we accomplished everything that mattered as far as the Japanese were concerned. So I knew that in meeting these new business people today, little of substance would be discussed. It was more an opportunity for them to “look me over,” although hopefully that was meant in a figurative, not literal sense, as my disheveldness could otherwise prove awkward. Also likely to be awkward was the fact that only Kahori could communicate with me directly. The other three spoke no English, and my Japanese was more adapted to discussing soy sauce and rice rather than investment capital and rates of return. (Although given time I could probably learn to say “More money, please” if the need arose.)
I arrived at the proper street corner several minutes early, not wanting to be late to my first business meeting in Japan. I expected Kahori would show up early as well, or perhaps arrive in company with Kobayashi-san. I had not imagined, and had not prepared for, what actually happened. Kobayashi-san arrived just as I did, and Kahori was nowhere in sight.
Things couldn’t get more awkward. Here was a man I’d not seen or spoken to for over a year. He’d flown in from London late the night before and there were certainly much we could have talked about, but we didn’t speak the same language.
My mind went back four years previously to an identical situation. I’d planned a rendezvous on a street corner in Leningrad with Ella, the ballerina who spoke only Russian, and Robert, the Estonian who spoke all languages, and of course only Ella showed up. I had survived that experience only because each of us had had a little French to contribute, and a little French goes a long way.
But my French wasn’t going to save me this time.
Amazingly, Kobayashi’s English did.
“Ah so, Jacques!” he said, upon seeing me. “How ah you?”
Mr. Kobayashi, it seemed, had been practicing English over the last year. Living in London would help. Kahori arrived almost immediately thereafter, and the three of us descended into the subway.
Kobayashi-san is not a typical Japanese businessman, at least in appearance. In his late forties or early fifties, he is quite heavy, and wears a scraggly full beard, peppered gray and white. He seems always to be smiling, perhaps because his eyes continuously twinkle in amusement. One with an active imagination might guess that Kobayashi is in reality Santa Claus, seeking to disguise himself as a Japanese businessman. Or perhaps that was just my own personal fantasy.
Best of all, Kobayashi’s suit looked as if he’d spent the night on the plane sleeping in it, as he might well have done. My concern over my own modest collection of wrinkles vanished. If I’d looked any crisper it might have been taken as an insult.
Over coffee in Tokyo’s financial district we discussed Polygon and all that had happened in the last year, which fortunately was quite a bit. Next I was taken by elevator upstairs to a small office, richly furnished in a style I would call “Early Legal.”
A secretary brought tea, and soon two very elderly gentlemen were brought in. They had white hair, and were very dignified. Their suits looked custom fitted and were of the finest cloth, with no wrinkles showing at all. They had gold cuff links and gold rings on their fingers. We bowed ritually (I had learned by now to resist the almost irresistible impulse to shake hands) and I was urged to sit again and enjoy the tea. We presented our business cards, a ceremony of almost mystical importance in Japan, and each person set the business card they’d been handed on the table in front of them to study, as it were.
My cards were printed in Japanese characters on the reverse side, and the ones that had been handed to me were printed in English on the reverse side, and each of us set the cards in place with our native language facing up. I had a momentary concern whether the person who’d translated my business card back in Denver had perhaps played a trick on me, and the card actually said something like: Stupid American Imperialist Pig, At Your Service, or words to that effect. There would be no way of knowing if he had.
I studied the cards I’d been handed, and only then did I realize there were four of them, not two. Kahori explained to me that in Japan most important business people have more than one title or affiliation, often sitting on the board or serving as an officer in half a dozen different corporations. So it was that one of these gentlemen was the Vice-Chairman of Zenhokyo Grading Lab, Japan’s equivalent to the GIA, and he was also the President of a jewelry wholesaling company. Meanwhile the other gentlemen was the Auditor for Zenhokyo Lab, and was the Vice-President of a real estate corporation.
I tried to think what other companies I was head of, or a vice chairman of, but I drew a blank.
After introductions were made, an embarrassing (to me) silence descended over us and finally I couldn’t stand it any longer and decided to break the ice. I knew I couldn’t talk business straight-away, but I was damned if I was going to talk about the weather, so I took the opportunity to compliment the Vice-Chairman on the fact that Zenhokyo Lab had been able to quantify the factor of cut-quality in their diamond grading certificates (something that Kahori had explained to me in an earlier discussion), and I went on to explain how this was a major problem with diamond grading certs in the U.S., and had recently become controversial.
Obviously I’d picked an area of interest for the Vice-Chairman had much to say on this issue, with Kahori translating almost instantaneously, and finally ended by mentioning that Zenhokyo had recently opened a new lab in New York City and the manager of that lab, a woman, had recently attended a seminar at the JA show in which this issue was hotly discussed.
“Yes,” I said, getting ready to deliver my coup de grace, “as it happened I was at that seminar, and after it adjourned I took the opportunity of discussing the question further with Mr. Boyajian, president of the GIA, who I was introduced to by Lynn Diamond, editor of National Jeweler.”
I dropped names lavishly, wantonly, shamelessly, hoping it would make up for my lack of interlocking directorships.
“Since then,” I continued, “he and I have exchanged correspondence on this issue, in search of a solution, and I would be pleased to provide copies of this correspondence to you, as you might find it interesting.”
Well, I had their attention now. Clearly I was a power to be reckoned with in the U.S. diamond industry, or so I fancied might be the impression.
Sensing I was on a roll I continued.
“You see, the issue of grading diamond cut-quality is especially important to Polygon now, since we are providing the statistics on average wholesale diamond prices every week to National Jeweler magazine, which as you probably know is the largest jewelry industry magazine in the United States, and they are printing these in each issue and circulating them to 40,000 retail jewelers. So it’s important to us that we show these prices accurately. The fact that GIA does not grade cut-quality is an obvious problem for us when comparing and publishing prices. Here, let me show you.”
And I pulled the latest issue of National Jeweler out of my briefcase, having brought it 10,000 miles for just this purpose, and opened it up on the table for them to see, showing them Polygon’s Indicators of Diamond Prices.
Well, did this ever cause a stir!
An excited conversation began between the three Japanese men, and Kahori did not even try to translate. I would catch a recognizable word here and there, like “yes,” or “no,” or “excuse me,” or “Polygon” or “GIA” but whatever they were discussing it had little to do with ordering rice or soy sauce, so I was mostly in the dark.
Finally one of them turned to me and bowed politely.
“We apologize for speaking in Japanese,” he said, through Kahori, “but there was much to discuss.”
“Of course,” I replied, bowing in return. “I am honored that you find this subject of interest. And,” I added, to lighten things up a bit, “I am trying to learn Japanese. Already I have learned ten words!”
“Only ten?” said Kahori, smiling. “You told me you knew twelve!”
“Yeah, but I forgot two of them.”
Things turned serious again.
“Well, we would like to hear what you have to say,” said the Vice-Chairman of Zenhokyo. “Please, go ahead…”
Huh? Go ahead with what? I hadn’t prepared a proposal. I hadn’t even known whom I would be meeting, or what level of interest might exist. Anyway it was Kobayashi’s idea to start a clone of Polygon in Japan. What did I know about Japan?
But there was nothing for it. Years on the high-school extemporaneous speaking circuit paid off now, and I was able to start talking in an organized fashion. I explained where Polygon-U.S. was in its development, the presumed application of the concept to other markets, the indicators that the timing might be right to introduce the concept to Japan, the importance of not trying to set up such a business if the market was not yet ready, but the equal importance of not being left behind if the market was ready, and finally, Polygon’s strong desire to explore relationships with groups in Japan who might be good partners for such an endeavor.
“At this point,” I concluded, “we’re more concerned with finding the right people to work with, then we are with what precisely we do, or when we do it.”
I thought that a very Japanese thing to say, and was grateful it had sprung into my mind so conveniently.
I wasn’t bothered by the fact that I was making everything up as I went along, and that in truth Polygon had no plans for expanding into Japan, and certainly no priorities for doing so. I rationalized that if we had thought about it, we might very well decide on the things I had said. So it made sense to say them now.
After this speech, which Kahori translated in its entirety, the Japanese men against talked at great length and high speed. Occasionally a point would be made that the vice chairman felt should be translated, and Kahori would do so.
“He says,” she began, “that if we need any help from the government, with regulations or whatever, that this won’t present a problem. He is very well connected in the government.”
I nodded, and bowed in acknowledgment, as if pleased to learn that this—at least—was one less thing to worry about.
On another occasion Kahori explained:
“When the time comes to put together the capitalization, he will go to the others in his ‘group,’ and the money will not be a problem. There are very wealthy people in his group, including the chairman of Nissan Corporation. They will see that funds are made available.”
I bowed again, impressed that I was dealing with people who don’t “pay” for things, but who “make funds available.” It occurred to me that when my wife asked me (as she soon would) how we were going to pay for Christmas this year, I would respond loftily: “My dear, we are not going to pay for Christmas. We are simply going to make funds available…”
The meeting consumed nearly two hours, at the end of which there was a great deal of bowing and other ceremonial. Through small talk the vice-chairman discovered I had been reading Shogun and was fascinated with Japanese culture. He seemed very pleased with this, and produced from a nearby shelf a very elegant, leather bound book. Kahori explained that he had written this book, and it was a book about the teachings of Buddha. He wanted to give it to me as a gift, and hoped I would accept it, even though it was written in kanji.
Oh great, I thought. A whole book in kanji. Just what I’ve always wanted.
“It is too great an honor,” I replied. “But—though I hesitate to ask—might it be possible for him to sign it for me?”
The vice-chairman bowed with pleasure, and produced a gold inlaid pen from his desk. Opening the inside cover, he carefully drew a series of kanji and katagana characters, consulting my business card to ensure he spelled my name correctly, and finally closed it and handed the book to me.
The room was filled with much bowing, and then I produced for them my gifts: tiny, hand-crafted, gold tie-tacks, bearing the Polygon logo. These were well received, and both the Zenhokyo gentlemen immediately put them on, beaming proudly as they did so.
Finally it was time for the vice-chairman to leave, but the other man, the auditor and real estate company vice-president, accompanied Kahori, Kobayashi and me to lunch at a nearby Sushi bar.
Things were much more informal in this setting. We all four sat at the bar itself, and consumed great quantities of Kirin beer and raw fish: the perfect way to end a meeting. I watched with fascination as the sushi chefs worked feverishly preparing the sushi. Between them was placed a huge caldron of steamed rice, maybe fifty or sixty pounds worth, and they would reach into it with their bare hands and grab the rice they needed, molding it as a child might mold clay, inserting into each handful a sliver of tuna or cucumber or octopus tentacle, and then molding the product still further with delicate wooden sticks. Finally, the sushi cylinders would be rolled up into sheets of dried seaweed, and deftly cut into inch-long, sushi-chunks with highly-polished, utterly-sharp steel knives that flashed in a continuous rhythm. The sushi was then placed by hand directly onto the wooden sushi bar itself, with no plate or bowl beneath it, which seemed a bit unsanitary. From there we would reach out with our chopsticks and take whichever piece we wished, dipping it lightly in soy sauce and ginger.
“This is Kobayashi-san’s favorite sushi restaurant in all Japan,” explained Kahori. “It is the finest sushi available anywhere.”
I had trained myself in the Japanese etiquette of always filling the other person’s glass, never my own. If you need more beer, you fill the glass of the person seated next to you, and that is their signal to fill yours. At one point in the midst of filling glasses of beer I happened to set the bottle back down on the table, and Kahori quickly reached out and removed it, somewhat shaken by my sacrilege.
“Never put anything on the sushi counter,” she admonished. “That is kept clean, for the sushi.” And it was then that I realized there were two parts to the counter: the raised section closest to the chefs, where the sushi lay, and the counter itself, where the rice bowls and chopsticks and beer bottles were confined.
It was just the kind of thing a barbarian wouldn’t notice right away.
After we said goodbye to the vice president of the real estate company, Kobayashi explained that he needed to spend some time at the office, and he would like to suggest we meet for dinner that evening, and then meet again the following morning—just the two of us—to continue the discussion of Polygon. The meeting this morning had gone very well, he said.
Now, at last, I was on my own in Tokyo with several hours to kill, and could step back into my role as a jean-clad tourist. The Imperial Palace seemed like a good place to go, as much to keep my mass-transit skills sharp as anything.
The Imperial Palace, where Japan’s imperial family lives, can be considered the heart of Tokyo. Built on the very spot where Edo Castle used to stand during the days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it became the imperial home at its completion in 1888.
This seemed like a promising thing to go see, but I should have read further, for when I got there it was closed.
Except on New Year’s Day and on the Emperor’s Birthday (December 23) when the grounds are open to the public, the palace remains off-limits to visitors. You’ll have to console yourself with a camera shot of the place taken from the southeast side of the Nijubashi Bridge, with the moat and the palace turrets showing above the trees. Tourists still like to make a brief stop here, enjoying the view of the wide moat lined with cherry trees, especially beautiful in the spring, or spending an hour walking the three miles around the palace and moat.
I enjoyed the visit anyway, as this was a very different part of Tokyo. Here, in what the guidebook called “the center” I found things much like the eye of a hurricane. There was no rushing traffic, no hoards of Japanese businessmen, no skyscrapers. It was almost park like, and the palace grounds were very much park like. Buildings surrounding the area were no more than a few stories high, and seemed mostly of 1940’s vintage, or earlier. Not modern at all. It was reminiscent of Washington, DC.
A light rain was falling, not enough to be troublesome but sufficient to cast a dream-like aura. An official-looking black sedan pulled up to the wrought-iron gate and a uniformed guard opened it, looking very important. I tried to imagine what all of this must have looked like during World War II, with staff cars not greatly different from this one pulling up to the gate, and heavily armed guards checking for identification before allowing admittance. Here was the center of power of what was once the mightiest—and arguably the cruelest—empire in Asia. I could imagine the emperor himself, always a bit of a figurehead, strolling about among the long rows of cherry trees, as high-ranking officers shielded him from the truth of his country’s imminent defeat. In this setting, among the cherry blossoms, it must have seemed impossible to believe, especially to a country that had never been conquered in its 2,000 year history.
I met Kahori and Kobayashi at their office that evening, and brought with me the two bottles of scotch. Not being able to think of anyone better to give them to, I was desperate that they not consume precious backpack space when I left Japan. The scotch was very well received, by both of them.
“I love scotch,” said Kahori.
Kobayashi went into the back room and produced what looked like a very expensive pearl necklace. “A gift,” he said, “for your wife,” and I accepted it with proper ceremonial. My wife was going to be pleased.
That night they took me to the equivalent of a Japanese pub, called a Yakitori, a combination bar and restaurant which served a wide variety of little plates of food to go along with the drinks. My guidebook had explained that Yakitori’s are where you’ll see young Japanese men and women really let their hair down.
I relished the change, especially after the trip to Kyoto and Osaka where, with some notable exceptions, I felt myself almost a non-person. One gets used to a certain amount of eye-contact made even between people passing each other on the sidewalk, especially between men and women. It’s so expected that one doesn’t think about it. But in Japan I often seemed to be invisible, a phenomenon that makes the lone traveler feel even lonelier.
As such I was not prepared for the atmosphere of a Yakitori, where the women all smiled eagerly and flirted shamelessly. The fact that everyone was drinking beer and sake may have had something to do with it, but I could not help wishing for a middle-ground somewhere. Why did it have to be all or nothing?
Part way through dinner, a table of young Japanese teenagers waved to me.
“Haro, haro!” they chanted, seeing an American.
“We want platice ah Engrish!” said one of them.
I went over and talked to them a bit. “You guys have it all wrong, “ I explained after awhile. “English is easy. It’s Japanese that’s difficult.”
“No, no. You vely, vely wong! Japanese simple. English vely difficurt.”
Kobayashi was suffering from jet lag and getting quite sleepy so we made an early evening of it. We agreed to meet at the office at 10:00 the next morning, and somehow I found my way back to the Ryokan, although each time I seemed to arrive from a different direction.
The kimono-class hostess was still up when I arrived, and she bowed ritually to me, as I did to her. Anyone wearing a kimono deserved to be bowed to, I reasoned, knowing how difficult it was. After donning my slippers I decided to show her the problem we westerners have with slippers on shiny Japanese wood floors. With each step one of the slippers would fly off my foot and skid twenty feet down the hall. This had been happening to me a lot.
The hostess thought this was the funniest thing she had ever seen and could not stop laughing.
Barbarians were so amusing.
That night I went to sleep with a fantasy of how my meeting with Kobayashi would go the next morning.
“Mr. Voorhees, we would like to give you ten million dollars and carte blanche to start a new version of Polygon in Japan.”
“Ah, I seek only contentment, Kobayashi-san. Money is so transient.”
“OK, twenty million dollars.”
“Patience, Kobayashi-san. Patience is a virtue worth pursuing, don’t you agree?”
“Hey, we want to get this thing going. OK, we’ll make it twenty-five million, and fifty percent of the business is yours.”
“What is mine or not mine is in the hands of my karma, Kobayashi-san. What can we mortals understand of the ways of the spirits? Perhaps we should visit a Shinto shrine and purify our thoughts before we ask favors of the kami…”
“OK, fifty million dollars, and 75% of the equity. Will you do it?”
“Ah, Kobayashi-san, where are your manners? Your ancestors would be shocked at your impolite behavior. Perhaps you should visit the rock garden at Ryoanji and contemplate the teachings of the Zen masters…”
I kept this going for some time before drifting off into a dreamless sleep.
That morning the hostess brought me my breakfast tray in my room, and served it on the little half-height table. With total attention to detail, and exquisite economy of movement, she knelt and poured my tea.
“You do me great honor by performing the cha-no-yu for me,” I said, naming the ultimate ritual in Japanese culture: the elaborate tea ceremony of medieval Japan.
“Cha-no-yu? This, the cha no yu! Oh no, no, no! This just tea, not cha-no-yu!
Then she saw that I was smiling and realized the joke and laughed.
“For a gaijin, this is cha-no-yu,” I said, and she laughed again, but not quite sure of herself this time. She backed away through the door, bowed, and then looked at me again, trying to figure out if I was kidding.
The prior morning I’d eaten in the dining room which had been a strange experience. The other diners were all elderly Japanese women, wearing their bathrobes and slippers, as I was wearing mine. And the breakfast had consisted of the usual miso soup, rice, seaweed, and broiled fish. I wasn’t sure how to eat the broiled fish with chopsticks and so I looked with interest at how the woman seated next to me was doing it. Surprisingly, she finished her meal without touching the fish. It occurred to me that perhaps the fish was mere decoration, like parsley. But later Kahori had explained that you eat broiled fish by hacking, or chopping, it apart into bite-sized chunks with a chopstick in each hand. (Perhaps that was where the name chopsticks came from…)
While I was puzzling over the broiled fish the hostess brought me a copy of the Japan Times, Japan’s English-language daily newspaper. Thumbing through it, I discovered a section that covered American sports, and to my astonishment I was able to read a story about how the Denver Broncos had, the day before, skunked the Cleveland Browns 12 to zip. It seemed remarkable that I could be sitting in a ryokan in Tokyo, surrounded by elderly Japanese women in robes, eating a breakfast of seaweed and rice, hacking apart a broiled fish with chopsticks, and yet be reading about John Elway’s passing yardage in Cleveland.
The two halves of my persona merged as I left the ryokan, wearing my full business suit yet carrying my backpack suitcase over it. Yesterday’s light rain had been replaced by another beautiful fall day in Tokyo and I enjoyed the 30 minute walk to the Yuri office.
I had done quite a bit of thinking about setting up a Polygon operation in Japan, and I was able to convey my thinking in a private meeting with Kobayashi. It was convenient that he knew enough English to allow us to speak without a translator, and we covered the territory more quickly as a result. Kobayashi endorsed my ideas, along with some insightful changes in detail, and extensions on my own thinking. The ball was left in my court: I was to prepare a full business plan of my proposal and we would go from there. If possible, Kobayashi was going to try to visit Polygon headquarters in Colorado sometime in the next few months. All in all, it was a very satisfactory conclusion.
Kahori’s mother joined the three of us for lunch in another restaurant, where I was introduced to a new kind of cuisine called “yabu-yabu.” This was reminiscent of Swiss meat-fondue. A large tureen of hot oil is brought to the table, and kept hot on a little flame burner. You take a piece of raw meat with your chopsticks and swish it around in the oil. This makes a very distinctive swishing sound, which apparently comes across to Japanese ears as “yabu-yabu,” for the meal is named after the sound of the swishing meat. Anyway the oil is so hot, and the meat so thinly sliced, that it cooks thoroughly in only a few seconds (or a few swishes, if you prefer) and you eat it immediately, after first dipping it in your choice of sauce.
I said good-bye to everyone after lunch, and Kahori escorted me by cab to Ueno station where she bought me a ticket for the train to Narita. My flight left at 3:00 p.m., and it was already 1:15 so I could not afford to get lost yet again in Ueno.
As we were approaching the ticket counter I noticed a sign on a nearby wall.
“Information:” it said, and after the colon was a long string of information. But the information was in kanji characters!.
“You see the problem I have with this station!” I said to Kahori. “They toy with the westerner’s mind by providing a sign saying ‘information,’ then they give him the information in kanji. I’m convinced it’s a form of mental torture dreamed up by the Ueno stationmasters.”
“That’s amazing!” said Kahori, laughing. “I’ve seen that sign a million times and never noticed the problem. That’s a pretty worthless sign, isn’t it?”
Finally I said good-bye even to Kahori, thanking her for everything she’d done. As the express train rushed across the fields and through the villages on its way to Narita, I realized that Japan no longer seemed frightening. The language problem was formidable, but in hindsight I could not remember why I’d been so nervous coming here.
Hong Kong had been much more difficult than I’d expected. Japan had been easier. But in a few hours I would face something completely different: China.
I didn’t know much about China. I had no equivalent of the Shogun novel to give me a sense of its culture. I had taken a course in Chinese history in college, but all I remembered was that there were things called dynasties. One would end and another would begin. The Ming dynasty was famous for its porcelain. Let’s see, what else did I know?
One fourth of the earth’s population was Chinese. There were two main languages: Cantonese (in the south) and Mandarin (everywhere else.) China had not been much in the news since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It was generally agreed that the Communist hard-liners were firmly in control and Tiananmen Square had set back the cause of freedom by perhaps a generation. Certainly tourism to China had dropped in the aftermath of the massacre but now—three years later—was said to be making a comeback.
If my wife had cause to worry about my safety, it could probably be justified by the Chinese portion of the trip more than the Hong Kong or Japan legs. Yet in many ways I was less nervous about China than I had been about the other two, and for a very good reason. There was nothing I needed to do in China. My newly-wrinkled suit could stay wrinkled and my black shoes could stay crushed. No thought need be spared for the condition of my ties or my one remaining white shirt. There was no jewelry trade show to visit, no business-dinners with Polygon customers, no meetings with business people at all.
All I had to do was relax and have a good time. Assuming, of course, that it was possible to relax and have a good time in communist China, who’s reputation as a vacation spot is not all that it could be. Well, I would just have to see.
With the roar of jet engines, the Boeing 747 lifted off from Narita airport and turned not eastwards across the Pacific (and home), but westwards, across the Sea of Japan, towards Peking.
I had left Japan with a vocabulary of a dozen words and they had served me well. I was reluctant to face China without knowing any Mandarin at all. The United Airlines captain had just announced that the stewardesses on board spoke—between them—English, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Malay, Thai, and Portuguese, and that if anyone needed help in any of those languages they should press the call button and request assistance. The value of this message might have been greater had the hostesses taken turns repeating it in their respective tongues, but at least some of us understood it.
The hostesses themselves were quite stunning. They were oriental, but did not look like the Orientals I’d seen in Hong Kong or Japan. There skin was creamier and browner, compared with the white faces of the Japanese for example. And their eyes were a little more widely set. After dinner, when the hostesses were running out of things to do, I engaged one in conversation.
“What land are we flying over?” I asked, seeing lights below us where moments before there had been only the blackness of water.
She glanced at her watch. “Korea, I think. At least it should be Korea.” She spoke in slightly-accented English. “By the way,” she added, “what do you think of the hostesses on this flight?”
“Well, since you brought it up, I think you’re all exceptionally beautiful,” I blurted out.
“Oh, really?” she replied, smiling.
“Yes, where are you from? You don’t look Chinese.”
“We are from Singapore,” she explained. “We’re Malaysian. The U.S. flight attendants only go as far as Hong Kong and Tokyo. We take over from there, for flights to Beijing, Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lampur. It’s a new system. That’s why I’m curious what you think about us.”
“Kuala Lampur? Oh, you mean K.L. I hear there’s a big expate community in KL.”
“Yes,” she replied quizzically, “I believe there is.”
Well, that was about as far as that conversation could go.
“Do you speak Mandarin?” I asked abruptly.
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, maybe you can help me. I don’t want to land in China without knowing any Mandarin at all. Perhaps you could tell me how to say ‘Thank you,’ for example.z’
“Xie xie,” she said.
The double-word sounded sort of like “she-uh, she-uh.” I tried it several times, and each time she corrected my pronunciation.
“Not ‘she-uh, she-uh.’ Just xie xie.”
I wasn’t saying it the same way she was, but she-uh, she-uh was the closest my mouth could come to emulating the sound.
“I guess Americans just can’t pronounce Chinese words,” I said.
“It is very difficult for Americans,” she agreed. “The sounds are all different from what you’re used to.”
At that moment she was called away and I had a moment to reflect on the Mandarin word for ‘Thank you.’ I’d been told that the Chinese and Japanese languages were not similar, but I assumed they must have some connection. The writing is all the same (kanji), so surely the words must share a common ancestry: like Italian and French. But xie-xie was not remotely like the Japanese “arigato.”
Apparently nothing I’d learned in Japan was going to help me in China. Except I knew the kanji characters for entrance and exit. Perhaps that would come in useful.
I turned my attention to my guidebook but after thirty minutes of study found it had conveyed nothing useful or interesting. I remembered I’d decided to buy this off-brand guidebook to China in lieu of the Frommer equivalent, because this one included a beautiful four-color map. I realized I should have made the map a separate purchase and stuck to Frommer.
I would be arriving in Beijing airport at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 30th. I considered it odd how similar my three arrivals in Asia had been. After arriving in Hong Kong I’d rendezvoused with my sister Beth, in accordance with instructions she’d provided. After arriving in Tokyo I’d rendezvoused with Kahori, in accordance with instructions she’d provided. And now, in Beijing, I was going to be rendezvousing with Jamie, in accordance with instructions she had provided.
I unfolded the 8 inch square morsel of fax paper and re-read the letter:
“I am not positive whether I will be in the office on the night that you are arriving. So, you’d better play safe and take a cab. It costs approximately 70 yuan (thirteen U.S. dollars). However the Bank of China will be closed by the time you arrive at the airport, so you may need to change your dollars at the front desk of my hotel so that you can pay the driver. Show this to the cab driver which will instruct the driver my hotel name in Chinese, and describe where it is (cab drivers don’t speak a word of English):
P.S. I’ll leave an envelope with my room key inside for you to pick up at the front desk in case I’m not in my room.
I leaned back in my seat and reflected on the enigma of Jamie Wan. I’d met her four years ago on a train in Russia where we’d both been traveling alone. She’d accepted my invitation to save money by sharing a cabin for a couple of days at a resort far north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. Shortly after returning to Beijing she’d emigrated to Sydney, Australia. We’d kept in touch and when I visited Beth in Melbourne, Jamie had come down and stayed with us for several days. Later she had moved to Hong Kong, her native country. And a few months ago had accepted a job back in Beijing, where she lived now, 29 years old, and single. She spoke Cantonese and Mandarin like a native, spoke English somewhat better than Kahori, spoke French about as well as I did, and spoke Japanese well enough to get by in Japan, although she hated the Japanese (for the same reason the woman on the airplane did.) Jamie was now employed as an Administrator for the Beijing office of an American law firm, with a salary equivalent to $65,000 per year, plus housing allowance.
My relationship with Jamie was somewhat absurd because it was completely platonic—a situation that suited both of us although my ego found it mildly annoying that it suited her. I was happily married, after all, so I had an excuse. What excuse did she have?
The same one, perhaps.
Of course it was only because of its platonic nature that the relationship could be allowed to exist. And it was only because of that, plus an incredible level of trust, that my wife could permit her husband to travel 12,000 miles away and stay for a week in a hotel room with a young, single woman.
“I’m not thrilled about it,” said Derry. “But I trust you, and I feel better knowing you’ll be safer in China if you’re with someone who knows their way around. I hope I’m not being stupid.”
Few people are blessed with such a wife, I decided. And she wasn’t being stupid.
I looked again at Jamie’s letter. These instructions should be easier to follow than Kahori’s. There was no train to catch. No subway. No complicated arrangements. I was to simply jump in a cab and take it to the hotel.
It was not unusual that Jamie lived in a hotel. It would have been illegal for her not to. Foreign citizens working in Beijing are not allowed private homes or apartments. They must live in hotel complexes. Jamie had explained that her residence was the “Swissotel” which was part of the “Hong Kong-Macao Center.” That made sense. Jamie was until recently a Hong Kong citizen. No doubt the Hong Kong-Macao center was an enclave set up by the Communist government specifically to house Hong Kong and Macao expates.
This was not my first time in a communist country. I’d been to the Soviet Union, after all, and I knew what to expect. First, there would be a veneer of shabbiness and neglect over everything. Second, new construction (such as a “Hong Kong/Macao Center”) would be drab: concrete block buildings, no landscaping anywhere, a gray utilitarianism permeating the air. Third, everything would be old, or at least old-looking, and nothing would work. Phone service was likely to be problematic. Bathrooms would be unspeakable. Elevators would generally have “out of service” signs on their doors. And so forth. In Finland Jamie had explained to me that companies have to pay unusually high salaries (“hardship pay”) to attract foreign workers to Beijing, and I could easily imagine the conditions that must have prompted that situation.
I didn’t mind. I’d chosen to visit the People’s Republic of China of my own accord and had no illusions as to the level of luxury I could expect.
But in light of the conditions I knew would prevail in Beijing, I was surprised that Jamie had been so foolish as to suggest that I could go into some shabby hotel in a ghetto-like cantonment for Hong Kong citizens and ask the clerk at the desk to change my dollars so I could pay the cab fare. First, it was guaranteed that the clerk at the desk would not speak English. Second, the clerk probably wouldn’t even be at the desk. He would probably be drunk and snoring in a back room amidst a hundred stale cigarette butts, and the door into the lobby would probably be locked. That would most certainly have been the case in Russia. Even if there were an awake clerk at the night desk the idea that he could (or would be willing to) perform an international currency transaction late at night was absurd.
On the other hand Jamie was probably correct in warning me that the exchange office at the Beijing airport would be closed by the time I’d cleared customs. Being a communist country, the exchange office probably had hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. I recalled how restaurants in the Soviet Union tended to close around dinner time, to allow the waiters a break.
But forewarned is forearmed. In addition to travelers checks (notoriously difficult to cash in Communist countries except at official banks during official office hours) I had four one-hundred dollars bills hidden in my money belt. I went into the lavatory of the 747, extracted one of these, and set off to find the friendly Malaysian flight attendant.
Dollar bills are notoriously easy to exchange in communist countries, or even to use outright to pay for goods and services, though doing so is illegal. But a one-hundred dollar bill is cumbersome even in America.
With the help of the flight attendant I traded my hundred-dollar bill for five twenties. I would have preferred tens, but twenties would do. Jamie’s fax said the cab fare from the airport to the Hong Kong Macao center would be approximately $13.00. If I couldn’t exchange my dollars at the airport, I could give the cab driver an American twenty. Including the tip, and the possibility that Jamie’s $13.00 estimate might have been optimistic, I figured twenty dollars wasn’t excessive. Anyway my lodging costs in Beijing were going to be zero. I could afford twenty dollars for the cab fare. I slipped the note into my shirt pocket, right alongside Jamie’s letter with the Chinese kanji characters.
All I had to do was get through customs, hop in a cab, show the driver the letter, pay him a twenty, get to the decrepit hotel, retrieve a key from the front desk (if there was a weak link in the chain that was it), and work my way past the sure-to-be-broken elevator and up to Jamie’s room.
The main gear of the Boeing 747 touched down with a jolt and the aircraft rolled to a stop. A third-world country, combined with a communist economy, was going to ensure that the next week held little in the way of physical comfort. I mentally girded myself for the challenge and slung my backpack over my shoulder, prepared for whatever hardships awaited me.
The 747 parked nearly a mile away from the terminal and we disembarked into a waiting bus with standing-room only. Having carry-on luggage I was second in line at customs, right behind the United Airlines captain. I noticed that our bags were being processed through an x-ray machine, as other airports do with the luggage of departing passengers, and I commented on this to the captain.
“Why are they screening our luggage after we get off the plane?” I asked. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I know. It doesn’t make any sense to me either. But, hey, it’s their country. They can make whatever laws they want, I guess.”
“Wheh you staying in Beijing?” asked the passport officer.
That question always bothers me. Why should I have to declare where I’m staying? But it was their country…
“Swissotel,” I answered. I was worried that this could be a problem. The Swissotel was obviously not a normal tourist hotel, since it was part of something called the Hong Kong-Macao center: a place where Hong Kong-Macao citizens like Jamie apparently were confined. If he recognized the name of the hotel he might also realize that an American tourist like me shouldn’t be staying there. If he didn’t recognize it that might be worse.
When I’d been in Leningrad all tourists were required to stay in one of approximately a dozen hotels, each sanctioned by the Soviet Government, and each staffed conveniently by KGB agents. Holding a pre-paid reservation to one of these hotels was a requirement before a person could even apply for a Soviet visa. It seemed unlikely that regulations in communist Beijing would be much looser.
But the passport official didn’t even raise an eyebrow. He stamped my passport and waved me through. Bureaucratic inefficiency, I assumed. He was too bored even to care.
The airport had precisely the shabby look I was expecting. As Jamie had predicted the Bank of China was closed, and I was glad I was not relying on some sleepy hotel desk clerk to change my cab fare. I made my way outside the building and saw the line of waiting cabs I’d expected to see.
“Hey, you! Want taxi? I give you good plice!”
I looked down and saw a teenager in a black leather jacket, smoking a cigarette and smiling broadly. I waved him away and began moving towards the cab.
“Hey! Taxi? Right heeh! I got good taxi. Good plice!”
It was another guy.
And then there was another after that, and then still another. Meanwhile the line of patient cab drivers, across the street, waited expectantly for my decision.
It was tempting. No doubt these gypsy cab drivers would be cheaper. And they were convenient. And they would probably be overjoyed to take my American dollars. But they were also illegal. Gypsy cabs are illegal even in America. Here the crime probably carried the death penalty. I wasn’t yet sure enough of my bearings to start breaking the law in communist China.
I brushed past them all and walked directly up to the first cab in line.
“Wheh you want go?” asked another man who intercepted me. But this one was in uniform and was presumably the taxi dispatcher. I hated to run the gauntlet of announcing my “Swissotel” destination to another official. The whistle might be blown at anytime.
But he, also, was not bothered by my destination. He spoke some Mandarin to the taxi driver and I climbed in the back seat. I handed the driver the fax from Jamie with the kanji characters and he studied it carefully in the dim glow of the fluorescent lights from the airport terminal. Then he nodded and off we went, into the darkness.
It was ten p.m. and too dark to see much. The landscape we were driving through seemed mostly pastoral. After about fifteen minutes this changed and I could detect low buildings of uncertain purpose. There were almost no automobiles on the road, which seemed odd as one would expect the highway leading from Beijing to the airport to be heavily traveled. It’s not impossible that I fell asleep briefly, for suddenly I was startled by bright lights shining in my eyes. The cab had come to a stop at a traffic signal and the driver was saying something about the hotel, and gesturing across the street.
I looked in that direction and was nearly blinded.
A soaring facade of steel and glass and electric lights greeted me, rising up and disappearing into the sky, out of my field of vision. It was some kind of futuristic building, apparently. Right beside it was another. And another beyond that. All of them were coated in lights, not just emanating from their windows, but strung about on all edges, as if they had been decorated for Christmas, except these were white lights, not multi-colored. The lights themselves were of all types and sizes: some stationary, but most blinking off and on in such a way as to produce exotic designs and patterns and the illusion of movement. The sound of a brass band could be heard coming from somewhere inside one of the buildings, but it was muted and competing with traffic noises.
The cab pulled into the drive leading up to the tallest of the huge buildings and came to a stop in front of the glass doors. Uniformed doormen and porters hurried over ready to be of assistance. We weren’t the only car. There were two beautiful white limousines and a metallic blue Mercedes as well. At a discreet distance a line of cabs waited, ready for any guests who might emerge in need of a ride. The driver of my cab pointed to a sign near the doorway and said something in Mandarin.
“Swissotel” said the sign, an expensive bronzed plaque bolted into the marble.
I was completely disoriented, wondering if I’d somehow been transported to Las Vegas or Reno. The surroundings were more opulent even than Tokyo’s Ginza district, if such a thing were possible.
I handed the driver the twenty dollar bill and he accepted it eagerly, a big smile on his face. One of the porters opened the cab door for me, and helped me to my feet. I flung the backpack over my shoulder, feeling very under-attired, and made my way through the glittering entrance. The doors opened swiftly and were held respectfully by the uniformed attendants.
The first thing I noticed was a 15-member string orchestra set up in one corner of the expansive lobby, playing a Mozart concerto. The marble floors were softened by acres of beautiful and rich oriental carpets. Antiques were placed about with great care, as were magnificent plants and blooming flowers.
Rich leather chairs and sofas provided convenient seating for the several groups of men and women waiting in the lobby. These people were not Orientals. They were Western, either American or European. The front desk itself was fully twice the length of the one at Hong Kong’s New World Harborview hotel, which was the longest front desk I had hitherto seen. Staffing the desk was a collection of more uniformed, smiling and attractive young men and women, looking competent and intelligent and eager to be of service. It was quite obvious that any of them could have performed an international currency transaction with their eyes closed, and would not even have had to look up the exchange rates to do so. Behind the desk were a dozen large wall clocks, set in crystal, announcing the times in such places as London, New York, Paris, and Cairo. Across the lobby—itself a large three-story atrium set off by a fabulously ornate chandelier—was a scintillating array of shops and boutiques, offering jewelry and furs and works of art. A bank of fifteen elevators was just to the left of the expansive desk, the elevator doors made of gleaming polished brass.
In somewhat of a daze, I found my way over to a group of white house phones and called Jamie’s room. She answered and said she’d be right down.
I waited in the open-air cocktail lounge just across from the elevators and just far enough away from the string orchestra to allow a beautiful oriental woman in a skimpy black dress to be singing Barry Manilow songs accompanied by a pianist wearing a tuxedo.
A waiter rushed up to me and offered to take my order, but I declined, trying to be as invisible as possible in my jeans and sneakers.
The elevator door opened and out stepped Jamie, in an all-black pantsuit, wearing gold earrings and just a touch of lipstick. She came over and greeted me warmly.
“Welcome to China,” she said.
Jamie’s room was on the 12th floor. It consisted of a little entrance foyer, a living room, a bathroom, and—only partially separated from the living room—a bedroom. The bedroom had a TV and a pair of twin beds. It was not the worst arrangement, considering our circumstance.
“Where’s the kitchen?” I asked.
“There is no kitchen!”
“But how do you cook your meals?”
It was obvious where she ate them. The only real furniture in the living room was a dining room table and chairs.
“I don’t cook very often. Usually I eat out. I have a refrigerator, for milk and so forth. Sometimes I make breakfast. If I want to cook something I have a hot plate and can boil vegetables or an egg or whatever.”
“And your sink is the bathroom?” It was quite a nice bathroom, actually. Very clean and modern and spacious. But it wasn’t a kitchen.
“That’s right. I could pay more and have a room with an actual kitchen, but it would be about $600 a month more, and I don’t think it’s worth it.”
She was probably right. The room itself only cost her about $600 a month, I discovered, including daily maid service and other amenities. This seemed like a fabulous price, considering that the Swissotel, as I also learned, was rated five star and was part of an international chain of luxury hotels.
We talked for nearly two hours there was so much to catch up on, but finally we went to bed. As I drifted off to sleep I remembered that I had awoken that morning in a ryokan in Japan. Now I was going to sleep in a five-star hotel in Beijing. There was a message there, I was certain. But somehow I couldn’t quite get my hands on it.
The next morning was not just any morning. It was China’s “independence day” And for Beijing, this was like the fourth of July. As Jamie prepared breakfast using the little hot plate, I opened up the curtains and gazed out for the first time (at least in daylight) at China. It was a clear day and, looking west, I could see much from the 12th floor of a luxury hotel. In the not-so-far distance was a low mountain range running north to south. Closer to the city some agricultural lands were evident, at least judging by the existence of fields that were not quite haphazard. It seemed likely that the Swissotel was near the outskirts of Beijing for I could not see anything that resembled a city per se. In the foreground were occasional high-rises, but each one seemed oddly out of place, as if it had accidentally taken root there amongst lesser buildings, like a single dandelion in a field of grass. Below the hotel was the large multi-lane highway that must have brought me from the airport last night, and right at my feet was an oriental version of a traffic circle, of the kind so popular in the British Isles.
But my eye took all this in without particular interest for mere mountain ranges and tall buildings are not the first things that strike you upon seeing China. And, contrary to popular belief, the quantity of people is not the first thing that strikes you either. (The people are the second thing.)
The first thing that strikes you upon seeing China is the quantity of bicycles. The traffic circle was processing somewhere in the vicinity of 50,000 bicyclists an hour. And perhaps a dozen cars. I was as mesmerized as one might be staring at a crowded ant hill after a foot has stepped in it. It was with reluctance that I finally turned away and came back to the business at hand.
We needed to plan the day. Actually, we needed to plan the next five days: the whole time I would be in China. Over breakfast we considered our options.
As with Kahori, I half-hoped some exquisite suggestion would be advanced, like “let’s skip Beijing and take the night-train to Mongolia.” But Jamie had already taken the night-train to Mongolia years ago (and beyond, to Russia), she had recently returned from an exhausting three-week trip to Europe and, not surprisingly, was more inclined to relax than be adventurous. We did flirt with the idea of flying to Tibet (a province of China) for the weekend—Jamie had never been to Tibet and was tempted—but the airfare was expensive and it sounded like a lot of work.
I was acutely aware of my dependence on Jamie. My guidebook said:
Almost everyone who comes to the People’s Republic of China does so as part of an organized tour. Independent travel is very rare, and should be undertaken only by the very adventurous. Even then, it shouldn’t be considered without a reasonable degree of proficiency in Mandarin.
My degree of proficiency in Mandarin was something short of reasonable, seeing as how I knew only one word. I was willing to travel alone around Japan without speaking Japanese because Japan is so civilized and efficient. The worst that can happen is you have to swallow your pride and ask directions from someone who can speak English. But China is not Japan. Not only is China a communist dictatorship and third-world country, but also the concept of politeness, so vital to the culture of Japan, is not as ingrained in China. If I were to set out alone I could well imagine getting murdered and left in a ditch without anyone especially caring. So I had resolved to stay close to Jamie, and whatever her plans were, those would be my plans.
“There’s quite a bit to see right around here, if you’ve never been to China,” said Jamie. “There’s Tiananmen Square. Forbidden City. And of course Great Wall”
“I have to see the Great Wall,” I explained. “Every westerner has to see the Great Wall at least once in their life. It’s a requirement. Like a Moslem has to see Mecca.”
“And how about Tiananman Square and Forbidden City?” she asked
“Well, since the massacre, I think Tiananman Square is also a must. If I go back to the states and tell people I’ve been to Tiananman Square and I didn’t get run over by a tank, they’ll think I’m cool!”
Jamie laughed. “And how about Forbidden City?”
“Isn’t that just an ancient name for Beijing? Aren’t Beijing and the Forbidden City synonyms?”
“Oh no! Forbidden City is in Beijing. It’s one of the places tourists go see.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s the ancient imperial throne of China. It’s a huge area with lots of old buildings, where the Emperor used to live. It was forbidden to outsiders. Not just foreigners but even the Chinese who lived here. It was only for the emperor and the imperial court and all their servants. You know. Forbidden City. It’s very famous.”
Jamie had an endearing way of dropping articles from famous nouns. It was never “the Forbidden City,” or “the Great Wall”, but always “Forbidden City, and Great Wall, as in “Shall we go see Great Wall today?”
“Well then, we must see the Forbidden City, by all means. So what should we do first?”
“How do you feel about bicycles?”
“Yes. We could rent bicycles and bicycle downtown to Tiananman square today. Or we could go by taxi.”
“We could go bicycling in Tiananmen Square?”
“Oh yes. It’s what everyone does. In Beijing, everyone rides bicycles. No one has cars.”
“Do you have a bicycle?”
“No, I always take a taxi. But we can rent bicycles downstairs at the front desk, if we want to.”
Down at the front desk the young and eager staff was ready to help , and though they all spoke English it was more interesting watching Jamie talk to them in Mandarin. It never ceases to amaze me how well people can speak languages other than English. It takes me years of study to even be able to produce meaningful sentences in another language, and yet, for example, here in China approximately a billion people were fluently speaking one of the most difficult languages on earth. And it was so natural for them. They weren’t having to stumble around, searching for a forgotten word, struggling with sentence structure, or worrying about pronunciation. The language just flowed between them, effortlessly.
The bicycles were around the side of the hotel, a bit removed from the glorious main entrance. They cost $2.00 a day to rent, which I thought was an excellent price until I saw the bicycles. Obviously the owners of the hotel, having exhausted themselves financially buying the chandelier and oriental carpets for the lobby, paying the overflowing staff, hiring the Mozart orchestra, and so forth, had finally run out of money when the time came to buy bicycles for the guests to rent, and so had instead stolen these from the Beijing landfill, beaten them with hammers back into shapes roughly resembling those of a normal bike, and then had stuck them far out of sight from the opulent lobby, hoping no one would ever ask about renting them. And by all rights this strategy should have worked, for who could have imagined that guests who typically arrived in stretched Mercedes limousines would ever resort to renting bicycles?
There were about two dozen of these bicycle relics padlocked to the rack, and Jamie and I spent nearly half an hour going over them, trying to find specimens that could be made to function. In the end we succeeded, and set off for downtown Beijing. Jamie seemed to be having particular trouble with her bike, and I asked her about it.
“It’s just that I haven’t ridden a bike for years and years,” she explained, somewhat frustrated with her performance.
“You mean you’ve never rented one of these bikes from your hotel before?”
“No, nor from anywhere else. I always take a taxi.”
“But, then, if you’ve never rented a bicycle, how do you know we can ride these bikes all the way to Tiananman Square.”
“Well, everyone else does. What could go wrong?”
I had an inkling of what could go wrong when I realized the truth of her statement. Apparently everyone else routinely did use bicycles in getting around Beijing. I hadn’t expected, however, that on this particular day everyone else in China (population 1 billion) was going to be riding their bicycles on this street, in this direction, at precisely the same time we were, and with exactly the same destination in mind: Tiananman Square. But then, I’d forgotten that this was China’s independence day.
Directly opposite the Swissotel was a large intersection although it was not an intersection as westerners would understand it. In the West an intersection such as this would be dominated by automobiles, and there certainly were automobiles. A large multi-lane freeway passed east and west, and over this freeway was an important street of some kind with an unpronounceable mandarin name such as Xianpianchixiapahouie, although that wasn’t it, but it’s close enough, and cars were zooming back and forth on the freeway and across the road, just as they would be in the United States. But no one paid much attention to the cars for the cars were rather insignificant. For every one car there were approximately 12,000 bicycles. The bicycles overflowed both sides of the freeway. The bicycles dominated the cross street. And the epicenter of it all was the traffic circle I’d seen from our hotel room. The few cars which revolved around this circle did so in peril of their lives for at every moment they stood a reasonable chance of being utterly consumed by the bicycles which swirled about counter-clockwise in such vast numbers as to remind one of a plague of locusts descending upon some old testament village.
But there is power in numbers and it gave me confidence to realize that Jamie and I were part of the locust hoard, not the old testament village, and we could go where ever we wished, mindless of the automobiles, for we were the dominant life form on the streets of Beijing. This observation was short lived, for it soon became apparent that while bicycles could safely ignore automobiles, they could not ignore other bicycles. And bicycles are not as predictable as automobiles. Cars must follow certain rules of the road, and watching a car one can reasonably predict it’s behavior. This prescience is not applicable to bicycles, however, which obey no law but that of random motion, or at least that’s the safest way to view their behavior.
We did nonetheless succeed in merging with the bicycles, and not just with the bicycles in general but with the bicycles heading south towards downtown Beijing and Tiananman square. As we pedaled along it became easier to observe as well as merely survive. The first thing I noticed was how in the West we have streets and sidewalks, but in Beijing they have streets, and sidewalks and bikeways, and of the three it is the bikeways that have by far the most space allocated to them, and the most traffic on them.
I also noticed something else about Beijing: it is flat. Utterly, absolutely, without exception: flat. And this explained another phenomenon: the bikes only had one gear. And as my senses became attuned to observations of this nature, I also noticed that all the bikes were identical, and were painted the same color: black. And they were all equally decrepit.
We had left the glittery Hong Kong – Macao center behind, with its towering Swissotel, and on either side of the freeway/bikeway/sidewalk complex were low, shabby buildings made of a material resembling mud-brick, and lending a third-world ambiance to the area. The architecture was not greatly different from what one finds in the desert villages of Morocco. But the people of course were very different. Everyone was Chinese. The car drivers, the bicycle riders, the pedestrians, the old men and women sitting on the curbs—everyone (even Jamie)—was extremely Chinese. In truth a Chinese person looks much the same (to a Westerner) as does a Japanese person. But in Tokyo, for example, the streets are more like what you’d find in the west: tall buildings, roads with cars on them, and sidewalks. One can almost believe they are in the West. But there is no such room for illusion in Beijing. It seemed likely these mud brick structures could look to the nomadic plains of central Asia for their heritage, and could find close relatives in Irkutsk or Samarkand or Llhasa: little changed—perhaps not changed at all—from the time of Genghis Khan.
On a bicycle small annoyances which seem unimportant at first become aggravating, like a small pebble in one’s shoe, until at last one can’t stand them at all. I quickly reached this stage with my bicycle for the seat was a good six inches too low. I mentioned this to Jamie and she suggested we stop at a bicycle repair shop and get it fixed.
“Uh huh. And what do you think the chances are of finding a bicycle repair shop?” I said dubiously.
“Here’s one right here. Let’s stop!”
I looked at the nearest mud brick shack and noticed three old Chinese men sitting out in front enjoying the sun, and nearby was a table containing a small mountain of tools, and above the doorway into the shack was a hand-painted sign in kanji. One of the old men stood up and eagerly shuffled over to us, where Jamie explained what we needed. He went to work with an ancient crescent wrench.
“Wow, I can’t believe our luck! A bicycle shop right here, when we need it!”
“Oh no. It’s not luck! Look around you. All these little huts are bicycle shops.”
Sure enough, up and down the road, as far as I could see, each hut had three old Chinese men sitting in front, and a table of tools, and a big hand-painted sign in kanji. I had it in mind to question whether there could be enough demand for all these bicycle repair shops, and then I reconsidered. Of course there was enough demand.
Soon we were underway again and nearing the center of Beijing. The mud-brick huts had given way to low buildings of more modern construction, and the quantity of bicycles had increased. Eventually we came to Beijing’s main thoroughfare which, for the moment, was called Jianguomenwai Avenue. We turned right and in a few blocks it became Jianguomennen Avenue, and shortly after that it became Dongchang’an Avenue, and then Xichang’an Avenue, and no doubt it became other things as it progressed. This seemed to be a problem with most of Beijing’s streets: they couldn’t hold a name for more than a few blocks. For example running perpendicular to Xichang’an Avenue is a street that at first is called Wangfujing Street, then Meishuguanhou Street, then Jiaodaokounan St., then Andingmennei St., etc. Another one begins life as Dongdaqiao Road, matures into Xindong Rd., and finally comes to rest as Gongrentiyuchangdong Rd, and certainly a rest is needed after that name.
But I will refer to the street we were on as Jianguomenwai Avenue, for that is how I remember it from the map. Jamie explained that we were in a section of Beijing that was kind of an “embassy row,” and most of the embassies, government buildings, office buildings, etc., could be found in this area. In fact her own office was not too far in the opposite direction. Here was the only place in Beijing where I found the tall buildings more or less consistent. But it was clear that they had grown up in regular fashion only along this thoroughfare, because there was no “depth” to them. That is they were only one row thick on each side of the street. And unlike say, Manhattan, they weren’t consistent. There would be a tall building about once per block and in between would be low two-story structures. It should be noted that when I say “tall” I’m speaking in relative terms. In Beijing a 10 story building could be considered a sky scraper.
The broad tree-lined boulevard we were on, with modest buildings interspersed occasionally with taller structures, possessed a relaxed, graceful charm which I found quite pleasant. Jamie had mentioned that she preferred Beijing to Hong Kong and I was beginning to understand why. Hong Kong is an oriental version of Manhattan, with a continuous frenzy of activity in the air, while Beijing is more like Paris and the pace is naturally slower.
Of course one reason the pace is slower is because everyone is on bicycles. Jianguomennen Ave, which is kind of the Grand Canal of Beijing, was extremely wide with most of its width dedicated to the bicycles, the number of which had now reached epidemic proportions. Jamie and I were adrift in a raging torrent of bicycles, perhaps fifty yards wide, and we were swept along like a twig caught in a rapids. They were all around us, in front of us, behind us, almost on top of us, so dense was the cloud of hurrying two-wheeled humanity.
The transition from enjoying a pleasant and relaxed bicycle ride to fearing for my life happened quickly. There was danger here, real danger: the kind of danger a cowboy experiences riding a horse in the midst of a buffalo stampede. The other bicycles were mere inches away, sometimes closer than an inch. Sometimes closer than that, even. Jamie collided twice, although fortunately at low speed. I experienced several hundred near collisions. And all this was just in the first block. The inadvisability of bicycling to Tiananman Square on China’s independence day was glaringly obvious now, but we could not have turned back even had we wanted to. An attempt to turn aside would have brought swift death.
Having thus no control over our direction or speed, I resolved to merely enjoy the experience and take the opportunity to observe those around me as closely as possible. It was quite interesting, really. Most of the bicycles had more than one person on them. Frequently could be seen a young man peddling his bike, with a young woman (perhaps his wife), sitting cross-legged on the luggage rack atop the rear wheel, or with an older woman (perhaps his mother), or with a child, arranged similarly. But frequently these roles would be reversed. Often it was the wife who was peddling, while the husband relaxed. Sometimes even the old woman provided the propulsion.
Yet this was by no means all of the combinations. Fully a third of the bicycles in Beijing are not bicycles at all, they are tricycles, and their three wheels are all full size. This arrangement yields an efficient vehicle for cargo, for typically a low wooden platform is attached directly above the rear axle, and on this platform most anything can be carried. And most anything is.
These cargo bicycles often contained whole families, one might even say generations of families, although I can’t say I ever saw more than seven people on one bicycle. Frequently the father would be up front peddling, while the young wife would be sitting on the back with her legs curled up under her, surrounded by several children. Or perhaps the wife would be peddling, while her husband and mother in law rode in the back. Or the mother in law would be holding the children while the husband peddled, and the wife brought up the rear on a two-wheeled bike.
Yet fascinating as these various family combinations were, they were not nearly so remarkable as the inanimate cargo that was just as frequently seen.
If I’d ever been asked what types of things I would expect not to be carried on a bicycle I’m certain I would have included in the list a sofa, a thousand head of cabbage, and a steam engine. Yet I saw cargo bikes carrying all of these things as we approached Tiananman square. In fact the bike carrying the sofa deserves special mention, because not only was the sofa large, but the bike carried not one but four of them. Four large sofas on one bicycle! I took a photograph of it and I now have this photograph at home and those who are inclined towards disbelief that one bicycle can carry four large sofas are invited to see for themselves that they are wrong.
Now things had reached the point where there simply couldn’t be any more bicycles. Bicycles were everywhere: in the street, on the sidewalks, in the wide bike lanes—all around us: a black, metallic ocean stretching as far as one could see in all directions.
Yet what was this? The broad tree-lined boulevard with the occasional tall building had vanished and now the bicycles really did stretch in all directions, endlessly, going on forever like some science fiction writer’s prediction of life after a nuclear holocaust. And then, as my gaze swept around almost a full 360 degrees it stopped abruptly on the one tangible thing in a world gone mad. Here, just to our right, rising up above the planet of the bicycles, was the serene, larger-than-life image, the one flashed so many times on the evening news, the one so frequently gracing the pages of Time and Newsweek: Mao Tse Tung.
We had arrived at Tiananman Square.
“Tiananman,” in Chinese, means “gates of heavenly peace,” and Mao certainly looked peaceful, gazing out over us teeming millions on our bicycles. Actually “peaceful” isn’t quite the right word. Drugged is more accurate. The father of Chinese communism looked like he’d been chewing on eucalyptus leaves and in fact he bore that same mild dis-interest in the world about him so common on the visages of Koalas as they hang one handedly from their gum trees in Australia.
The heavenly-peace gate itself was an odd structure, seemingly of limited purpose, for it consisted merely of a large wall, a hundred feet higher perhaps, and no less thick, running only a block in length. And in this wall, which by the way had been painted a dull communist red, were half a dozen archways, or tunnels if you will, leading through to the other side. And on the other side one finds (ironically perhaps) the Forbidden City: that ancient, sprawling palace of the Chinese emperors where—according to my guidebook—Marco Polo was presented to Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century.
From my vantage point atop my still moving bicycle (remember: to stop would be to die) I could look in the opposite direction from the gate of heavenly peace and see Tiananmen Square itself, which is very large: perhaps a mile in each dimension. And it was this that had given me the impression that all boundaries and structures had vanished. But even the vastness of Tiananman Square was ultimately bounded by a series of fairly low, official-looking, concrete buildings. According to my map these were, respectively, The Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution.
In the west we tend to make fun of how the Chinese communists are so preoccupied with the word “people,” and how they use it as a possessive adjective for almost every noun in China. But I wasn’t laughing now. The truth is, there are a lot of people in China, and anything that wasn’t at least nominally connected with “the people” would be largely irrelevant and unlikely to receive respect.
Jamie and I were not especially interested in visiting the Museum of the Chinese’s People’s Revolution but we had had it in mind to go through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and tour the Forbidden City. Yet there could be no question of doing so today, not with two-thirds of China’s population trying to do the same thing.
Jamie’s bicycle was not so very far from mine, and if I raised my voice I knew I could be heard.
“I think we need to turn around and get out of here!” I shouted.
“Yes. Too many people! This is really crazy,” she called back.
It was obvious what we needed to do but not so obvious how to do it. On the opposite side of the Jianguomennen Boulevard was a stream of bicycles as vast as the one which was carrying us along, but which was flowing in the opposite direction.
“Follow me!” I called to Jamie.
The danger was extreme, but through a series of carefully timed movements we succeeded in breaking through to the far side of the bicycle river. We had now only to cross the street and join the opposite stream. There were others trying to attempt the same maneuver, but while there are not so many cars in Beijing, there were enough to make crossing the wide boulevard perilous in its own right. Yet the bicycles were not to be trifled with either and as a group we were unstoppable. Like an infinity of piranhas at war with a small herd of crocodiles, there could be no doubt who would ultimately win. It was skirmish warfare and the skirmishes would proceed with methodical regularity. One or two bicyclists would start to dart out across the car traffic. Usually they would be beaten back by the automobiles, but occasionally one would slip through. And as soon as one slipped through there were 500 right behind, and 10,000 right behind that. The dynamics might be compared to a leaky dam in which first a tiny stream of water would make its escape, and then with unbelievable rapidity the trickle would widen into a torrent.
During one of these torrents Jamie and I seized the opportunity to slip across and join with the bicycles moving east away from Tiananmen Square. Almost before we knew it we were a mile away, and then two miles away, and the bicycles begin to thin back down to levels where the danger of collision and death was not so extreme.
We pulled off to the side of the pathway and heaved a mutual sign of relief.
We had survived Tiananmen Square.
Bicycling in Beijing tends to work up an appetite, and as it was now mid afternoon we set off in search of a place to eat. We were now in a part of the town near Jamie’s office and she knew it well. Instead of wild hoards of bicyclists we were now amidst gentle tree-lined side streets with pleasant though modest office buildings set about with plenty of space. An occasional flag out front, or even a guard standing at attention, identified these as various embassies and consulates. We wove our way through several blocks like this and finally came to a street that doubled as a market. Food vendors had their wares displayed in outdoor fashion: lettuce, bananas, ginger roots, and so forth. Jamie pulled off to the side of the street, we parked our bikes, and she guided me to a little outdoor cafe. A waitress appeared and Jamie ordered for us and when the food arrived I was only mildly surprised to see that it was all Chinese food. Apparently this was a Chinese restaurant.
Then I remembered I was in China. Restaurants in Japan tend to be Japanese. Restaurants in China are generally Chinese. I was beginning to see a pattern. And it seemed not unusual at all to have chopsticks placed in front of us, as I was now into my third week of using chopsticks and I had not so much as seen a knife or fork for all of that time.
After lunch we bicycled to a nearby “Friendship Store.” Friendship stores are an institution in China and their name comes from the same lexicon of doublespeak so beloved by Communists. Anyone seeking to upset the government is not a revolutionary but a counter-revolutionary. Enterprises owned by the government instead of by the citizens are called “People’s _______ (whatever).” And finally, government-run retail businesses, where of course the surliest and most unsmiling people in all China find employment, are called “Friendship Stores.”
As we walked into this drab combination grocery store, pharmacy, souvenir stand, and dry goods shop, I sensed immediately that I was among enemies, not friends. The clerks glowered at me with stern visages that seemed to say “What are you doing in here, Yankee imperialist pig?” although that may have been my imagination. In fact I’m sure it was, because they weren’t really glowering at me at all. They were ignoring me. Here, finally, I sensed the Communist country I had been looking for and expecting ever since my arrival the night before. These clerks had almost certainly been trained in Russia, for they were as indifferent to their customers, as utterly unaware of their customers, as only workers can be whose livelihood is not in the least affected by the success of their business.
The more customers who came in the store and bought something, the more these employees had to actually work. So it was understandable that they resented us dreadfully. And this customer-hatred most certainly extended to all facets of the business, for the goods themselves were stacked haphazardly on shelves which cried out in vain for something to relieve their tedious sameness. And the products bore drab, unimaginative markings that seemed designed to convince the shopper not to buy them, if there was a choice.
Of course my reaction might well have been conditioned by 40 years of products screaming at me from every shelf in a supermarket, and perhaps my brain just can’t tolerate merchandise that merely exists and is available for sale, and is indifferent to whether it is purchased or not. Perhaps Americans have built up such a tolerance for aggressive advertising, in the form of bright, exciting colors, that anything that doesn’t go well beyond the bounds of good taste is almost invisible to us.
In any case Jamie bought the few things she needed and we loaded these into my day pack which I’d attached by shock cords to the luggage carrier on the back of my bike. We set off again through the gentle side streets of Beijing, with their broad oak trees making almost a complete canopy every where we went. It was just the beginning of autumn, and the weather had that exciting nip in the air, still tempered heavily by a sun that was several weeks away from relinquishing its summer warmth. We were in China, but we might just as easily have been in Des Moines or Harrisburg, or any place where broad oak trees spread across paved side streets in the fall. We came at last to a wide sidewalk, actually more of an alley, running along a tall brick wall of uncertain purpose, which appeared to stretch on for several blocks.
There was a frenzy of activity here, for little outdoor shops lined this broad alleyway as far as they eye could see, which wasn’t very far because of the oak trees and such. The shops were on both sides of the miniature street and large crowds surged between them and through them.
“This is what we call the Silk Road,” said Jamie. “It’s probably the best place to buy silk in the world. That’s all they sell here is silk. Silk, silk, silk. It comes from all over China. You can find anything made of silk, here on the Silk Road.”
Jamie was exacting a cruel vengeance by bringing me here, because the night before I had boasted of the incredible silk purchases I’d made in Hong Kong, and the almost unbelievable prices I had paid. Jamie, who had grown up in Hong Kong and had lived many years in Beijing, had gently explained that I’d been ripped off buying silk in Hong Kong. “All the silk they sell in Hong Kong comes from Beijing,” she’d said. “If you want to see good prices on Silk, I’ll take you to the Silk Road.”
And now here we were.
But we hadn’t come here primarily to buy silk. We’d come here to play the game Jamie and I had learned so well in Russia. We’d come to trade currency on the black market. And, I suspected, currency markets wouldn’t get any blacker than amongst a bevy of competing silk merchants on a back alleyway in Beijing.
Unfortunately there is less opportunity for profit, trading currencies in China, as there is in Russia. In Russia the official exchange rate for rubles is absolutely absurd. Russia officially values (or did value) the ruble at approximately ten times it’s real worth. And when tourists legally exchange their dollars into Russian currency they therefore lose 90% of the real value of their dollars. And because dollars are like gold in Russia, there is an obvious advantage in trading on the black market.
But in China things are a bit different. The Chinese currency is the yuan, but it’s not legal for foreigners to own any yuan, or to buy things in yuan. Foreigners must convert their currency into something called Foreign Exchange Certificates (“F.E.C.’s”). What, you might ask, is a Foreign Exchange Certificate? Essentially an FEC is the same thing as a yuan. If you see that something is 15 yuan, you can buy it by handing over 15 FEC’s. The exchange rate is precisely one to one. Or at least it’s supposed to be. Because of course you’re not supposed to be able to exchange them at all. Foreigners must pay in FEC’s. Chinese citizens must pay in yuan. No, that’s not right. Chinese citizens can of course pay in FEC’s if they want to. But where would they get FEC’s? You can only get FEC’s by exchanging hard currency. Although I suppose if you were a merchant and someone paid you in FEC’s then you would have FEC’s and you’d have to do something with them, right? All this gets quite complicated and I’m certain I don’t understand it fully myself.
But the whole point of FEC’s is that when the foreigner buys them from official banks and exchange offices in China, the government rips off the foreigner a bit. The exchange rate between dollars and FEC’s is not as good as it should be. And the government keeps the difference. Nothing surprising in that. Essentially that’s the same game the Russians play when they exchange dollars for rubles at 90% less than the dollar’s real worth.
But there’s a couple of twists on this game as its played in China. First, China keeps the foreigner from trading currency on the black market by requiring foreigners to use an entirely separate currency. It’s kind of the scarlet letter principal. If a foreigner is holding yuans, or buying things in yuans, he must—by definition—have obtained them illegally. Second, there’s not really that much point to the whole game. Because while the Russian’s skim about 90% off the value of imported dollars, the Chinese only skim about 15% off. That makes the game hardly worth playing. Except, of course, that the game is always worth playing.
So Jamie and I had come here to exchange my dollars for yuan. This would give me 15% more for my money the whole time I was in China compared with exchanging my dollars for FEC’s. And over a week’s time, fifteen percent adds up. Of course it would be illegal for me to pay for anything using those yuans, but there were a couple of ways around that. First, the only people who cared what kind of currency I was using were employees in government-owned enterprises who were required to care. That wasn’t a big problem because—as I was beginning to learn—there aren’t that many government owned enterprises left in China. And on those occasions where I did need to buy something from the People’s Republic, I wouldn’t do the buying. I would hand the yuans to Jamie and she would do the buying.
Now this latter approach wasn’t as slick as it sounds, because Jamie was as much a foreigner (to the government’s way of thinking) as I was. Jamie was formerly a Hong Kong citizen, and was now an Australian citizen, with an Australian passport. Of course one doesn’t normally go around flashing their passport when making incidental purchases, and Jamie certainly looked Chinese. Even Jamie agreed she looked as Chinese as everyone else. The problem was her accent. Jamie spoke Mandarin fluently, but with a very slight Cantonese accent.
“They’re going to suspect I’m really from Hong Kong,” she explained, “and may insist that I pay in FEC’s.”
“What do you do about that?”
“The same thing I’ve been doing the whole time I’ve lived here. I just say I’m from Guandong province and I’m here as a student. How can they tell I’m not?”
Things got more and more complicated when I discovered that Jamie routinely changed large portions of her paycheck into yuans, and I started quizzing her further. The sordid truth emerged: Jamie worked for an American law firm that was based in Chicago. But its Asian headquarters was in Hong Kong. So she was paid in Hong Kong dollars. But it was illegal for her to be paid in Hong Kong dollars in Beijing. She was supposed to be paid in FEC’s. But she refused to be paid in FEC’s and insisted on Hong Kong dollars, which were dutifully deposited for her at a bank in Hong Kong (nothing the Chinese government could do about that), and somehow she managed to transfer these Hong Kong dollars from that bank into another bank in Beijing, and then she would somehow draw some of them out and exchange them illegally into real live yuan, and pretend she was a student from Guandong province, and… Well, I’m sure I got confused somewhere, but Jamie took it all in matter-of-factly.
“Good heavens,” she said. “Why would I agree to be paid in FEC’s? You think I’m crazy? You think I’m willing to give up 15% of my paycheck? All the expates in Beijing change their money on the black market. We’re not stupid, you know!”
So Jamie had brought me here, to the Silk Road, to give me the same advantage she and the other expates took for granted. I handed her two 100 dollar bills, and she secreted them away, out of sight somewhere amongst her clothing. Now, all aglow with the excitement of this mild deceit, I set out to explore the markets of the Silk Road. “Whatever price you see marked, assume you can bargain it down to about half,” said Jamie, to give me a sense of price. The mathematics were becoming torturous. First I had to convert dollars into FEC’s. Then I had to add back in about 15% to reflect the results of the black market trading. And finally I had to reduce the price tag by 50%. But the bottom line was glaringly obvious. I had in fact, been ripped off in Hong Kong. Beautiful hand-made silk shirts that I’d paid $20 for in Kowloon were available for $10 in Beijing, and the selection was unbelievable.
Soon I was in another silk buying frenzy, but Jamie had warned me to look not buy.
“I’ll do the buying,” she’d said.
“Oh, right. Because I can’t pay in yuan, being an American.”
“No. No one on the Silk Road cares what currency you pay in. These are all private merchants. There’s probably not a communist within a mile of here. But you have to let me do the bargaining because I’m probably better at it than you are.”
This wasn’t merely because Jamie spoke Mandarin and I didn’t. You can bargain quite effectively with street merchants even if neither of you speak the same language, I discovered sometime later. But Jamie believed bargaining was an art form, and she’d developed her own techniques.
“You have to be willing to walk away from it,” she said. “If they won’t meet your price, you just walk away. And not only that, but you have to walk away like you mean it. They can tell when someone walks away just as a negotiating ploy. You have to have a certain ‘look’ as you walk away.”
There was no doubt Jamie was tough as nails when it came to negotiating. On one purchase she let me try it and I totally screwed it up, for when I walked away I knew in my heart that I wanted the merchandise and it was cheap at ten times the asking price, and no doubt the merchant could see this on my face, because Jamie finally had to step in and undue the damage I’d done and REALLY walk away, before the merchant finally came down to her price.
By this time we’d traded the $200 and were awash in yuan. The transaction had been simple enough. In the midst of a negotiation Jamie had said something in Mandarin and the three of us snuck into a back room surrounded by bales and bales of silk and some money exchanged hands and we were soon right back on the street again, carrying on the negotiations as if nothing had happened.
The truth is, I’ve never known a place where free-enterprise was more alive and well than on Beijing’s Silk Road, and if this was a glimpse into the real soul of the Chinese people, as I suspected it was, then communism in China was collapsing almost as I watched.
Finally it had become so dark that one silk couldn’t be distinguished from another, and more or less by common agreement, all the merchants began shutting down their boutiques and packing up their wares. Soon we were back on our bikes, with the day pack now overflowing with shimmery fabrics, and ready to head back to the hotel.
But there was a problem.
“I really have no idea how to get home,” confessed Jamie. “I’m terrible with maps.”
“But this is your neighborhood. Don’t you work around here?”
“Yes, but I always just hop in a cab to get home. I’ve never tried to do it by bicycle. And I certainly have never tried to do it by bicycle at night.”
Night had, in fact, arrived and the sun’s warmth had long since vanished. We both had brought coats and quickly slipped them on. If we’d needed more clothing there was at least plenty of silk. And we did have a map, a good street map of Beijing, the one that had taught me all those unpronounceable Mandarin names. Amazingly, I also had with me a tiny first aid kit which I always keep at hand when I’m traveling, and equally amazing at the bottom of this tiny first aid kit was, I knew, a tiny flashlight powered by a single triple-A battery. It was sufficient.
“Here’s where we are now,” said Jamie, identifying our location on the map. “And here’s the hotel, over here. This is where we want to go.”
“Well then what’s the problem?” I asked. “Why don’t we just go there?” There was nothing particularly difficult about the combination of streets it would take to arrive at our destination. In fact it was quite simple. Beijing is like Manhattan in that all the streets are set on a sensible grid of right angles and square blocks.
“It’s just that I’m not good at following maps,” said Jamie. “If it makes sense to you, then you lead. Otherwise I’m sure I’d take the wrong turn.”
“No problem,” I said, pleased to be able to contribute something useful to our day’s activities. So far it had seemed as if Jamie had had to handle everything and one’s male pride starts to nag after a bit. Of course if Jamie couldn’t follow maps then the score was even. Maps are my specialty. Maps are my love. Maps are perhaps the thing I am best at in the world.
Thirty minutes later we were utterly, completely, hopelessly lost. Long gone were the serene oak-laden streets of Beijing’s diplomatic neighborhoods. Somehow I’d managed to transport us back in time to rut-filled dirt roads, mud brick dwellings, donkeys pulling carts, little wood fires burning all about as peasants cooked their evening meal over iron pots hanging from crude tripods, and stern-faced nomadic people looked at us as if we were visitors from the moon and wondered, I fancied, whether we might not be edible if parts of our flesh were allowed to simmer long enough in the little iron pots hanging over the fires.
“Wow, this is really neat!” said Jamie. “I didn’t know there were parts of Beijing that looked like this.”
“Do you think we’re still in Beijing?” I asked, all confidence in my map reading skills irretrievably crushed.
“Oh I think so, but thank goodness you can read maps. I’m really lost now.”
It was becoming difficult to ride our bikes in the road, since we were no longer on pavement and there was much loose gravel and potholes, and the number of donkeys and donkey-wagons was increasing and the cooking fires seemed to be more and more often found towards the center of the thoroughfare. Soon, I suspected, the road would disappear completely and we would be lost forever among the people and huts of this primitive culture. It seemed unlikely that these people even spoke Mandarin. No doubt it was some form of Chinese, but probably one with only distant roots in common with anything Jamie would understand. These people were the descendants of Genghis Khan and his Mongol tribes, savages who—when organized into an army in the 12th century—had become the fiercest battle force in the history of the world, conquering all of Asia and half of Europe before anyone quite knew what was happening. As I looked around me surreptitiously it seemed all too likely that they were ready to organize again.
A cross street appeared and I decided to turn left. I had no choice but to rely on my navigational instincts. Whatever I was seeing couldn’t change the fact that in truth I knew on the map where we were. If we turned left, and kept going five blocks, we should get to the broad multi-lane highway that passed by the Hong Kong—Macao center and which contained all the bicycle repair shops. I counted the blocks: one, two three… Sure enough, civilization was returning. Pavement appeared where before there had been only donkey dung. Lights—real electric lights—were now eclipsing the cooking fires. And yes, five blocks, and now I could see cars zooming past and quite a few bicycles as well. We were back in modern Beijing.
In another twenty minutes we were peddling up to the glittering lights of the Swissotel, a complete transformation in culture if ever there was one. Wearily we stowed the bikes, crossed the elegant lobby, rode the swift elevators up to the 12th floor, and collapsed in Jamie’s living room. Sometime later we mustered the energy to go out to dinner but this time we took a cab.
The morning after China’s independence day a light rain was falling, and the bicycle hoards visible from Jamie’s window had thinned a bit. We decided to visit the primary “must see” attraction in Beijing. The one the crowds had stopped us from seeing the day before: Forbidden City. I checked to see what my guidebook had to say.
Everything in Tiananmen Square focuses on one point: the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the renowned portrait of Chairman Mao. The Gate of Heavenly Peace opens the way into the huge Forbidden City, the largest complex of antique wooden buildings left in the world, and all in all a fascinating but daunting tourist challenge of 800 palaces, halls, shrines and pavilions and no fewer than 9,000 rooms. This vast museum, formerly the seat of power for the of the Ming and Qing dynasties, is far too big to cover in detail unless you have a week or so in which to do it. All you can achieve in one half day is to identify its main halls and relics and contemplates the ghosts of autocracy, pride, wrath, folly, intrigue, debauchery and murder moving restlessly about you.
Kind of like Times Square at night, in other words.
One tragic aspect of the Forbidden City is that while it’s big on imperial architecture it’s surprisingly light on imperial relics and treasures. For that the world can blame Chiang Kai Shek and his nationalists, who ransacked the palace of its most precious ceremonial artwork and shipped it with them to Taiwan, where a lot of it is now on display in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
This proved to be the case. The Imperial City looked like it had once housed a bureauracy gone berserk, as we wandered past, around, through, and inside the hundreds of palaces, meeting rooms, courtyards, halls, shrines, and pavillions. No doubt they had once been magnificent but now they looked merely drab, and desperate for a new coat of paint. Perhaps one shouldn’t see the Forbidden City on a rainy day, for the mists and low clouds served to accent the depressing nature of the sprawling museum. It looked decayed, like a beautiful actress who once enjoyed the envy of the world but who’d turned to drugs, slipped into prostitution, and now was simply old and wrinkled. There was no longer anything here to respect, let alone be awed by, unless one could conjure up an image of how great it must once have been—a feat beyond my ability. Even the name “Forbidden City” seemed a cruel joke; a sad echo of a glorious past, implying as it did that there was something here worth seeking admission to. With the temples, shrines, halls, and so forth all empty, “Forgotten City” seemed a more fitting name.
Jamie was obviously having the same thoughts. “It wouldn’t be like this if Chiang Kai Shek and his thieves hadn’t looted the place,” she said angrily, apparently taking the insult almost personally.
Once you’ve seen one empty, wooden room, you’ve seen them all, and after exiting the Forbidden City’s northern gate we decided to visit another of Beijing’s “must see” attractions: The Temple of Heaven.
“While the Ming and Qing emperors sat enthroned in the Forbidden City at the very center of the Chinese civilization, and that meant the entire universe to them, the firmament itself was represented by four temples beyond the palace walls, one to each of four points of the compass. To the north stood Ditan (Temple of the Earth), to the west Yuetan (Temple of the Moon), to the east Ritan (Temple of the Sun) and to the south, close to the canal on the edge of the inner city, the most architecturally inspiring and spiritually significant of all these sacred places, Tiantan (Temple of Heaven.) Here, on the central dais, the forces of heaven and earth came together in the most crucial of the ceremonies as the emperor, surrounded by the sacred tablets, prayed from what was regarded as the very center of mortal existence, and then presided over the sacrifice of a bull calf.”
The Temple of Heaven is the kind of thing that tour buses take tourists to, but it isn’t really very exciting. The architecture resembles a series of stacked donuts with a Buddhist shrine at the bottom. Perhaps the best thing about the place is that it’s surrounded by a beautiful park and gardens, and the temple itself occupies a pleasant knoll from which one can enjoy a view of the city. But again you can’t really see much in any view of Beijing, because there’s not much to see. It’s so flat and featureless. One cannot help contrasting a view of Beijing with a view of Paris or Venice or New York or San Francisco or Hong Kong or any of the world’s beautiful cities. A view of Beijing is no more exciting than a view of southern Los Angeles. But it’s not fair to say that Beijing is not a beautiful city. It’s just not beautiful from a distance. Hong Kong, by comparison, is quite grimy and uninspired close-up, but is breathtaking when one backs off a bit. To appreciate Beijing you need to be close enough to see the trees not the forest.
After a day of sightseeing in Beijing we went to the Beijing Duck Restaurant for dinner.
Now it seems reasonable that if the Chinese leaders want to screw everybody up by changing all the names of the cities in China, that’s their right. But c’mon! Beijing Duck? No one says “Beijing Duck.” That sounds ridiculous. It’s “Peking Duck!” And Peking Duck is a famous delicacy. If you’re in Peking, you have to have Peking Duck. And if you’re in Beijing, you still have to have Peking Duck. But alas, those days are gone. Even the guidebook called it Beijing Duck and—I was surprised to see—even talked about this restaurant.
“Most visitors, the moment they arrive in Beijing, want to stuff themselves with one thing: Beijing duck. It’s a crispy greasy, fatty, succulent blend of duck skin and flesh with salty plum sauce, fresh scallions, and wafer-thin pancakes. The most popular Beijing Duck spot is the Beijing Duck Restaurant which is in a sidestreet off the Wangfujing Dajie. But you have to get there very early and be quick on your feet to get a table, for the Beijingese eat there, and as you stand and peruse the packed tables, and crowds waiting for the lucky diners to finish and give up their seats, you’ll hear hungry whimpers coming from somewhere and realize it is you.”
Of course I was a little concerned that a restaurant would be named after one item on the menu, and—even worse—the city map of Beijing would show the restaurant. For example if there were a restaurant in Chicago called Hamburger Restaurant and it was so large it appeared on the map, you could assume that they probably served decent hamburgers at the place, but you’d have to wonder how intimate and charming the atmosphere could be.
It was much as I feared. The duck was excellent. They serve it sliced on a platter, with a small tureen of gravy and a collection of little tortillas. (The guidebook had called them pancakes but I know a Mexican tortilla when I see one.) Unfortunately the restaurant itself was run by the same people who managed the Friendship Stores. Here was the same hallmark feel of a communist enterprise. The building was just a building. The individual rooms (and there were quite a few, spread over two floors) were drab, that’s the best that can be said of them. It wasn’t a question of being poorly decorated; it was not decorated at all. And the waiters and waitresses—I’ll be damned if I saw any of them smile the whole time we were there. Sure enough, I discovered later, the Beijing Duck Restaurant was a state-run enterprise. One could have laid money on it. One has to ask: Didn’t Marx get it? Didn’t he understand the obvious truth that people won’t do their best if they have no motivation to do their best? If Marx had taken a short sabbatical from his economics work and bothered to get one or two psychology courses under his belt he probably would have ripped up his earlier writings and burned the pieces to make sure none saw how close he’d come to making an ass of himself. And the world might have been saved 75 years of misery. But alas, few economists read psychology books (which explains why communism lasted so long) and few psychologists read economics books (which probably explains something as well, though it’s hard to figure out quite what…)
Over dinner, Jamie explained to me a bit about the law firm she worked for, and what they did. Apparently there is an institution in present day China called the Joint Venture. This term is not used quite as it is in the west, meaning any combined project of two companies. In China, Joint Venture means a combined project of a Chinese company and a foreign company. Not willing to open itself up unreservedly to being raped by evil foreigners, yet wanting their money nonetheless, the Chinese communists have decreed that foreign companies can only do business in China by entering into a joint venture with a Chinese company. In short, you have to have a Chinese partner. Jamie’s law firm specialized in helping put these joint ventures together. (There was a snag here, in that it’s illegal for any foreign company to practice law in China. So Jamie’s law firm didn’t practice law. They “consulted.” That seemed to solve the problem.)
Pursuing this twisted logic, China had also decreed that any foreigner staying in Beijing must stay in a hotel, and not just any hotel, but a joint venture hotel. This obviously swelled the demand for joint-venture hotel space since the entire expate community of Beijing was having to compete with normal tourist traffic. Not surprisingly, the hotel construction business had been booming, with ever larger and more luxurious hotels being created (which explained seeming paradoxes, such as the existence of the 5-star Swissotel right in the middle of mud-brick slums.) But then came the Tiananmen square massacre and the tourist traffic stopped cold. And that’s why Jamie was now able to rent a two-room suite in a luxury hotel for $600 per month (while in Hong Kong, similar lodging would run about $6,000.)
But these little bureaucratic quirks, and the anachronistic outposts of communism still remaining like the Friendship Stores and the Beijing Duck restaurant, were vanishing in China’s astonishingly rapid conversion to a free-market economy. One cannot help but compare China’s progress to Russia’s, in this regard. The Soviet Union has nominally embraced capitalism completely, and has even outlawed the communist party. While China still professes an official belief in Communism, and permits a bit of free enterprise on the side only reluctantly and cautiously.
Nonetheless, China appears to be succeeding in its shift to a free market, while Russia is failing utterly. The explanation lies perhaps in that Russia has no cultural heritage of capitalism, having gone from a feudal society directly to a communist one. China, on the other hand, is a nation of entrepreneurs, and this self-reliant, productive energy needs very little encouraging to come pouring out. In Russia, there is still a crime on the books called “profiteering,” which essentially means buying something for less than you sold it for. The average Russian is bred to detest “profiteers,” and largely still does, not quite understanding how economies and markets function.
The Chinese people have no such confusion. And even officially there’s a glimmer of hope. The English-language newspaper China Daily had carried an article that morning quoting Mr. Cao Tiandian, the deputy director of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, referring to the privately owned “ markets” blossoming around Beijing, the silk market being an example.
“At the free markets, consumers have a wide choice of goods from many competing traders. The price of goods floats freely and consumers can haggle with sellers. And free markets are usually quick at producing new products. The booming free markets have prompted state-run establishments to upgrade their services to attract buyers.”
Hmmm. Maybe the Chinese communists are onto something.
But regardless of what the future may hold for China, there is still much to see of the nation’s past. We finished our Beijing Duck and went to bed early that night, preparing for the next day’s activity: a visit to the 3,000 year old Great Wall of China.
Tiananman Square, Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, even Beijing Duck—these were all appetizers. The main course, for any tourist in China, has got to be the Great Wall.
My guidebook had this to say:
The greatest man-made barrier in the world, the only concrete sign of human existence that can be seen from outer space, the word’s longest cemetery, the abiding symbol of membership of the Chinese civilization, the scene of incredible bloodshed, the wall that ultimately faced the wrong way…All this, and more, you can stand and reflect upon atop the sweeping, crowded Great Wall at Badaling. It’s the ultimate and, in many respects, the final destination of the China pilgrimage. See the Great Wall, and die.”
I read these words as Jamie and I sat in the back of our cab for the two hour ride from our hotel to the Great Wall. I was puzzled at how the guidebook, various tourist brochures, and even Jamie herself seemed to think of the wall as a single, non-dimensional point, thereby stripping it—it seemed to me—of its essential nature: a 6,000 kilometer-long snake. In fact the tourist brochures had ceased referring to it as the Great Wall, at all. It was always “The Great Wall at Badaling.”
Badaling is a small village northwest of Beijing and, as one might guess, the Great Wall does pass through it. The Chinese authorities have spent considerable money here to make the wall presentable to tourists. Even the communists understand the value of a hard-currency tourist attraction. But I was somewhat concerned by this single-minded focus on Badaling as the only place one could go to see The Great Wall. I mean, couldn’t a person go somewhere else to see it? IF someone from Kansas, say, were visiting California for the first time and had never seen an ocean, wouldn’t they be puzzled by encountering a rigid protocol to the effect that the only place you can see the coastline is at Santa Monica? Not that Santa Monica isn’t a good place from which to see the coastline, but it isn’t the only place. That’s the beauty of the coast. It goes for thousands of miles. If a coast only existed for a few hundred yards it wouldn’t be worth getting excited about. And if a Great Wall is a non-dimensional point, it’s not much of a wall.
I tried to share these thoughts with Jamie but she didn’t understand my frustration.
“So in all of China, you can only see the Great Wall at one spot?”
“No, three spots. There’s another spot Northeast of Beijing where they’re providing access as well, and then a third point where the wall finally meets the sea.”
“Providing access? I don’t get it. Isn’t this wall 6,000 kilometers long? That’s twice the distance from Los Angeles to New York!”
“Oh yes, it’s very long! That’s why it’s such a great wall!”
“But why can’t you see it somewhere else?”
“Well how would you get there?”
“Aren’t there roads in China?”
“Of course there are roads!”
“Well there you are. At dozens of places there must be roads that cross the Great Wall! And you could go to those intersections, or near them, and really see the Great Wall as it is, not as it’s mocked up to be for a tourist attraction.”
“No, there aren’t any roads that cross the Great Wall. Except at Badaling of course. What makes you think there are roads?
“Look, it’s simple geometry. You have a big country here, China. China has roads all over it—all countries do. They go every which way. Now if you take a line and draw it more or less straight across this country, it’s going to have to intersect some roads. That’s what the Great Wall does: it goes across this part of China. So there must be hundreds, or at least dozens, of places where roads cross, or go up to, or intersect with, the Great Wall.”
“No, you’re wrong. There aren’t any roads that do that. Why would there be? How could a road cross the Great Wall? It’s very thick, you know.”
“But the Great Wall was built a thousand years ago! It would be a terrible nuisance to everyone if you couldn’t get across it. I just don’t believe it. Everyone’s been saying how it’s in such disrepair, except at Badaling. You could probably knock part of it down with a medium-sized bulldozer and get a road through to the other side. Or just tunnel under it for that matter. Otherwise the people on one side would go crazy wondering what’s on the other side, and vice versa! And talk about the grass being greener! Can you imagine what it would be like to grow up and spend your whole life on one side of an uncrossable wall? You would know, you would just know positively, that on the other side of that wall life was better. Probably a whole lot better. And that thought would start eating away at you until pretty soon you couldn’t stand it anymore and you’d go out and find that bulldozer and knock a hole in the wall and find out what was on the other side. That’s why I know there are lots of roads that go through the Great Wall! It’s just human nature.”
While I was making my case in this manner Jamie was extracting a road map of China from her daypack, and we spread this out now across our laps. I studied it intently for some moments, seeking to find a road that crossed the Great Wall.
“Aha! See? Here’s one right here. There’s one road that crosses at Badaling, and then here’s another one down here.”
“Yes,” said Jamie. “Unfortunately that second road is a thousand miles away from where we are now.”
A thousand miles? On the map it was just a short distance. I unfolded the map completely to get a sense of scale. In the upper right corner was the Siberian city of Vladivostok. In the lower left was Pakistan. This typical “highway map” stretched a full third of the way around the planet! As did China. It was a reminder of how vast the country really was.
“OK,” I said. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe there aren’t that many roads that cross the Great Wall. I suggest we visit the Great Wall at Badaling.”
We were approaching Badaling now. The cab ride was my first chance, at least in daylight, to see something of the countryside outside Beijing. As the city gave way to a rural environment, the bicycles gave way to mule carts. These mule carts all had large rubber tires, like a modern truck might have, but other than that they looked as if they’d passed unchanged through four thousand years of human civilization. Riding the mule carts was the same panoply of combinations seen on the bicycles in Tiananman square: man and wife; man, wife, and child; man, wife, and grandmother; mother, child, grandmother, and grandmother’s sister; etc. While the mule-cart was the dominant means of transportation, the three wheeled bicycle-cart was also much in evidence. And most bizarre of all was a strange vehicle that seemed to owe its parentage to a violent cataclysm in which a pickup truck, small tractor, and large lawnmower had somehow crashed and stuck together. Think of it as a riding lawnmower from hell, if you will, with the tail-end of a pickup truck attached, and you will have a reasonable picture of this thing. The first time I saw one I could not help laughing, for it was obvious that an insane mechanical tinkerer had hit the opium a little too hard one night and had attacked a junk yard with a chain saw and an arc welder, and had produced this strange beast. But then I saw another, and another after that.
The countryside itself was a bit hard to describe. At first it was flat, but not featureless. We crossed pleasant little streams, the biggest of which might have aspired to river-hood during the Spring. The vegetation was mostly deciduous forests alternating with cultivated fields, but the trees themselves were not familiar to me. This was reminiscent of traveling through Tasmania where the vegetation seems just “different.” You can’t put your finger on it exactly. I was also surprised to see very little sign of poverty. For that matter there was very little sign of people, and this seemed odd. Wasn’t China the most populated country on earth? And we were only thirty minutes from the heart of its capital city. It would take more than thirty minutes of traveling outside the heart of New York, for example, to get this far away from heavily populated areas.
It occurred to me that the Beijing government may have deliberately kept this highway—no doubt one of the most heavily traveled tourist routes in the country—relatively free of any blemishes that might cast a poor light on the success of communism. The whole place just seemed too—parklike. On the other hand maybe that was just my capitalist skepticism.
Quite abruptly the mountains began, and they were very steep and rugged mountains, if not especially high. The forests of the flatlands gave way quickly to short, bush-like vegetation that covered these mountains quite uniformly, and gave the impression of softness when seen from a distance. Our road began climbing up a winding valley, beside a babbling brook and I knew we were not far from the Great Wall.
Just then we rounded a corner and there it was. Across the valley what appeared to be a near-vertical line of white descended from one of the peaks, jagged unevenly in a few places, and then disappeared from sight. I couldn’t believe it. One thinks of a wall as going sideways. But the Great Wall of China goes up and down! Of course it had to do so. These mountains were so steep and jagged the wall could hardly help but go straight up in some places, and down in others. Soon we were seeing glimpses of it almost continuously, here, there, all around. Despite the limitations of our vantage point at the bottom of a meandering valley, I couldn’t help but wonder why the builders of the wall hadn’t tried to do more in the way of following the crests of the mountains. The route seemed almost random at times, as if a giant had tossed a 4,000 mile long extension cord into the air and—as extension cords are prone to do—it had tangled itself into a million knots just before falling back to earth. The route of the wall could hardly have been more confused and illogical even if they’d tried.
The author of my guidebook had noticed this as well.
The Great Wall is everything you can imagine it to be — monolithic, magnificent, sweeping and snaking up and over steep hills as though a blind man’s blundering had directed its path. In fact, when the great Qinshihuangdi built the ancient first sections of it, the surveying technique followed by his engineers was to send ponies dragging saddles behind them over the hills and peg out the path they choose.
Yes, well, that made sense. I could easily imagine how a pony, frightened half out of its wits by having a saddle dragging on a rope behind it and faced with the impossible task of trying to cross these jagged mountains, might well wander about in panic seeking some alternative to actually going where he was supposed to go. It amazes me only that third-century BC engineers would cling to the belief that a crazed pony dragging a saddle through low bushes while trying to cross a mountain could nonetheless tap some inner reserve of brilliance and deduce the quickest way to the top. I mean, of course you would think this at first, but after several hundred kilometers or so the foolishness of the plan would become apparent. Perhaps the conversation had gone like this:
“Well, Chen, I don’t know. That pony-dragging-a-saddle plan looked mighty good when you first thought it up two decades ago. But here we are nearing 250 BC, we’ve laid 900 kilometers of Great Wall, we’ve gone through 12 million slave laborers, 15 million ponies, and a heck of a lot of good saddles, and yet as the crow flies we’re only 200 yards from where we started. If this Great Wall is ever going to be seen from outer space, we’ve got to pick up the pace a little, don’t you think? I’m starting to wonder if a pony dragging a saddle really makes for as great an engineer as we’ve been thinking he does. It could be that a pony dragging a saddle is actually one of the most clueless creatures on the planet!”
“You know, Yang, you may have a point. I’ve been giving this matter a lot of thought, and these random wanderings just don’t make any sense to me either. There’s got to be a better way, and I think I’ve figured one out.”
“Confucius be praised! I’m ready to try anything. What’s the new plan?”
“Well, I was thinking of maybe two saddles tied to a pony…”
As confused as the early engineers may have been, the present owners of the great wall are very clear-headed in understanding what a tourist bonanza they’ve inherited. Badaling’s entire economy is based on the fact that it sits on one of the few places in China where a road actually intersects the Great Wall. In fact, the road goes through it. As I’d suspected, someone had finally gotten around to inserting a tunnel, but it might have been better if they’d made it a two-lane tunnel. The problem was that Jamie and I were not the only ones who’d decided to visit the Great Wall of China on China’s independence day weekend. I was astonished, and somewhat annoyed, to discover that every one of the bicyclists who’d been at Tiananman Square yesterday had decided to come to the Great Wall at Badaling today (fortunately without their bicycles). There could be no other way to account for it, for fully half of China’s population had been at Tiananman, and at least that number, possibly more, were now here at Badaling. I thought I even recognized some of the faces.
It’s worth mentioning that almost all the faces were Chinese. Among the 500 million people at Badaling, no more than half a dozen were Caucasian, and all six of these were speaking German. It’s funny. I’d assumed that at a famous tourist attraction like the Great Wall all the tourists would be foreigners. Why would native Chinese people come here? They’d already seen it, hadn’t they? Perhaps not, since there are so few roads that intersect the Great Wall. Or perhaps the Chinese are drawn like a magnet to their Great Wall on independence day like American’s are drawn to Washington DC on the 4th of July. Of course the Great Wall didn’t have much to do with China’s present “independence.” (Independence from what, by the way?) A large placard in Badaling explained things in English:
The Great Wall: one of the seven wonders in the world is the most magnificent architecture and the greatest military defense system in ancient China. Construction of the wall first began during the eastern zhou dynasty (770-221 BC). Formerly walls were built along the borders at strategic points by various rival kingdoms to protect their territories. in the third century BC, after QinShiHuang the first emperor unified china he linked up the various sections of the walls and had them extended into “wan li chang cheng” which means “ten thousand li long wall, popularly known as the Great Wall, in order to meet the needs of military defense. Reinforcement and renovations of the Great Wall were carried out during many dynasties but the wall was damaged to some extent because of the historical reasons.
[Yes, those historical reasons will get you every time, won’t they?]
The wall that still stands today is mostly the Ming wall. The Ming wall rising up from Yalujiang river in the east and falling in Jiayuguam pass in the west twists and turns for almost 6,000 kilometers. The wall is more than 7 meters high and 5 meters wide on the top…
All along the base of the wall, and all along Badaling’s one road, were souvenir stands selling postcards, various knickknacks, and of course T-Shirts. Many of these T-shirts had captions in English, and almost all the captions read “I climbed the Great Wall of China!”
“I don’t get it,” I said to Jamie. “What do they mean ‘climbed’ the Great Wall?” What’s the big deal? Don’t you just walk up the stone steps until you’re on top?”
“Ha ha!” said Jamie. “Look!”
She pointed up from the valley where the Great Wall was snaking skywards towards the top of the nearest ridge, a full thousand feet above our present position. Actually it snaked upwards in two directions from the bottom of the valley to the top of the respective ridges on either side of the valley. The slope was considerable. At many places it looked steeper than a 4-by-4 Jeep could handle. And sure enough, even from our present position I could see tiny black dots that seemed to be moving up and down. These black dots were people, of course, and they completely covered the walkway on top of the wall, which was—you’ll recall—a full fifteen feet wide.
So that explained the T-Shirts. The name of the game at Badaling, apparently, was to get on top of the wall, and then follow (climb) it as it ascended out of the valley. This looked like a tough job in itself. But having to compete with 500 million Chinese and six Germans wasn’t going to make it any easier.
“So what do you think?” asked Jamie. “Are you going to climb the wall?”
“Are you crazy! Of course we’re going to climb it!”
“You don’t want to climb the Great Wall of China?”
“I did it once. It almost killed me.”
I must have looked hurt, for Jamie added: “Well, let’s start climbing, but I won’t go all the way. I’ll stop when I get tired.”
That sounded like a fair compromise. I tossed our bottle of water into my daypack, along with a windbreaker, and we started off. These were not the worst crowds I’d ever experienced. The worst crowds were at Mt. St. Michelle in France. But the Great Wall at Badaling took an easy second place. The wall here was in very good condition. In fact it looked new. In fact, it was new. It had been restored from a crumbling ruin to it’s original size, shape, and appearance and the stonework and general masonry was of excellent quality. On either side of the walkway were brick walls about five feet high with deep cutaways every ten feet or so, giving the top of the wall the look of a European castle’s ramparts. The walkway itself was plain masonry, but whenever the pitch became too pronounced the builders substituted walkway-wide stone steps. The renovators of the Wall had added some modern touches like metal banisters and drinking fountains. Then they’d proceeded with their restoration by”decorating” the Wall. There were beautiful silken banners and flags all along its length. At the occasional watchtowers (minor castles in themselves) refurbished (or recreated) cannon had been placed, and manning the cannon were Mongol guardsman, decked out in silken warrior uniforms from the 12th century. From time to time these Mongols would fire off one of the cannon, although I suspected they were shooting blanks. All in all it made for quite a festive atmosphere, and I had to hand it to the communists for doing a good job with the Great Wall. You wouldn’t find anything this slick in Russia certainly.
I was still puzzled by one thing. How high did you have to go to legitimately qualify for one of the T-shirts? A quarter mile beyond our present position was something that appeared to be the “top.” At least it was the top in the sense that afterwards the wall began a mild downwards slope. But after a few hundred yards it canted upwards again, reached another high point, then went down again, and so forth. I wanted to climb the Great Wall but I didn’t want to traverse it’s entire length. Jamie was breathing very heavily, and seemed near exhaustion. We rested for awhile and continued, but finally she called a halt.
“You go on,” she said. “I’ll stop here. And take as long as you want,” she added considerately. “It’s a wonderful view and I can use a long rest.”
It was a wonderful view. In addition to being an excellent site from which to see the Great Wall itself as it meandered over and across the mountains, we could look northwards and see a great distance: possibly as much as a hundred miles. These mountains dissipated quickly in that direction, and were replaced by a broad plain that stretched on not quite forever. Just barely visible on the other side was another mountain range rising up precipitously. And beyond that, I knew, was the province of Inner Mongolia and the beginning of the Gobi desert. I could well imagine the barbarous tribes of Manchuria galloping down into China from out of the North, not just spreading their terror and destruction during one particularly violent and lawless century, but over the course of three thousand years. Yes, of course it would make sense to finally build a wall to stop them. If you had the manpower, that was the obvious thing to do. And if there’s one thing China had it was manpower.
China’s modern-day manpower had thinned a bit, as the torturous climb had taken its toll. Jamie wasn’t the first to have given up the attempt. But the Wall was still crowded. I left Jamie the water bottle, made sure she was safely off to the side of the walkway, and then continued. Perhaps it was because my blood was still accustomed to Colorado altitudes, or perhaps it was because every day in Asia I’d been doing a lot of walking, but I was a long way from becoming winded. I increased my speed to a fast walk and soon I’d reached the first obvious “summit.” Apparently this was good enough, for the T-shirt vendors were selling T-shirts like crazy, all of them saying “I climbed the Great Wall of China.” But more than that, here in the guard tower at the summit you could also buy a certificate which attested to the fact that you had climbed the Great Wall. A considerable line had formed at the table where these $5 certificates were being sold. The five dollars included the signature of the mayor of Badaling, who was not here in person but who had, previously, signed a whole heapload of certificates. China was looking less and less like a communist country the more of her I saw.
But I was not interested in any of this, for the Great Wall did not stop here at the first summit. It kept going and so did I. At the next summit the few tourists who had made it this far seemed to have decided that nothing would be served by going farther. Half a dozen were resting in the guardhouse, and the others were walking back.
But why? The Great Wall did not stop here either. I kept going.
Soon I was completely alone on the ramparts of the Great Wall of China. After crossing another small summit, no one else was visible. I had left 500 million Chinese and six Germans behind. And I kept climbing. A few hundred yards ahead was another guardhouse, and this one appeared likely to command an impressive view of the subsequent valley. When I got there I found it deserted. More surprising than that, I found that here, at last, the walkway ended. It stopped abruptly, coming to rest against a solid five-foot high brick barrier.
And beyond that barrier was what I’d come all this way to see.
There it was. The real thing. The Great Wall of China. Not the recreated tourist version. Not the one where they sold T-shirts and certificates. Not the one with the fake Mongol guardsmen and the imitation cannon. And not the one with 500 million tourists swarming about it.
This was the Great Wall of antiquity. Yes it was a ruin. But it was an honest ruin. The stone I was seeing was the stone of two thousand years ago. It continued from the foot of the watchtower I was standing on, and snaked up and over ridge after ridge, with all the randomness that only a pony pulling a saddle could produce. Ridge after ridge. Valley after valley. Thirty-five feet high in its original form. Fifteen feet wide. Randomly wandering over the rugged mountains of northern China. Six thousand kilometers. Twice the distance from New York to San Francisco! And built entirely of human labor. And built more than half a millennia before the birth of Christ. And to this day, the only man made structure visible from space.
It was not merely one of the seven wonders of the world. As far as I was concerned, it was the wonder.
I was not annoyed that the government had turned one several mile section into a tourist Mecca, restored it, and garrisoned it with lookalike warriors and T-shirt salesmen. Damn it, this place deserved to be a tourist Mecca. It deserved to have 500 million Chinese swarming over it on independence day. It was worthy of all that.
But I was glad, nonetheless, to be able to glimpse something of the original. To see it alone, quietly, and with enough time to think about it. That’s all a visitor can ever really hope for. And though it isn’t enough, it is something.
In Hong Kong I’d rushed around amongst the islands and the sampans and the junks, trying to grasp the essence of the city. And in Japan I’d traveled alone on the trains and subways, through the temples and the parks and the sushi bars, trying to do the same thing. Now here I was in China. But the Great Wall spoke to more than just the soul of China. There was something about it, the unbelievable accomplishment of its creation, the historic irony of its failure (the invading army just bribed the gatekeeper and passed right through), and yet the ultimate triumph of the civilization it had been designed to protect— there was something here that seemed to touch on the entire human experience.
But I couldn’t quite place what it was.
More to the point, I began to worry that Jamie was becoming restless. With a last look at the three thousand year old creation I turned around and walked swiftly down the modern, smooth steps — back to where one, at least, of the 500 million Chinese was waiting for me.
“That’s a nice certificate,” said Jamie, teasingly. “And the mayor of Badaling even signed it. Pretty impressive!”
Tacky or not, I protected it carefully by laying it between my two new T-shirts. We were riding in the rear seat of the taxi and were more than half way back to Peking. We were hungry, as only people can be who have been up since early morning and have ascended the Great Wall. Jamie exchanged a few words with the cab driver and after several more miles he pulled off the road.
There was a single-story, non-descript building here, just off the main highway. One might have called it ugly but it was too drab to be ugly. True ugliness requires a failed attempt to achieve beauty, and no such attempt had been made here, or anywhere nearby. This was still the countryside of China. We were too far from Beijing, yet, for the neighborhood to be considered the outskirts of a city.
“This restaurant was recommended by the cab driver,” explained Jamie. “I don’t know, I’ve never eaten here. It may not be very good.”
Of course when a person is hungry enough there is no such thing as a bad restaurant. But once inside I began to have doubts. It was a large room, perhaps half the size of a high school gymnasium, with a bare concrete floor, and a couple of dozen large, round tables, each capable of seating up to ten people. The seating itself consisted of a variety of old, rusty, folding chairs, some of which had been placed near the tables but most were stacked haphazardly against a far wall. If you needed a chair, you pried it loose from the collected grime and sat on it. Ceiling fans rotated slowly, as if they’d wearied of their job of keeping the flies at bay but were determined to show they still knew which direction to turn.
A few of the tables had people sitting at them. They were Chinese people, of course. One expects that in China. And they were what Democrats in Washington would call ‘working class’ people. One could assume that no member of the idle rich had ever passed these doors. Several of these people looked at us briefly. No doubt we were a curious pair: a Chinese girl dressed in designer clothing and wearing an expensive coat, and an American in jeans. But they turned away soon enough and no doubt classified us among the phenomenon they knew nothing about, understood not at all, and cared for even less. Getting their hogs to market, piling cabbages on bicycle carts, and maybe one day saving up enough money to purchase a mule— these were the concerns that their tired faces seemed to reflect.
“What do you think?” asked Jamie, hesitantly.
“Looks like a good place to me,” I replied, or rather my stomach replied. “Let’s sit over here.”
I steered us towards a table in the far corner of the room, and scrounged up a couple of folding chairs to go with it. It was not too long before a young waitress arrived, and brought us menus and a pitcher of tea. I could not help but notice her. She was young and slender and not unattractive, but her clothes were drab and she wore a scarf around her head. There was an air of weariness about her which I suspected masked a quiet intelligence that would have been only a burden amidst her surroundings. Though we were both friendly to her she smiled only hesitantly. This girl had spent years discovering there was little to smile about, and she was not one to change her mind quickly. She belonged in Peking, I suspected. She belonged at a nice restaurant in a good part of Peking, with tourists and embassy staff all about. She would make friends and connections and would probably not remain a waitress for long. But she was not in Peking. And probably she never would be. So why should I expect her to smile?
The menus were in kanji. I took one look and tossed mine resignedly over to Jamie.
“Your call,” I said. “I can only promise that whatever you order I will find delicious.”
Jamie spoke intensely for a few moments with the waitress who then went off to place our order.
When one orders in a Chinese restaurant in America they are likely to find they have ordered too much food. Each dish seems designed to be split at least five ways. (One might contrast this with Japan, where each dish seems to already have been split five ways, and the other four have been served elsewhere…) But Chinese restaurants are much the same around the world, and even more so in China. It was quite apparent when the food arrived that we’d ordered too much. There were mounds and mounds of food. And soups and rice. And of course tea. Chinese food tends to be on the greasy side, and this restaurant was not trying to buck that trend. We had consumed no more than a third of what had been set before us when Jamie announced she could eat no more. And I had only been waiting chivalrously for her to quit before announcing the same thing.
We did not feel guilty at leaving so much food. Part way through the meal a beggar had come through the door. He was an old man, and was looked upon with some fondness by the staff and the other customers. No one seemed to mind as he went about amongst the tables, scooping up the uneaten portions of the meals into a paper bag, nodding deferentially to all.
Our bill came to only a few dollars, despite the quantity provided, and my heart was warmed as I saw the old beggar scurry eagerly over to our table after we’d left . No doubt our uneaten food would feed him for a month. I recalled all those times growing up when an adult would say: “Finish your food! Think of all the starving people in Asia!” Well here was one of them and he was finishing my food for me. In some perverse way it seemed a vindication of all those earlier times.
We had left for the Great Wall so early that there was still time for some sightseeing around Beijing. Returning as we were from the northwest, it made sense to stop at the Summer Palace, a Qing dynasty summer retreat about seven miles northwest of the city center. My guidebook, which I’d already become disgusted with for it’s breathtakingly shallow descriptions of everything, condescended to describe the summer palace in these few words:
The summer palace was built in the early years of the Manchu reign but has since become more popularly associated with its most famous, or infamous, resident, the empress dowager. She put a great deal of money into the place, most of it as already mentioned grabbed from funds established to modernize the antique Qing navy — and had a great deal of trouble keeping it in one piece. It was torn apart by an Anglo French force in 1880, damaged again by foreign troops in the Boxer rebellion in 1900, and, each time, the Dragon Lady put it all back together again. Nowadays it’s a public recreational spot, perhaps the most popular around Beijing, reclining along the shore of Lake Kunming and featuring splendid gardens, pavilions, mansions, temples, and bridges, and the remarkable Long Corridor, a 7,000 meter covered gallery full of frescoes with mythical themes. And in the lake itself there’s the ultimate in imperial kitsch, the empress’s white marble paddle-steamboat. In wintertime the lake is the place to go for one of Beijing’s favorite seasonal recreations: ice skating.
We were let out of the cab just north of the Summer Palace. As we approached from this direction we came across something quite unique, and not even mentioned in the guidebook: a totally recreated Ming-dynasty village, complete with canals, ships, costumes, and so forth. Disney could not have done a better job. This was truly a class act and we spent an hour enjoying the atmosphere. Apparently this village was quite new, as Jamie had never heard of it. Beyond the village we had to climb over a hill and on this hill was a Tibetan-style Buddhist temple. Tibetan-style Buddhist temples are much like Zen Buddhist temples in that they are very austere, although Zen temples are austere-elegant while Tibetan temples are austere-shabby.
We passed over this Tibetan temple as quickly as possible, and a meandering path (meandering by “normal” path standards, not by Great Wall standards) brought us at last down to the shores of Lake Kunming and the Long Corridor itself, a primary feature of the summer palace.
Here again I was reminded of how park-like and relaxed Beijing really is, and how unlike Hong Kong it is. When Jamie had first said she preferred living in Beijing, I’d thought she was crazy. Now, I had to admit, if given the choice I would prefer to live in Beijing too. It was somehow more civilized, more “old world” than Hong Kong. Certainly one would go to Hong Kong to earn their fortune. Hong Kong is the capitalist center of the world. But having earned it one would more likely go to Beijing to enjoy it. To underline this concept I looked out over Lake Kunming, which possessed, I guessed, a 25 mile long shoreline. There were a few sailboats about, but the more common craft by far were paddleboats. And in these paddleboats were young couples in love. (Obviously they were in love, for how could one tolerate a paddleboat if one were not in love with the person sharing it?) Other couples strolled hand in hand along the shore, and through the Long Corridor. This whole placed seemed to exude romance, no less than does a stroll along the left bank of the Seine in Paris.
How different this Beijing was from the filtered version one gets in the Western media: the cold, communist place where tanks are used to run down protesters. There was nothing cold about this Beijing, nothing hard and cruel. This Beijing was like a soft dream.
As if to underscore this thought we came at last to the marble paddle-wheel steamer commissioned by the empress dowager. Imperial kitsch indeed! It was a complete steamship carved out of marble, resting on the shore of the lake, and seemingly moored quite properly against a dock. But no one in the park that day paid it much attention, except perhaps the pigeons.
Further on we left the palace grounds proper, and were back amongst the streets of the city. Jamie deferred to me again for help in navigating us back to our taxi. Perhaps she did this deliberately, knowing how my male pride was suffering at having to rely on her for every thing else: transportation, meals, bike rentals, and such. We had come within a quarter mile, I judged, of where the taxi would be waiting for us when we came across something that stopped me in my tracks.
Yes, I have ridden camels before in North Africa. But this was not a North African camel, properly called a “dromedary.” This was an Asian camel: the real thing. This was the twin-humped variety, the kind Marco Polo had made famous as he crossed the steppes of central Asia (or perhaps it was the camel which had made Marco Polo famous.) In either case my camel lust, dormant for nigh on six years—the point at which I had left North Africa—surged through my veins and blacked out all conscious thought.
My God! A two humper! Right here in front of me.
I pulled Jamie aside.
“Jamie, please, talk to them. I must ride this camel. Whatever it takes. Whatever it costs.”
“Jacques, calm down. If you want to ride the camel it’s not a problem. You can ride the camel!”
She spoke briefly with the camel owners and quickly arranged the matter. Soon I was riding through the streets of Beijing on my very own Asian camel! Yes, it does sound Utopian. But it happened. I swear it did. Yet soon, all too soon, we arrived back at the taxi.
“Jacques, it’s time to get off the camel,” explained Jamie patiently. I knew she spoke the truth. All things must end. The camel at the urging of its masters kneeled down and I hopped off as smoothly as one can hop off a two hump camel.
“I think,” said Jamie seeing my expression, “ that you had a good time.”
I must have had a good time, and in fact been in something of a delirium, for we slept until almost noon the next day.
Now that we’d seen Forbidden City, Tiananman Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and Great Wall, the question arose of what we should do on our final day. (Jamie had to report to work the next.) We had not exhausted all that could be seen around Beijing. There remained attractions like the China Art Gallery, the Beijing Zoo, the Five Pagoda Temple, and the Natural History Museum, not to mention such politically-correct sites as The Great Hall of the People, Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and Museum of the Chinese Revolution. But neither of us were much inclined to wander through museums and galleries. It was a beautiful day, what little there was left of it. And the truth was we’d had so much fun at the Great Wall of China we wanted to see more.
And this is where it gets interesting. Jamie had been hearing rumors to the effect that another section of the Great Wall had recently opened up. In addition to the Great Wall at Badaling there was now the Great Wall at Kandahar. It was about the same distance away as Badaling but to the northeast rather than the northwest. Jamie had never been to the Kandahar wall, nor did she know anyone who had, and was curious to see it. Among her duties at the law firm she occasionally had to play tour guide to visiting foreign clients and thus was always on the lookout for new places to take them. So her interest was professional as well as personal.
We negotiated with one of the taxis in front of the hotel, and because the driver had already done well during the morning rush hour and doubted there would be much business for the rest of the day, he gave us a price approximately half what we’d paid to get to Badaling.
This constant use of taxis was a strange phenomenon. Usually when overseas I consider it an obligation to use mass transit. I do this to save money, obviously. But also as a challenge. Any fool can take a taxi. Being able to negotiate strange cities on the buses and subways is a chance to really see the city and interact with the people. But none of this applied when traveling with Jamie. There was no challenge in taking mass transit because Jamie could speak Chinese and knew her way around. And Jamie simply preferred cabs. She’d grown accustomed to a lifestyle that bordered on lavish. The cabs were cheap, so why not use them? Nonetheless I felt vaguely guilty about it as we headed off towards our second encounter with the Great Wall of China.
Northeast of Beijing the countryside became mountainous almost immediately and it was quite pleasant countryside, even prettier than what we’d seen the day before. The car followed a little river through green hills and canyons, winding occasionally up and over a pass down to another river basin. People and villages were scarce, so scarce that when we would pass a group of them walking by the road they would often wave in greeting. This did not seem like a country of one billion people.
By the time we arrived in Kandahar it was late afternoon but the day was continuing warm and sunny. The guidebook said nothing about Kandahar so I had no warning of what to expect. Certainly I expected crowds, and a long walk up another section of wall, but I got neither. The cab pulled to a stop in a modest size parking area surrounded by high, forested hills, and a glimpse of the wall could just be seen, way up on the ridge of the mountains. We exited the car, stretched our legs, and looked around. There were no people here! Well, there were the souvenir vendors of course, but there were no tourists. I do not mean there were only a few hundred, or only a few dozen, or only a few. I mean there were zero! Except for one cart being pulled by a donkey, the parking lot was empty!
“How recently did they open up this section?” I asked Jamie, incredulously.
“Quite recently, I think.”
“Maybe we’re the first people to ever see it!”
Jamie laughed. “Not likely!”
But I wasn’t so sure. We walked up the steps leading out of the parking lot and in the general direction of the Great Wall, rounded a corner, and came upon something quite astounding. It was so out of place that the mind almost couldn’t grasp it. From the valley floor where we now found ourselves, up to the Great Wall towering perhaps 2,000 feet above us, was a modern gondola ski lift. It’s purpose was obvious. Here at Kandahar the Great Wall was so high on the ridge that you almost couldn’t get there from here. So the entrepreneurial Chinese government had built a ski lift! A ski lift to get to the Great Wall!
What were the T-shirts going to say, “I skied the Great Wall of China”?
Finding myself unable to take this Great Wall seriously, we purchased tickets and rode up to the top. Disembarking amidst the modern surroundings of cables, gears, and electronic control panels, we took a moment to enjoy the view. It was quite breathtaking. A broad chain of mountains marched off towards the west, elegantly silhouetted by the late afternoon sun. And at just the right angle to the sun was the great wall itself, doing a good job here at Kandahar of staying nicely on top of the mountain rather than wandering aimlessly. (Maybe tying that second saddle to the pony did the trick.) It stretched northwest and southeast from our present position and because we were not down in a valley (as was the case in Badaling) we could see much more of it: miles of it actually.
The restoration was of the same high quality as the Badaling wall, and we had more of an opportunity to look around and really appreciate it here because we had the whole wall to ourselves. It was as if the wall had been fixed up just for our benefit and was now lying back languorously saying “Well, here I am. What do you think of me?” We spent some time strolling along the top, enjoying the view, marveling at the thing all over again. I’d read somewhere that the walkway was precisely as wide as it was so as to allow messengers on horseback to gallop along the top of it and, when necessary, pass riders galloping in the opposite direction without crashing into each other. Shows someone at least was thinking. That’s just the kind of detail I would have forgotten.
“OK, Chen, Here are the scrolls to deliver to the captain of the guard at Great-Wall Mile station 382. You’ve got a fresh horse and I want to see you make time! Now git!”
“Sorry, boss. I ain’t moving ol’ Bess here faster than a slow trot. Dip me in boiling oil if you must, but I saw what happened at Mile station 896 last week. Wang was heading west at full gallop and Wong was heading east just as fast. Since some knuckle brain chose to make the wall only 7 and a half feet wide, they just up and crashed dead into each other. Mongol mash it was, sir, and no piece of ‘em was found big enough to light incense over!”
“Damn! Someone should have thought of that! This is supposed to be a Great Wall, not just a Good Wall. Yang! Yeah you! Head back to the Forbidden City and tell the Emperor we’ve got to do it over. Uh huh. Rip the whole thing down, change the specs, and do it right. Hell, at 7 and a half feet wide you probably can’t even see the damn thing from the moon! ”
Yes, that’s how the conversation would have gone if I’d been chief engineer. But these thoughts were interrupted by a new arrival. Plodding along, with his head down, was an old man and his donkey. No doubt he’d seen that the Great Wall at Kandahar was entertaining its first-ever visitors, and he’d decided to investigate. Coming up to where we were standing he unloaded the mule and set the cargo down beside us. This was not the cargo one expects of an old man and a mule in China. It was fifty pounds worth of boxed orange juice—each carton representing one serving, and with a tiny plastic straw attached in a cellophane wrapper.
I was not much in the mood for orange juice, nor was Jamie. The old man had come this far though and he wasn’t in any hurry to load up the donkey and head back. He just kind of stood there and enjoyed the view. Jamie had moved off out of earshot when it struck me that the most picturesque thing I’d yet seen in China was this old man and his donkey with the Great Wall as a backdrop. And the late afternoon sun shining directly on them didn’t hurt either. Moving quickly, I walked around to the far side and looked through my lens. No good. To do it right, if the photograph was going to have any chance of appearing on the cover of National Geographic, I had to be closer. But if I was closer it would be obvious I was taking the picture, and that might be rude.
There was nothing for it. I moved to within a few yards of the man and his donkey, held up my camera, and through body language asked if it was OK if I took a photograph.
“Two yuan,” said the old man, smiling.
Two yuan! This was highway robbery! All I wanted to do was snap a picture.
I knew what was going on here. We hadn’t been willing to buy his orange juice for the modest price of one yuan each, so now he was going to make us pay. Two yuan! I’m sure!
“OK, one yuan,” I said. The sun was about to go behind a cloud.
Damn. This wasn’t going right. The man knew he was picturesque, and he wasn’t going to sell himself or his donkey short.
“Two yuan,” he said again.
Jamie had taught me something about bargaining back at the Silk Road. “You have to walk away from them,” she’d explained. “Make them realize you really don’t care that much.”
I shook my head in disgust and walked away from the old man and his donkey. I’d gone perhaps 20 paces when I stole a glance behind me. He was loading the orange juice boxes back on the donkey and was preparing to leave. So was the sun.
But how could I give in? Two yuan to allow me to take his photograph! That was almost fifty cents! Jamie would never forgive me. She was already making fun of what a poor bargainer I was. I decided to be assertive.
Walking back, I stopped in just the right place.
“One yuan!” I said, and pulled out my camera to take a picture. What was he going to do, refuse a yuan?
But just as I had the shot perfectly composed, just as the second to the last ray of the sun perfectly illuminated the entire scene, the old man darted behind his donkey, and slowly crouched down on his haunches.
Dammit! I dropped the camera to my side and he rose back up.
“Two yuan!” he said.
“One and a half yuan!” I cried in frustration, raising the camera back up again.
“Two yuan!” he said, and down he went again, behind the donkey.
I dropped the camera. Up he came. I raised it again. Down he went.
“OK, OK, two yuan!”
He rose up behind the donkey, caught the last ray of the sun, and I snapped the picture. Walking over I reached in my pocket and gave him two yuan, wondering how I was going to explain this to Jamie. She’d never let me live it down.
The Kandahar wall was closing now, it was almost evening. As we rode the ski lift back to the parking lot Jamie brought up the question of the old man and the donkey.
“So,” she began. “I could see you agreed to pay him something for taking his picture. How much did you pay him?”
I couldn’t tell a lie. At least not on a ski lift at the Great Wall of China.
“Look, he asked for two yuan and I tried to get him down to one, but he wouldn’t budge. What could I do? I had to pay him the full two yuan!”
“Two lousy yuan! That’s all he was asking? And you tried to bargain him down from two yuan! That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard of. Think about that poor old man. We were his first customers and we didn’t even buy his orange juice. How’s he supposed to live? You shouldn’t have tried to bargain with him at all! I would have paid him twice what he asked! He was a nice old man! Who cares about two yuan?”
Of course the really scary thing was that for a few moments I had cared about two yuan. Perhaps I’d been in Asia too long already…
It was Monday morning and Jamie had to leave for work before eight. With her departure a certain lassitude enveloped me. For the first time in three weeks I really didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. Of course I would go somewhere and I would do something, but there is a difference between having to and merely—at leisure—choosing to.
Jamie had done what she could to prepare me to handle Beijing on my own. We’d reviewed the map. I knew how to get back to the silk market, and she’d briefed me on how to illegally change my money into yuans if I needed to. I knew how to rent the bicycles from the front desk downstairs. We’d discussed the subway, but Jamie had been scandalized at the thought that I might go somewhere on the subway. She never had. I had it vaguely in mind that I might rent a bicycle again and go back to Tiananman Square, perhaps make some purchases at the silk market, and if I were brave enough there was always the subway. It seemed unconscionable to depart China without even once sampling their mass transit system. But even with all these options the first priority was obviously to call my wife.
My trusty “USA-Direct” card from AT&T was still in my wallet from when I had last used it to obtain a direct line to AT&T and a U.S. operator while in Venezuela. I looked up the local access number from Beijing, PRC, and in a few moments the phone was ringing 12,000 miles away. Derry answered. It was a thrill to be able to talk freely without having to rely on the impersonality of a fax machine. I assured her that all was well, and that in fact I hadn’t decided to run away with an Asian girl and never come home, and that in fact I would be home the next day.
This latter assurance could be made only because of the contraction of time caused by the international date line. I would be leaving Beijing tomorrow, but—with the stop in Japan—would not arrive in Denver for almost twenty four hours. However by crossing the date line going East I would reclaim a day I’d somehow theoretically lost going West. I’ve learned that it does not pay to think about such things too deeply. On the surface they seem to merit almost metaphysical thought. But after awhile one realizes that you just set the date back on your watch and no more attention needs be given it.
It was nearing ten in the morning by the time I set off on another rented bike from the hotel’s front desk. After two days of riding taxis and camels I felt morally bound to self-propel for awhile. And a case can be made that a bicycle is the ultimate tourist vehicle. On a bike you can cruise leisurely through back alleys, residential neighborhoods, parks, or even major thoroughfare’s and you don’t need to explain yourself to anyone. By contrast if you were walking it might be assumed that you were close to your destination and that might lead to natural curiosity about what you were doing there. Furthermore you don’t cover enough ground when you’re walking. It’s possible to get slightly bored with the view before it changes. And in a car you cover too much ground: the view changes before you have time to appreciate it.
But a bicycle is just right, and it’s especially right in China. Leaving the Hong Kong — Macao Center I headed in the general direction of Tiananman Square, the same route we had taken earlier, but after a few blocks I became curious at what Beijing was like away from the main highways. I turned right at the next intersection.
Away from the main highways, and away from the parks, and the museums, monuments, and People’s Palaces, Beijing is still a third world country. This was another example of what Jamie and I had seen bicycling back from the silk road. The streets were narrow, and little vegetable stands had been set up here and there, generally onto carpets spread out in the street. The mud brick walls reminded me again of Morocco, with their ancient, crumbling wooden doorways, and furtive people slipping in and out into dark, floorless recesses of unknown purpose.
Yet the people were not at all like the North Africans. These were Chinese cut from the same cloth as I’d witnessed back in Hong Kong. They were not content to stand sullenly in cloistered doorways, staring out menacingly at strangers who wandered past. Not at all! The people were too busy trying to get rich to notice strangers. And yes, perhaps they were starting at the bottom of the economic ladder, but that only seemed to make them want to work harder. They were scurrying about like stockbrokers on lunch hour in downtown Manhattan: in and out of doorways, walking quickly down the alleys, arguing passionately over business transactions that had no more importance than determining eventual ownership of a sack of onions. I saw one attractive young woman emerge from a squalid hut with smoke drifting out of a pipe somewhere above. She was wearing a fashionable red dress, good shoes, and even a few items of modest jewelry. Retrieving her bicycle, she slipped deftly onto it and began peddling towards downtown Beijing.
In the slums of North Africa one is seeing a human condition that has persisted for two thousand years, and will likely continue unchanged for another two thousand. In the slums of Beijing—no less squalid—one is seeing an upwardly mobile people, each of whom fully expect that they, or their children, or their children’s children, will one day be affluent. And they’re making it happen today. It was one more reminder that the Chinese are among the most hard working and entrepreneurial people on earth.
This cultural trait goes far in explaining why Orientals, arriving penniless in the U.S., nonetheless reach middle class status within a generation or two of getting off the boat, while most other immigrants seem to wallow in poverty generation after generation.
Even though no one was paying me any attention I soon began to feel conspicuous, as if I was the only non-Chinese person in a land of a billion Chinese people. I decided to peddle back to the main road and onto Tiananman Square where tourists are less likely to feel out of place.
The crowds had thinned a bit when I came once again to the big portrait of Mao. This was Monday, and the time to celebrate China’s independence day was over. I explored the large square more leisurely this time, not fearing for my life as previously. I wandered over to get a closer look at the Palace of People’s Deputies, but the dull gray building was even more bland close up. And I couldn’t imagine anything more sleep-inducing than a bunch of bureaucrats debating which industries they should be controlling. If Clinton won the election there would be plenty of that in Washington.
A street vendor was selling little bags of freshly baked rolls. I bought one, and a bottle of mineral water from another vendor. These kinds of transactions were within my ability since they could be handled by (a) pointing, and (b) handing over money. I parked the bike and sat down on the steps of the Museum of the Communist Revolution, enjoyed the rolls, and contemplated the portrait of Mao. I noticed an interesting similarity between Mao and the Mona Lisa. They wear the same smile. It’s that almost-expressionless face, with just a hint of upturned lips, that drives people crazy wondering what they’re thinking. I wondered if it could be the same thing.
After lunch I decided to check out Beijing’s railway station. It was only a few minutes bike ride from Tiananman.
Navigating the streets of Beijing on a bicycle was becoming easier now that I had relaxed about it. In less than ten minutes I arrived at the Beijing Train Station. Two hundred million bicycles, identical to mine, had arrived before me and their owners had wrestled with the question of where to park. Finding no answer they had simply abandoned them against a corner of the building, looking like some horrible specter of hell with their melange of black metal interwoven endlessly neighbor to neighbor. I added my small contribution to this oriental art form and—having rejoined the ranks of pedestrians—set off to explore. The Beijing railway station was more interesting outside than in. On the inside one finds merely the high-ceilinged grandeur of an important government building and, in this case, fifty million Chinese wrestling with each other as they wait in lines only a Communist could love. These were lines that one could survive only if equipped with an unabridged and annotated copy of War and Peace, I judged, and seeing this I chose to leave. Outside the building was where the real action was.
The Beijing railways station opens up on a reasonably large concrete area that is far too large to be called a sidewalk, but—since it has not been authorized for automobile parking—can likewise be considered too small to be a parking lot. Here the vast tribes of the hinterlands have chosen to pitch their tents, so to speak. Vast numbers of Chinese sit outside the railways station, haunch to haunch. They are not sitting and they are not standing. They squat. And they do so in circles, their tan and gnarled faces reflecting kinship to a timeless land where once passed Marco Polo and Tamerlane. It takes little imagination to realize that these are the Chinese from the provinces, no doubt in town for the celebration of China’s independence (independence from what? one still asks…) and they are patiently waiting the time when their train is scheduled to depart for Samarkand or Llhasa or Chunking or Ulan Bator. These Chinese look as if they are accustomed to waiting, sitting in circles with their fellow tribesmen and tribeswomen, squatting down on their haunches, no doubt more comfortable with visions of grazing yak herds than with the view of the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise across the street.
I strode amongst them only long enough to take some surreptitious photographs, hoping to capture the exotic nature of what I was seeing. But the turbaned man, the veiled woman, would turn away just as the shutter clicked and I marveled again that the photographers from National Geographic are ever able to take those incredible pictures that elude me.
It was not long before I chose to reclaim my bike and peddle off to the North towards the Swissotel. Along the way I came upon a small museum, or park, or some medley of buildings reminiscent of both. Strolling around the grounds it seemed a place likely to attract tourists. Post cards and examples of ancient Chinese art were offered for sale. Of more interest was a bench, set just as it needed to be to capture the mid-day sun, and I settled here for awhile and read the final chapters of Shogun. Soon my attention was distracted by the arrival of several tourists, easily identified by their 35 mm cameras. Any westerner stands out in China if for no other reason than that there are so few of them. Perhaps this was why we noticed each other and became involved in conversation. The tourists consisted of a middle age man, his wife, and his college-age daughter. They reminded me of my relative Kim Malville and his family from Boulder, Colorado. The father had an academia-style beard, and just the right thickness of horn-rim glasses. The wife was pleasant and friendly. And the daughter was blond and quite pretty. Their story unfolded quickly enough. They were on vacation for two months, having just left Japan, and were now beginning a considerable trip through China. The daughter had recently graduated from some kind of American university in Beijing, where she had majored in Oriental languages.
“So you speak Chinese?” I asked, greatly impressed.
“Yes, that’s what I specialized in,” she replied.
“Mandarin or Cantonese?”
“Both. I’m fluent in both, or at least I’m supposed to be,” she added, smiling.
“But, if you can speak Chinese, then does that mean you can read kanji?”
“Yes, I can read quite a bit of it.”
Wow! This was some woman. Even Mary Ducor had thrown up her hands at the thought of learning kanji.
“Show me!”, I insisted, hardly able to believe that a westerner could learn kanji. “What’s that sign over there say?”
“It says there’s a meeting inside having to do with some art association,” she translated.
“That’s incredible! Did you learn Japanese as well?”
“No, only Mandarin and Cantonese, and a little Thai.”
The three of them talked to me at some length, obviously curious about how I happened to be wandering around Beijing on my own, and not connected with any organized tour. I explained that I was on a bicycle and was just sightseeing.
“You’re not serious!” said the father, quite upset. “You’re not really riding a bicycle in Beijing!”
I confessed that this was the case.
“But that’s suicidal! We’ve seen them! Riding a bicycle in Beijing has got to be the most dangerous sport in the world! I can’t believe you’re still alive!”
“Well, it does take some getting used to. But it’s not nearly as bad today as it was over the weekend.”
They were very friendly people and if I truly had been alone I would have enjoyed spending more time with them but there came a point where I felt it was necessary to make an exit. I explained that I had to go.
“So where are you staying in Beijing?” asked the daughter.
“Well, actually I’m just staying with friends,” I explained. “I leave tomorrow for the states.” That seemed a neutral enough answer. “And I’m supposed to be back at the apartment in an hour.” We said good-bye and I peddled off back towards the Swissotel, mildly reluctant at having to leave such friendly Americans. Perhaps it was a symptom of being mildly homesick.
In truth I didn’t have to be back in an hour and when I got back to the hotel the question arose of how to kill some more time. High on the list of activities was(1) a visit to the “Llama Temple,” a Tibetan Buddhist temple in the northwest part of the city; and (2) a ride on Beijing’s subway system. These fell neatly together when I realized that I could take the subway to the Temple.
Beijing’s subway system is shaped like a tadpole. A single line (the tail) comes in from the West and then makes a loop (the head) before rejoining itself. The Swissotel was directly opposite one of the stations on this loop, and the Llama Temple had its own station 3-stops counterclockwise.
Subways around the world use different systems for collecting fares. In New York you buy a token and insert it in a turnstile. Once in, you can go anywhere. A similar system is found in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), but there is no turnstile. Rather you insert your twenty kopecs and walk through a little gateway that is perpetually open. If you fail to put in the kopecs a sharp steel door slams into your legs as you try to pass. In Tokyo, London, and Washington DC. the fare is a function of distance traveled. You buy a ticket from a vending machine based on your destination, and then when you arrive you exit the system through a turnstile that electronically looks at your ticket to see if you’ve paid enough. If you haven’t all hell breaks loose and an attendant is called over by loud noises and flashing lights. (This is what happened in Tokyo when I put a food ticket in the machine.)
I was curious to see how fare collecting was handled in the People’s Republic of China. Making my way down the long tunnel escalator, I was somewhat intimidated by the fact that I was alone. It seemed an unnatural condition in China not to be surrounded by several hundred thousand Chinese, and especially so in a subway. On the other hand this was mid-afternoon and the station itself was a long way from the center of the city. And I knew for a fact that fully 98.7% of Beijingers were presently riding bicycles—I’d spent the day avoiding them.
The subway tunnels and passageways in Beijing did not seem especially remarkable. They weren’t as clean as those in Washington, nor as dirty as those in New York. As in Russia there was no advertising anywhere, and that takes some getting used to for a westerner. Eventually I came to the place where one obviously buys tickets. It was a little enclosed desk, like you see in New York. An ancient Chinese woman was inside, and I passed some yuans through the little hole in the glass. I used real yuans, not the FEC variety, on the assumption that foreign tourists would rarely use the subway and so the woman probably wasn’t on the lookout for cheats like me. This proved to be the case and she handed me back my change in regular yuan, scarcely even looking up—a trait one finds among ticket sellers in subway stations everywhere. But it wasn’t a token she handed me, it was a one-inch square piece of yellowed paper with kanji all over it. Not quite sure what to do with this paper, I walked on down the hallway in the obvious direction of the subway trains. Eventually I came upon a stairway and sitting beside it on an old wooden chair was an old woman. As I started down this stairway she reached out her hand and said something in Mandarin, which was obviously “ticket, please!” I handed her the little yellowed square of paper and she took it and let me pass.
So that’s how it worked in Beijing. You bought the morsel of paper from one old woman, walked fifty yards and handed it to another old woman. I could think of any number of ways to make the thing more efficient. (Why not just have the woman at the top of the stairs do the selling, instead of having two women? Or why not sell tokens instead of pieces of paper, and then a simple turnstile could handle it?) But it was as well to remember that I was in a communist country and the government—in the perverse logic of all communist governments—was no doubt more interested in finding jobs for its people than in saving money, not realizing that in saving money more jobs are ultimately created.
The station itself was simple enough that I did not lose my sense of direction and it was obvious when the first train arrived that it was going the wrong way. I ignored that train and soon another came along, going counterclockwise around the loop. My subway map of Beijing showed English words underneath the kanji and from this I could compare the kanji on the station signs in the subway to the kanji on the map and know where I was. In a few minutes we arrived at the station that corresponded to the Llama Temple and I exited the subway. Looking around, I found myself on a non-descript part of Beijing with no tall buildings but no third-world ambiance either. The outskirts of Tokyo might have looked similar. The Llama Temple was quite easy to spot amongst its plain surroundings and gaining entrance to it involved only walking a block south from the station. Having had nothing for lunch except those rolls back at Tiananman, I was natural prey for a street vendor just outside the temple who was selling little brown turd-like objects on sticks. I knew they weren’t turds, of course, or at least I hoped they weren’t, and I was certainly hungry enough to eat most anything as long as it was carbon-based. Using sign language I asked the price and was told it was the equivalent of ten cents.
“Five cents,” I immediately responded, not quite thinking what I was doing.
“Ten cents! Ten cents!” replied the merchant, somewhat annoyed.
“Five cents!” I said, rising to the same level of annoyance.
He finally shrugged his shoulders. “Five cents!” he said resignedly. I handed him five cents and walked away with the little stick of brown round things. I ate only half of them before throwing it away, still not quite sure what it was but finding it not to my taste.
I walked up to the window where one buys a ticket to enter the Llama Temple. The sign said the equivalent of a dollar.
“One dollar,” said the girl.
“Fifty cents,” I replied automatically, again not quite knowing why I was doing this.
“One dollar” she insisted angrily, pointing to the sign that clearly said one dollar.
“Fifty cents!” I insisted
This was too much for her and she called over the supervisor.
“One dollar,” he said, backing up the girl.
“Fifty cents,” I countered, handing over the money and then shrugging as if to imply this was the sum total of my net worth but even so I was determined to use it to gain entrance to the Llama museum.
He took the coins and handed me a ticket.
I was only a few steps away before I realized I’d gone a little off the deep end. I was starting to bargain as an automatic response, even when the price was completely reasonable. This was sick, to be fighting so hard to save a few pennies. I resolved that at my next transaction I would pay the first price asked and try to snap out of it.
The temple itself was worth fifty cents and may even have been worth a dollar. It had the same shabby, impoverished look of all the Buddhist temples in China, but it was interesting and I lit some incense, just to atone for my sin of cheating the monks out of half their admission price. Tourists streamed about in heavy concentrations, all of them Chinese tourists, it seemed, or perhaps Japanese. Jamie claimed it was easy to tell a Japanese person from a Chinese. “They look completely different,” she’d said. “I can even tell what parts of China people are from how they look, they’re so different.”
Well, perhaps. They looked pretty similar to me.
But a very dissimilar one appeared suddenly, walking softly up to the altar. She was tall and slender, had long straight black hair that went down to her waist, and was dressed like a night-club disco dancer with a short leather mini-skirt and high leather boots. Of course she was beautiful, but that was expected considering the outfit. Curious, I watched as she took several sticks of incense, lit them, and set them in the shrine. Then she kneeled down, placed her hands together as I’d been taught to do on Macao, and bowed her head silently at the altar for a long time. This girl was not merely going through the ritual, she was deadly serious about it. Finally she rose up, kept her eyes lowered, and disappeared out of the room. Everyone was watching her, probably like me feeling a bit guilty about doing so. It was an important reminder that this wasn’t just a tourist attraction. This was a religious temple and people came here to worship—all kinds of people.
As I strolled about the grounds I would occasionally see the monks, heads shaven, wearing dark brown robes and bright red sashes. There is something quite photogenic about a shaven-headed Buddhist monk in a brown robe and a red sash, but every time I tried to take a picture of one he would notice me and duck swiftly out of sight.
I found this annoying. If they were going to charge admission to their temple, fine. But why should they deprive tourists like me of our God-given right to photograph picturesque monks with bright red sashes? If they were worldly enough to charge admission they were worldly enough to let the tourists take their pictures. And give me a break! What did they think? That a camera was going to rob them of their souls or something. Like, I’m sure!
So I hid behind a column and waited until one of the monks was walking across the courtyard. Then I stepped out and clicked the picture before he could do anything about it. He tried not to notice, but he had noticed, and slipped behind a door as soon as possible. I could tell he was flustered.
Served him right. These monks needed to get a life.
That night Jamie and I went out to a Mexican restaurant. There are quite a few international restaurants in Beijing because it’s such an international city, with lots of embassies and diplomats and such. And the truth was that a person can only go so long without tacos and cold beer.
During the course of our meal the maitre ‘d came over and I was amused to see that he was completely American, in his late twenties I judged. He was decked out in western garb with rhinestones and a big cowboy hat.
“So how y’all doing tonight, folks?” he asked in a mock country-western voice.
“No habla Englese!” I said.
This didn’t work for he immediately responded in fluent Spanish: one upmanship in the language department. So I switched to English and chatted with him a bit. It turned out he was from Colorado and had gone to school at Denver University.
“DU?” I asked, astounded. “That’s where I went to school!”
“No kidding. Did you stay on campus?”
“Yeah, my first year I did. I was in Centennial Towers.”
“Awesome, dude! That’s where I was!”
“You weren’t on the sixth floor were you?”
“Damned if I wasn’t! You mean there’s a guy here in Beijing that used to live on the sixth floor of Centennial towers in Denver! I can’t believe it!”
I was tempted to ask him what room he’d been in, but the truth was that I couldn’t remember myself which room I’d been in. It had been over twenty years ago.
It seemed an odd way to spend my last night in Asia, talking to a guy from D.U. but maybe it was useful as a way for preparing to go home.
I took a cab back to the airport the next morning, after saying good-bye to Jamie and seeing her off to work again. The airport seemed less threatening during daylight, and the United Airlines 747 was like a big welcome-home mat after almost three weeks in Asia.
Three weeks in Asia. It was more like three completely different trips: Hong Kong, Japan, and China. Other than kanji and chopsticks the three places had very little in common it seemed to me. Hong Kong was an oriental version of New York. Japan was like an industrialized Switzerland. And China was a land of incalculable human energy, her short-lived attempts at Communism collapsing under the pressure of a people that weren’t willing to tolerate such nonsense for long. On the other hand it seemed slightly presumptuous to try to draw any sweeping conclusions after only just scratching the surface.
It was better to focus on the memories: the computer programmers in Hong Kong trying to build a serial cable, the ancient man who peddled me around Macao, Kahori’s parents in Tokyo, the young boys who’d wanted the photograph back at the temple in Kyoto, the old man with the mule at the Great Wall. Asia was really no different than the rest of the world: a place with lots of friendly people.
That was the best way to remember it, I decided, as the United jet roared into the air and turned east towards San Francisco, and home.