[Thanks for the comments below: can't respond in the comboxes. Dogwood -- I do have a pair of binoculars with me. Trust me, you wouldn't be able to take them in either. And I'm not of the mind to cross the People's Liberation Army! :-) As to cloud-cover --- I want clear views at the Wall! :)]
"So, you want noodles or dumplings for lunch" asks Andrew, after I've regained some feeling in the extremeties inside the car. "Dumplings, sure!" We head off to a little restaurant, in a narrow alley not too far from the Forbidden City. A small establishment, steel chairs and tables, pretty spartan. Feels like a dhabha in India, or a simple roadside diner in the US. The clientele is entirely Chinese, as is the menu. Andrew sits down with me. "Please, just order for me! I'll be adventurous!" So, we get three kinds of dumplings - lamb, pork, and shrimp/mushroom, and a "hot plate" of pork in garlic sauce with vegetable garnish. This comes with a plate of what looks like tiny paper napkins, but turn out to be squares of bean-curd (tofu). One lifts a square off, puts some pork and vegetable on it, rolls it up and then eats it. The food was more than filling and quite delicious. For some reason, they were out of tea, so they served a kettle of hot water instead! I opted for a Coke. Total bill: 44 yuan (a little over 5 bucks, for the both of us!).
Later, I also noted how in India, any driver or guide I'd have hired would never sit down with me for a meal. The bade log and chhote log (big and small folks) don't mix, especially not at a meal. This is a classless society, after all. And that's quite a good thing, as far as I'm concerned!
Turns out that Andrew is from a small village, some 100km from Beijing, the younger of two sons. "In Beijing only one child, however" he reminds me. "So, didn't you go to college?" "No, very poor village. Not everyone finishes school. We had seven students in school, and one teacher!" (For a village of about 300!). Just a glimpse into the growing social inequalities between urban and rural China. Earlier, R was mentioning how the social support network is under great strain, the publich health care system has broken down, and how rural poverty is skyrocketing.
After lunch, we head to the Tibetan Lama temple, a gorgeous complex of Tibetan buildings, each with shrines to the bewildering variety of Tibetan deities and bodhisattvas. At pretty much every shrine, there were worshippers offering three incense sticks, and bowing deeply, or offering prostrations, three times, while in a corner, a monk, clad in brown robes with a red or orange cord, chanted hymns slowly.
The clouds of billowing incense, the worshipper's breath condensing in front of their faces, the deep chanting, made for quite a peaceful and otherworldly feeling in the lowering afternoon sun.
The palaces themselves date from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Qing emperor started this lamastery. One contained an exhibition of exquisite Tibetan sculptures and statues of the Tibetan pantheon. (Including one that was quite familiar, Yamantaka, an angel of death, thanks to a college friend who was obsessed with Tibetan Buddhism).
Andrew then offered to take me for a tour of Beijing's famous hutong, the warren of ancient, narrow alleyways that still survive in the heart of the modern metropolis. 150 yuan for an hour in a rickshaw-style pedicab. I declined, mainly because the thought of yet another hour exposed to the elements was simply awful! Instaed, I had him drive me to Wangfujing Dajie to St. Joseph Church (also known as East Church). The current imposing gothic structure dates from 1905, but apparently there's been a church on this spot since 1655, when the Qing emperor invited missionaries to set up a church here! The church provides an interesting contrast to the bustling Wangfujing area offices and shops, neon lights and glowing billboards and all. There is a pleasant square in front, with some beautiful flowers, and a statue of St. Joseph with the Christ Child in one corner (it's rare to see him depicted with his foster-Son!). The church itself was locked (as Andrew had warned me. Apparently, they're only open for services and on Sundays!). I walked around the side where a little panel gave a brief history of the church. As I stood there, three men appeared -- two in Army uniforms, and one in civillian clothes, chatting loudly. The civillian lead them up to a side door, unlocked it and they went into the church. What was that about? Around the corner from the sign, in a little niche against one buttress were three homeless men, bundled up against the cold, their meagre possessions stuffed into shopping bags. One appeared to be passed out on the pavement.
If they were getting some kind of refuge against the side of the church, then, I guess, the Chinese Church is doing exactly what she needs to.
It was getting quite dark as Andrew dropped me off at the huge Moma apartment complex on Wanguocheng. R's off on a business trip, but has graciously let me use his place till I leave Friday morning. I had a light dinner of fruit, and by 9 pm, was fast asleep! That jet-lag finally caught up, I guess!
Tomorrow: off to the Great Wall at Mutianyu!