Wednesday, January 07, 2004

The Forbidden Palace
January 4 — I flew from Chengdu to Beijing on Szechuan Airlines. Unlike China Air, they pick you up at your hotel in a van and deliver you to the airport for free. The plane was scheduled to leave at 7:50 am. Boarding began at 7:15 and the plane pulled away from the gate at 7:40. At 7:48 it arrived at the end of the runway and then waited for minute, apparently in order to take off precisely at 7:50. Szechuan Airline seems to have a thing about punctuality. I had asked, as I always do, for an emergency row seat to accommodate my outlandishly long legs. Instead I got bumped up into business class which had very roomy seats, and I had a whole row to myself. I spent most of the two hour flight working on my notes of the Emei Shan trip.

From Beijing Airport I caught a bus downtown to my favorite hotel. I am trying to keep this place a secret so I am not going to name it. Although it is located right on Jianguomenwai Dajie, the main drag of Beijing which eventually runs right by Tiananmen Square, only a few minutes walk from the big China World Trade Center complex and right next door to the China headquarters of one of America’s leading corporations, it charges only 180 yuan ($21.68) a night (very cheap for downtown Beijing) and has never in all several dozen times I have gone there, winter or summer, been full-up without a vacancy. The place has no sign in English indicating that it is a hotel and I have never met another foreigner staying here. I found out about it from Mongolians who travel to Beijing on business or who are passing through on their way to the States. On the ground floor is a restaurant which is enormously popular with local people, and often it is necessary to wait until ten o’clock at night for a free table. They know me here. They still remember when, the day after China was awarded the 2008 Olympics, I asked if I could make reservations for a month during the event. I couldn’t, but they thought it was funny.

I decide to walk up to Wangfujing Street to do some shopping but first I stop at the Starbucks in the department store connected with the China World Trade Center. Except for that solitary cup of nescafe at the Hard Wok CafĂ© below Hongchunping Monastery I haven’t had any coffee now for three weeks. The department store is very upscale and hosts many of the usual luxury-goods suspects: Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Mont Blanc, Burberries, Cerruti, Dunhills, etc. On weekdays the Starbucks is a choice preening grounds for the well-appointed secretaries who work for the international corporations quartered in the nearby office buildings, but on a Sunday afternoon it’s filled mostly by young high school and college guys energetically courting young girls. Starbucks may be mundane in the States, but here it’s someplace to go when you want to make a good impression on that all important first date. The eager-faced boys in designer-name clothes chatter away while the girls sip drinks through straws and stare coolly at them with a look that in any language says, “You can buy me all the twenty-seven yuan frappuccinos you want, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get into my pants.”

From here I walk up to Wangfujing Street, one of Beijing’s main shopping venues, and buy camera batteries, printer cartridges, photo printer paper, more tea, and various other essentials. The ubiquitous street vendors are all hawking something new since I was here last—the notorious 52 Most Wanted Iraqis Card Deck. Saddam, now in custody, is still on top as the Ace of Spades.