On April 16th through 20th, I stayed in Beijing, China for a conference on cyberphysical systems. The conference was OK, but the city and culture of Beijing were far, far more interesting. I won’t cover the smog because I didn’t really take any good pictures of the ridiculous mixture of dust from the Gobi Desert and oppressive exhaust from the many cars on the streets. What follows instead is a tale of communist Obama, scorpions, food poisoning and concubines. Dang Beijing, you crazy!
A Hot Pot is a simple enough concept, but there are two variants. The first involves everyone throwing a bunch of food into a soup base and sharing that among all the party-goers. The second involves each person having their own soup base and throwing a bunch of food into it and privately suffering through the consequences. We chose the second one.
How safe was I? Do you see the picture to the right? I was squatting over that within 30 minutes. Now, for those Americans and Europeans out there, your eyes are not deceiving you. That is a porcelain hole in the ground. There are four important things to know about this bathroom encounter. First, there is no toilet paper. None. And it’s not an accident. Bathrooms outside of the 4 star+ hotels have no toilet paper. This is a “let-it-dry” culture. Second, I was nowhere near this bathroom. I was in the subway when it hit, and I had to run up three flights of stairs (from what I remember) to get there. And I was happy to be there (the previous fragment should be read in a grumpy old man’s voice complaining about how kids don’t understand how great they have it)! Third, and as a consequence to the 2nd important thing, by the time I got to the bathroom, I was in dire straits. My stomach was churning, I was seconds away from explosion, and I was moving past the bathroom attendant at a full run yelling “Ni hao! Now, get out the way!” Fourth, I have no experience in squatting and avoiding soiling myself in such a situation.
Now, as crazy as this scenario is to me, as a foreigner from more Westernized cultures, it wasn’t all bad news. I successfully avoided soiling myself, which after some hindsight resulted in me giving myself a high five. I made it up three flights of stairs without the party starting too early, and I didn’t have to become indoctrinated into the “let-it-dry” culture. My plan was simple. I waited until my friends got worried and came to my rescue. My heroes passed me a small package of tissues over the divider, and my spirits were immediately lifted. In fact, I left that bathroom in 1000x better spirits than I entered it with. I even high-fived the bathroom attendant before washing. No, I’m kidding. I washed my hands crazier than Rene Russo in the movie Outbreak (and she washed like a madman, even though she was totally too late.) We left the bathroom and the Hot Pot in our rearview walking mirrors and went about the rest of our day.
Then, she showed us where the concubines were buried. I kid you not, the picture to the left is where they threw the concubines to their final resting place (after poisoning them without them knowing about it). It gets weirder and more feng-shuiey. To prevent issues in the afterlife and to honor geomancy concepts in feng shui, the concubines were buried outside of the main circular tomb area, on the side of the emperor so they would be sufficiently far enough away from the empress. Also, to create harmony amongst the 8 official concubines, the retainers constructed two pits, one on either side of the tomb entrance, and split the dead concubines into two groups of four. Problem solved! Now, just toss the women into a pit but far enough away from the official wife, so she doesn’t get mad in the afterlife.
So, if you were a concubine in ancient China and were lucky enough not to be sent to the Cold Palace, you got to be buried close enough to the emperor for him to enjoy your zombie loins well into eternity but far enough away that you didn’t bother the undead empress. OK, so the tour guide didn’t really tell me that anyone would become zombies. Everyone went to heaven where they maintained their distances and orientation for eternity… or something. Either way, I think you’ll agree that this is a bit nuts. Very interesting but certifiable in today’s world (and I think the Chinese would generally frown upon such practices today).
Though, on that note, we found out from the tour guide that China has a one-birth-only policy for each couple that can be circumvented by 1) the death of a child and an application for another birth certificate, 2) having twins, triplets, etc. which count as a single birth, or 3) paying for the extra children. The tour guide said that a second child sets a couple back 880,000 yuan or roughly 146,666 dollars. Most couples obviously cannot afford this, but what was really curious about her explanation was that China currently has a 52% male to 48% female ratio, which is the exact opposite of the rest of the world. What might cause that? Well, I have heard from others that it’s caused by the first circumvention mechanism. If a baby dies, you can have another one for free if you file the paperwork properly. So, if you had a girl and you didn’t want one, she might mysteriously die and you try again until you get a baby boy. Now, again, this is urban legend. I have no idea if this is actually going on or not, but after seeing the concubine pit and hearing about the Cold Palace, the myth came back in my head and whispered in my ear.
And then that thought was completely interrupted by one of the tour guide’s final questions, and I kid you not she actually asked us this right after talking about the one-birth policy.
“Do any of you eat dog?”
It was the most casually atrocious thing I’ve ever heard. I actually laughed aloud because this is the kind of thing that one of my old gaming friends might say over Ventrilo during a boss fight to make everyone laugh. But she was serious, and she was genuinely curious.
“No,” I said for the five people from Spain, Japan, and the USA in the tour. “That’s generally frowned upon in our countries.”
So, should you take a trip to Beijing, China? God, yes! Take three. It may be crazy, but what is life without a bit of adventure! I’ve also heard that Shanghai is amazing.
P.S. See your doctor before you go. I had to get seven or eight shots that combined vaccinations for everything from Polio to measles to Hepatitis and the Bubonic Plague (yes, you can even munch of the old Black Plague in Snack Alley :D).