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!
So, I had to do conference stuff on the 17th, but on the 18th, I got a tour of Beijing from a graduate student at Vanderbilt who had lived in the capital. We didn’t stick to the tour routes. We went all local-like, and one of the first things we noticed at a shop on the way from the Forbidden City was the image to the left, which is hilarious for two reasons. First, Obama is dressed in Mao Zedong communist-party garb. Fox News should have a heyday with this one, right? I mean, obviously this is just further proof that he’s a closet muslim, communist, whatever! Well, actually he’s just popular over there like he is everywhere else. For a communist country like China, he represents an American that understands what it means to put the people in front of himself. Their words. The second really funny thing about this image is the caption of the shirt underneath Obama. “Knowledge likes pants. Invisible but very important.” My guess is that this is meant to say “Knowledge is like panties: invisible but very important.” The way it is phrased right now is quite simply hilarious. Before you ask, pants are very visible in China.
Next stop on the crazy China train is “Snack Alley”, which is off the main shopping district a couple of blocks from the Forbidden City. Snack Alley literally has everything you might possibly want to eat, including a lot of things you probably don’t want to eat. For instance, live scorpions on a stick. Now, our graduate student told us that she’s never eaten them, is afraid of them, and has no idea who eats them. In her defense, I didn’t see anyone purchase a single scorpion on a stick from the dozens of places that were selling them. But that’s the point. There are dozens of places selling live scorpions on a stick. I found out the next day from a different, more official tour guide that scorpions tend to be fried. She said they taste like shrimp, and that snake on a stick tastes like chicken. I never saw the snake on a stick, but now I’m quite fascinated. Should I have tried the scorpions on a stick? Well, if they were fried, it was probably far less likely to cause the explosive happy time than the restaurant we chose shortly after seeing Snack Alley.
Hot Pots. In China’s defense, we went to a very nice restaurant the previous day called “Quan Ju De”, which is apparently one of the originators of the Peking Duck but better than the Americanized version. We ate extremely well there, and I might cover that in a follow up post about the Great Wall, Forbidden City, etc. But right now, we’re going to talk about the magical world of food poisoning/getting sick at a Hot Pot.
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. I had a hot-and-sour base and picked sliced duck, pumpkin, and rice noodles for my attempt at soup awesomeness. For those chefs out there, it will likely be obvious that I am not an expert chef from my ingredients. I could probably burn poptarts if sufficiently distracted. Anyway, I get control of the burner underneath my “hot pot”, and I drop in a fourth of the duck, pumpkin, and rice noodle and keep it going for 20 minutes or so, despite the fact that I’m absolutely starving. They give you this soy-based sauce packet that was simply delicious, and I devoured the duck, rice, and pumpkin very quickly once I transferred them from the pot onto a plate. So far so good. My guide, the graduate student and another researcher at our lab sort of laugh at me for cooking duck for so long. They claim such a thin slice of duck should only take 5 minutes to cook. Feeling like an idiot, I decide to drop my 20 minute cook time to 10 minutes, just to be safe.
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.
My next major stop was the Great Wall and Ming’s Tombs. I may cover that in more detail in a later blog post, but first, I want to cover something that is crazy. Concubines. Not the concept really. I understand how a supreme leader would be all “I want that one… and that one… oooh, and that one.” It’s just amazing to me how little rights the concubines had and how sad their existence and deaths were. First, at the Forbidden City there is the Cold Palace. The Cold Palace is the place where the emperor would send concubines that had fallen out of favor. Basically, after he decided he no longer wanted to “hit that”, he’d send the concubine to the Cold Palace where they would have no heat, no company, no comforts at all. They were sent there to die. But when they died, it was a death of dignity and love and remembrance, right? How about “no.” The first imperial tomb at the Ming Dynasty’s Tombs was Zhu Di (became Chengzu after he opened a can of whoopass on the Hongwu Emperor), the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, and his is the biggest tomb of the 13 at the Ming’s Tombs. It’s also the only one that hasn’t been opened or looted. The tour guide walked us around the rectangular section and talked about the crazy Death gate that you should only cross when leaving Zhu Di’s tomb area, and we gawked at the large bronze rectangle which has apparently been destroyed before from lightning and replaced.
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).