Tag Archives: Peking

Bicycles in Beijing, Part I

Beijing, China. April 2013.

This is a season of bicycles. Partly it’s about the weather, and partly it’s about vacations and people having time to ride. A friend has been posting photographs from his mountain biking trip in Switzerland, with trails only a few inches wide in valleys of mountains that go on and on. The Tour de France is riding through the mountains, and apparently, for the first time, there will be a Tour de Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Yesterday families of cyclists rolled along the riverside. The five-year olds push pedal-less bikes to learn the balance of two-wheeled bliss.

Much has been made of the bicycles in Beijing. Nine million of them, the songs say. Bicycles that do not wait for seasons or free time or sunny weather. Bicycles of utility. Bicycles of necessity. Bicycles of shortening the shortest distance between points A and B.

I wonder if there’s a song about the number of cars in Beijing. I expect they are equally numerous, though not nearly as romantic.

Impressions: Trees by the Tracks

Between Shanghai and Beijing, China. April 2013.

I like trees.

Apparently I am also allergic to them, but whatever.

I like the way light falls between them in streaks and patches and flickering shimmers and long shadows like roads to vanishing fairy-lands. How they cut light into shafts that transect the trodden paths and the spaces between. I like how strong trees are and how tall and how even old trees somehow smell new. I like the way they reach up and down at the same time. I like the way they move, bending, swaying without losing ground. I like the way they creak.
I like the way they change the way the air moves, the kind of stillness you feel walking into a stand of trees, like first steps into an invisible temple, the positive presence of negative space. I like their leaves in all the colours and shapes and sizes, the sound of the wind blowing through them just before they fall into fiery fall blankets underfoot. I like the way trees collect snow. I like the patience of trees.

It was a tree in Texas that taught me the value of the smallest patch of shade.

I like the connectedness of trees when they grow together in forests. I like their defiance when they grow by themselves. I like trees that grow, impossibly, through fences and from sheer faces of limestone and granite.
There’s something about a tree that feels sentient. Maybe it’s because they stand up, but it just feels like they know things. The witness trees at Auschwitz kept their silence but made me want to weep. I couldn’t look at them for too long lest I catch their eye and learn the whole story, and I, lacking tree-strength, had as much as I could bear with only the eyes of an hour.

These trees grew in the moments between dust patches on the journey from Shanghai to Beijing. I didn’t catch their story as we sped by, just a vertical impression, a thin stand against the speed of flight and the unsettling of dust.

Shanghai To Beijing From The Sightseeing Car

Between Shanghai and Beijing. April 2013.

The truth is, there’s not that much to see. We often take trains when we can as a way of seeing a cross-section of the country we’re traveling in. We booked passage on the train from Shanghai to Beijing and when we took our places, we found them at the end of the train, in a car with only four seats and big windows. The sightseeing car.

But in five and a half hours, the sights were remarkably homogenous. There were what felt like three minutes of rocky hills, and seven minutes of coastal wetlands, and the rest of the time, we sped through a dusty brown landscape of farmland only occasionally sewn with crops. But the oddest thing to my foreign eyes, was the construction. There were highrises that looked to be apartment blocks being built amid the wash of brown dust and yellow air, near no other building town or village on the flat horizon. Something about it felt like science fiction, like a premonition of Blade Runner or the ending of Mad Max where the lost children find their way home to the desolate skeleton of a once-great city.

“Those what had gone before had the knowin’ and the doin’ of things beyond our reckonin’. Even beyond our dreamin’.” – Savannah Nix

Fives and Nines

Beijing, China. April 2013.

Of the Ying and the Yang, the Yang is held to be the positive. It is also the hard, the active, the logical and the male. And the odd. Numbers, that is. Our docent tells us that because they are Yang, the Chinese value the odd numbers from one to nine highly, the numbers greater than nine being some combination of the numbers less than ten. In particular, they value the number five because it is in the middle of the odd numbers from one to nine, and the middle is the most stable, most true position. So the gates to the Forbidden City all have five openings, even if you can only see three of them from a distance. There are five sets of stairs and five bridges over the rivers, but no one walks on the middle path. The middle path is the path of the star, the path of the emperor.

The Chinese also have a special reverence for the number nine, because, well, because it is the biggest of the odd numbers and everyone loves a superlative. Each of the five sets of doors in any gate in the Forbidden City is studded with nine rows of nine gold studs.

We worked our way through the fives and nines, among the thousands of visitors, until our docent pointed up and showed us the only occurrence of a ten. The corners of the roofs are adorned with little animal figures, more like action figures than gargoyles, little bipedal animals that face out in neat lines. The more animals, the more important the building, the more important the people in the building. At most, there can be nine animal figures. Except on the roof of the throne room. The throne room is the highest building in the Forbidden City, raised on a dias, its nine doors closed. At each corner of the roof, ten animals look out over the crowd. It’s hard to see from the ground, but I think the tenth might be seated in a chair.