beijing 1: they smell like flowers

It’s a short line of sleepy, shuffling rather-be slumberers at 11:15 pm Sunday night in the Air China waiting line. LAX is a wishy-washy pile of an airport, closer to Lacks or Ex-LAX than to re-LAX. It’s taking five minutes a person to move the line ahead. China here I come, albeit slowly.

11:50. At the gate, and the plane won’t board for another hour and 20 mins. Damn. Arrived too early this time. Nothing to do, and little enough juice to do it with. Need to find an electrical outlet and juice up. Should buy a sandwich, water, bottle of coffee for morning: the essentials. Gotta get some currency as soon as the cash transmutation office opens at midnight. I’ll need small bills to hit the ground running at 5:30 Tuesday morning in Beijing.

1:25. I’ve boarded an Air China plane the size of Rhode Island, a fossilized 747 from the Ming dynasty. Hope they’ve changed the oil. They’re playing Silent Night over the speaker system at nearly subliminal volume. Sleep in heavenly peace, indeed. I sure hope so. The pharmacopia in my backpack will undoubtedly help.

Only a few minutes to go now before my row-mate and I are declared the winners. We are separated by an empty seat and have no row behind us, yet still recline. This impossible jetliner is nearly full, a flying Cruise Ship, a winged office tower of the skies.

Should have ordered the special meal. Peruvian goat clusters, Pygmy ham, jellied snake milk salad. I’ll probably sleep through food. The sandwich I crammed in my bag will be rank and spoiled by dawn’s early light. After all, we cross the date line and don’t land until Tuesday. Ahead and behind me the rows of seats stretch to an infinite vanishing point, as if you’d end up back in coach if you continued forward far enough, through business class, first class, double platinum ultra class. I can see the left side of the plane curving inward far ahead of me. Perhaps the plane is donut-shaped, and will roll all the way to China.

The giant airlock behind us grinds close with bank vault finality. Things are looking up. We win! We win! High fives and extra seating space all around. Adios, city of angels!

We taxi slowly with darkened cabin lights. A hush falls over the long body of the plane, and some passengers nod off. Those fuzzy voices from the speakers are probably telling us to turn off our iPhones now. But the voices are in Chinese, so it doesn’t count, so I keep blogging.

Yep. English now, fuzzy as a drive-through and no, there are no fries with that. See you later.

Ambien. Slept for 6 hours, then watched The Watchmen. Billy Crudup’s blue prothesis isn’t as impressive on such a tiny screen. Falling asleep briefly, I was shaken awake at 4:30 AM to open my window and watch our dark descent.

Fewer lights than expected, given the density of population.

I am in China.

It takes five minutes to deplane and go through customs, much faster to enter China than the US. The new wing of the international airport, built for the 2008 Olympics, is huge, and soaring, modern, beautiful. And nearly empty in the pre-dawn, an echoing cathedral to tourism.

It very silent here so far, and my phone is as disoriented as I am.

Walking through these Olympic caverns overhung by black skies, we are passed in the other direction by a phalanx of midnight-uniformed airport workers who descend a broad escalator four abreast, each wearing a sky-blue surgical mask. I am filled with confidence. Or germs.

In broken English, an elderly Chinese man asks me for directions. Oddly enough, I am able to give them. We are, after all, only going to baggage claim and the train won’t take us anywhere else.

5:45 AM at baggage claim.  Phone and email work as smooth as silk. Marci sounds like she’s standing next to me, whispering into my ear. A driver should have a sign for me. If not, I’ll look up the hotel website to get the address in Chinese.

5:50.  No problem. An attractive young woman met me just past the security zone and led me to an awaiting car.

We drive off toward the city. The sky is a deep blue with a hint of light around the corners. Trees planted thickly by the broad highway hide the landscape. Soon a concrete forest of new highrise apartment buildings rises above the fir tops.

The air shows early smog, but not as bad as the inversion I experienced in Delhi. It looks more like a light San Francisco marine layer misting. Luckily I am here in the fall, when the cool air keeps the pollution moving. Cranes everywhere testify to the pace of the construction economy. This is a place where the landscape changes quickly.

We arrive at The Opposite House, an amazing and very new hotel. Ultra modern. The room is so spotless and clean that I wouldn’t eat off the floor for fear of sullying it with my tongue.

A large cedar tub calls to me, siren-like, and I succumb to its still, warm embrace before meeting fellow travelers in the lobby.

Current theory based on several elevator trips at The Opposite House: successful young Chinese women are all cute and smell like flowers. Whereas I am large and smell like a wet dog.

Later modified theory after a groggy day of sightseeing: the average Chinese woman is not cute (same as the average human everywhere), and objects to being sniffed. But she can spit in your eye from ten feet away.

Everyone spits here. If the sidewalks were lined with spittoons the air would ring like hail on a tin roof.

Steven, Robert, Justin and I spend the day at the Summer Palace, a beautiful complex of palaces and Buddhist temples in the hills surrounding a lovely lake. There’s a lot of climbing and walking up sharp hills, and very little context in what we’re seeing. What’s with the venerated rocks? Vertical worm-eaten rock chimneys dot the palace grounds, as if x-marking the spots of a thousand ascensions to heaven. They sure like their piles of furrowed and twisted stone here. Signs on the barriers tell us to “Help Protect The Cultural Relics” and also “Help Protect The Railings.” No signs protect the signs, so they’re fair game. Scenic vistas and architecture crop up around every corner.

After a mid-afternoon lunch at a dumpling shop whose menu features items like “Clod Meat” and “Small bowl first Palestinian brain tendons,” we take the subway back toward our hotel. The subway is jam-packed, much like Tokyo at rush hour. But it’s very well marked, and bodiless voices call out the stops in both Chinese and clearly pronounced English. In fact, this subway is even easier to navigate than Tokyo’s.

Fat Buddhas are in abundance. Ditto for mosques. We pass several churches and a wedding party. For a bunch of godless heathen Communists, there sure is a lot of religion. Many things are not as I expected. I’m not seeing a lot of Soviet-style architecture, for one. My overall impression of Beijing is one of newness, construction, economic activity, success. There are many trees, and not a lot of trash. Beijing seems a lot closer to New York than New Delhi.

One regret that I must find a way live with for the rest of my life: I did not order the “small bowl first Palestinian brain tendons.” Now I will never know.

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