One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


I went to this place called Poly Plaza last night to see an acrobatic performance. It took place in a theatre that was similar in shape and size to a theatre at the Stratford Festival. For no real reason, I decided to spend 300 yuan on a ticket in the best section, and ended up with the best seat in the house. It was a bit funny, though, because the Monday night audience was kind of sparse, and I was the only person seated in the premium section with "VIP" emblazoned on the backs of all the seats. There was a sea of empty seats around me. I felt like Howard Hughes.

The audience spent most of the hour-and-a-half performance gasping with shock and amazement. The performers, who appeared to range in age from maybe 8 to 20, were unbelievably lithe, flexible, and strong. I can only imagine the training they undergo -- it must be crazy. In front of backdrops depicting the Great Wall and other famous Chinese landscapes, they did things with bicycles and chairs that God never intended. There were many times when I found myself murmuring, "Oh, no... Oh God, no... Don't... Please, don't... Your ovaries!"

There were several different acts or scenes, each with different music, each suggesting a different mood. There was a whimsical one, a romantic one, a very grand and serious one, and others. My favourite featured a troupe of girls in elaborate costumes and enormous hats with feathers in them, dancing energetically while doing amazing tricks with giant yo-yos. Another particularly impressive act was built around two 30-foot poles -- a troupe of male acrobats scampered up the poles with the speed of lemurs and then spun, jumped, or flipped their way down to the floor. The acts were all very polished, but they weren't perfect and mechanical -- you could occasionally see a performer screw up a little or lose his balance for a second. Somehow, these instances only made the overall effect more powerful -- these reminders that the art is very difficult even for a seasoned professional, requiring immense effort and focus.

After the acrobats, I found a restaurant and ordered a bunch of dishes that I wanted to try. There were pictures of everything in the menu, so ordering was fun and easy. This one spicy pork dish arrived, and I shoved a big chunk of it in my mouth, getting more and more confident with the chopsticks. Suddenly, I felt like there was a family of angry scorpions in my mouth, stinging me to death. "Water," I croaked. I hurriedly consulted my phrasebook. "Shway, please! Shway!" My nose started to run in sympathy with my burning mouth. They brought me a bottle of water and all was well.

Today I got up early to go to the Great Wall. I paid 150 yuan for a trip organized by CITS, the big tourist agency. I made sure to be down in the lobby by 6:45 for a 7:00 pick-up, and I was surprised to see that Beijing at 6:45 on a Tuesday morning has as much car traffic, foot traffic, and other activity as does Toronto on a Saturday afternoon. It seems like most people here start their day very early.

I thought that my trip would be on a big bus with a big group, but instead it was just me and a young married couple in a van, with a driver and tour guide. The tour guide, oddly I thought, kept making remarks about how the company loses money when it's just three tourists in a van. "But that's not your problem," he added. Yeah, it's not, so why do you keep mentioning it? And why do you offer a service when it results in a loss? It's not like you're trying to build a relationship with us for the future.

The married couple was very interesting. Carlos was Spanish, my age, and a former assistant professor of economics at a university in Vienna. His main research interest was social policy with regard to long-term care. His wife, Anastasia, was Russian, and doing graduate study in translation and interpreting. They met in Austria, and German was the language they habitually spoke to each other. (They both also spoke excellent English.) They now live in Grenada, Spain. We had really interesting conversations throughout the day about Spanish politics, Spain and the EU, Spain's various ethnic groups and their languages, and the differences between the European and North American university systems. The most priceless thing Carlos said to me all day was, "If you don't mind, I'd like to get your opinion as an Anglo-Saxon on..."

Our tour guide answered a lot of questions for us as we sped up the Badaling Expressway to the Great Wall. He talked about the "paradox" of capitalism in a Communist country. He told us about the mixed feelings of the people, some of whom are unhappy to lose the job security and free health care they enjoyed under the previous system -- known colloquially as the "iron rice bowl." He told us that unlike in Mao's day, people were now able to criticize the actions of the government, although "it is better to criticize privately." I left that one alone. He also told us that the government employs over 50,000 "internet police" to control the information available to Chinese citizens.

On the way to the Wall, we visited a jade factory that was set up to receive tourists. We learned about the different grades of quality in jade, and how to tell real jade from fake. I didn't realize this, but apparently, a high quality jade bracelet or bangle will change colour over the years as a result of the wearer's "energy." It becomes a darker, richer green over time. There was a large shop at the end of the factory tour -- a pattern that would be all-too-familiar by the end of the day. I thought about throwing the sales staff into confusion by insisting on purchasing a set of jade pyjamas, but didn't go through with it. It was still too early in the day at that point for jokes.

The Wall was the Wall. A pleasant surprise, though, was the fact that there were only a handful of people there on this gloomy, overcast morning. I climbed rapidly up to the highest accessible point on the hill, and sat down to relax with a bottle of cold water and a book. I've finished Ragtime and have moved on to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I'm 150 pages into it, and loving it. I've been lucky with my books on this trip -- although I was disappointed in the two William Gibson books I read at the very beginning, back in Russia, I still enjoyed them, and I've been really enthusiastic about everything since. Anyway, I sat on the steps at the top of the hill, overlooking a big dramatic valley with the Wall snaking up and down, and the only sounds I could hear were crickets and, faintly, the traffic from the highway far below. For a long time, there was no one in sight on my section of the Wall -- I had it to myself. I had brought all my Canada flag pins, etc., to give as gifts to children, but there was nobody around.

I need a haircut. I think I'll get one in Shanghai. I have my graduation day picture to show them, so it should be okay. In Japan, haircuts probably cost $400, so it's time to take action.

I was thinking today that some Chinese people may hold the same attitude toward Western visitors speaking Chinese that a snarky Doctor Johnson held toward women preaching the gospel. "It is not unlike watching a dog walk on its hind legs," he said, famously. "It is not done well, but one is amazed to see it done at all." This would explain the reaction of some Chinese people to my efforts.

There is a bar near my hotel called "Waiting for Godot."

I've been watching the people here very carefully, and I've come to the conclusion that if there was ever a military conflict between China and the usual suspects in the West, we might not be able to take them. They get up very early in the morning; they are very agile; and they seem to enjoy massive and difficult undertakings.

I was thinking some more about the whole idea of authenticity when you're travelling. It seems to me that a Western backpacker's struggle for authenticity is not unlike the flopping and thrashing of a bass on the floor of a boat with a hook through its mouth: futile; pitiful; and best finished with a merciful clubbing. Anywhere you go, if powerful forces are transforming that society, every molecule of air will be authentic because all around you the local people will be fighting for their futures without any complacency or reservation. Parts of Beijing may feel like theme parks, and you know you're not seeing Beijing as it was 500 years ago, or 20, or even 5, but in that case the question is, "What energies in this society have created this artificial thing?"

Something funny happened the other day that I forgot to mention in the blog entry. While I was sitting with A-yi and the American girl near the public ping pong tables by the river, a Chinese teenager rode by on his bike and saw us eating these little grape-sized apples out of a plastic bag. "You are eating our Chinese apples!" he yelled in Chinese, grinning, as he zoomed past us up the street without stopping. "You are eating our apples! Do you like our apples? Ha ha ha!" The American girl translated all of this for me.

Tomorrow should be a quiet day. My train for Shanghai leaves at 7-something p.m., and I may go to the Temple of Heaven during the day, or I may not. Maybe I'll start doing some language homework in preparation for my upcoming visit to the land of Pokemon and Ninjas.


Anonymous Mom said...

Aaron, Pleased you got to see acrobats...Jade makes wonderful gifts for loved ones at is my favorite colour...Miss you.Mom.

9:29 PM

Anonymous Steph said...

Wait! Don't get that haircut! From what I hear, in Japan they give you a massage with a haircut. You don't want to pass that up! Or maybe you do...

7:51 AM


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