Saturday, August 4, 2007


For our first double dark of the city, a group of forty or so Quidamers convened in the Chinese capital city for a quick and dirty tour arranged by the Flowing Spring Travel Agency. Beijing is a two hour flight from Shanghai, a journey enhanced by the super cool magnetic levitation (“Maglev”) train ride to the Pudong airport that hurls its passengers forward at speeds over 400 km/hr with only the slightest side-to-side sway of the coach.

Our tour guide, Iris, met us in Beijing, explaining that Iris was her western name, and that her Chinese name consists of two characters, one meaning “before” and the other meaning “beautiful.” The combination, she lamented, suggests being past one’s prime – how unfortunate to be saddled with such a name from birth! Iris (who still looked to me like a pretty 30ish woman) also told us to rest assured that our bus was driven by the “second best driver in Beijing” and that “the number one driver is in the hospital.” We grimaced… some jokes don’t translate, and I’m still at a loss about this one.

As we settled into our bus seats, Iris demonstrated the complexity of Mandarin by describing the four tones of the language. The syllable “ma,” for instance, can mean everything from mother to horse to curse to a question mark when intoned differently. From that point on, you couldn’t stop certain rowdy members of our group from shouting “mamamama” sporadically, in wild inflections, whenever the opportunity arose.

Our first stop cemented my suspicions that this would be one of those pre-fab tours designed to extort as much dough from duped tourists as possible. I almost think, though, that it’s the only way to go – you certainly get your money’s worth in absurd stories and hilarious situations. We entered the restaurant through a gift shop full of Chinese kitsch into an equally tacky dining room decked with dusty paper lanterns, a stageful of “cultural performers”(apathetic teenagers in Chinese garb), and the ubiquitous round tables with lazy susans at their centers. No sooner had I sat down then Iris waved her flag and asked if there were any vegetarians in the house because if there were, they needed to move to a “special” table. My fellow veggie friend, Billy, and I followed her over to a teeny, isolated table situated ironically within inches of a man ceremoniously carving a duck. It was a bit like being relegated to the kid’s table on Thanksgiving, making Billy and I the center of attention and subject of everyone’s pictures, taunts, and quips about veggie discrimination.

From there, we spent hours plodding through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, learning of ancient emperors and their thousands of concubines, of bow-and-arrow battles with Mongolian tribes, and of the glory of Mao Tse-tung. Sunstroked and weary, we eagerly checked into the Kingwing International Hotel, looking forward to luxury accommodations after being informed that we’d been “upgraded” to a five star establishment due to the size of our group. It was immediately apparent that these five stars fell somewhere on a rating system that could have included an entire constellation. I was reminded of my hotel overlooking Red Square in Moscow – stoic, socialist chic, probably renovated some time in the 60s. The water ran rusty from the pipes, bulbs flickered dimly in their timeworn lamps, and the beds were… good for the back. But the two-day itinerary didn’t include much time for sleeping, so we couldn’t complain.

We were taken to another tourist depot and presented with a traditional Peking (former name of Beijing) duck dinner. The fowl is famous for its tender meat and crispy skin, which we learned is achieved by filling the bird’s belly with water and roasting it. In this way, the insides become moist while the outside obtains a delectable crunchiness. The meat is then thinly sliced and served inside folded rice pancakes with sliced cucumbers, onions, and hoisin sauce. Sans duck, the meal was still delicious, especially when paired with light Chinese beer, a safer beverage than the always-suspect glass of tap water.

After a ridiculous attempt at finding some cool nightlife (resulting in our rejection of countless shady bars specializing in the extortion of foreigners’ cash) we endured a painfully early wake-up call at the Kingwing. Unless we felt like loading up on MSG from the hotel breakfast buffet, the majority of our group found salvation in the Starbucks next door, and piled into the bus (though we soon regretted the coffee upon learning that it would be a two hour, no-bathroom-stop ride to our next destination). Starbucks seems to be the one place around here where you’re guaranteed to find someone with at least a limited grasp of English, even if their vocabulary is highly rooted in espresso options and muffin varieties.

Our aim that day was a pilgrimage to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, a less-touristy area two hours outside Beijing. The trip brought us out of the city and into the higher elevations and lush greenery of the countryside; the contrast was dramatic. Our lungs hadn’t realized what they were missing, and we gulped the fresh air greedily. From the parking lot where the bus stopped, there was a tram station where tipsy gondolas aided our final ascent to the wall. It looked eerily unreal, like a dinosaur or a strand of DNA that seems only to belong to textbook pages and Discovery Channel specials. While the air was clear, it was still blazing hot, but I had a sun hat, two walking legs, and three hours until the bus left, so I started hiking the wall.

For the first minutes I nursed historical fantasies of the wall – its builders, its battles, its romances, and how awesome it would be to traverse the whole thing, a feat that really seems possible when your legs are fresh and you’re high on dizzying breaths of clean (but thin) air. The wall wasn’t built for a stroll; it’s craggy with uneven stairs, towers, tunnels, and ladders. I was soon more than happy to pay way too much for a water bottles sold by a little old man with an ice chest parked ingeniously at the top of a nasty incline.

The thing I hadn’t realized about the Great Wall, is that parts of it aren’t so great – you can only walk so far before it drops off into what must look like cookie crumbs from space. So I climbed and sweated until my legs shook and I ran out of wall to walk on, at which point I gazed down from a high spot, my eyes falling serendipitously on the scene unfolding below…

My coach, Chris, was trying desperately to hold a handstand long enough to have a picture taken of him being all acrobatic on one of the Seven Wonders, while no more than two feet away, my good friend Tony was suspiciously lowering one knee to the ground in front of his girlfriend, Grace, also a long-time friend of mine. Chris continued to throw himself upside down, determined to get the perfect photo and totally oblivious of the marriage proposal he was in danger of kicking a leg into. About three of us up on the watchtower saw Grace extend a hand and accept the ring, and we burst into applause, mistakenly boosting the ego of a very red-faced Chris.

I couldn’t be happier for Tony and Grace, especially as I recall the three of us nervously discussing our hopes of all being cast in Quidam some years back, and the mushy romantic in me loves the fact that I witnessed a proposal that will no doubt be the stuff of family lore for years to come.

After the giddiness of the day, we cleaned up in preparation for the evening’s entertainment, a show by the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe. The company has had a contract with Cirque du Soleil for over a decade, providing its shows with specialists in disciplines particular to Chinese circus arts. Our four “little Chinese girls” who perform the Diablos (Chinese yo-yo) in Quidam are from the troupe, following in the footsteps of many acrobatic envoys before them. The meeting of Cirque and the BAT was a much-anticipated event, now that our company is finally performing for the first time in mainland China. It felt special to be part of this delegation, a circus ambassadorship I hoped would help me feel more connected to the Chinese people and less like a flailing alien in this country that continues to confound me daily.

We should have known that no amount of good will and optimism could keep the evening from turning into an imbroglio. With China’s particular mélange of bureaucracy, corruption, and fakery, there is little reason to ever assume smooth sailing. We were dropped off at a nondescript theater just as the first stilt-walkers, tumblers, and hand-standers took the stage. We sat raptly, our view colored with the rosy tint of high expectations and happy encouragement, as we were determined to support our sister circus. Soon, though, I’m sure each of us had the same guilty thought – the show was, well, amateurish. I tried, as no doubt we all did, to smile and nod and clap, while feeling the slightest, apologetic disappointment.

At intermission, though, we shuffled outside to find a heated confrontation between our Cirque director and the tour guide. “Somehow” a “mistake” had been made (not by the tour company, of course) and we had watched the first half of a lesser production put on by a children’s circus school. Did they think we wouldn’t notice?! They had duped us, most likely buying these cheaper tickets and keeping the difference, banking on us pleasantly and ignorantly sitting through the show. And the truth is, we would have. It shows, I guess, the power of self-convincing and the pressure of propriety, when the script demands a generous spirit and you rush to fill the role.

More than anything, it was a big loss of face for Cirque, a faux pas that would involve an embarrassing phone call and an attempt to explain the situation without conveying too much disgust over the crooked way things tend to work in China. The Beijing troupe had been practicing especially for our visit, had prepared gifts and everything, and we hadn’t shown up! After intense interrogation, the tour guide told us that the real show was a 45-minute cab ride away, and that the extra cost would be covered by Flowing Spring Tours.

The troupe’s show was over by the time we reached the empty theater, but they had waited for us, still in costumes and make-up and still eager to perform a couple of their biggest acts for us. They were amazing, specialists in the intricate, ever-more-difficult acts like stacking teacups on their heads, jumping through tiny hoops, and scurrying up poles like squirrels. At this point, there was no choice but to be the best audience they’d ever had, clapping and hooting and standing for a long ovation at the end, everyone exhausted and emotional. There were speeches, handshakes, photos, and a general conclusion that things had gone the only way they could have – with a little excitement thrown in to make it memorable.