The Superfluous Tourist

A few years back there was a popular movie  called "The Accidental Tourist."  I don’t remember the plot, but I remember thinking it was dreadful.   In China today, there seems to be a new phenomenon–the superflous tourist.  I spotted this term in a CRI (China Radio International) piece about how the Forbidden City (also known as the Palace Museum) will adopt a system of electronically keeping track of the numbers of tickets being sold in order to monitor and control the number of visitors actually in the museum at one time.  When a certain number are determined to still be in the palace, ticket sales will be temporarily halted.  Here’s the money quote from the article:

In recent years, the number of daily visitors to the Palace Museum has averaged 50,000 during "golden weeks," the week-long national holidays observed three times a year in China.  Superfluous tourists have caused damage to cultural relics in the museum.

Superfluous tourists? What in the world is a superfluous tourist? Webster’s New Millenium Dictionary defines superfluous as "un-necessary and un-called for." (from Are there some tourists who are necessary and called for and others who aren’t?  And how do they decide?  NO TICKET FOR YOU!  YOU’RE SUPERFLUOUS! And how are they so sure it’s just the superfluous tourists who are destroying the cultural relics?

The last time I was at the Forbidden City I felt like a superfluous tourist.  The President of Algeria and his entourage (numerous Black Audi’s) entered just ahead of me, surrounded by a police cordon.  When he was in a courtyard, all of us superfluous tourists had to stand around and wait until he was done and had moved onto the next courtyard.  Then the police cordon fell back and we rushed in to gawk at the ancient buildings now completely covered in tarp and being renovated. We never actually saw a building, so maybe it was the tour that was superfluous.

So there you have it….too many superfluous tourists at the Forbidden City.  Which reminds me, what’s the opposite of superfluous?


Last weekend I spent some time exploring the old neighborhoods of Beijing. These neighborhoods are called “hutong” neighborhoods. Hutong is a Mongolian that is leftover from the time when the Mongols ruled China.

Today it has come to refer to the alleys and lanes that make up the old city of Beijing. I like taking pictures in the neighborhoods because they are being leveled on the mad rush to modernization. Only 25 neighborhoods have been designated for preservation. All the others will be destroyed.

As I was walking through one neighborhood the other day I was startled to see this woman selling cabbage. Not just cabbage, but a mountain of cabbage. The source of my amazement was not in the fact that I haven’t seen such a huge mound of cabbage before, but that I hadn’t seen such a thing in a long time. It used to be a common sight in November. As late as ten years ago trucks loaded down with cabbage would descend on the city for a few weeks, depositing their
cabbage onto every available inch of real estate. There were mountains of cabbage everywhere.
People would buy in November all the cabbage that they would need to see them through the winter. They’d take it home, tuck it away into giant earthen containers, and set them in stairwells and balconies. My first winter in China(’84-85), the cooks at the school where I taught just buried it in the ground behind the kitchen. And yes, we pretty much ate only cabbage for the whole winter!

But things have changed now, at least in the cities. There’s no longer any need to stock up on
cabbage (or potatoes) for the winter. It’s too easy to just pop across the street to the Hyper-mart or the Merry-mart or the Wal-mart and get what you need—fresh!

Seeing that mound of cabbage, though, sure brought back some memories!

The Travellator

On Friday night a friend and I were exiting the Lotus Supercenter at the Golden Resources Mall, in western Beijing.  This is supposedly the largest mall in Asia, but that’s neither here nor there.  The Lotus is in the basement, and we were looking for a way to get back above ground when we noticed a big sign pointing us towards THE TRAVELLATOR.  Huh?  Thinking that the Chinese characters might shed some light on what was meant I checked them out:  roughly translated, they said "automatic walking person road."  Not much help, really, since I wasn’t sure what an automatic walking person was.  I didn’t remember seeing any robots wandering around! Well, we decided the only way to find out was to follow the sign and hopefully see for ourselves what this mysterious travellator was.  Lo and behold, it was a moving walkway, that ran between the basement and the main level.  These are quite common here, so that folks can haul their shopping carts between floors.  I can just imagine the translation team sitting around working on this one.   It’s not an elevator–that goes straight up and down.  It’s not an escalator–those are stairs! I know, let’s call this a travellator!

Works for me!

It’s a Dog’s Life…Or Should I Say, Death

Well, Beijing’s ‘crackdown of the month’ this November is swinging into high gear.  After announcing the successful end of the last crackdown (a 100-day campaign against pirated DVD’s, which of course re-appeared as soon as the crackdown was over), now they’re going after dogs.  This coincides with the recent announcement by the Ministry of Health that rabies (yes, rabies!) was the number one infectious disease in China for the first half of 2006.  What’s the solution? Round up the dogs!

It’s estimated at that there are at least 550,000 pet dogs in Beijing, and it is feared that many of them are not properly innoculated against rabies.  So the city government has announced they will enforce size limits on dogs (big ones are not allowed), and will be going door to door looking for un-registered and un-innoculated dogs.  When they find them, they take them away.  Just like that.  It is a veritable reign of canine terror.  People are now suddenly walking their dogs late at night and hiding them whenever someone rings the doorbell.  Locals are so upset that some even staged a demonstration near the zoo this weekend. 

The Christian Science Monitor recently had a good article on dogs in Beijing: 

In most cities, taking your dog for a walk in the
dead of night could be seen as a personal quirk or a byproduct of
insomnia. But in Beijing, it’s a sure sign that the city’s dogcatchers
are on the prowl for illicit mutts. If you don’t want your pet to end
up in the pen or as protein on someone’s plate, it’s best to keep a low
Once shunned by communist ideologues as capitalist
vermin, dogs have become a firm favorite among China’s fast-growing
middle class and a status symbol among the well-heeled. A generation
raised in one-child families is eager to bond with household pets.

Interestingly, I haven’t heard my neighbor’s dog bark in a few days.  I wonder…..

A Shaanxi Scrum

I haven’t posted anything lately because I’ve been busy playing host to a group of 23 college students (and their teachers) from Minnesota.  They are on a 6-nation, 2-month swing through the Pacific Rim, learning about the different cultures. We of course did the obligatory tourist stuff (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall, Acrobats, etc), and ate the obligatory food (kungpao chicken, Beijing Duck, Beijing style noodles), and did the obligatory shopping.  In addition, they had the chance to visit 3 university campuses and meet some Chinese students. 

The other obligatory activity was a trip down to Xi’an, Shaanxi Province,  to see the Terra-cotta Warriors.  We took the overnight train both ways, which was a treat for the students, because most had never been on a train.  Minnesota’s only passenger rail line runs a whopping 10 miles between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America—previous rides on that simply don’t count!   We took the train into Xi’an, but decided to depart from the much smaller city of Weinan, which is closer to the Warriors.  Besides, I have a friend who lives there who could get the 24 tickets needed.   

The train station at a city like Weinan should really be a must-see for visitors who want to experience the "real" China.  (Actually I hate that expression, since for those who live in the modern cities like Beijing or Shanghai, that’s the real China for them—just as New York is the "real" America for those who live there…..but I digress). I think what I really mean is that Weinan is fairly representative of a small Chinese city, both in economic development, social development, and in the mindset.

Ok, back to the train station.  First of all, we had to get there, which meant commandeering 6 taxis to take us the 2 miles to the station, where  the sudden arrival of 24 "big noses"   created quite the stir.  There are less than 10 foreigners who live in the entire city, so our presence more than doubled the population.  I’m sure that most people at the station that night had never even seen one foreigner in person, and now suddenly there were 24 of us!!!  We quickly spotted the "sign" that identified the door through which Beijing-bound passengers would go onto the platform.  The train we were to board originated in Xi’an, which means Weinan was just a quick stop. 2 minutes to be exact.  That’s how much time we’d have to get on the train.

As we stood in the "line" behind the door, along with about 100 other people (mostly peasants) I passed the word back through our group that when the door opened, they must abandon all notions of "Minnesota Nice" and fight.  I warned them that they’d need to get physical if necessary.  Of course they thought I was exagerating.  They quickly learned I wasn’t kidding.  As soon as the door open, the crowd became a 100-person scrum.  Elbows were thrown.  Shins were kicked.  Luggage was tripped over.  But we all threw ourselves into it and managed to battle our way onto the platform.  Like combat-weary grunts who had just captured a ridge, we stopped for a moment to savor our victory.  But only for a moment, because once on the platform, we had to figure out where to position ourselves to jump onto car #12.  I asked a few platform attendants, and they mindlessly waved their hands and said "here."  I was certainly wishing they spoke with a bit more certainty.  About 5 minutes after we got onto the platform, the train came rolling in, and our reading of the train car numbers as they flew by made it plain to us that we were not standing in the right place to board #12—it was going to whiz right on by us.  At that, we broke into a run—24 of us—running alongside the train as it slowed down.  But then, in our haste we overshot #12, and the train stopped, so we had to turn around and run back from whence we came.  The sight of 24 Americans running frantically up and down the platform must have been a great source of entertainment for the locals.  We finally got to the door of car #12 and threw ourselves and stuff onto the train.  The last person made it on just before the doors were closed and the train pulled out, headed into the darkness of a Shaanxi night! 

Ah….train travel in China.  Gotta love it.