Even before coming to China, we were told that in Beijing it sometimes snows in late spring, and it turns out that this is true: thick white stuff falling softly, clumping together on the ground, drifting in gutters, and it swirls around you as you walk, so thick that, at times, it is difficult to see where you are going. And it is a particularly marvelous type of snow in the sense that you do not need to put on special clothes before going out—no need for coat or hat or gloves—because this snow is not at all cold, and you can sit in piles of it without dampening your pants, and it is not real snow at all but pollen, willow pollen, or so I have been told. It falls thickly throughout the city, though mostly in the parks, beautifully, and I will miss it when it’s gone. On the other hand, I suppose an allergy could be fatal.
We also have rain in Beijing in late spring, but it is just your regular rain-type rain.
If someone comes up to you on the street and offers you a Tibetan barley ball, say, “No, thank you,” in a way that is at once polite but firm. And if someone comes up to you on the street and offers you a plate of Tibetan chicken soaked in liquor and stewed in a clay pot, be likewise polite but firm, saying, “Yes, please. Actually, I’ll take two. Three, in fact. And one for my wife or husband.”
And this, just now remembered: New Year’s Eve. It had been my turn to plan, and I had failed, miserably. I had read certain newspaper articles, certain magazine articles, and thought I knew; I thought it was a question of family and feasting and watching several awful types of special New Year’s Eve television programming, and then a question of going to flower markets, and then a question of going to parks where one might watch the fireworks displays, and then a question of parties at clubs and bars. I was thickly wrong on all counts, or perhaps right on the first count, though I have no way of being sure, but surely wrong on the second count, as we drove to the flower markets and they were all closed, and wrong on the third count, as we drove then to the parks and they were all dark and empty, and wrong on the fourth count, as we drove from club to pub to bar and no one was in any of them. By eleven o’clock we were very hungry, and broke off the search for fun in the hope of finding food, but somehow, too, all the restaurants were closed, and even the fast-food restaurants were closing, each one bolting the door as we walked up, and at last I was barely allowed into a just-closing supermarket, but inside were several dozen tired soldiers standing at tired attention; they would not allow me to enter any of the actual aisles, insisted that instead I select only products available at or around the cash registers, which meant we had a choice between candy and gum. We went with the small plastic case of blueberry-flavored hard chewy things. They were okay. We then resumed our search for fun, and continued to fail for a long time; there was a bar called Loup Chant that purported to have an event, but it was very far away, and by the time it was our sole remaining option, we were too pissed off at me even to try. Only in terms of watching fireworks did we prevail, and then only because they begin several days before New Year’s Eve and last for several days afterward, and because our very apartment is an excellent place from which to see them: they are shot off from everywhere in the city, constantly, for hours, and on the night in question the true barrage began at five minutes to midnight and lasted exactly five minutes—hundreds or perhaps thousands of pretty explosions, vast noise and light all around us. Then silence, and the smell of gunpowder. Then we went to sleep.
Someday I will remember to try the tonic or tea or whatever it is that one finds in so many markets here, the amber or umber liquid that comes in tall glass cylinders, not bottles exactly but cylinders, which, in addition to the liquid, house herbs and unidentified things and sometimes snakes as well. In general, each cylinder contains two snakes, which are twisted in elegant, complicated, symmetrical knots, their mouths held open, their fangs showing. Yes, this is the one I want to try, the snake-flavored one. But perhaps not today.