Mongolian karaoke: it is everything you desire it to be. The walls and ceiling and, in places, the floor were covered with many-colored objects, folkloric costumes, and murals and mirrors and lamps and sequined cloth and wooden wheels and masks and cowhides and weapons and other things unidentifiable, and the colors were bright, even in that bad light. The leg of lamb was superb. The beer was expensive but fine. Likewise the bread. And the singers: it is unexplainable. Unknown to one another until that night—they came from different tables, different groups of friends, and there was no mingling—every single one of them sang unfeasibly well, though they were not professional singers as far as I could tell; they looked to be accountants and soap salesmen and insurance agents, but they sang beautifully to the awful, awful music that is Mongolian light rock played on a Bontempi organ by a bored man with a short wide tie. Or perhaps they were in fact the choir half of the Mongolian Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, living in exile due to some sort of music-oriented crime or misunderstanding and only pretended to be accountants and soap salesmen and insurance agents who did not know each other. I doubt it, however. There was of course also a Master of Ceremonies of sorts, a man with long hair and loose wrists, sky-colored clothes and a Vegas smile, who was there in case any of the singers went off tune, or forgot the lyrics, but they never did, though there was no lyric screen with ball bouncing from word to word, no lyric screen of any kind, but they did not forget, not a single one, not a single word.
Also musically: today, rush hour, and the taxi driver begins to rumble. Thinking he’s complaining about the traffic, I say, Oh yeah, yes yes, oh yeah. He looks at me. I look at him, and realize he wasn’t bitching but singing, and my commiseration made us a blues duet very briefly.
Unmusically: there is a vast avenue that runs east-west, separating the bottom third of Beijing from the upper two-thirds, and for a stretch of perhaps fifteen long blocks, both sides of the avenue are lined with huge buildings in many different architectural styles, many colors, hundreds of buildings twenty and thirty stories high, and what they all have in common is this: they are brand-new, and they are empty. Not yet needed, apparently. I think that supply outstripping demand in this way must be a nice problem to have, better than its opposite surely, but I am not really certain about this. Also, the trees: as regards my wife’s drive to and from work along the east leg of the Third Ring Road, one evening it was the same treeless Third Ring Road as ever, and the next morning to either side were rows of artificial pine trees, all decorated with ornaments and tinsel: hundreds of thousands of Christmas trees emplaced and decorated overnight. My point, then: here in China, things are done massively or not at all.
What surprises: Christmas in Beijing is much like Christmas anywhere else. Apparently this has never been the case until this year, but it is mainly now a fact: ornaments and blinking lights and the aforementioned trees, and other trees, and Santa Clauses and reindeer and frenetic commercial activity pretty much everywhere, at all times. This was all documented happily on the state-run television channels, as was the religious background. I still do not understand religion in China. There are two places (perhaps three—we are unclear on this) where one might go to Catholic mass each week. One is at the Colombian Embassy (at times shifted to the Argentine Embassy, though I prefer mass with the Colombians because the coffee afterwards is so very good, and I wish to be clear that all of the following is for me only a question of anthropology, and I should thus probably just shut the hell up about it, but for my wife it is a question of life, and also death), and there, if I understand correctly, one must be or look foreign in order to enter unhassled—Chinese nationals are turned away at the gate by the Chinese military police posted permanently there. (Again, this is only my understanding of the matter; I have never seen any Chinese turned away, but I have also never seen any attempt to enter.) At the Hepingmen Cathedral, however, the majority of the celebrants are Chinese—whether they are locals or foreign-born is an important question, and I do not yet know the answer—and as far as I can tell there are no military police or regular police or hidden cameras posted at the door or anywhere else. For mass on Christmas Eve, foreigners were required to request permission to go, and to arrive with their permits visible, and there was a limit as to how many might attend, while the Chinese entered freely, permitless, in great numbers. This too was shown happily on state-run television, and the newscaster wished us a Merry Christmas, hoped for peace and goodwill among all people and peoples, desired that the blessings of the season accrue mightily to each of us, and I wish and hope and desire the same for you.