It was one of those all-too-rare days with blue skies and mercifully low atmospheric levels of PM2.5, the particulate mix of dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets pumped into the air by the coal plants and construction sites that surround Beijing. On bad days here it’s difficult to breathe, sometimes so much so that staying inside and sitting next to an air filter sounds like a genuinely good time. On those days, from our window the two skyscrapers under construction a few blocks away look like a picture from an old disposable camera, colors washed out and smoky white.
On good days it can be a little unsettling. You forget that the sky can be so deeply crystalline and blue. So on good days, like today, my roommate Nick, thousands of small children, those small children’s parents, and I go to the zoo.
In the interest of full and honest disclosure it should be noted that Nick and I weren’t drawn to the Beijing Zoo out of purely zoological interest. Nick visited the Shanghai Zoo several years earlier with his twin brother Dom. Visitors would throw anything on hand, usually trash, at an animal to get its attention. In China, feeding the animals isn’t subject to the same strict prohibition of US zoos either. If you hadn’t thought to bring anything to toss, the Shanghai Zoo had you covered too. Stands would sell entire chickens for visitors to tie to poles and poke into cages of otherwise somnolent predators. In smaller cities and less urban areas, 160 USD can buy you a live cow and you can watch a lion or tiger go to town on it.
For the first time, the animals are incidental to the zoo. We’re more interested in watching the other tourists and seeing “what goes on.” We’re tourists interested in seeing the tourist attraction itself.
Standing in line, though, we realize that we probably should have expected the crowds of people who go to zoos for normal reasons. There are children of every conceivable age, size, and shape. There are children on parents’ shoulders and being held in each hand. There are children held by the armful, clutched haphazardly. They’re all joining in one chorus, high frequency and more or less atonal. There are teenage couples who, in an expression of a nearly inexplicable Chinese trend, are wearing, head to toe, identical outfits. They are wearing androgynous khaki Capri’s and graphic tees. There’s a panhandler with something that looks like vitiligo making rounds on our line. Nick gives her 5 USD. Everyone’s in a good mood, though. The sky is blue.
After a wait, we sidle up to a ticket booth next to the entrance. The Beijing Zoo was founded in the late Qing Dynasty, making it one of the oldest zoos in a very old country. It covers a massive area of 50,000 square meters with exhibits housed in the Monkey Hall, Bird Hall, Panda Hall, Felid Hall, Elephant Hall, American Animals Hall, Australian Animals Hall and several more we would be unable to motivate ourselves to visit.
If these and more aren’t enough, the ticket menu informs us, the Beijing Zoo became the site of China’s largest aquarium in 1999 and is also home to something called “Animal Island,” whose design and purpose was not made entirely clear.
We stuck to the basic ticket package.
First Stop: Monkey Hall
Monkey Hall is a giant cage, with rusty lattice chicken wire behind rolling pin-thick wrought iron bars that extend to the cage’s ceiling about two stories above. The other tourists have wasted no time in poking trash through the chicken-wire. It doesn’t seem like a good idea, but then again it does mean we get to watch two very small spider monkeys (?) leap and dive in a tussle over a dingy shoelace (N.B. any inclusion of (?) serves to indicate that I am pretty much guessing about what kind of animal this was, also N.B., despite the whole public education good-of-the masses mission of the zoos of my childhood, I know almost nothing about animals).
At the cage of the golden snub-nosed monkey (?), every single tourist has his or her cell phone out and is videotaping. One tourist has a retractable rod attached to her camera and, standing in front of everyone else, is bogarting the best angle several inches from the monkey’s face. The monkey doesn’t seem to like this, and leaps up to a higher set of rafters above the oaken-looking branch he was on. Everyone reflexively says “WOW” each time the monkey leaps to a new branch. I am taking a video of everyone saying “WOW” and uploading it to Facebook.
Second Stop: Polar Bear Hall
There’s a sign that says “No Flash Photography” that no one seems to pay much mind to. The bulbs flash epileptically and if you squint hard enough to see past the after images, the twenty or so tourists crowded around the glass wall that’s closest to a sleeping polar bear become visible. The bear is lying facedown next to a manmade pool on the other side of the glass. Every now and then the polar bear drunkenly cranes its neck around to see what-in-the-fuck is going on with these lights, and, accordingly, the number of bulb flashes spikes for a few seconds.
I tell Nick that I’m starting to get into the idea that there’s something wickedly post-modern about what we’re doing. We’re walking around, finding entertainment from how people are entertaining themselves. Here we are at the show, ready to watch the audience. Nick tells me I should probably calm down.
But, I continue, then there’s also the pleasure of knowing that a Serious Traveler would find something particularly repulsive about what we’re doing. This is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. We live a subway stop away from Beijing's only Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. We could become bigger and broader people by seeing some of the world’s most famous, UN-preservation-level, destinations. There’s ample opportunity for a Serious Traveler to find a meaningful or challenging experience, probably away from these crowds and ideally on a mountaintop.
Yet here we are, on the other side of the city watching grownups in bucket hats try to keep hold of their children with one arm while using the other to traumatize polar bears with flash photography.
“Yeah,” Nick says, “That polar bear looks pretty sad too.”
Third Stop: Felid Hall
The doors are locked and it’s dark inside, though it’s like 2:00 PM on a Saturday.
Fourth Stop: Camel Hall
The camels definitely know how this works. As soon as they’re released into their ditch from two enormous double doors, they beeline for an incredibly small child who has a bag of carrots. The child is probably 3 years old at most and is terrifyingly, I-hope-the-wind-doesn’t-pick-up-perched on the railing. There’s no cage or bars here, but his father is holding him, with his hands loosely placed on the child’s hips as the child looks down into the ditch.
Each as tall as a school bus, two camels stick their faces three inches away from the child who is dropping cut carrots into their mouths. The father has removed, to our chest-constricting distress, one hand from his child to stroke a camel’s head. The camels don’t even look away from the child when they chew, though.
This is starting to feel like Serious Travel. We are the farthest we may ever be from an American Zoo. We desperately miss the common anxiety and fear of seeming insensitive to animals. But is this just part of the process of learning from another culture? Are we silently complicit in low-level animal cruelty or is every zoo a petting zoo waiting to happen? How loose is too loose for a grip on a child standing at the edge of a camel-pit?
Fifth Stop: Elephant Hall
There is a cat inside of the elephant cage, but no elephants. No one seems to know why there’s cat there or where the elephants are. I’m starting to calculate how much our tickets cost in USD. Nick wonders if we could use this as leverage to get passage to Animal Island.
Sixth Stop: Bird Hall
At Bird Hall, a toddler is winding up to pelt an emu (?) with graham crackers. His parents are feeding him a pretty steady supply of ammo and by now the emu (?) has figured that if he stays in the same place, he doesn’t even have to move to catch the food. The kid only seems to have a soft lob in his wheelhouse anyway.
There’s a standard distinction that Serious Travelers love to enforce: there’s travel and then there’s tourism, and God forbid you forget the difference. It’s one of those many instances where the Serious Traveler can’t help but be so holier-than-thou, but it’s probably helping the Serious Traveler’s point that for the better part of fifteen minutes we’ve watched a parent give a child two full packs of graham crackers to toss at a zoo animal. The Serious Traveler will tell you how this all just goes to show that he’s in the Serious business of becoming better while tourists are just in it for the cheap stuff.
With the last graham cracker the kid manages to catch the emu (?) off-guard and nails him in the eye. The emu (?) blinks hard a few times and his head swoons back. He looks at the kid, pauses, and then finishes the graham cracker left on the ground.
Seventh Stop: Animal Island
The basic ticket package we bought didn’t include Animal Island, but we found the channel that takes tourists to the Island by (no kidding) speedboat. There are white-stone benches between palm trees and there are a lot of other tourists who seem just as exhausted as we are from all of the animal watching, animal feeding, and flash photography. It’s late enough in the day now that it smells as much of sodium and sweat as sunscreen, so the air is acrid and chemically sweet. The water in the channel isn’t exactly the nearly-neon green of the pool in Polar Bear Hall. It’s darker, more like the peat and algae mix of brown and green like in lakes you’d swim in but still do your best to avoid getting any of the water in your mouth.
Looking around, a father with two children has sweated a dark Rorschach test through the back of his pastel polo, with a smaller rectangle of sweat on his chest where his Nikon digital rests at the end of a lanyard around his neck. There’s a couple settling in wearing matching shirts with Venetian blue horizontal stripes. More bucket hats.
Sitting here, it’s hard to hold much over the tourist. Low-level animal cruelty aside, it seems like everyone shared a simple goal for the day, to enjoy some time spent with people they love.
It’s tougher, though, to give the Serious Traveler as much credit. There’s a superficial sense where engaging a Serious Traveler feels like talking to that person at the party who just can’t wait to tell you how many places they’ve been to and how meaningful it’s been and how, without the support of a familiar home and culture, they’ve become more complex and meanwhile you’re scanning the periphery for emergency exits, wracking your brain to recall whether or not its prosecutable to set off a fire alarm to escape a conversation.
But all that talk of meaning leads into a second, more serious sense of repugnance. There’s an underlying notion to Serious Travel that seems to express, intentionally or not, that the world exists only insofar as it helps the Serious Traveler grow as a person. Foreign places and new people are reduced to narrative signposts, stops on the way to developing a more complicated and meaningful Self.
The deep irony is that this makes the experience as flat as the tourist’s low-entertainment. Both, in their own ways, limit the world to a source of pleasure or self-improvement. But if the tourist can be crass, or tone-deaf, the Serious Traveler seems to commit the bigger error by reducing the world’s size and stature to one giant self-help project. So if there’s anything derivative or instrumental in the tourist’s approach to the world, then, the Serious Traveler is guilty of the same. He’s just more puffed up, self-involved, and solipsistic about the whole process.
The past six hours had been the longest time since we’ve gotten to Beijing that the sky was blue and it was easy to breathe. Neither of those facts requires a radical reevaluation of who we are. But that isn’t the same as saying the day was without value.
Then one of the speedboats hits a wake hard it sounds like a car backfiring. Everyone looks up just in time to see the speedboat’s driver, behind mirror-tinted aviators, coolly accelerate away despite the channel’s rocky shores, separated by a space barely larger than the boat’s width.
We called it a day there and taxied back through late Saturday-afternoon traffic. By Monday, the smog rolled back in over the city.