WELCOME TO BEIJING, Population 15 millionWe arrived in Beijing at daybreak on National Day. We would be staying in Beijing for six nights and planned to see all the attractions that self respecting tourists should see. My parents and Zac and I had left Dalian around 8:30 the night before and spent the night on a sleeper train. We were a bit stiff as we trudged out of the railway station with the herd of travelers who had also come to Beijing for the “Golden Week” holiday. The first Beijing experience was getting from the train station to our hotel. We had several people offer to help by taking us for an exorbitant amount but we finally made it to the head of the taxi queue and convinced one to take us on the meter. After getting an inadvertent demonstration on what happens when millions of people suddenly start owning private cars, we finally made it to our hotel. The driver was a bit annoyed because our hotel was not on a main road but in a hutong.
Finding a restaurant in China is generally the easiest thing imaginable, and our hutong was no exception. During our stay in Beijing, we always ate at the small local restaurants in the hutong. One of the best things about Beijing, in my opinion, is that all the restaurants have English menus. In Dalian, the menus are always in Chinese characters, so we either have our Chinese friends order for us or we just order the dishes we know. Lunch that first day was delicious, with a slightly different flavor from the northeastern food we normally eat, and my parents had, by this time, greatly improved their chopstick skills. Having dined, we wound our way northwards through the hutongs until we emerged near Tiananmen Square.
TIANANMEN SQUARETiananmen Square is the center of Beijing, and everyone in Beijing was flocking there for National Day. We expected some celebrations or entertainment on the square in honor of National Day, but there was nothing except masses and masses of people. Despite western connotations with a massacre, the square is merely a large public square, a great slab of concrete in the center of Beijing. And in the center of this is Chairman Mao’s mausoleum, where his body has been preserved and on view to the public since his death in 1976. To the west of the square is the Great Hall of the People and to the east the Chinese Revolution and History Museum. The square is named after Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) which is at the northern end of the square and is home to a giant portrait of Mao. Through this gate is the Forbidden City.
The hoards of people in the square were mostly taking pictures, and quite often we were requisitioned to pose with them. As we wandered the massive square, small squadrons of army people would march through the crowd wearing their green uniforms with gold buttons. We were frequently the target of men with red velvet lined boxes selling Rolex watches and others selling Mao’s little red book or a Mao watch, or ice cream (unfortunately not Mao shaped). We spent the afternoon sitting on the museum steps and just watching all the people who flooded the square. We were interrupted only by “art students” who wanted us to come and see an “art exhibition.” They may very well have been art students, and what they showed us was indeed art, but the main purpose of course was for us to buy the paintings.
SUMMER PALACEOn Sunday we traveled by subway, light rail, and finally taxi to get to the emporers’ Summer Palace. What was once a summer resort for the elite now received a teeming mass of people. Situated amongst some low hills next to a calm lake, the pagodas and walkways were indeed beautiful although it required a lot of imagination to remove the crowds and envision the tranquility. The Summer Palace is also quite large and we got our fill of pagodas and traditional Chinese architecture. One of the more amusing sites was the marble boat commissioned by Empress Dowager Cixi, which she paid for by appropriating money set aside for a real navy.
THE GREAT WALLAfter only two days, we were weary of crowds and pagodas, so we decided to take a break and on Monday we headed out to the hills. Zac and I chose to do a 10km hike along an unrestored part of the Great Wall, from Jinshanling to Simatai, while my parents chose to go to the restored part at Mutianyu. Zac and I left at 6:30 for a 3 hour bus ride to Jinshanling. It wasn’t too far away, actually, but there was no highway going from Beijing to the Great Wall, so we had to wrestle with traffic the whole way there. Our driver dropped us off next to a cornfield and gestured up a path. He said he would pick everyone up at 3:30 in Simatai.
At this place, the approach to the wall was beautiful—there were no tourist gimmicks, only a beautiful blue sky, warm autumn weather, and a trail winding up to the Wall. At the Wall, we had to pay an entrance fee, climb up some steps, and then we were there: Sera and Zac walking on the Great Wall of China. Throughout the hike, I had difficulty entertaining any romantic notions about the Wall and I didn’t think much of it at all except that it seemed like a silly idea and a waste of money and manpower. But who am I to question emperors past? Perhaps they were just crazy megalomaniacs, but maybe they had great foresight and knew that someday hoards of tourists would pay money to come and walk on it, maybe they knew how photogenic a wall winding atop the hills would be once someone invented a camera, who am I to say?
What I can say is this: it was a gorgeous day and I was grateful to those poor people so long ago for building a path across the tops of the mountains so that one day Sera and Zac could enjoy walking there. Instead of pondering ancient intentions, I enjoyed the scenery and appreciated my good fortune which had brought me to such a momentous place. I was thankful for being able to experience things I had never imagined I would. Of the whole trip, that day was the best.
As to the Wall itself, well, it was a wall. Because we were on the part that had not been restored, it was crumbling. Because it was on top of hills, we continually walked up and down. The steps were also disintegrating, and some parts were quite steep and gravelly. Every so often there was a guard tower—cold and dark on the inside, in various states of disrepair on the outside. The wall was also peppered with people shouting, as you came near them, “Cold water, coke, beer…” or “Later buy book, ok?” or “T-shirt? Great Wall T-shirt?” Luckily these people were few and far between, so for most of the walk we were unmolested and quite peaceful.
TEMPLE OF HEAVENAfter our hiatus on the Wall, we felt better prepared to face the tourist crowds and pagodas again, so on Tuesday we set out for the Temple of Heaven. It was a disappointment because, despite its celestial name, it was just another series of courtyards, gates, and pagodas. We had also made the mistake of buying only the “entrance” ticket and not the “through” ticket. Without the “through” ticket, we could not enter into any of the structures, but could only peer through the gates. The Temple of Heaven did have one redeeming quality: it was surrounded by a forest of large and beautiful trees.
ACROBATSNo trip to Beijing would be complete without taking in a show of their famous acrobats. For one hour we were entertained by incredibly strong and talented individuals. They jumped through hoops, laid on top of spear points, did all sorts of contortions, carried ten people on one bicycle, flipped bowls up and caught them on their heads, etc.
CHAIRMAN MAOOn Wednesday morning, we decided to personally pay our respects to the founder of the People’s Republic of China. We joined the long queue and shuffled around Tiananmen Square for an hour, at the end of which we entered the mausoleum and were rewarded by a 30-second view of Chairman Mao’s corpse. He was covered with a red flag bearing the hammer and sickle; only his face was visible and, perhaps because of the lighting, it looked like it was made of orange play dough. I tried to think something profound when I looked at him, but I was so impressed by his orange hue that I failed to think much of anything beyond, “There’s Mao. It’s weird that I’m looking at his body nearly 30 years after his death. I wonder if it’s really him, or wax?” Once outside of the mausoleum, we had to pass through a gauntlet of vendors selling Mao memorabilia before we were safely on the square again.
FORBIDDEN CITYAfter visiting his body, we passed under Mao’s rosy portrait at the northern end of Tiananmen Square and entered into the Forbidden City, which is now forbidden only to those who can’t afford to fork over the 60 yuan ($7.50) admission fee. The Forbidden City was the abode of the emperors and it was huge—enormous gray courtyards surrounded by long halls, many gates, and of course the omnipresent Chinese traditional architecture. To a trained eye, I’m sure the architecture was fascinating, and one could probably distinguish between the different dynastic forms, but to me, it all looked the same and grew quite tedious. Before every ancient building, there was a plaque explaining when the building was first created, when it burned down and was rebuilt (often several times), what it was renamed during each dynasty, and the year the present structure was built.
But the Forbidden City also had its redeeming quality. At the northern end lies the Imperial Garden, filled with ancient trees, impressive rocks and newly painted pagodas, it retained some of the majesty that you could imagine the Forbidden City once held.
LAMA TEMPLEThis temple, conveniently located directly above a subway stop, is the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It started as just another palace residence, but it was converted to a lamasery in 1744. As we wandered its courtyards on Thursday morning, it appeared to be about the same as every other place we’d been to so far, except for the people burning incense and bowing to the large gold buddhas residing in the halls. There seemed to be little conflict between the tourists and the religious, and often they were one in the same. The highlight of this temple was the 26 meter tall Buddha carved out of one piece of sandalwood, warranting it entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. I’m sure it’s what the Buddha would have most desired.
UNDERGROUND CITYThrough a little doorway in a hutong, there lies an entrance to Beijing’s Underground City. The project was started in 1969 and took ten years to build. In reality, it is not a city but a series of damp tunnels constructed under Mao’s orders, to serve as a shelter should there be a Soviet invasion or nuclear attack. Our tour guide claimed the city could hold 300,000 people, with tunnels connecting to the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and even Shanghai. Skeptic that I am, I doubt these claims in their entirety. After touring the “city” Zac said, “I’d rather be captured by Russians than live down here.” The tour guide also claimed that the people who lived down there would have bedding made from silk worms’ double cocoons. He really harped on this point, and we soon found at why. The tour concluded in a large store where our guide, megaphone still at his lips, went behind the counter of the shop and, as if it were still the tour, began explaining the costs of the different silk cocoon blankets we were encouraged to buy. All of the store attendants wore camouflaged army garb.
BEIJING ROAST DUCKThursday was our last night together in Beijing, and we couldn’t leave without tasting the famous Beijing roast duck. We chose a large restaurant near the Hepingmen subway station, simply because it said “Beijing Roast Duck” in big letters at the top of the restaurant. It turns out we chose, by accident, the most famous Beijing Roast Duck restaurant. The duck meat was good, and every piece was sliced so that some of the crispy skin was on it. We were also served the head, split in two, which we merely poked with our chopsticks and didn’t even consider eating. After consuming our little waterfowl, we received a commemorative card stating that the restaurant had been established in 1864 and had served 171,428 ducks to date.
BEIJING BICYCLEOn Friday morning, we wandered the hutongs and then my parents left for the airport at noon. Zac and I were taking a sleeper train home later that night, so we had the afternoon free. It had rained the previous day, liquefying the smog, so Friday was a clear blue-skied day. We decided to rent bikes and see the city from the point of view of the average bicycling Beijinger. We rode around the city for nearly five hours and it was glorious. Beijing is extremely flat, which was good since our bikes didn’t have any gears, and pedaling was easy, often propelling us faster than the cars mired in traffic. All of the streets had bicycle lanes, making it relatively easy to traverse the city.
Throughout the ride, I was trying to find a way to summarize Beijing, but it was difficult. The city is big and diverse. The hutongs are village-like, some streets are ugly, broad, and marred with construction, others are quaint and tree-lined, and in the end I merely concluded that the city was itself, and I wasn’t sure what it was. After merely a week in Beijing, I couldn’t understand it in its entirety. We pedaled back to our hutong before dark and had a good meal in a small restaurant. Later that night, as we slept, our train left Beijing and wound its way northwards to our home.