Friday, January 6, 2012

A Week in the Capital, Beijing

We visited Beijing for parts of two days in 2009, described in this blog at, and that had only whetted our appetite. This time around we spent 7 nights there, although almost a day's worth of that time was spent planning for the following weeks.
To get there we walked to the modern Tianjin train station, showed a ticket agent a piece of paper with "Beijing" written in Chinese, handed over our passports (you cannot buy a train ticket or check into a hotel without a passport or, if you're local, your national identity card), and a modest number of yuan, and within half an hour we were walking down to our high speed train. How fast? Here's photographic proof we hit 298 kph (185 mph). So fast that we were in Beijing, 75 miles away, in 33 minutes! And the trip was smoother than any U.S. or Canadian passenger train we've ever taken, and we've taken a few -- Jeff has covered over 100,000 miles on Amtrak alone, Louise more than half that.

The Beijing subway was another story. It's much the same for speed and comfort, or the lack thereof, as New York's or Tokyo's. However it was cheap, 32 to 64 cents, easy to navigate, and not always jammed to the hilt. Here for example are a fairly quiet station, a sign announcing the next train in English, and a line map in the subway car showing where we were at each moment. There was also some strange technology on display, LED screens in the tunnels between stations, synchronized with the speed of the passing trains to keep the straphangers amused.

We wore down our shoes some with all the walking we did in Beijing. One major goal was to see the old hutongs, or alleyways. Many were destroyed in past urban renewal projects, but now they're largely being saved. The first photo is of one near our hotel, just blocks from the Forbidden City. We took a long walk near Xi Hai and Hou Hai, two lakes that link up to the Grand Canal that was used to bring grain over a thousand miles from central China to Beijing. Along the former lake we saw what is unquestionably the longest fishing pole either of us has ever seen! Nearby was a typical hutong with a typical public restroom, as individual homes in a hutong rarely have their own toilet. They may be quaint, but that's not quite synonymous with charming.

Life is lived out in public in China more than in the US, sometimes even work that for esthetic or safety reasons is usually indoors here. We're fairly accustomed to having meals out on the street, but not really our haircuts and our welding jobs.

While most of the hutong neighborhoods feature only 1- or 2-story buildings, there are occasionally taller apartment flats nearby. This one is about par for the course -- fairly well-worn.  In the middle of the neighborhood was a lively open air but roofed market, full of colors and flavors and surprises, such as this egg stand where we can spot at least 18 different types of eggs!  And we're not talking small, medium and large . . .

We visited the enormous complex built for the Emperors of China known as the Forbidden City 2 years ago.  We decided to return since Matt hadn't seen it -- in fact his visit to us in Beijing for 3 of our 7 days there was his first foray out of Dalian since Citibank sent him to China in February. We headed first to Prospect Hill for an overview. There are no natural hills in Beijing. This lofty spot, now a beautiful park, is actually the dumping spot for all the earth that had to be excavated to build the moat around the Forbidden City. At the base of the hill is a tree planted in 1644 to replace the one that the Emperor Chongzhen used to commit suicide by hanging as a rebel army entered Beijing, thus ending the Ming Dynasty. The original tree melted away in the form of grisly souvenirs.

We discovered too late that the Prospect Hill entrance to the Forbidden City was recently converted to exit-only status. We watched our pedometer tick off almost two miles walking to the other end! This place is huge!  The buildings are humongous too, particularly when you remember that the whole place was constructed in 1406.

The spaces between buildings are sometimes as magnificent as the structures themselves. This is the view from the Gate of Supreme Harmony to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, inside of which is the emperor's throne, and in front of which Matt and Louise posed, harmoniously.

The front 3/4ths of the Forbidden City is for show and ceremony, the last part for living quarters for the emperor and empress, their servants, eunuchs and concubines.  For all its glamour, it was a tightly controlled and narrow world.  Can you imagine spending your entire adult life rarely venturing outside of a limited number of walkways and courtyards, however pretty they may be?

The next day we revisited the Summer Palace, which we had only gotten a brief glimpse of two years ago. It's another enormous place many times the size of the Forbidden City, on the outskirts of Beijing a kilometer from a recently opened subway line extension. It took us 45 minutes by subway from the station next to the Forbidden City, then a 15 minute walk -- we wonder how long the same trip took the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors?  And whether they would have minded standing for half the journey, as we did?  By the way, this is only one small part of it known as Longevity Hill.

Vast as the palace grounds are, there was a small enclosed space that intrigued.  When Emperor Guangxu started to reform the corrupt and archaic Chinese political system in 1898, an event now called "The Hundred Days," his aunt, Empress Dowager Cixi, worked with arch-conservatives to pull off a palace coup d'├ętat. Cixi loved the Summer Palace so she brought her captive nephew with her, almost like a pet dog, and kept him pretty much confined to this one small courtyard when she visited.  He lived another 10 years and died, curiously, the day before Cixi.  No one can prove it, but few doubt the story that Aunt Cixi poisoned the emperor in one last coup de grace.

We walked down the 1/2 mile long Long Corridor along the lake -- Boy, is it long! -- then turned and climbed -- Boy, did we climb! -- up Longevity Hill to the Temple of the Fragrance of Buddha, past views of smaller temples to the side and the Seventeen Arch Bridge in the distance, with the northeastern part of the city in the far distance.

After descending the far side we came to a jaw-dropping place, astounding not for it's beauty but for the other-worldliness of the concept. Suzhou Street was actually a path along both sides of an inlet to the lake. The lofty nobility of China came here to play-act being shopkeepers and commoners engaged in trade, as goofy an idea as when Marie Antoinette used to dress up as a shepherdess and prance around her fake farm at Versailles. And we know where that led, don't we . . . ?   We don't think they were nobles in disguise, but there were a few shopkeepers in late Qing dynasty attire for any of us unwashed masses who wanted to play-act being nobles play-acting common folk buying their goods -- but with real money, thank you very much.

We then paid real money ourselves to rest our tired feet for a few minutes on a short boat ride which brought us around Longevity Hill to the infamous Marble Boat. Infamous because the lovable Empress Dowager Cixi -- remember her? -- spent money remodeling the boat that was supposed to be used on some other boats, commonly called the Chinese Navy. Which just happened to get it's clock cleaned by the Japanese a few years later in the First Sino-Japanese War. But, really, how was Cixi supposed to know that the Navy was going to need modern warships . . . ?

We finished our visit to the Summer Palace with a walk over to the bronze ox and the poem by the Emperor Qianlong engraved on his ribs, of the Seventeen Arch Bridge, and of one last longing view of Longevity Hill from the bridge and its hundred carved lions, each one slightly different.

On the way back we passed a grocery store where we could have picked up some PB&J fixings, with real Skippy™ PB and with plump rounded loaves of Bimbo bread. Instead, we let our guide book direct us down an obscure alley to a Uighur Muslim restaurant where we tasted some of the cuisine of China's westernmost province, Xinjiang, out next to Kyrgyzsan and Kazakhstan. We had naan bread, a cold yogurt and cucumber dish and a sort of lamb curry, among other treats.

For our last day with Matt we visited Prince Gong's house, or rather his estate that just happened to be in the middle of Beijing, the largest residence in town after the Forbidden City. The scale model gives you an overview.  Yup, that entire complex was his "home."  The next two photos give you a taste of Prince Gong's stylistic taste in porticos and doorways.

We then gave Matt a little hutong tour en route to the Drum Tower, sort of like a village clock tower but with . . . drums! It was a steep bugger!

We ended his visit with a walk along Hou Hai past the Silver Ingot Bridge to a Vietnamese restaurant that looked out at folks enjoying this fine October afternoon alongside another small lake, the Qian Hai. Having spent six months in Saigon on his last assignment from Citibank, Matt was delighted by this chance to enjoy those familiar flavors once again.

After Matt headed home to Dalian we took a three-day trip to Shenyang that we'll describe it in our next blog.  We then returned for three more days in Beijing.  Jeff had picked up a cold the second day in China, and it was getting worse.  After three nights of minimal sleep, Jeff because he was coughing and Louise because Jeff was coughing, we decided to do something. Our travel agent suggested we go to the "international clinic" of Peking Union Medical College, which was close by. We walked in and paid a $1 registration fee and were told to wait on a bench around the corner. In 15 minutes a doctor called Jeff in, looked down his throat, listened with his stethoscope, asked in English the same questions Jeff's regular doctor would have asked, and handed him a prescription for cough syrup with codeine, Tylenol PM, and "myrtol" pills, a concoction related to eucalyptol. Start to finish, including a stop at the in-house pharmacy, was just under an hour, and cost about $30! Better yet, the meds worked almost immediately, and we both slept like babes -- very tired ones at that -- for the first time in four nights.

One time we walked past the Wanfujing Night Market as it opened in late afternoon. Another amazing food street, but the first and only one we found with an entire stand full of edible bugs. Well, assume they were, but there was no way we were going to do anything more than stare at them, bug-eyed as it were. More to our liking was the dumpling restaurant nearby where we had some terrific dumplings, even tastier than the ones on display outside.

Our last destination was the Chinese National Museum. Like America's showplace Smithsonian museums on the Washington Mall, China's premiere museum was in China's premier location, on one side of Tiananmen Square, right across from the Great Hall of the People. The museum entry hall told you in no uncertain terms that you had entered a cathedral of culture.

We spent some three hours there, way too little time. One of the treasures was this acupuncture model made in 1443. Each acupuncture site is a small hole. They would cover the model in wax, fill it with water, and bring in students to practice. If they hit the correct spot precisely, a spigot of water would reward them. We had worked our way backwards in history to these pottery dancers from 943 AD, found in a tomb in Nanjing, when the museum closed for the day.  1,000 years of Chinese history down, just another 5,000 to go.

Earlier we had checked out what might almost be called the 'Hall of Communist Hagiography.' It was filled with paintings of an almost beatific Mao Zedong as teacher and hero, of his fellow saint Zhou Enlai as an earnest young leader.  An entire wall told the story of The Long March, the long harrowing escape from Chiang Kai-shek's army that reshaped the Communist Party of China in 1934-35. At the end of the hall were two identical monumental pictures of Mao standing at Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, announcing the birth of the Peoples Republic of China.  There was an unsurprising gap, with no artwork depicting the disastrous Great Leap Forward or the even worse Cultural Revolution.

We emerged into Tiananmen Square ourselves and took this shot of an endearing mother and daughter, then of the crowd gathering for the daily lowering of the national flag. Tiananmen has changed over the years, especially since the events of 1989. We'll close with a subtle reminder of those days, one of today's light posts bristling with security cameras.  On many levels, China came across to us as an open society, until we came to a little clue like this showing that its openness has distinct limits. Perhaps the Chinese were right in keeping us from writing our blog while we were in China.

We'll write our next entry soon to tell you about Shenyang, in Manchuria.

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