Beijing


As a capital, Beijing casts a long shadow over the rest of China. Regardless of time meridians, Beijing time is followed nationwide; around the country, the Beijing dialect – putonghua – is spoken; and places such as Tibet and Ürümqi are forced to refer to the central government on all matters.

If you want to visit China, you must come to Beijing and spend at least a few days. You will be impressed by the expansive streets, the historical monuments and the local flavor.

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For Beijing, the dictum that a nation’s capital doesn’t reflect the nature of the country as a whole is especially true. Instead it’s a People’s Republic of China (”PRC”) showpiece and a city of orderly design, with long, straight boulevards crisscrossed by lanes. Places of interest are easy to find if they’re located on these avenues – and nearly impossible to find if they’re buried down the narrow alleys. Below are pictures of the numerous malls and the old railway station – a real contrast of old and new.

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The city’s central core was once a walled enclosure, and it still maintains its ancient symmetry based on a north-south axis passing through Qianmen (Front Gate). I’ve been to Beijing on more trips that I can remember since the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, many of the ancient aspects of the city have been quickly erased. For instance, the hutongs, or alleyways are few and far between now…

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Here are some pictures of the nightlife in Beijing…beware of women offering “foot massages” and Karaoke nights! Unless that’s your bag! :-) . Its is constantly changing and advancing so I really enjoyed wandering the streets and seeing the local people gawk at their Chinese American brethren.

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Frankly, if I could stand the pollution and congestion, I think Beijing would be a fascinating place to live. Here are some sights of the city. Enjoy as I can guarantee you they will be different in the months and years to come!

Believe or not, this church is now a hospital in Beijing. Note that this was in the late 1990s…its probably a disco now.

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If you come to Beijing, you must try the signature dish: Beijing Duck! Just try not to each it every night or you may end up like one of those zip-locked Beijing Ducks you can buy at the airport (when you visit China you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about).

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The effects of American capitalism are everywhere…as are the effects of piracy. Can you tell which is the authentic version? I’ll give you a hint, one is a fried chicken joint, the other is a noodle shop.

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The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, which was off-limits to most of the world for 500 years, is the biggest and best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. Although the ‘hundred surnames’, or hoi polloi, are now permitted entrance, its original owners, the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasty, insulated themselves from the masses and maintained a rigid one-way communications flow. Regal fiats from the nerve center of the country were delivered to peasant subjects beyond the wall by eunuchs and other powerful court officials.

The old world of beautiful concubines and priapic emperors, ball-breaking (and -broken) eunuchs and conspicuous wealth still hovers around the lush gardens, courtyards, pavilions and great halls of the palace. Most of the buildings are post-18th century; there have been periodic losses due to an injudicious mix of lantern festivals and Gobi winds, invading Manchus and, in this century, pillaging and looting by both the Japanese forces and the Kuomintang (ruling political party prior to the ascension of the Chinese Communists). A permanent restoration squad takes about 10 years to renovate its 720,000 square metres, 800 buildings and 9000 rooms, by which time it’s time to start all over again.

A tour of the Forbidden City starts at the top and ends at the southern most tip and leads you into Tiananmen Square. At the entrance you can grab an audio tour that describes each of the major builidings and describes the use of each room. Interestingly, the English version is narrated by Roger Moore of James Bond fame!

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You may recognize the Emperor’s Throne if you watched the Oscar-winning movie, the Last Emperor. Too bad you can’t go up to it to check if cricket cages are still hidden underneath the seat. Actually, you pretty much can’t touch anything – although you’re allowed to stare to your heart’s content!

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As you progress through the city, you will notice what looks like gateways. In fact, these are the palaces where various members of the Emperor’s family and staff resided.

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This side area, off the beaten path, was where many locals were hanging out. Upon closer review, you can see many Chinese Chess games going on! The royal gardens are among the most beautiful places in the city. Definitely a good place for reflection and grabbing a Coke on a hot, humid, Beijing afternoon.

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This is where you enter and pick up your audio tour. Be warned that tourists purchase entrance tickets at a separate window so that you can pay 10x the local rate.

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Graffiti in the parks of the Forbidden City! Just like back home in the US…nothing is sacred!

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Summer Palace

This was the Emperor’s other home away from home. Not bad for a 2nd home…although something tells me he had primary and summer homes in every province in China.

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Great Wall of China

The Great Wall, as a metaphor, has gone through a few restorations in its time. When it was originally built 2,000 years ago by the Qing dynasty it was a sturdy “No Trespassing” sign directed at neighboring kingdoms.

For centuries after that it remained neglected and forgotten until 18th-century Europeans, infatuated with progress and artifice, appended a “Great” to it and sat back to marvel at man’s prehensile capacity to build “really BIG things”.

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Today it’s a tourist attraction, half Wonder of the World and half Kitschville, but to many Chinese it’s just a wall. They seem to reserve for it, and the foreigners who come to marvel, a kind of bemused tolerance. To peasants in rural areas the Great Wall is less majestically known as ‘old frontier’. The majority of visitors climb the wall at Badaling, along with the tourist packs, the touts, and the sellers of reclining buddhas with lightbulbs in their mouths.

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If you want to experience the wall far from this madding crowd, you’d do better to travel a little farther afield and take a walk on the wilder side of the Huanghua section, 35 miles (60 km) north of Beijing. It’s a classic and well-preserved example of Ming defense with high and wide ramparts, intact parapets and sturdy beacon towers.

As you can see in the pictures, the Great Wall is frequented not just by tourists but local Chinese as well. In fact, one of the locals explained to me that walking the Great Wall is akin to New Yorkers enjoying Central Park on a sunny afternoon.

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Many Chinese locals walk the Wall for exercise and its amazing views. It gets amazingly steep – like a stepmaster for Chinese locals! One thing that is not obvious from these pictures is the mass of merchants hidden in each keep of the Wall. As you scale the wall, you enter these areas where merchants will smother you with “I Walked The Wall” t-shirts and other knick knacks. There are also a lot of knick knack and curio stores on the way to-and-from the Great Wall. For example, there are a good number of porcelain makers along the way. Its fascinating to watch how it is made – I never realized how much work it was.

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Tiananmen Square

Forever sullied, Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest public square, lies at the heart of Beijing, and is a vast desert of pavestones and photo booths. Though it was a gathering place and the site of government offices in the imperial days, Tiananmen Square is Mao’s creation, as is Chang’an Jie – the street leading onto it.

Major rallies took place here during the Cultural Revolution when Mao, wearing a Red Guard armband, reviewed parades of up to a million people. In 1976 another million people jammed the square to pay their last respects. In 1989 PLA tanks and soldiers cut down pro-democracy demonstrators here. Today the square is a place for people to wander and fly kites or buy balloons for the kids. Surrounding the square is a mish-mash of monuments past and present:

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Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace), the Chinese Revolution History Museum, Qianmen (Front Gate) and the Great Hall of the People:

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Below is the Mao Mausoleum where you can purchase Mao memorabilia and catch a glimpse of the man himself (when his mortuary make-up isn’t being refreshed). Right outside the Mausoleum is the Monument to the People’s Heroes.

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Tiantan Park/Temple of Heaven

Tiantan Park, or the Temple of Heaven, as some call it, is one of the most photographed buildings in the world. It was built in 1420, and was the place where Ming and Qing emperors prayed to heaven for a good harvest. Today, it is surrounded by a 660-acre park and is an icon of such enduring value that it shorthands the entire city.

The park’s classic Ming architecture gives it heaps of symbolic value and the name has been used to brand products from tiger balm to plumbing fixtures, as well as decorating a plethora of tourist literature. It’s set in a park, with four gates at the cardinal points, and walls to the north and east. It originally functioned as a vast stage for solemn rites and rituals.

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Built between 1406 and 1420, the complex is laid out according to the needs of a sacred ce-remony, as it was believed to be the one place on earth with direct access to heaven for the emperors, who were regarded as celestial go-betweens.

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All of the buildings in the park, including the Round Altar, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests are tangible conversations between the gods and mortals.

The buildings are carefully thought out paeans to ancient gods and beliefs; fengshui, numerology, cosmology and religion all played a part in their original construction, and the result is an awesome display of god in the architecture and the devil in the detail. Tiantan Park remains an important meeting place where many city dwellers start the day with a spot of t’ai chi, dancing or game-playing in the park. By 9am the park reverts to being just a park so get there early if you want to see what Beijingers do before breakfast.

The main building that has rightly become a symbol of Beijing is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. From the Gate of Prayer for Good Harvests to the Bridge of Vermilion Stairs, there is a raised walkway that leads to the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Today it is best known for the wall that surrounds it, called the Echo or Whispering Wall because of its acoustics design that carries sound so well.

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The Temple of Heaven is a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world’s great civilizations. The main prayer bell is shown above and illustrates the craftsmanship of the era. The bell would be rung prior to solemn occasions of prayer and fasting by the emperors.

The symbolic layout and design of the Temple of Heaven had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries. For more than two thousand years China was ruled by a series of feudal dynasties, the legitimacy of which is symbolized by the design and layout of the Temple of Heaven.

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To the south of the Imperial Vault of Heaven is the Circular Mound, an open-air altar consisting of three round marble terraces. This is where the emperors used to offer their prayers to the gods. To the west of the complex is the Hall of Abstinence, where emperors would prepare for fasting.

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Ming Tombs

A narrow, dead-end valley just north of Changping is the final resting place for 13 of the Ming dynasty’s emperors. The area’s vast scale and imperial grandeur convey the importance attached to ancestor worship in ancient China. A shen lu (spirit way) passes through an outer pavilion and between stone rows of imperial advisers and huge, charming, serene elephants, lions, camels, horses, and other creatures on its 7-km (4½-mi) journey to the burial sites. Most tourists combine a visit to the Ming Tombs, with a trip to the Great Wall. Thirteen Ming Emperors are buried within stone altars and crumbling walls. Trees and pleasant scenery make the Ming Tombs a good picnic spot, but the tombs themselves are not much to see. In addition to the ancient relics, there are some additional modern tourist attractions: a wax museum, an aerospace museum, an amusement park, a swimming pool, and a variety of souvenir and snack stalls.

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By the way, my two cents is that this tourist sight is a real let down. Not only are the tombs devoid of any distinctive culture, but mostly all of the artifacts have been removed and sent to the Chinese national museums. However, if you’re looking for something to do and see, its worth a trip.

The entrance to the tombs looks like one that would have been built in a present day commercial bank vault. Not much to see except for perhaps the other tourists who may look as disgusted as you are! These are the boxes that contained the remains of the Emperors. Don’t expect to find anything – my understanding is everything is either at the Beijing National Museum or more likely in Taipei, Taiwan.

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Chinese Communist Party School

Its a long story but I was able to visit the Communist Party school where the future leaders of China are trained. We had lots of maotai (a horrid drink that US President Nixon drank with Chairman Mao) that has now become a traditional greeting drink among government bureaucrats and managed to discuss a little business!

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