Beijing at night is a city painted in the glow of light, curtains of brilliant primary color bathing and outlining spectacularly designed international commercial skyscrapers, many fantastical in design, as we pass through the night on the road from the equally star spangled capacious airport. One of China’s newest cities at the tender age of 800 years, it has grown in population to 23 million and suffers from the modern plague of most international cities: traffic. To compensate for the increase in vehicles on the road during rush hours, Beijing has wisely created staggered office hours, but even at 8:30 PM the highways are operating at capacity. Chinese cities are undergoing rapid sprawl with few, if any, zoning regulations. The only hints of antiquity are the magnificent reproduction terra cotta warriors and horse at the airport.
Our guide is a pleasant 27 year old woman named River (by her second grade English teacher). Her real name is Yangtze. Decked out in Northface and Adidas casual clothing, Nike running shoes and sporting preppie spectacles she could easily pass for a grad student at Harvard. Her expertise as a guide pertains to Beijing only and she will be our lifeline for the next two days while we explore the city. Beijing was the home to the last reigning dynasty of China and, as such, the architectural relics from that time have been remarkably preserved compared to the older cities where Emperors and their families once ruled and worshipped.
As in many Asian cities tap water must be boiled prior to drinking, an amazing notion compared to the sophistication of the international commerce and structure of the place. We opted to have dinner in the hotel at the Chinese restaurant since we arrived late after a somewhat grueling 11 hour flight from San Francisco. Making our way through a lobby filled with touring Asian women topped by giant panda hats (adorable!} we were seated at a massive stone table, facing each other, almost six feet apart across the table! Picking through a menu filled with such standards as goose intestines and webs (think of where those little feet trod!), jellyfish and preserved egg, we settled on chicken fried rice with pineapple and chicken stew with mushrooms. Tea was a refreshing and light inexpensive Jasmine, most often the tea served in restaurants and homes. The fried rice delicate and yummy, no trace of the heavy oils found in US Chinese dishes, yellow with tiny specks of pineapples, chicken, egg and bean. The stew! Ahhhh, the stew: small pieces of dark meat chicken chopped including tiny bones, difficult to chew. Do the Chinese eat those bones? (Heimlich!) I found a few small whole chicken hearts and some pieces of gristly or puckered stuff that could not be identified. Mushrooms were black, reconstituted from dried, and diverse, as if gathered from a forest floor. A Chinese group seated nearby busied themselves with Hot Pot, boiling their cabbage and meats in individual pots at their table. We’ve pushed ahead about 15 hours and our time clocks are just crazy, time to go to the room and settle in.
Back in the room we unpacked a bit to check our electronics and inventory our clothing choices. Last week the weather was cold, in the thirties and forties, but this week temperate degrees are in order. Beijing has short Spring and Fall Seasons, long and harsh summers and winters. Michael has wisely selected the short Fall for our visit and it is turning out to be the best week of the season. We watched table tennis for a while on the tv…crazy shrunken tennis sport with wily serving techniques and wild volleys. Hilarious to see them rubbing their shoulders after a big serve! Tough guys!
In the morning prior to setting off we imagine the time before Mao when Beijing was a village without light and billowing international trade with sadness. We remember the countless professionals, musicians, academics and young people who were robbed of their talents and heritage , hopes and dreams during the Cultural Revolution. We are off and running on a brisk city walk prior to a drive to Tian’anmen Square and the glorious Forbidden City. We’ll tour the Temple of Heaven where Emperors prayed for good harvests the morning of our departure and tomorrow we’ll visit a portion of the Great Wall (a tourist must). Also on the agenda is a visit to a hospital built by a friend and neighbor in California. Small world!
We are up early, breakfasting at a typical Asian breakfast buffet with an assortment of Chinese and International foods. Compared to Bangkok, it is clear that food is dear here. More starches, less protein, the ever present rice congee joined by corn congee and baked beans…always baked beans.
Dressing for the crisp Autumn morning, we head out on foot to travel down Beijing’s Walking Street, an impressive wide road stretching far as the eye can see In either direction lined with luxury stores that one would find on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or New York’s Fifth Avenue. The air is sparkling clear and without a trace of the famed Beijing pollution which threatened the performances of the Olympic Summer athletes in 2008. There are many prosperous and wealthy Chinese in the present economy and they are eager to purchase the bling items popular in the rest of the developed countries, items that signal conspicuous consumption, possibly a reaction to the frugality of the previously enforced Cultural Revolution. We note a huge black fully decked out Hummer in a parking lot joined by a green soft top Jeep with New York license plates! We spend some time in the plaza of a large Chinese Catholic Church. I am asked to have my photo taken with a few young men and women. In Asia, I’m often asked to perform this request which always results in warm laughter and lovely exchanges that somehow bridge the gap of language. It’s a blonde thing! I’m a freak!
We return to the hotel to join River and our driver for a day on the road. I’m excited to see sights I’ve read and dreamed about. Following are some brief descriptions that can only weakly detail a day that was both visually and emotionally saturated to the point that I journeyed beyond words.
Tiananmen Square is impossible to capture in photographs. Even with the use of a wide angle lens. Vast is the most descriptive word. Empty even with the thousands present this day, the space and the huge government buildings that line its boundaries could easily dwarf a million bodies. Between the first gate of the Forbidden City and the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao stands a monument to those who lost their lives for the defense of the country in previous world wars. No mention of those students who bravely protested in the widely publicized protests of 1989, some losing their lives. The massive road that separates the old palace grounds from the square is designed to host potentially the entire Chinese population on parade days. On the birthday of the “new” China in October, the day is wildly celebrated in a massive parade. We in the West cannot appreciate the nationalistic pride the Chinese people take in their country, despite the politics, despite the hardships. That is all that occupies my mind and heart while standing quietly in this huge void. Dissent and unrest of most of the population at the turn of the twentieth century caused by American and European designs on the empire and the conversion of multitudes to Christianity eventually brought the end of the Dynasty reign. Japan played her part in the attempted control of China when help was needed the most. River was only six years old at that time that Mao’s dictates prevented her parents from attending university but they did obtain government jobs which provided stability and chance to afford to raise their only child. Although I bitterly oppose Maoist doctrine and the devastating effect it had on one of the world most developed civilizations, I’m old enough to temper my prejudices with maturity, education and the perspective of others. As River points out, women’s feet were no longer bound to resemble those of a doe. Women were granted equal rights. A middle class developed with opportunity to become educated. But it took much suffering over a number of years and the abdication of the last emperor marking the end of one of the great periods of civilization to follow the reigns of the pharaohs in Egypt. One wonders how China might be today if the last emperor Pu Yi would have continued his modern education and opened a path similar to Britain, Thailand, and Sweden where a monarchy is maintained while allowing more progressive governments to rule by the people. River says: “We Chinese are crazy, we will believe in something for a thousand years, even if it’s wrong!” A brilliant statement from a special young Chinese woman with one foot in the future, the other in the past.
The Forbidden City is more a universe than a city, containing a collection of planets inhabited at one time by denizens of those who served the Emperor as well as the Emperors family. Eunuchs, concubines, scholars, physicians, musicians, counselors, serving staff, all assigned to certain locations and levels of access gained by passing through a series of huge gates. The Forbidden City was home to two Dynasties, Ming and Qing. From the time that the last emperor fled the compound as the Chinese troops marched in to arrest him, his family was allowed to remain for thirteen years. Many Chinese believed that he would return to the throne, that there would be one more reign of an emperor. It was not to be but one can view the living and bedroom chambers of the Empress, Emperors and concubines exactly as they were. Please view Michael’s photographs for I cannot provide adequate descriptions of the elegance, enormity, and profound majesty of the enclosure. And watch the marvelous film The Last Emperor, taken from Pu Yi’s autobiography, written while he was undergoing 10 years of ‘rehabilitation’ courtesy of Mao. To stand at the top of the stairs in the innermost courtyard where the Emperor could view the masses of his inner sanctum as he addressed them on holidays is nothing less than spectacular. It is a stunning testament to the end of the Dynasty rule in China. The convoluted and intriguing behaviors of the Emperors and Dowager Empresses can be imagined as the private rooms and gardens are visited. The Emperors bed, where concubines were placed naked each night by eunuchs appears to await them. The throne remains in place behind which The Dragon Lady Empress whispered orders through a wall of bamboo to a mincing young emperor, too weak willed to rule on his own.
From the Forbidden City we stop for lunch at a crazy Chinese Brazilian Barbeque restaurant, Carnival (hilarious to us because we just completed a Carnival 2010! Journal). Too much food, some standard, some unidentifiable). Of note, an hysterical event in the ladies room as I could not get the electric eye to function while attempting to wash my hands. As I watched helplessly, many women stepped up to the sink, washed, and departed. The two attendants collapsed in laughter as did I. They examined my braids, which they admired, and we exchanged hugs and more laughter. Another little magic moment beyond words. And I resorted to Purell. Never did get the water down. (Note: later in the evening Michael followed an Asian gentleman into what he thought was the men’s room. Wrong! After knocking on several stall doors and noticing the lack of urinals, he noticed to his horror that he was, you guessed it, in the Ladies Room!)
On the way to the Temple of Heaven, we decide to stop first for a hike up the Drum Tower and a rickshaw ride through a one story community called a Hu tong, Before clocks and the common availability of watches, two enormous towers, Bell and Drum, gonged and bonged their way across the city every two hours. We huff and puff climbing to the top of the Drum Tower (very high 69 steps!) just in time to watch the drummers, lead by a young woman; beat out a fantastical symphony of hard driven beats. See the photos to understand the enormous size of the drums and the power of the drummer’s sticks, full body efforts to hit those things! When fully functional 24 drums are used. We did not hear the bell toll, but it is presumed to be one of the largest bells in the world and that tower faces the Drum Tower. From the balcony we view across the one story old city to the park beyond whose summit lies the Forbidden City. To the West, the new Beijing of sky scrapers and light.
Descending back to ground level we linger for a moment to watch neighbor men training birds, gorgeous yellow beaked gray winged larger than a robin birds trained like pigeons to fly from the hand, circle in the sky, and back to the palm for a treat. Pigeons are also raised on rooftops for racing. Pigeon eggs are not eaten as they are considered to be too valuable. Into the rickshaws we glide through the tiny streets meandering through bicycles, pedestrians, some cars, and children as they let out of school. There are never many babies or small children out and about and those that are seen are doted upon. In the city the one baby rule is strictly enforced. Married to a foreigner, farmer or minority culture (and there are many in China) two are permitted, sometimes more for farmers. We stop at a house owned by a middle aged woman who inherited the tiny place from her grandparents. The doorways of houses are decorated simply but with meaning. For the middleclass and lower color may only be used around the doorframe. No yellow, that is reserved for royalty. Green is the color of the common people. Red is the sign of fire and good luck and used for celebration. Pillars and beams at the doorway can define who works for the government, the police, and who has money. Despite the Cultural Revolution tradition dies hard in China.
Next…A Visit to the Hu tong and Ms. Wong Li