5.08.2005

Four Days in Beijing

The past weekend Justin and I spent in Beijing, hitting most of the tourist spots as well as spending a fair amount of time with Emily shopping, eating, drinking and dancing. Okay, I did the dancing with Emily. Justin danced a minimal amount. We went with our friend Kyle, a teacher from our same school, also a friend of Emily's.
Justin and I decided to take the package tour of Beijing as it was cheaper. Also, the monuments are pretty far away from each other, so having a driver was in our best interest. It turned out, we had our own personal driver, Mr. Choi and tour guide, Annie. We stayed in a four star hotel, although that turned out to definitely be a relative term in China. Our days started early, meeting Annie at 8:30am in the lobby.
After landing and checking into our hotel the first day, we toured the Temple of Heaven. It's a huge temple complex used by the emperors to pray for good harvest during the solstice and celebrate a good harvest during the equinox. The structures were enormous and beautiful, all positioned along a meridian, a wide long road with ancient gates. The gates had three doors, the middle one only reserved for the gods. In the temple complex we visited a local art institute's gallery. The students showed us around a bit, explaining in close to perfect English the symbolic nature of traditional Chinese art. I bought two small oil paintings that we done by one of the professors. They are very abstract images of Buddha, with very thickly applied paint in various shades of orange. One is painted on a dark red background and one on a blue/grey background, symbolizing heaven and earth / yin and young.
That night we met Kyle at the 'Acrobatic Macrocosm' circus show our tour included. The circus show was impressive, especially the young acrobats and contortionists. Every act included a symbolic element meant to represent the Chinese culture and tradition in some way. The next night we saw an equally impressive show about the history and culture of Kung-Fu, called "The Legend of Kung-Fu". It was not part of the tour, but Kyle, Justin, Emily and I opted for this rather than the Chinese Opera, which some akined to 'the sound dying cats',even our Chinese tour guide! The Kung-Fu show was a bit over the top in the onstage visual effects, but nevertheless was impressive as the cast was full of talent.
The next morning we made our way to the Great Wall of China. We climbed the Badaling section of the wall, the most complete portion of the wall and by far the most touristy! But that doesn't mean it was the easiest to climb. The first part of the wall Justin and I were climbing the steep stairs with throngs of German, Italian, Russian and Spanish tourists (suprisingly not many English speakers). After the first 15 minutes of climbing, the crowds thinned out significantly for water breaks at the various towers along the way. Then we got to climb the rest of the steep wall more privately. Some of the stairs were as tall as my knees and significantly worn down. I think it was the most amazing part of the trip, as the views were incredible. Despite the hazy air, the surrounding mountians were still very visible and neverending.
That day we also visited the Ming Tombs, which are situated in a deep valley surrounded by three mountian ranges. The tombs are arranged along a north-south meridian, with huge incredible gates at each site. The tomb of the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty is actually in a hill behind an incredible temple. One property of the Chinese ancient art of feng shui is that a house should be with its back to a hill or mountian. This is why they enclosed the last emperor in a man made hill behind one of the temples.
Our next stop before dinner was a Chinese tea house. We got a private tea cermony lesson from a woman in one of various rooms which can be rented to groups. Justin and I drilled the woman on the various teas, to which she seemed a bit suprised. We bought some lychee tea leaves from her. Later on the trip I bought a beautiful black tea pot from one of the Chinese markets Emily took us to. I tested the quality of it by dertermining the tightness of the lid, a tip I learned from Phil. (It was tight)
That night after our wonderful Beijing (Peking) duck dinner, where a man carved the roasted duck in front of us, Justin and I met up with Emily and Kyle again. We went to a very modern bar near the bar street area, which was full of expatriates. It was '80s night so we ended up staying out dancing and drinking cheap drinks until 3:30am. Eventually we all left, and Justin and I got into a taxi, showing the driver the address of our hotel in Chinese. He decided to take us, despite not knowing where it was. As we flew by the Beijing Railway Station, we knew we were headed in the wrong direction. So with a variety of hand movements, swerving all over the road and 'yes' or 'no' vocal grunts (as we didn't even know these words in Chinese!) we finally were able to end up near our hotel at 4am.
The alarm clock at 7am was a shock and we made our way to Tian'amen Square, which was actually closed to the public due to the Taiwanese Leader's official visit the same day. After being shuffled through the massive crowds, we reached the entrance to the Forbidden City. It's the world's largest temple complex and was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The complex contains over 9,999 buildings surrounded by a six meter moat and a ten meter high wall. It took us over three hours to view the complex, stopping breifly at the various gates. One of the many magnificent temple buildings was built specifically for the emperor's wedding night and never used again.
Our last day in Beijing we spent with Emily, who took us on a pwer shopping trip to the three different markets. Justin bought a huge cloth painting of Mao and had to do some hefty bargaining to get it. I bought some (really cheap!) clothes, a coral necklace and my beautiful tea pot. The bargainers in China are really quite difficult as you have to invest a good amount of time bargaining and talking to them, a change from the Thai shopkeepers who drop the price in an instant. The Chinese shopkeepers also really try and play the 'friend card', saying things like "Oh, pretty hair. Beautiful! For you, my friend, I give you 120 yuan. For everyone else, 380 yuan!"
But of course, no Chinese buyer would take 120 yuan. They'd actually pay about 50.
Our four days in Beijing was really a testament to the rising economic power China is proving itself to be. Although it is technically a communist country, the spirit of consumerism and capitalism invades everything and everyone. Many businesses (gas stations, department stores, grocery stores) are still owned by the government, I think privately-run businesses are becoming a bit more prevalent. I do wish we could have visited Shanghai, the center of China's real economic rising, or some of the more rural parts of China, which of course show the other, neglected side of communist China. As for visiting the largest country in the world, I don't think four days was sufficient but we did our best and certainly saw and did the most we could.