Observations on Beijing, China

Posted: October 31st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: ATW Updates | No Comments »

The first thing you should know about Beijing, China, is that, unless you’re particularly nationalistic, STAY AWAY from Beijing during the first week of October.  It’s National Day, the nation’s birthday, which I didn’t know about until the day we arrived, but it’s celebrated that whole week (which, I suppose, should be more appropriately named National Week), and every other person in all of China is there to celebrate it in the nation’s capital.  There’s a wonderful sort of fervor in the air, people waving little Chinese flags or with flag stickers affixed to their cheeks. 

However, there’s an awful lot of people in China.  My mom once taught me a Chinese saying, Ren San Ren Hai, that translates to "People Mountain People Sea" and I’ve never seen a more apt application of this saying than the flood of people pouring through every main attraction in Beijing.  In fact, there was one point while we were at the Summer Palace where we literally couldn’t move at all because of the crush of people around us.  The European tour group trapped alongside us exchanged sympathetic looks in our shared predicament. 



On top of that, the security is super tight, x-ray machines for bags at every entrance and soldiers standing at attention with fire extinguishers at their feet ready for any hint of insurrection. 


Everywhere we went, official-looking people with loudspeakers yelled in Chinese at us: "Move along" "Don’t linger" "Take your photo and go" "Keep going" "Get out of there" "Hurry up".  When we managed to push our way to a door in the Forbidden City, we saw maybe five seconds worth of furniture before a loudspeaker was shoved in our face and the surge of crowds behind pushed us along.  Just buying the tickets to enter the Forbidden City took our guide well over an hour.  We waited in the midst of everyone, a haze hanging just above our heads from everyone smoking.  Rick was still able to see enough to be amazed at the extent of it. It’s mind-boggling to think that there are so many rooms in the Forbidden City that there is a room to be used ONLY for the first night of an Emperor’s honeymoon and no other purpose.  


When we went to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, it took us over 3 hours to drive there.  Our tour guide said it usually takes 45 minutes.  And a car decided to break down on the narrow path up, so the traffic came to a complete standstill, forcing us to hike the rest of the way uphill, a half hour walk before we even managed to get to the entrance of the cable-way up.  Once we were up there though, the view is breathtaking, and the slight haze of the day turned the scenery into a Chinese brush painting, layers upon layers of delicate inkstrokes.  I lay my hand on the rough stones, thinking of all the years they’ve seen, all the hands that have been placed in the very same spot.  In a way, I am standing in the middle of a cemetery, many workers buried where they fell so many eons ago, and a reverence settles upon me.  Pictures don’t do the Great Wall justice, the sinuous stretch and curve of the barricade wrapping around the rolling green hills. 


We clambered up one of the guard posts and later, inspired by the epic-ness, Rick couldn’t resist pulling his most famous move. 


And, of course, what trip to Beijing would be complete without a taste of Peking Duck?  And the best place to go is the famous Quan Ju De restaurant.  On the recommendation of our hotel, we took the bus there.  The bus system there is wonderfully fast, convenient, and inexpensive (2 RMB per person, if I remember correctly). Just make sure to remember the name of your stop and get on the right bus back before the buses stop running at the end of the night, or you’ll end up in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, next to abandoned buildings, far from where you wanted to go (just trust me on this). 


Quan Ju De is very old, with a long storied history, including having Fidel Castro as a diner one time. If you can get in. Which, if the number given you is 248 and they’re currently at number 115, suffice to say that no matter how many tables they cram into that restaurant, it’s unlikely you’re going to get in before they close. 


We opted for the smaller less-elegant but still-delicious Quan Ju De fast food offshoot next door after an hour and a half of waiting with no end in sight.  The duck was delicious, paired with the black sauce (I can never remember what it’s called in English) and scallions and enfolded in the thinnest of wrappers.  Rick enjoyed a beer, and I savored the soup that came with our meals.


We wandered around a bit along the main street that ran along Tiananmen Square in the evening after our Peking Duck dinner.  Did you know that the Forbidden Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Olympic Bird’s Nest, and the Water Cube all run along the same line? All the buildings were lit up that night, and people thronged everywhere.  Sellers hawking laser pointers and light-up whirligigs dotted the pathway with multi-colored spots of brightness.  Dark alleyways leading to hutongs (which is where all the public bathroom facilities were located) lent a certain hush to the proceedings only a few feet away from the main thoroughfare. 


Rick commented that, to him, China is the Costco of the world, doing everything big.  To me, China is an ode to ego.  From the grand expanses of the Forbidden Palace and the Great Wall of China, to the placement of stones in a garden near the Temple of Heaven or the stories we heard of Emperors & Empresses in the past, and the modern-day confidence displayed in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics and the large portrait of Mao Zedong hanging up in full sight of Tiananmen Square, it’s all remnants of the proud ego of a country that calls itself the Middle Kingdom. 


I was a bit disappointed that this would be Rick’s first experience with the grand dame of the East.  The sights were still as beautiful and awe-inspiring as I remembered them from when I last visited 6 years ago.  Maybe, someday, I’ll take Rick again so that he can enjoy them without having the air crushed out of his lungs and we can wander together among the ancient stones surrounded only in the weight of history.

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