Touring Shanghai and Beijing.
by onesundaymorning on July 22, 2008
There are two Summer Palaces in Beijing, both were used during the Qing dynasty, but one was destroyed at the end of the Second Opium War, and the second was built as a replacement. As a fan of the author Anchee Min and with a growing interest in the Empress Dowager Cixi I have visited the compounds many times in my mind. I wont get into the arguments of the politics behind the building of the Summer Palace, but is is highly credited to Cixi. The rebuilding of the Palace emptied the remaining funds that China had, but was so beloved by the Empress that she ruled China from the Summer Palace for 20 years until her death. Cixi was originally a third ranked concubine who became a favorite of her husband and produced his only male heir. That's really the only part that every story about her agrees on. Some say that she took control over a falling Empire being raped by foreign powers to help China in place of her sickly son. Once he died a new heir was put in place only to have him turn on her and try to lock her up in the New Summer Palace. Others say that she was the sole downfall of China, killing her son, and locking up the new heir to pursue her own pleasures. Then their are others which believe that she was a puppet put into place to hide the real faces of officials who made the powers. Regardless of how history played out Empress Cixi story is tied to that of the Summer Palace. Walking the grounds I tried to imagine how she would see it. Kunming Lake covers much of the complex, making water a major theme throughout the palace. Shrubs, flowers, and rock gardens are all Incorporated into the landscape along with cleverly placed walls that frame sections to give the feeling of looking into a painting. The scenery, in my opinion far out shown the buildings, which all seemed to be built only to enhance the natural beauty of the the area. I'm not sure which part of the palace I was in, but at one point there was a short brigade overlooking Suzhou Lu, which looked more like a town on the rivers edge then a part of the palace. It was a powerful way to start off the tour of the Summer Palace. Shortly after the East Gate is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity where the Emperor dealt with business, and nearby is where, some historians believe, the Emperor was held by Cixi, imprisoned in the Hall of Jade Ripples. Some believe he was there due to the Empress hunger for power, others say it was because his policies were hurting China, and others believe he wasn't held at all. Not far away is Cixi's own private chambers, the Hall of Happiness and Longevity. On the lake itself is on the of the most famous sites, the Marble Boat. Again another argument could be made about this marvel. Some say that Cixi used the money that should have went to the Navy after most of the fleet was damaged by the Japanese, while others say that Prince Chun, the father of Guanguu, the Emperor who was said to being held hostage built the boat for Cixi after squeezing funds and from the deathly to flatter her into supporting his policies. The Summer Palace is a hot bed of historical controversy that shouldn't be missed. It is an exciting step back into history for any history buff, especially anyone who has even a basic knowledge of Chinese history. However anyone can enjoy this place with its amazing architecture, beautiful surroundings, and a must see on any list of places to visit in China.
by onesundaymorning on July 28, 2008
If there is one journey to be made in a life time it should be to the Great Wall. Knowing the history of the wall itself is a must before ever even trying to climb it; actually this is essential before visiting any sight with in the Chinese boarders. The Great Wall isn't actually one wall, but more of various segments built by different dynasties. The wall can date back as early as seventh century BCE, and stretches over many thousand miles. It is believed that segments of the wall were built by agricultural towns to ward off nomadic tribes. Qin Shi Huangdi, the first Chinese Emperor, decided to link the walls to create a protective wall. Prior to the Ming dynasty the wall wasn't of much use, and was compromised regularly. It was the Ming Emperors who put effort into maintaining the wall as protection against the Mongols. Once the Manchu rulers can around the 200 years of rebuilding, expanding, and improving the wall were discarded. Even up until recently, during the Cultural Revolution, bricks were taken from the wall to build army barracks. 1984 saw the renewed interest in the wall when much effort went into restoring it. Currently the Badaling section of the wall remains the most popular, most crowded, and most accessible section of the wall. I traveled to the Mutianyu section just outside of Beijing, past Badaling. Mutianyu was built in the Ming Dynasty and is much less crowed then he Badaling section, but can be dated back much earlier to about 550-577. The drive their was amazing. My bus drove through the mountains and followed along sections of the wall that curved with the mountain and sank into the the mountains rather then carving out sections to make room for the wall. Once off the bus we were given a time frame to meet back up and we all took off. There are two options up; cable cars and climbing. My group choose to climb. We walked past many little shops set up on the way to the stairs to the wall. Each vendor tries to convince you why their items are the best and pushed a business card in my hand to remember to come back. The cards were small pieces of card board with a number written on it. Next up were the people dressed in period costumes who want to take pictures. Another trap; negotiate the price first because nothing in China is free. The hike up is the most scenic, and includes long stretches of steps and steep grades. At one point there is a small area where I stopped to take amazing pictures of the mountains. The top of the stairs dropped us off at Tower 19. my friends and I stopped for some photos of us on the wall, but the group quickly split up due to each of us having different intentions. Mine being that I wanted to see everything. I walked along the wall until I met up with Andy who was stopped by some Chinese residents. They wanted to take pictures with her. She posed for them and we took off. We came to one of the towers and climbed to the top for an amazing view of the land, and to our surprise a goat sitting on the wall. At one point we turned around when we saw signs about a "wild wall" translation: an unrestored section. With time growing short we began to look for a way down. Initially we were going to use the cable cars, but after following some very confusing signs we ended up at a toboggan. We couldn't resist. The toboggan is a steel run where the carts get easily stuck in some areas causing some sticky situations. Andy took off in front of me and seconds later I was behind here. We meet up in a congested area where two of the macho guys on my tour were going a little two slowly. It wouldn't have been so bad if I didn't have a crazy German man behind me yelling at me in a very thick German accent "Don't worry, I won't kill you just go faster." My fears subsided when we started moving, but only came back around the next few corners when I saw the traffic jam again and could hear my new found friend behind me coming around the corner screaming. It was the greatest five minutes of my life, and apparently Mr. Germany's life as well because when we got to the bottom he began laughing and taking pictures.
by onesundaymorning on August 22, 2008
I really wasn't sure what I was seeing at first. The itinerary said that the first stop of the day would be The Temple of Heaven. Our bus pulled up to the stop and we got out. A huge park greeted us with hundreds of people already there. However I soon learned that they weren't here to see the temple, they came to relax. Children played games with parents, some were people watching, while others were practicing music. I stopped to listen to a familiar tune. It took a few seconds, but I soon recognized it as the Chinese version of Jingle Bells that flowed into Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It was shocking at first, but I had become use to seeing Christmas things everywhere in China, and it was only mid September. The most memorable experience was a small child trying to sell me a candy Santa on a stick.The Temple of Heaven itself is much larger then the Forbidden City. It was used by the Emperor, the Sun of Heaven, to give thanks to the Heavens. The grounds and buildings are amazing, but what is even more impressive is that they were all constructed without nails or cement. Outside the Hall of Prayer For the Good Harvest large stone slabs decorate the center of the stairs. The carvings depict two large Phoenix's flying through the heavens in immaculate detail. Connected to the Hall is the Imperial Vault of Heaven. A 1,180 foot bridge, known as the Red Stairway connects the two buildings. Here the Emperor consulted his ancestors tablets. Each tablet represented a different deceased ancestor who was related to the Empire. The most scared place in the complex, and the most popular with Circular Mound Alter. When I arrived here with my friends we were oblivious to the significance of the mound. Several people crowed on top of the mound, while others waited to be able to get on. I waited my turn eagerly anticipating being able to stand on it. Finally I pushed myself onto it with a half a dozen other people, stood there, and waited enlightenment...it never came. Later I learned that this is where the Emperor would come, after visiting the ancestral tablets, to offer a sacrifice and then consult the heavens on affairs of the state. The mound represented the center of the World according to Chines cosmology. I had very little time to explore everything that their was and found myself rushing through everything. Honestly a minimum of three hours should be spent here just to look at and enjoy the beauty of the buildings, but I could have just spent those three hours people watching in the park.
It was built to be the largest public Square in the World. It was built in the 1950's in an area where nothing stood, but soon became a Communist icon. During the Cultural Revolution Red Guards would gather here to chant Mao's name. It stands across the street from the Forbidden City, and lays at the feet at the Gates of Heavenly Peace where scholars would at one time gather to await edicts passed down by the Emperor, but most recently where Chairman Mao stood and declared "China Stands".His picture still hangs here today. On the ride to Tian'anmen it was easy to see what was on all sixty of my fellow traveler's minds: communism and massacres. We were accompanied by five students from a local university. After a few very quiet minutes someone finally broke the tension and asked about the Tian'men Square Massacre. They looked back at us blank faced. We told them about the protesters, the tanks, and the hundreds of death. The students looked at each other, consulted each other in Chinese, and finally asked us what we were talking about. We explained further. Finally one asked "Do you mean Kent State?" Now it was our turn to be confused. Again we explained about the three month stand off. One of the Chinese students took out a English history book and passed it around. Some of the students read passages out loud about Kent State, the massacre that took place, and how this is a common occurrence in the US. We were all very confused when our bus stopped.I can't say what I expected when I arrived. Maybe I was waiting to see the Red Guard and tanks, but all I saw was concert. Guards dressed in green paraded through the area with small children running past them. At one side of the square stood the Notational Museum of China, at another was the Great Hall of People. In the center of the square stood a monument to the People's Hero's. A large granite and marble column that honored those who died in the revolution. At the south end of the square is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall with a giant statue outside is a statue of several people known as the Revolutionary Statue. On the stairs on one of the halls the giant countdown Clock for the Olympic Games was installed just the day before, four years before the games would even make it to China, but the time frame didn't stop people who were already hawking Olympic shirts on the streets. Our tour guide drew us close in a very quiet voice warned us not to speak of the massacre. He told us that here no one is what they seem; many of the Chinese tourists are actually undercover cops. He told us how he was there the day of the massacre and that he escaped with his life, but would say no more. In China very few know the truth of what happened, and the official stance of the government was that it was an uprising that had to be put down to save the Chinese people. I looked at my friend and we walked silently away. What was there to say. We had just seen a side of China that we never knew. A side that was not expect, but at the same time wasn't surprising to find.
by onesundaymorning on September 5, 2008
The feeling walking into the Forbidden City was intense. I am an American, a Westerner walking the halls of what was once not only once forbidden for many of the Chinese People, but especially to foreigners. Although the area is now protected as a World Heritage Site and has been open to tourists for a better part of a century walking the paths that the empress Cixi (a personal fascination of mine) might have once waled herself as well as 24 other emperors sent chills down my spine. I entered the city via Tian' AnMen Square.Once beyond the gates my group broken up and was given headsets. Out of the corner of my eye a small crowd of people drew my attention. Curiosity took the better of me and a friend and I ventured over to find that people were dressing up like emperors and empresses to have their picture taken. There was a small fenced off area that we were taken into and got to choose the robes and headdress that we wanted to wear. I almost felt like a true empress by all of the people who were fawning over us to help us dress. From there we were lead over to four different area (one was a throne, and the other some sort of gate) for our picture. I suddenly realized that we were rushed ahead of a line waiting to get their pictures taken and that a very large crowd had now gathered around the gate not signing up for pictures, but to take our pictures. Once we ready to undress a lady explained that it was exciting to see someone with our "skin color and hair color" to dress up in traditional costumes and that we had drawn a crowd. We didn't know what to think to sure felt like rock stars.The buildings that make up the palace are beyond description and were even set up to the principles of Feng Shui. Everything is on display here from the Emperor' s robe room in the Hall of Middle Harmony to the banqueting hall in the Hall of Preserving Harmony. The halls are all breathtaking, but without knowing the history behind them they all being to run together. Luckily I had a self guided tour head set that explained everything that I was looking at; a bit dry, but very informative. The Imperial Garden, towards the end, was a huge surprise to come across. It's rather small, but beautiful.Somewhere a long they way we met with a scam. "Students" pulled us to a side building where we were able to look at "original art work." Weary of the paintings and their high prices I politely refused, but my friend fell in love with a few pieces. Together we negotiated the price down for a set of four and left only to find that another "student" a little later had that same four "original" artworks for sale.When we reached the end we found that there was a mix up with the bus and that there was some time to kill. I took this opportunity to explore a small gift shops full of souvenirs. I bypassed most, but couldn't resist a small doll dress in the same traditional costume that I was photographed in only hours before. Still with some time left we gathered our group of 60 students and teachers together for a photo. This turned out to be the highlight of the day. While taking the picture several Chinese tourists stopped to take our picture as well. Then two Chinese boys jumped in the picture with us so that they could have their picture with us opened a flood gate. After about thirty minutes of picture taking my group was soon out numbered with more Chinese then Americans in the picture. Our bus pulled up ending the fun, but leaving the best memories ever.
Shanghai, where do I start. It's cities/countries like these that help me explain why I love photography, and on the same hand make me wish that I was better. Painting a picture of Shanghai, or China in general, takes more talent then I have.I didn't know what to expect when my ship began its path up the Yangtze River. It was dark, yet foggy and the air was thick. Barges sailed past me as I looked around for something to become excited about. As the morning progressed and I could see the buildings of People's Square emerge from the fog the sinking feeling my stomach began to lessen, until I heard someone shout "did you see the pig?" Apparently there was a very large, dead swine floating in the river and had now become wedged between the dock and the side of our ship. All I could think was tomorrow will be better; tomorrow I leave for Bejing.Leaving the dock area and walking to the area where the Bund is located is hard in several ways. First leaving the dock area is a little like walking through a mine field that has seen its share of explosions. More people then I could count were seen walking around the ship the next week with arms in slings, neck braces, and casts. Although sad I made a sport of watching the drunks make their way to the ship at night (I do believe China should look into adding this as an Olypmic sport).Second the area around the docks is a reminder that not all of the Chinese are reciepents of the money that we pour into China's manufacturing. People in ripped clothing rode bikes down alleys lined with crumbling buildings. Their bikes were overstuffed with items for sale. The balancing act that they performed was an art in itself.A short walk from the dock is a bridge that leads over to the industrial side of the city. Every book I read was very gung-ho about the Bund. By far this is the most cosmopolitian area of the city; huge stone buildings linning the harbor. I wasn't impressed. Although beautiful it was nothing more then over priced shops, hotels, and banks. When China was invaded by foreign powers this is where they held court. This is also home to the Peace Hotel and its shop. Again another let down. I'll be honest; if I wanted Westernized China I would have stayed in the US and took the Metro to China Town. I didn't float across the ocean to buy products that said "Made in Thailand" on them or to eat at American/French/British restruants. Being very fustrated my friends and I left the course that was recommended for us to find our own path. Thank god we did. Just behind the Bund was a market. Obviously there were many tourists here, but I finally got to bargin. My friends and I grabbed each others hands and pushed our way through the crowed market. I found a stand selling beautiful beaded, "silk" bags that clamped shut. They asked for $150, but we settled on $10 (I still most likely over paided). Later, while in Bejing and also in LA, I found out that these bags are a speciality of Shanghai and are only made and sold there. The fun of the transaction was cut short by a man, with no legs, wheeling himself though the market on a board with wheels. On his lap was a small, mal-nurished baby that was trying hard to hold itself up. I tried hard not to look, but at times like this manners go out the window.My friend and I left the market to regroup our thoughts and find food. My favorite part of China is still something that I feel only makes since to me. I love the fact that their are no intellectual property rights in China; China laughs in the face of big business (maybe it's the Communist in them). Still being in the wake of the bird flu, and places like KFC (which was now Kentucky Fried Catfish) choosing to serve fish instead of chicken and other birds, we had to be careful. We opted for a knock of KFC which stood a block of a real KFC. Once inside we had no idea what to order and pointed at a few items that were on display. I ended up with potstickers filled with sewage and what resembled an egg roll full of a stringy meat that I could not place. Playing guess what I'm putting in my mouth was the best game ever.After lunch was time to shop. That didn't go so well. All of the shops told me that I was to fat for their clothing and a few offered me items in the size XXL (equivelent to an American size XXXL). I would like to say that I am a size 10. Next I went to a foreign language book store, where one size fits all. It was three floors tall with two armed guards standing at the door on each level. Needless to say I was no longer in the mood to shop and was ready to go back to cloths shopping. A little further down the road was the four seasons version of Haggen-Daz. I have never seen such an upscale ice cream parlor in my life. Glass windows lined the seats, water was served at all of the tables, and they even took reservations. My mind was blown. Looking at the menu was another brillant expereince. The prices ranged from $3.00- $80.00. Thats in the USD!!!! Who spends $80 USD on ice cream? I would love to meet that man. After the much need break (it was very hot outside), a parade broke out on the streets. There were fan dancers, little green aliens, and small girls on sticks. The parade lasted about 5 minutes, but I loved it. This is the best city on Earth. Every momet is like Christmas; leaving you guessing what will happen next.We were told to at least ride the subway through the Bund Sightseeng Tunnel. There are no real words to describe this tourist trap, but let me try; strange, odd, surreal, a mind bendingd ride ah-la a drug indceded experience all come to mind. My friend and I heard about it and purchased a ticket to go. We were looking at it more as a way to get to the Orietnal Pearl Tower, but never expceted the ride we got. The tunnel is just that, a tunnel. It goes under ground. The ride incorporated a small light show in the tunnel and the blow up figures that bounce around when air is blown into them, oh and they look like Spider man. It's well worth the ride.
by onesundaymorning on August 9, 2008
My trip to Beijing was just to see the typical sights, although it would have been rewarding enough if this was all that I did. Once in the capital my group meet up with students from one the the Universities in Beijing. The college is one of the best in the country, pulling together some of the brightest minds. When our bus picked the group up at the airport was when I first met Ophelia and her friends. Ophelia was to be one of our student guides throughout our trip. The bus drove to our hotel where we were able to check in and then headed over to the campus. Here we were broken up into smaller groups to be taken on a tour of the campus.Their are times in everyone life when you get a candid look into someone elses life leaving you wishing for more and at the same time regretting what you learned. This was quickly becoming one of those times. Ophelia lead us around the school eager to share her life with us. The campus was beautiful, but we soon began to question some sights. Outside one of the buildings were forty or so large canteens. She explained that the only safe drinking water was on the other side of the campus and that the students would fill them everyday so that they had something to drink. At another building we saw a long line and questioned what it. This, we were told, was the line for the showers. The dorms had no bathrooms (with the exception of the dorms for the International Students) so a central bathroom was on campus. The lines were usually long for the showers and she had even skipped class to wait in the lines. She asked if we wanted to see her room and we all jumped at the chance. The rooms were long and skinny with a table in the center and lockers inside the door. There were four bunk beds, so that each room could hold eight girls. All of their belongs were either in a locker or on the bed. At the foot of her bed, much like the other girls, a board was proped up to hold a computer. I was astonished, and after that I never complained about how small the room on the ship I was currently living on was.Once outside we lost all sense shyness and the questions flew from both sides, and eventually lead to the current political state of China. She explained to us that unlike the US elections are not that important. She is one of one billion, her one vote would never make a difference. The people's voices go unheard and only those who make up the current head of state decide who will be the next leaders. Through talking to her I could feel her hopeless. She knew that she would never be more then a number. One person asked if she ever considered leaving. Ophelia knew this was an impossibility. Like most of her fellow students she couldn't even afford the $8 train ticket home let alone a plane ticket, and only the best of the best get to leave the country and since she was at the second best school in the country she had no hope. However she wanted to go to America. She liked it better then China. Instantly she knew her mistake. The look on her face was of someone who just signed her own death certificate. She pushed us all away from where we were and quickly began to explain that comments like that could go on your personal file. In China you are always being watched. You never knew who was connected to the government. We all held back on the questions after that. No one wanted our new friend in trouble.Ofelia introduced us to Sofia who opened the question flood gate again. We asked about going on-line to e-mail, but were soon to find out that their was a restriction on international websites. They were banned. Then came the more hard hitting questions; China's One Child Policy. Ophelia was one of three children. Her first two were born before the policy, but she was born after. Both her parents were fined and lost their jobs; they were even blacklisted from many organizations that they applied to. Sophia on the other hand was one of two, both born after the policy, but her family knew some people in the government who looked the other way for them. Later that evening we met up with a larger group of students. Sophia took this opportunity to question me one on one. She wanted to know about the US and my life their, but more importantly if the American Dream was true. Her teacher told her about it and ever since then she dream about it every day. It was the first look of hope that I seen all day; how could I deny it. I just replied "yes". She took a deep breath as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.Once back on ship that I came to China on everyone began to talk. The over all feeling that I got from the students were confusions. The college I visited was defiantly very liberal; they sided with Taiwan and stated if their was a war then they would align with them. My friends who went to other Beijing schools reported the same however some said other wise. The overall statement at two of the colleges was that China stands tall. There was never a time of hardship and they aligned themselves with the government seeing themselves as Socialist and against the Taiwanese rebels.Every place that I visit my friends ask about it and I can always explain what I have seen, eaten, and done, but their was no way to express what I experienced in China. It was a country of mixed emotions for me. There is no words to express what happened and even four years later I'm still trying to understand everything and have recently given over to the fact that I never will. I have taken to a Buddhist outlook towards the country; China is.
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