Beijing appeared to be a bloated metropolis all gussied up for the August Olympics, scrubbed clean with colorful potted plants lining the streets, with not a speck of litter marring the immaculate avenues. Volunteer booths were conspicuous at subway stops, manned by enthusiastic young people eager to demonstrate their newly minted English phrases. Police and military stood everywhere, with security checkpoints at all bus and subway entrances, x-raying all packages and giving everyone a good once over.
During the two weeks of the Olympics, the government restricted cars from many of the roads, closed many factories, and seeded the clouds with chemicals to induce rain and wishfully wash away the expectant hazy cloud of pollution. Yet, when we were there, the sky could not have been bluer, the air more fresh. In a dramatic display of double standards, Beijing Olympic official memorabilia (t-shirts, medals, envelopes, stamps, etc) were only available in designated stores, yet it continued to turn its back on blatant copyright infringement, and allowed everyone to flagrantly market knockoffs. Many articles in the papers trumpeted the enormous pressure to present China in the best light, and proud banners were displayed everywhere – Olympic fever was boiling over.
We stopped at the China Post office less than a mile from the Olympic venue to purchase postcard stamps to America. This created a little stir, because, due to limited supply, the clerks only allow five stamps per customer for each visit. After thirty minutes, we finally did leave with a stash of ten hard fought stamps, although even those were difficult to acquire. Not surprisingly, the clerks kept trying to sell us Olympic envelopes, Olympic medals, and Olympic mascots from the officially designated item case – just no postcard stamps.
Beijing reminded me of Los Angeles, big and sprawling, with many new districts crowding out the historic sections of the city. Shiny new skyscrapers, so common throughout China, rise above the ancient narrow alleyways (hutongs), which form the historic core of this great metropolis. Transportation is adequate, although certainly not at the same level as Shanghai or Hong Kong. Expansion of the subway lines is ongoing, as the suburbs bleed outwards from the city center. The Metro circumnavigates the core of Beijing, so expect to pick the closet location on the grid square and walk from there. Fresh and clean, it certainly has a week’s worth of attractions to satisfy even the most jaded traveler.
The number one highlight is the Great Wall of China, built centuries ago to keep the marauding Genghis Khan and his Mongolian invaders at bay. Rising from the sea, it follows the natural contours of the hills for another 4200 miles inland, with most of the sections in expected disarray. The closet section, the restored Badaling, is the most visited. However, this is ground zero for vendors and their cheap wares.
We chose instead to hike a five-mile section from Jinshandling to Samatai, a section light on tourists and mostly vendor free. Here, the Great Wall exists in its original state, with very little investment in upgrades. As far as the eye can see, the ancient wall ascends and descends the hills, and you scramble along the surprisingly wide and well-constructed walkway as best you can. Passing through thirty-one guard towers, and along crumbling ancient bricks set in centuries old mortar, I kept reflecting on how cold and lonely it must have been for the poor guards assigned as sentries. The engineering and surveying of this wall is amazing. The effort to quarry and haul rocks up the steep hillsides is Herculean. The combined efforts of thousands of workers over so many years and the incredible ongoing longevity will impress anyone so lucky to visit.
Tours leave from the Peking Downtown Backpackers Association every day at 6:30 AM in a comfortable air-conditioned minibus. It takes three hours to get there; the hike itself is four-five hours (one-way), with a three-hour return. I would not classify is as an easy hike, as you do follow the contour of the wall up and down over the hills. A few hardcore vendors will surprise you in the darkened towers, as they push cheap t-shirts, bottles of water, and in one case, warm beer. Our group for the day consisted of fifteen people of all ages and nationalities. Highly recommended, and a good value at $30/person.
Many people spend a day or more in the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace), but two or three hours is plenty. It is the same building over and over, surrounded by concrete courtyards. The best parts are the tree-laden gardens just before you exit, which unfortunately, is where most of the tourists clog together. It would be so much better to collect some of the ancient furniture and artifacts and stock them in some of these buildings. Now, the interiors are dingy, not well lit, and poorly furnished. Pressing my face against the dirty window, I thought I was looking into grandpa’s darkened garage. Why not open these great halls and create better displays? This could be so much better – it still feels forbidden. A must see, but prepared to be under whelmed.
Tiananmen Square, the symbol of freedom for many young Chinese, indeed for the entire globe, is enormous. Allegedly the largest in the world, it is flanked by oversized government monuments – The History Museum and Museum of the Revolution, The Great Hall of the People, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, and the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao. Teeming with people lost in the utter spaciousness of this historic plaza, I was amused by the roped off groups of workers who sat on squatty little stools and scraped gum from the square. Who can ever forget that stirring scene of the young man standing up to the tank in this celebrated square?
Talk about bloated, why Chairman Mao deserves this humungous monument is lost on me. From an early age, kids are brainwashed into believing Mao is the reason for today’s prosperity, which is ludicrous since he killed many of the intellectuals and capitalists. Nonetheless, it is a must see, as you move quickly in the line – no cameras, no bags, no hats, move quickly – past his embalmed corpse, all rosy cheeked and lit from above. Then, to add insult to his ‘great’ legacy, after viewing the Chairman, you exit to a cheesy souvenir section, where you have an opportunity to honor his communist memory by purchasing capitalist trinkets. Regrettably, a must see, but probably not worth it. Uncle Ho in Hanoi is better and more inspiring. Later, we will report on how Lenin stacks up in Moscow.
On a 100-degree day, we could not believe our ears as we descended down from delightful Jingshang Park. Walking downhill, the refrain became clearer and louder, as we curiously followed the melody to its source. Winding past temples, well-manicured flower patches, and emerald lawns, we finally arrived at the scene, where flirtatious groups of people were joyously practicing their dance steps to the riotous and implausible tune of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. This is a common scene in public parks throughout Asia, where people of all ages meet and dance to western tunes. Pretty funny.
I thought the narrow alleyways – hutongs – were the best part of Beijing, places to get lost as you wandered around, poking your head in interesting shops, and walking wherever your curiosity takes you. The area around the Drum Tower and Houhai Lake felt like the real Beijing, not the bright shiny urban sprawl it has become.
We shipped another box of souvenirs, sampled Peking duck, had two-dollar haircuts at the famous Wenfeng salon, shopped for tacky goods, saw all there was to see, and prepared for the next leg of the journey, the Trans-Mongolian train across Russia. Beijing certainly is an excellent city, worthy of three to five days, although it would rank behind Hong Kong and Shanghai as destinations. Whereas, we would return to Shanghai and Hong Kong, we probably would not to Beijing – once you have seen everything, there is nothing to bring you back.
I hope that when we return, homogenized concrete buildings and shiny skyscrapers will not dominate China, and the government will maintain and encourage the historic and cultural aspects of this wonderful civilization. Perhaps China will stop trying to be so much like Westerners and embrace their unique heritage.
While challenging for the independent traveler, it is certainly rewarding when you succeed. With the right amount of time and patience, you will see things you will not see anywhere else in the world – the snaking Great Wall, the majestic and sacred Yellow Mountain, the millions of people on their one-speed bikes, the smoky incense coils in the temples of Hong Kong, and the rice paddies of Yangshuo. Profound, spiritual, everlasting - China, even better than the real thing.