Saturday, January 20, 2007

In once forbidden places

Well a couple of weeks ago, as I was supposed to be paying attention in managerial accounting, I realized that Asia was a big place and I wanted to see a lot of it while I was here. I had planned my schedule with classes just on Friday and Saturday, to give me maximum flexibility, and it would be a shame to squander the opportunity.

So, I thought what better time than the present to make some plans and went to a travel agent and see what packages were available. Beijing for HK$3200 (US$420) with 5 days 4 nights Hotel w bkfst and Air . . . Sold! I tried getting a couple others to join me, but others didn’t have a similar schedules and I couldn’t convince me to play hooky. They cited classes, but the real reason for their reluctance was that “it was cold in Beijing right now.” Well, being from Chicago, that didn’t stop me, and away I went. Plus, if it’s above freezing (the highs were in the upper 30s), it’s chilly, it ain’t cold.

Overall, the trip was amazing. Shanghai was great, but Beijing much better. It was the picture of urban China I had in my head before I arrived: Historical sights, Chinese architecture, Stalinist (or should I say Maoist) architecture abutting wide boulevards, the contrast of old Chinese hutongs (alleyways) and modern skyscrapers. Beijing did not disappoint, and I really recommend a visit sometime. Beijing has a palpable history unlike Shanghai which has already paved their history over. Unfortunately, I hear Beijing might do the same. That would truly be a shame.

Most of my trip involved the tourist circuit, which included a tremendous amount of top-notch sights. I seriously made some tracks and saw much of the city. My itinerary(including requisite shots of me in front of the landmark!) included:
  • Tianenmen Square: Absoultely huge square but very totalitarian in appearance. 1984 anybody?

  • The Forbidden City: Huge, overwhelming and absolutely beautiful. There are countless buildings to explore. I spent 4 hours there and barely scratched the surface. It's amazing to see the opulence the Chinese emperors used to live in.

  • Temple of Heaven: A huge beautiful Chinese Temple where the emperors used to pray for good harvests and luck.

  • The Great Wall: Truly magnificent and a great workout (I walked 4km of it). It is at the top of a mountain ridge, and truly snakes away from you to the horizon.

  • Summer Palace: A lakeside palace 15 miles from the Forbidden City. As if the emperor didn't have enough real estate in Beijing. . .

  • Lama Temple: An active tibetan monastery with worshippers and monks. It was very interesting to see Chinese burning incense and praying at the various temples within the complex

  • I paid my respects to Mao’s body: Kind of creepy to see Mao's corpse (or is it a wax replica), though interesting at the same time. The Chinese were very reverential. Many bought flowers to place in the mausoleum. However the reverence ended when you entered the gift shop located not 20ft from his body. Mao's face on a plate anyone?

Unfortunately some of the sights were being renovated for the Olympics. Imagine my disappointment when I pulled into the first courtyard of the Forbidden City to see what the audio guide described as "the most beautiful building in the palace."

Part of the circuit involved a couple of shows, booked at the hostel down the street for 100 RMB ($12.90) vs. the 300 RMB my hotel wanted. I ended up at shows geared for tourists, in effect “lao wei” theater. The acrobatic show was good, not great. The Chinese Opera was interesting to see, and they of course chose a tourist friendly production “Havoc in the Dragon Palace.” It had lots of colorful costumes, singing that was very high and loud, some acrobatics, and some fighting. The translations were fine, but I still couldn’t follow the plot. It involved the monkey king visiting the undersea castle of the sea god to borrow weapons where he created “havoc in the dragon palace.” There was something cultural I was missing. If somebody could explain it to me, I would appreciate it.

I also did a lot of walking around to get a sense of the pulse of the city, and because distances are vast. In my walking, I had some other observations about China:

  • Chinese society is freer than you would expect from western media. I had heard my mom’s stories from studying abroad in Franco’s Spain where people were afraid to break any rule, and figured China would echo that. However, those perceptions were unfounded, like in other cities around the world people go about their business and largely do what they want. You might even say they sometimes take this to an extreme(The sign says Don't step on the ice):
  • Personal space is a not a Chinese concept. You have to get used to being jostled and not having people get out of your way. In stores, from market stalls through high end dept. stores, sales people will not let you shop in peace. They literally stand next to you and follow you as you browse. Somebody mentioned that this could be a side effect of the cultural revolution when there wasn’t much privacy.

  • Similarly, the Chinese will not respect your place in line unless your body is pressing up against the person in front of you. If there is enough room for a body between you and the person in front of you, you are not in line, and somebody will claim that spot. This has happened to me countless times. This does not apply in HK where the British trained their former subjects very well in the art of queuing.
  • The Chinese really enjoy spitting. . . a lot. On any walk within a Chinese city you will loudly hear "HAAACKKKK PITCHOOO" countless times as people dredge their throats and deposit the results at a high velocity on the sidewalk. People will try to avoid hitting you, but there is always the chance for collateral damage.
  • Traffic lights only apply to cars planning on going straight. However if they’re turning, left or right, the light is only a suggestion. If you fail to remember this nuance while walking you might find yourself splayed on the hood of a turning car even when you have the walk signal.
  • Traffic laws do not apply at all to anyone on a bike. Bicyclists can run through lights (even when going straight), ride on the sidewalk, go the wrong way down one-way streets, etc.

As to the last 3 points, you have to always pay attention and keep your wits about you in China at all times, or else you might miss something vitally important.


shmoo said...

Bah! You thought the Great Wall was a workout, try it in August! Actually, did you go to the location where they have the little bobsledish thing you can ride down the hill? That was awesome.

I think we saw the same Monkey King thing on the Random Walk last year. But we also saw one before it that was less flamboyant.

So, how many Mao watches did you get? Also t-shirts. As we left the Wall, they kept dropping the t-shirt price, "Mao t-shirt, one dollar", "Mao t-shirt, two for one dollar", then one of our classmates said "Mao t-shirt, ten for one dollar" and the guy said "okay". He didn't buy them, but he should've gotten them for the entire group. We could've all worn them one day to Core and then thrown them away.

Venkat N said...

Right near the wall is also a place where you can dress up in Mongol costumes and take cheesy pictures...dunno if you did that. :)

The bobsleigh ride was a whole lot of fun though!

Faisal said...

What section of the wall did you hit up? When Saeeda and I were hiking it, we could get these certificates of merit. Greatly satisfying to my ego, especially since I was hauling my overweight ass to the top.

SloopJohnBSLW said...

I did the Mutianyu section, which was very empty the day we went despite having great weather. However I didn't have a guide since there were no shopping side trips...

There was definitely tons of Mao memorabilia, but I passed. I've already bought too much stuff.

Didn't do the bobsleigh. It looked like fun,but it looked very rickety. I got a little frightened by the parts where if you wiped out you could fall 20 feet to your death. . .

Damn missed the certificate! I did 4km and got nothing!