Three hours, one in-flight meal, and three-quarters of a movie after departing Tokyo, Ellie and I arrived in Beijing’s international airport on a balmy Friday afternoon. It took awhile for it to set in, but it became pretty apparent that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
Welcome to Beijing!
Beijing seems to be a city in transition. Unlike Tokyo, Beijing is a sprawling, smoggy city, built perpetually out out out, rather than up up up. The streets alternate between wide, multi-laned avenues humming with four- and two-wheeled traffic, and tiny cobbled alleys in the older hutong traditional neighborhoods. These, too, are teeming with cars and bikes, often impeding pedestrian traffic. There are Western influenced grand, stone parliament buildings and hotels that take up wide city blocks, McDonalds and KFCs rubbing shoulders with Rolex advertisements, and sharp-looking businessmen stepping into their Audis. Walk a few blocks and you are dodging bicycles and sidewalk trash, being beckoned from nearby shops with choruses of “Pretty lady, you buy shoes? silk? necklace?” A few more, and you are in one of Beijing’s stunning parks, watching retirees flow through their Tai Chi exercises, or young Beijingers holding hands and looking amorous (a site not often witnessed in reserved and modest Japan). The delicious smells of the street-cart food stalls mingle frequently with the public toilet odors in many of the hutongs, assaulting the senses every couple feet. Beijing may be in transition, but nothing about it is subtle.
A busy, commercial district
A quiet, residential hutong in a different part of the city
As for sites, we did all the required ones: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, and a few other “lesser” temples and parks. The largest public square in China (…maybe even the world?), Tiananmen Square was the seat from which Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949, and is also, apparently, the most heavily guarded and patrolled site in China. We arrived at sunset, along with countless other Chinese who were enjoying their evening strolling around, flying kites in the wind, and snapping photos of Mao’s iconic portrait. The Forbidden City, which lies directly north of Tiananmen Square took up an entire morning of ambling. Although we tried to go on a Saturday, we discovered crowds so thick and hectic (due to the weekend being one of China’s national holidays), that we were forced to return later in the week. When we did return, however, it was worth the slog through the other tourists. The Forbidden City is huge, and fascinating. Long ago the seat of power for the emperors and empresses of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it houses temples, squares, public receiving halls, gardens, as well as rows upon rows of low-roofed, brightly-shingled buildings that housed the royalty, and all those employed under the crown. For years it was off-limits to the inferior citizenry.
In the summer months, when the heat of the city became unbearable, however, the royalty would escape to the Summer Palace, on the shores of a mandmade lake in the northwest of the city. While the architecture and the grounds of the Summer Palace were extraordinary (it includes a man-made island in the middle of the lake to which the Empress banished the Emperor, like some lavish order of sleeping on the couch), I found it difficult to appreciate it to its full extent. It was as crowded as the L train on a rainy Monday morning. As packed as an outdoor music festival during the headlining show. As teeming as the crosswalks of Shibuya on a Saturday night. It was a mess.
Mao, above the Gate of Heavenly Peace - one of the entrances into the Forbidden City
In the maze of the Forbidden City
Summer Palace - don't let the relative calm of this photo deceive you. This place was teeming.
Impressive though these aforementioned sites were, the Temple of Heaven was my favorite. In the southeastern quadrant of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is exactly as the name suggests: a Temple for communicating with the Heavens. The temples themselves are ornate and beautiful, but the draw, for me, was more in the grounds and the people using them. Perhaps a boon of communism, but Beijing’s retirees seem to live a life of leisure and luxury. Free admittance into anywhere in the city for those over sixty, the Temple of Heaven was the hot-spot for the mature crowd. They gathered to play any number of games I’d never seen or heard of (variations of hacky-sack with a ‘birdy’ with rings and feathers; toss involving rings and landing them over your partners’ neck; Tai Chi groups or singles undulating among the trees) and solitary old men writing Chinese calligraphy with walking-stick sized paintbrushes and water along the sidewalks. It seemed to me everything that a Chinese park should be.
The Temple of Heaven - in ancient Chinese times, circular shapes signified Heaven, while squares symbolized Earth
You can see the funny birdy in the bottom right corner. I brought one home with me, and plan to spread the craze to America soon.
Solitary lady flowing with her Chi
Other highlights of our trip included renting bikes for a day and cruising around the city. Because Beijing is so flat and laid out in a straightforward grid pattern, navigating was pretty simple. Dodging traffic and potholes, on the other hand, proved to be a bit more nerve wracking. We were also able to check out the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, lesser tourist attractions and therefore delightfully peaceful after a crazy day biking. On the other end of the architectural spectrum, we made a point to visit the famous Bird’s Nest arena, built specifically for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The whole complex (Bird’s Nest, pool, waterfront, nearby hotels and accommodation) is truly staggering. It is new, clean, bright, big, and streamlined. A subway line – albeit four stops long – was built specifically for the Olympic games. We chose to visit at night and were rewarded with a much cooler ambiance that what I would expect during a blazing hot day with no shade. And lest you think what squares we are for doing all the typical tourist stuff, we also spent a great afternoon at the Midi Festival, Beijing’s kick-off summer music festival, showcasing mainly Chinese bands and DJs but also a few lesser-known names from Europe and the US. It was fun getting to experience the Chinese youth and subculture, with everyone rocking out their best festival wear.
A view of the main building within the Imperial College, which sits adjacent to the Confucius Temple
Que Olympic song....now.
At the big stage of the Midi Festival, about to hear some (mediocre) band from Russia
And how can I talk about a trip to China with no mention of food, yet? Well, I can’t. Where to even begin? Let me start, though, by saying that Ellie and I truly lucked out. Rather than left to fend for discovering everything ourselves (which we did pretty damn well I must say), we were hooked up for a day by a friend of Poppa Seltz and got the local’s tour treatment by his nephew and his lovely wife, two cool kids our own age. Not only did they show us around the Temple of Heaven, but also introduced us to a typical Beijing breakfast of pastry-type breads and some foul-smelling fermented soy bean soup, and to real, honest-to-god, delicious Szechuan cuisine. I have never tasted better shrimp and peanuts, or cubed and fried chicken cooked with mounds of red chillis in my life. Peking Duck, treated by Poppa Seltz’ friend Mr. Li, also lived up to every expectation I had. Did you know that the crispy duck skin with it’s juicy, buttery layer of fat should be dipped in sugar first? It changed my opinion of this fowl forever, and I was already a fan! Street food, too, pulled through when we needed it. Cold, spicy, sesame noodles on a hot day; mini, steamed pork buns for breakfast; a pineapple or a coconut full of coconut water for a quick pick-me-up; a beansprout and cabbage filled burrito. And there were still so many things left to try!
Scorpions and seahorses on a stick: Next time!
Ellie waiting for some noodles from a street vendor
An authentic Szechuan feast with our new friends Si Si and Zhongyuan. (Si Si would know, she's from Szechuan province!)
I’ll leave you here on that tasty note. Check back soon for Part II: our Great Wall trip, and for a more cohesive wrap-up on this last little excursion of mine.
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