Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Incongruous City of Beijing

Our first lodging in Beijing was in a traditional area that hasn't yet been disassembled and turned into high rise, high density housing. It is an area of small alleys (Hutong) and roads just large enough for a single small car to pass.  An area where real people still live, kids play in the streets, and tourists are few and far enough between that the store owners don't speak much English, and consequently weren't keen to rip us off. Though not high rise, the housing is much more high density than most westerners would tolerate. As we soon found out, the ample public bathrooms were for the locals who apparently don't have toilets or showers in their homes. As we were told, it's a charming place to see old Beijing, save the occasional whiff of the commode.
Hutong Doorways

I think all those numbers are registered houses (or people) in this little alley
So, we decided to rent bicycles for the afternoon for a ride through the Hutong.  We jumped on and started peddling only to quickly stop in a fit of hacking on my part.  We had never heard about or expected the massive amount of smog we encountered, which seemed to be reeking havoc on my lungs, which were just recovering from a mild cold in Yangshuo.

Quite the smog in Beijing

We continued and were able to visit the lovely old drum tower and bell tower which face each other near the start of the Hutongs.  We were then invited to a free tea tasting at the base of the drum tower where we had great ginger oolong, and Vince decided he wanted a peeing ceramic boy (it tests the water temp).

Steep stairs

Drum Tower

The warning signs almost read like haikus

We rode near a park in which we decided to rest our saddle butts, and which I think had an addmission fee that we didn't pay because we couldn't read the signs. Oops.  It was one of the many vast landscaped parks that we were to visit in Beijing.  But this one was a bit different, at least on the day we visited. We happened upon a mass of older people some sitting on the curb with photos and writings (in Chinese of course) and others deep in discussion.  We were perplexed about this gathering, and wondered what all these people were advertising and discussing.  We later found out from Vince's friend from boarding school (David - who lives in Beijing and took us out to an excellent dinner) that they were matchmaking parents.  With 'resumes' of their single children, they were trying to find them appropriate partners.

We slept a few days in this neighborhood, where we enjoyed wandering through the alleys, and checking out the nearby shops.

Shopping also included iced coffee  :)
Of course, since no trip to China is complete without it, we found a hostel nearby who offered a day trip to the Great Wall. On the recommendation of many people we encountered during our travels, we visited the Mutianyu section.  A minibus picked us up at the crack of dawn and we travelled elbow to elbow with 12 other tourists to  the wall. We took a lift up and walked a couple of miles along the wall.  It is most certainly a wonder of the world.  It's thousands of miles long, in various states of disrepair or renovation, and the newest sections were built in the 1600's!  The section we visited also happens to be near the top of a mountain range, which means it turns and meanders up and down as far as the eye can see (which would have been much farther if not for the thick smog) and it has a guard tower around every corner.

I imagined it was impenetrable when it was a defended border of China. It seems strange now to have such a great wall in the middle of the country, but it's a reminder of China's tumultous history.  We had a lot of fun taking photos and doing jumps and headstands on the wall, much to the amusement of other tourists, and ended the day with an excellent lunch at a nearby restaurant.

I call Bejing incongruous, because the second part of our stay was spent in a considerably different neighborhood.  We stayed at the Park Plaza.  An excellent, but reasonably priced hotel (it was my birthday gift!) in a very upscale area of high rises, luxury hotels, and shopping malls with louis vutton stores on every other block.  We even encountered a cherry red ferrari, driven by a smokin' hot chick.  It's a stark contrast to the Hutong area, and it perplexes me that louis vutton wearing, ferarri driving people live in the same city as people who don't even have a bathroom in their homes.

Regardless, we spent the rest of our days visiting the other tourist areas of Beijing.  First, The Summer Palace, an area on the outskirts of Beijing that was once a summer retreat for the royal family.  Being on one of the few hills of Beijing, it has a refreshing breeze in the summer that the rest of Beijing lacks and we appreciated!  It is now a huge park encircling a lovely lake, with many unique buildings, temples, walkways and lots of tourist groups and their flag-totting guides.

Summer Palace mini lake and shopping district
Summer Palace big lake

The place is very touristy, with many organized groups following their flag leader

Two bridges, because one is certainly not enough

Second, the Temple of Heaven, a vast park, with a few huge buildings which dignitaries would use for religious retreats and meditation before decisionmaking.  The most striking thing about visiting these places is how huge the parks are, how spread out the buildings are, and how orderly the landscaping is.  The temple of heaven also happened to be the most frustrating place we visited in Beijing, after months of travelling, we were pointed in the wrong direction by a dishonest tuk tuk driver who was hoping for an exhorbant fare from us, and the woman at the ticket counter tried to short us 40 bucks.  Having your guard up all the time is tiring, and I was ready to skip the sightseeing and sit in the luxury hotel room for the rest of the visit.

Wedding Photos at the Temple of Heaven

Fortunately, we saved the best for last and I got over my tiredness to visit The Forbidden City. It's a walled city in the center of Beijing that's protected by a large moat.  It's also a vast area, many miles long, with paths of stone that contributed to what's referred to as Peking knees (or Peking feet in our case - ouch!). It's where the royal family and rulers used to live in numerous alleyways and buildings built and expanded for their many wives and concubines.  It also contains the largest wooden building in China, a superbly renovated temple. Not all of The Forbidden City is open to the public as parts are currently being used for lawmaking, and still it was a huge area, not easily covered in the short day that we had.

Tiananmen Square (aka the People's Square) is just opposite The Forbidden City, and we had the opportunity to watch the flag lowering in the evening.  Or should I say we stood for a good 45 minutes awaiting the ceremony, then 10 minutes before the start we were surrounded by police cars telling us we weren't to leave until the ceremony was over (yes the police cars talked, they had recordings). Once over, said police cars were quickly driven through the square dispersing any non-mobile groups of 2 or more people.  The "People's Square" is most certainly not the people's square.  Cameras are everywhere, as are the military men and their perfect postures.  It was the scariest place in China, for me at least, and made me really appreciate the freedoms we have, and the congruous lives we live.

Me trying, and failing to have a posture as stiff as the military  men
A sight of 1984

As a bonus, some other fun stuff we saw while wandering around Beijing:

The smallest tuk tuks are in Beijing
You need to watch the video below to really appreciate those

Pep talk with the whole team before opening up the restaurant for the day

You can find the rest of the photos here (map)

View China - Beijing in a larger map

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