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Impressions of Beijing

by Walter Glaser

Driving into downtown Beijing from that city's modern airport is an eye-opener. Sure, there are many houses that are the sort you expect to see anywhere in China -- one story, small, compact with little land around each tiny house.

But what will amaze you most, as it certainly did me, is the number of modern, Western-style apartment blocks and office buildings that could be the clones of those in Los Angeles, Singapore, Tokyo, Bangkok or Sydney. Beijing, like most of the major cities in today's China, is rushing headlong into the 21st Century.

I've heard that Berlin is a city full of construction cranes, wait till you see Beijing. Laid out with wide avenues and on a grand scale, modern apartment blocks and skyscrapers vividly contrast with traditional Chinese single-story houses. Sleek, stylishly-modern hotels and office blocks seem to rise into the air like mushrooms, and the tidal wave of bicycles that start to flow each time that traffic lights turn green are now heavily supplemented by Chinese-made Santana VW's and a wide mix of other European, Japanese and American cars.

China's capital is a city on the move, and is in the middle of a transition that is making it into a bustling, modern world-city. A friend told me that when the first international-style hotels were being constructed in China around 15 years ago, the authorities were so inexperienced that they made no allowance whatsoever for maintenance, replacements or repair. The result was that as each piece of plumbing broke down or carpet wore out, no resources had been set aside to fix or replace anything.

I vividly remember talking to the Australian front-desk manager at a major hotel in China and hearing about the problems he had encountered. Every time he needed to hire a waitress or a room cleaner he was not able to advertise or interview, but had to apply to the local commune who would assign an undismissable worker to the task. To get office staff who had never seen a typewriter to say nothing of a computer, or a room cleaner who had never seen a modern Western-style flushing toilet, facial tissue or a vacuum cleaner was an aspect of hotel management that he never had to cope with before.

This is all changing. Hotels now have better trained staff, people do understand what foreign visitors require, and a constant two-way flow of expatriate trainers and Chinese workers who can now visit foreign countries for further training are all factors that have made an enormous difference.

Many of the city's hotels are right up to international standards, a surprising number of people speak English, German or Russian, and taxis, once rare in China, are now plentiful. With all these facilities now available, the sights of Beijing will fascinate any visitor.

Because of its significance to today's modern China, the best place to start to experience the sights and sounds of Beijing is at Tiananmen Square. I found the size of the open area to be almost overwhelming and certainly daunting. In pre-Communist days, the Square was much smaller, with an additional wall adjoined by a covered corridor along which officials could move from the east and west sections of the Square where the Imperial Ministries were located.

When the Communists came into power, they demolished a lot of the buildings in this area to create the vast open space which, used for national events and parades in much the same way as the open space of Red Square in Moscow, sadly became the scene for the tragic student uprising and massacre for which the Square's name is most-remembered in our time, rather than for the translation into English which, ironically, means "Gate of Heavenly Peace."

While I was there, there was a constant flow of locals and tourists alike -- farmers from the provinces, soldiers on leave, busloads of foreign visitors and Beijing citizens for whom this was undoubtedly the least-crowded part of the city to stroll around. There were flags, the bright scarlet adding a touch of brightness to the slightly drab winter's day, a gray pall not improving that situation. I could never figure out whether this was smog or winter mist, but suspect the latter as smog would have caused my eyes to sting.

An heroic monument called "The People's Heroes" was erected here in 1958 and depicts a group of Chinese military pushing forward -- a Chinese version of the famous Iwo Jima statue. It was being greatly admired by a gaggle of young soldiers. Other tourists were looking at the ceremonial columns, topped by dishes containing a creature that appeared to be a cross between a lion and a dragon. The mythical dishes were supposed to always catch the jade dew, a concoction that the Emperor drank each morning to ensure long life. The lion-dragon on top was there to guard the Emperor if he should have to travel away from the Palace. I couldn't help thinking that, if all those mythical "charms" had worked, it would have made the Emperor's life much easier, and was reminded of the story about the guy who was walking down the Broadway in NY with a little bag of salt in his hand, throwing a pinch over each shoulder at regular intervals. A psychiatrist who saw him asked him what he was doing. "Keeping the elephants away" was the reply. "But there are no elephants in NY" said the psychiatrist. "See! It works!" said the salt thrower.

The predominant sight that one cannot help but notice in the Square is the vermilion gate that leads into the Forbidden City. The main archway of this features a large portrait of Chairman Mao over the top, and is the entrance to the Imperial City. The Gate has a much longer history and dates back to 1651. Other buildings surrounding the square include Chairman Mao's Memorial Hall where Mao lies in state, and the vast Great Hall of the People, today's Chinese Parliament.

Mao Mao, our helpful and knowledgeable guide (and no connection with the ex-ruler of China), pointed out that the fleet of limousines drawn up in the parking lot section of the square outside, together with a very large number of buses in the parking lot, were a clear indication that a meeting of the Politburo was in session.

I also found the square to be a great place to buy the magnificent eagle kites that make wonderful presents for children back home. When I first arrived in the square I thought that large birds were circling over the crowds, but on getting closer I could see that these were brilliantly designed paper and wood kites that were among the best I had ever seen.

But the Square was not the final attraction here. We noticed the flow of the people in the Square as they zeroed in on the gate over which Mao's portrait beamed at all and sundry. Just like bath-water that accelerates to go more quickly to the plug-hole and disappear, the crowd condensed as it approached the gate and went through like the sand through the waist of an hour-glass. We decided to "go with the flow" and follow them. Passing through the gate brought us into another world --- the period when China was under Manchurian rule.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough a piece of advice that I would give everyone planning a trip to Beijing. Rent the video of "The Last Emperor" before leaving on your trip. Seeing this will give you a marvelous insight into the history and background of the politics of the China of that period and should enable you to enjoy your visit twice as much through a better understanding of what you are looking at.

The Forbidden City (Zijincheng) is perhaps still the most impressive sight in Beijing. Located in the center of this vast metropolis, the huge complex with its vermilion walls is nothing short of breathtaking.

We were advised to allow plenty of time for a leisurely inspection and were glad of this because the complex is vast and contains many surprises. One of these was the Imperial Clock Collection. I don't think I've seen as many ornate clocks in my life. Magnificent pieces of art (though they're not exactly what I'd want in my living room) a surprisingly large number of these clocks were made in England. Others came from France, Switzerland and Germany. But what most surprised me were the fabulous clocks that had been made in China during the Emperor's reign. Today just about everything I pick up anywhere in the world -- from clothing to computer parts and increasingly high-tech gadgetry -- turns out to be made in China. But I had had no idea that the Chinese were so technologically skilled even then. When later, in Chinese museums, I saw some of the wonderful pieces of bronze and decorated pottery that the Chinese were producing when Europeans were still dressing in animal skins and painting their bodies with woad, I realized how ignorant I had been on the subject.

The Forbidden City is full of little gems that a good guide will tell you about and that will fire up the imagination. A classic example is the solid gold stupa built by Emperor Qianlong to hold his mother's fallen hair, a sign of respect in ancient China. Another is located just outside the walls --- the memorial to Baron Clement August von Kettler, killed on June 20 1900 by the anti-foreign, anti-Manchu sect called the Boxers.

The next day it was time to climb the Great Wall. The section near Beijing is extremely steep, and can be very cold and windy in winter. We were glad that we had dressed warmly. In winter an icy gale roars down between the hills and greatly heightens the wind-chill factor on the Wall. Because this has to run along the crest of ridges to be defensively viable, it also has to follow the steep contours. Pity the poor soldiers who had to run up and down the Wall in its hey-day (to say nothing of the poor schnooks who had to build it). Only the fit would have survived, and I advise the modern-day visitor who is not fit or at his/her prime to take it very easy when climbing its steep pathways. Those who are not into excessive wall-climbing will enjoy the parking lot near the entrance where they will find a vast number of souvenir stalls. Here competition is keen and you can bargain for souvenirs at a very good price.

Another fascinating visit two hours by road from Beijing, was to the Ming Tombs (Shisanling), the 500-year-old Tombs of the Ming Emperors that yielded marvelous treasures, on display at the Museum here. If you've enjoyed the Valley of the Kings and a subsequent visit to the Cairo Museum on your Egypt trip, you will see the similarities of these Tombs. Extremely well preserved, those that have been opened and excavated are not in themselves as impressive as the superbly-decorated Egyptian counterparts, but the Museum that houses the contents is a real eye-opener. The artifacts here are splendid, and though the fabrics that were contained in the Tombs fell apart and virtually disintegrated when exposed to outside air, they nevertheless lasted long enough for the Chinese weavers to exactly replicate the lustrous silks in their magnificent weaves and wonderful colors. Look at the Empress's headgear. The sight of that is worth the whole trip to the Tombs.

We were pleased that we had again been allowed plenty of time for a leisurely visit to the magnificent Summer Palace (Yiheyuan). With its serene man-made Kunming Lake, it was constructed at the turn of the century, though the history of the site dates back to the 12th Century when the first Jin ruler acquired the land for a summer palace. The water from the Jade Spring was then diverted to form an early version of the Kunming Lake, known as the Gold Sea. In 1764 the park was further developed as the Park of Pure Ripples with grand plans for further development. But what had been established was destroyed by the British and French in 1860, rebuilt in 1895 and then destroyed again in 1900. Not until 1902 was the current garden built for the Last Emperor's family. It was then abandoned in 1908 when the Imperial family was in its final stages, and made into a public park in 1924. Today it is one of the most beautiful sites in China and deserves a considerable amount of time during anyone's visit.

As we walked along the "Long Corridor," an arrow-straight covered walkway, we admired the beams and walkways painted with local scenes from Chinese folk-lore, literature and history. The ambiance and classical beauty of the Summer Palace and its lovely architecture, like the Pagoda of Buddhist Fragrance, is legendary.

The Temple of Heaven in Tiantan Park is another Beijing site that is a "must" for any visitor. Its shape is as classically perfect as its acoustics. Depending on which of the flagstones at this Temple you stand, your clap will echo once, twice or three times. While many of the other temples we had seen in China were not so greatly different to others around Asia, this one is, to me, the very essence of Beijing temple architecture at its finest.

The Chinese also like to include a tour of the Hutongs in your Beijing itinerary to give you some idea of how the people live, but to me the Hutongs have become a kind of showpiece that is no longer in touch with reality. I couldn't help feeling that this was a kind of Disneyland presentation. The access into the Hutongs from the bus parking lot is by rickshaw but these rickshaws were operated by uniformed rickshaw drivers and were of a type you would never see on Beijing streets -- much more touristy and with promotional ads for the Hutong tour on the back of each seat. Similarly those houses which were displayed on the tour were genuine enough when they were in their pre "on show" days, but looked suspiciously sanitized, homogenized and tourist-ized to my cynical gaze. A little 5-year-old who stood outside the entrance dressed in a miniature Army uniform and saluted us and every visitor group that arrived heightened this feeling of "window-dressing" and reminded me of the wispy-bearded mask-seller I had seen in Singapore's old Chinatown. This fellow looked right out of character -- far too slick a version of "Old Singapore" in an area that had been converted to the twentieth century with too much enthusiasm that had destroyed all authenticity. This old mask-seller looked the part, sold few masks, but did a roaring trade as a "photo opportunity," charging photographers one dollar per click. When I mentioned to my taxi driver that I could not understand how this guy got a hawker's license in an area where hawkers were strictly "verboten" he laughed uproariously and then confided that the old man was working for the Singapore Tourist Board who paid him little and pocketed the $1,000 plus per day that this guy pulled in on good days. Here in Beijing I suspect that the Hutongs visit was about as "real Beijing" as this guy had been "real Singapore."

But apart from that, just about everything else that we saw in Beijing was totally real and fascinating. Other interesting sights in the city are the Lama Temple, built by the Kangxi Emperor as a residence for his son in 1694. In the Hall of Infinite Happiness at the back of the Temple is a 26-metre high (almost 90 feet) Buddha made from a single piece of sandalwood. Church-buffs will want to see the Nantang Church at Qianmen Xidajie, first erected in 16th Century by the Jesuits and then rebuilt in 1904. The Beijing Zoo with its rare pandas is just another place that should be on your ‘must see' list.

Beijing is a fabulous place to visit, and the better the tour operator and guide, the more you will appreciate what you are being shown. China is changing on the technical front bringing the country forward by five centuries. Yet it realizes the risks of losing its culture in the process and is doing everything it can to avoid such a loss. But the visitor who plans to go there now will ensure memories of the country as it is today. I'm glad I've seen it earlier and glad I've seen it now. Ten years down the line, it may be very different again.

There are now many outstanding international-style hotels in Beijing, many of them managed by Japanese or other foreign hotel chains. Accommodation here is clean, modern and reliable.

Dining and Shopping:
By and large, many gourmets will be disappointed by the Chinese food available in Beijing, although this is constantly improving. Most of the Friendship Stores, the Government-run department stores popular with tourists, have very good restaurants that are clean and well-managed. Fast food chains like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken have also started to proliferate in China. But the best meals for western tastes will be in the 5-star hotels. Unless you are very adventurous, you may prefer to eat in the Chinese restaurants of these establishments to ‘play safe'.

If your tour guide or hotel can get you a booking at a tiny, unpretentious 1-table restaurant called Li Li's (at No 11 Yang Fang Hutong, Xi Cheng, Beijing, Phone 661.80.107) then don't miss it. It is arguably the best Chinese food outside Hong Kong, but very hard to get bookings because consulates and foreign companies usually book this restaurant for weeks ahead. I also greatly enjoyed a Hot Pot meal at the Beijing Orient Restaurant (at No 4 Building, Zheng Yang Market, Qian Men Xi Da Street, Beijing, P.R.C., Phone 3016668).

When shopping I found the Friendship Stores to be considerably more expensive than the small free enterprise shops now springing up in places like Wangfujing Street, the antique and craft shops of Liulichang Street and the Qianmen area south of Tiananmen Square. Buying from these street shops is a lot of fun and retailers generally expect to bargain prices down by thirty to fifty per cent.

Hints for Beijing:
Make sure you are always carrying a card from your hotel that shows the name, address and other details of the hotel in Chinese characters. Few taxi drivers will understand German or English, and often the Chinese name of the hotel sounds nothing like the European equivalent used by travel agents and western guide books. The other important hint is to always carry an adequate supply of toilet paper. Once out of 5-star hotels, this is a rarity and you will feel much better knowing that you are carrying your own supply.

We have discovered an excellent American-based tour operator who specializes in custom tours that takes you to your own specific area of interest, from visiting nominated museums to trips that will also set up meetings with groups you are interested in, be these architectural planning, the motor industry or university lecturers that specialize in a particular field. The organization is Cameron Tours, contactable by email:- Camerntour@aol.com
Cameron Tours, Inc
6249 N. Kensington Street
Mclean, VA 22101
PH: (703) 538.7122 FAX: (703) 538.7124

Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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