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Monday, December 16, 2013

#humblebrag in Beijing, Part 1

Bĕijīng 北京 - the capital of China, the country's political, cultural and educational center and its second most populous city after Shànghăi 上海. Just like you can't visit the U.S. without going to New York, or travel to the U.K. and not skip London, in China you have to go at some point to Beijing. For my family and me, that point was last week. Taking advantage of the opportunity to go the embassy for consultations, the three of us scraped a little of the surface of the most important city in China. 

Eschewing the wonder of flight, I traveled by high-speed train last Tuesday for the nearly five-hour ride from Shanghai to Beijing. 

The trains were fast (up to 306 kph/190 mph), punctual and efficient, but the scenery from the windows was dreary - hour after hour of flat surfaces, construction sites and brown-colored fields. For the first time for me, however, the contrast between the wealthy cities and the rest of the country could be glimpsed from the train. Villages filled with traditional homes but few personal vehicles, dim lights (or none at all) as the sun began to set and, in one case, a farmer using a water buffalo to till a field. 

The view from my five-star hotel room in Beijing. Expensive and with all the amenities you would expect from such an establishment, yet I found it hard to relax among all the businesspeople and the nouveaux Chinese riche. In my travels I usually stay in two- and three-star accommodations, in part because a hotel to me is merely a place to sleep and store your things while you're out and about seeing the sights, and because I'm a tightwad who worries if he's spending too much. Which I was at this place, even if much of it was covered by per diem. Still, I had no worries about taking advantage of the complimentary buffet breakfast or the free evening happy hours.

My wife and daughter came up by train on Wednesday evening, and for the next two days, while I was busy going from one meeting to another at the embassy, the girls enjoyed some quality time, first by checking out some of Beijing's famed  hútòng 胡同 houses on Thursday, and then spending the day at the Great Wall 长城 on Friday (sorry, no pictures - some of us had to work). Consultations finished, we were able to enjoy some family time on the weekend. And, of course, if you only have one day in Beijing, the place to visit is the Forbidden City 紫禁城 (故宫).

Amber and I in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace 天安门, from where Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 stood on October 1, 1949 to proclaim the establishment of the People's Republic of China 中华人民共和国, and where a giant portrait of the Great Helmsman (and mass murderer) glares beams down upon the masses, surrounded on either side by anachronistic Communist slogans.

As you pass under Mao, you leave the 20th century and enter the Imperial world of 500 years ago, starting with the huge Meridian Gate 午门, once reserved for the sole use of the emperor.

We were blessed with (relatively) clean air and blue skies the whole time we were in Beijing, a great relief after the record-setting pollution levels Shanghai had experienced just a few days before. But it was cold - the temperatures in the daytime never got higher than a few degrees above freezing, while at night they fell sharply, to a low of -10°C/14°F on Thursday night. Here, Amber and Pamela stand by a couple of the marble bridges that span the Golden Stream, which was frozen over.

The Gate of Supreme Harmony 太和门, which fronts a square that could hold an audience of up to 100,000 kowtowing people.

Thanks to The Last Emperor and the countless historical TV dramas my wife watched in Taiwan, it all seemed very familiar, but no less imposing. 

The Hall of Supreme Harmony 太和殿, the largest of the many buildings that make up the Forbidden City. It was also the most important, as it was used for grand ceremonial occasions, such as the emperor's birthday.

Inside sits the Dragon Throne, the seat for the leader of the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world in the Chinese scheme of things. It took a lot of persistence and patience fighting the crowds to get a glimpse of it from afar.

Amber and I by one of the 308 water vats that were kept in reserve in case any fires broke out. In winter, fires were lit under them to keep the water from freezing. Unfortunately for us, that custom was no longer being observed.

The Hall of Middle Harmony 中和殿, which served as the emperor's green room of sorts while he was getting ready to address the multitudes. 

Next up was the Hall of Preserving Harmony 保和殿, used for banquets. Inside was another luxurious throne, but it was too hard to get a good look with all the tourists there. 

The view from behind the Hall of Preserving Harmony, looking toward the Palace of Heavenly Purity 乾请宫, initially an imperial residence and later a receiving hall for welcoming foreign barbarians. 

The Hall of Union 交泰殿 (top) and the Earthly Tranquility Palace 坤宁宫. By this point, serious imperial grandeur fatigue was beginning to sink in. 

Which is why the Imperial Garden 御花园, though still crowded, provided a welcome respite, with its cypress trees, rockeries and manageable-sized, but nonetheless impressive, pavilions.

Mother and daughter near the Chéngguāng Gate 承光门, close to the Forbidden City's northern entrance, which meant it was time to make our way back, a journey that was going to take a long time.

Amber by a cypress tree described as the "Elephant Man" of the Imperial Garden by my Discover China guidebook.


Following lunch it was time to check out some museums, beginning with the Clock Exhibition Hall 钟表馆, a magnificent collection of amazing timepieces. In at least one area, imperial China had something to learn from the Europeans, especially the English (pictured at top is a huge Chinese water clock). A brief demonstration of how some of the clocks worked was given while we were there, one of which I was able to capture on film, but which I'm unable to upload onto this blog at this time. I'll set my watch and try again at a later time.

My daughter leaps for joy in front of the Nine Dragon Screen 就龙壁

Some imperial artifacts on display. It was at this point that my wife smugly pointed out that the collection at the National Palace Museum 故宮博物院 in Taipei 台北 was much better. And just why is that the case, my dear?

Hall of this, Hall of that. It eventually became too hard to keep track of them all. Better to just enjoy the Forbidden City as a whole.

Beautiful works carved out of jade, and a room full of bells and chimes

The Well of Concubine Zhēn 珍妃井. The extremely nasty Empress Dowager Cíxĭ 慈禧太后 had a concubine thrown to her death here as a result of a political disagreement.

Back to the beginning, at last! The Forbidden City is an amazing place, but be prepared to spend an entire day there, as we did. And we still weren't done, as Tiān'ānmén Square 天安门广场 was just across the street.

A lot of people were waiting for the flag-lowering ceremony, but we were too cold and tired to stick around for that. Still, I had to take a walk around Tian'anmen Square, site of the notorious massacre on June 4, 1989, as well as of various other protests against religious and ethnic persecution. Mostly, though, it's a massive, (understandably) well policed-square enjoyed by the people of Beijing and the tourist throngs who visit.

The monolithic (and very Soviet) Great Hall of the People 人民大会堂

The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall 毛主席纪念堂, where Mao's preserved body lies in permanent state in true Communist personality cult fashion. Fortunately for us, it had closed by the time we had gotten to Tian'anmen Square.

We finished up the day by getting away from the symbols of Chinese imperial past (both old and new) by riding the metro over to the Wángfǔjǐng Snack Street 王府井小吃街. While the sea stars, seahorses and scorpions looked tempting, we ended up settling for boring old duck for dinner.

Amber finished the day off with a sweet strawberry flourish. To be continued...

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