The D&O Diary is on assignment in Asia this week, with a first stop in Beijing and with other Far Eastern stops scheduled after that. Even traveling “over the top,” Asia is very far away. When the flight progress monitor shows your plane traveling over Irkutsk and Ulan Bator, you know you are far from home.
Beijing is a vast, sprawling, teeming city. At first blush, it is a thoroughly modern city, its wide boulevards lined with ranks of modern steel and glass office towers. Yet inside the Forbidden City or the Temple of Heaven (both of which, like the city itself, are huge), Beijing reveals itself as an ancient city with a long and fascinating history. And yet again, in the warren-like hutong neighborhoods (at least the ones that remain), with their narrow alleys and winding passageways, Beijing can feel daunting, mysterious and even a little dangerous.
With the city's ubiquitous modern buildings and traffic congestion, it is something of a shock to suddenly find yourself standing in Tiananmen Square, facing the entrance to the Forbidden City, the enormous portrait of Chairman Mao hanging over the entry gate (pictured above). It is hard to believe that barely forty years ago, more than a million people gathered in the Square waving Little Red Books, and that only 23 years ago a single soul faced down a Red Army tank. The street where the lone protestor stood is now clogged with tour buses, Porsche SUVs and Mercedes sedans. The Square itself is full of tour groups and vendors hawking Mao hats and “genuine” Rolex watches.
The Forbidden City is an enormous complex of buildings, courtyards and temples that defies easy description. Its grounds are larger than those of the Palace at Versailles. I visited it twice on this trip and still feel as if I only saw a very small part. Many of the buildings were dazzlingly restored for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and during my visit the courtyards were full of blooming fruit trees and blossoming flowers.
Over the centuries, twenty-four Ming and Qing emperors lived in the Forbidden City, but the tour guides seem to concentrate on the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, who slew his own family and then hanged himself in 1644 to avoid capture by rebel armies and the oncoming Manchu invaders, and Puyi, “the Last Emperor,” who abdicated in 1912 and who fled the Forbidden City in 1924.
Emerging at the Northern gate of the Forbidden City, you suddenly leave behind the venerable vestiges of the country’s imperial past and plunge into the tumult of the city’s jarring present. Vendors, beggars with shocking wounds and deformities, school kids, and tourists jostle and push along a walkway not nearly large enough for the crowds. Beijing can be simply overwhelming at times.
Perhaps detecting my sensory overload, my tour guide suggested that we retreat to a tea house. We had to take a city bus (fare = 1 yuan, about 16 cents) to where he had parked his car in a hutong. We then drove through back streets to a quiet tea house, where a chatty young woman performed a simple tea ceremony. We sampled seven different varieties of tea – this one for longevity, that one for your complexion, this one for serenity. Perhaps it was the soothing effect of the warm drink, but I wound up buying an enormous quantity of tea and even a couple of tea cups and saucers. After the tea, the guide (happy to increase his tea-sotted client’s fee) took me on a tour of the Yonghe Temple, a Qing-dynasty Buddhist monetary that still houses chanting and incense-burning monks.
The tea-induced serenity proved short-lived. With 19.6 million people, Beijing is well more than twice as large as New York City. It is almost incomprehensible that it is only the third largest city in China. With 23 million people, Shanghai is the second largest, and with nearly 29 million, Chongqing is the largest. The sheer scale is beyond anything I have ever experienced.
Beijing is also a city of five million vehicles, and at any moment it is easy to believe that all five million are out on the roads at the same time – but that is a mistaken impression. Each weekday, traffic regulations bar one-fifth of the cars from the inner city based on vehicle registration number, and trucks are banned altogether during the daytime. But even with these restrictions, the roads are jammed at all hours. Picture the worst traffic you have ever seen in, say, L.A., multiply times ten, and then allow for the fact that rules of the road are viewed as purely advisory. A red left-turn arrow does not mean no left turn; it means jockey for position until you see an opening and then go for it (and for Beijing drivers, an “opening” means only ten or fewer pedestrians directly ahead).
Contemporary Beijing has many other attributes of any modern city. I was surprised and disappointed to find that the Westin hotel in which I was staying felt like a Westin hotel anywhere, and the Financial District in which it was located had the exact feel of say, Tyson’s Corner, Virginia or Stamford, Connecticut, except with even less charm. On the cross street adjacent to the hotel were a Starbuck’s, a KFC, a Pizza Hut and a TGI Friday’s. I felt as if I were in a containment zone for Americans hoping to have as little contact with China as possible.
Fortunately, the area near my hotel is not representative. There are several areas full of restaurants and street life. One afternoon, we had lunch in a lakeside restaurant in the Back Lakes area (pictured left), where we were served plate after plate of spicy, delicious food – chicken with walnuts; mushrooms in a spicy sauce; saffron rice dusted with crushed, fragrant flowers, thick noodles flecked with bits of pork; a gigantic fish with its head and fins still intact; and plates of sweet and savory dumplings. And what would a visit to Beijing be without a meal of Peking Duck? We enjoyed a very special meal at the famous Da Dong Roast Duck restaurant, a multicourse (and breathtakingly expensive) extravaganza that culminated in the table-side carving of the wood-roasted duck. I saw just enough of the city on these outings to know that there is an incredible diversity of things to see and do, but I just did not have the chance to explore these areas the way I would have liked. Stuck in the American containment zone, I was simply (and disappointingly) out of position to fully explore the parts of the city with a pulse.
My Beijing sojourn did include the obligatory excursion to the Great Wall. Sixty miles north of Beijing, past the sixth and last of the city’s ring roads, the flat plain gives way to jagged mountains shrouded in mists. A Ming dynasty section of the Wall bristles along a rugged ridge-top. Today, a chair lift sweeps visitors up to the top, but to see the guard towers at the highest elevations, you still must scramble up a long, steep incline of uneven steps. When you finally reach the top, panting and sweating, you are greeted by a wise-cracking vendor in a Mao hat:”Where you from? Ohio? Cool! You need cold beer, Ohio, only eight yuan [about $1.30], very cold.”
The Mutianyu section of the Wall that we visited was built in very rugged terrain, and is surrounded by thick forest. On the day of our visit, the woods were full of flowering trees and I can only imagine how beautiful the view is on a clear day. As it was though, a thick mist obscured the view. The clouds closed in and a fine rain began to fall shortly after we returned to the bottom.
To descend to the bottom, we did not take the chair lift back but instead we rode a toboggan that traveled along a curved metal track. The slope is steep, and as I careened along at breakneck speeds, I thought to myself that the momentum could easily carry me off the track and into the woods. I suppose life-threatening pleasures are just part of the checklist when on travel to distant lands. Fortunately, no one was killed, in our group at least, and after several in our group had filled their backpacks with souvenir tee shirts, chopsticks, and straw hats, we gathered for lunch in a restored old schoolhouse. Along the serving table were heaping plates of duck, pork, and noodles, toether with enormous bottles of beer.
Somehow the metal toboggan run seems to me like a metaphor for Beijing itself. The city’s incredible pace and dazzling prosperity are very impressive, but there is a dark edge to the city’s vitality. In ways that are readily apparent, the city is literally choking on its prosperity. All the Gucci and Cartier stores and speeding Audi A6s with tinted windows cannot hide – and indeed may even underscore – the fact that all is not well.
One cultural difference many Americans visitors to Beijing often note is that it is quite common for people on the street to hawk loudly and spit onto the pavement. Some Americans may find this unpleasant or even rude but after just a few days in the city, I began to better understand the behavior. After only one day, my throat was scratchy. By the second day my throat was sore. After that, I found that I had to keep popping throat lozenges just to get by. I am sure that before too long I would be hawking and spitting just like a native.
I had arrived during a particularly clear interlude (as shows in many of my pictures). But the thicker air soon settled back in. Nearby buildings nearly disappeared in the haze. The sun faded into a diffuse, low wattage glimmer behind a blanket of smog.
Nor is the foul air the only sign that all is not well. At first it seemed trivial to me, but the fact that the government has blocked Facebook, Twitter and Google, along with many other parts of the Internet, really does show that for all of its apparent prosperity and dynamism, China remains a closed and controlled society. In several different conversations, I heard complaints about difficulties getting housing, health care and educational services. Inflation is becoming an increasing concern as well. When the yuan was eight to the dollar, Beijing may have been a bargain, but at 6.3 yuan to the dollar, it is no longer cheap. Several different business people shared with me their concerns about rising prices and shrinking or disappearing margins, as well as the scarcity of credit. After years of growth at a breakneck pace, there are increasing concerns that the economy could be headed off the tracks.
In the end, Beijing remains for me an immense puzzle of conflicting impressions. Because it is so vast and multi-faceted, even after a week there, I felt that I had barely scratched the surface. One very special experience while I was there illustrates the challenge of trying to get to the heart of the place.
Early one morning, I took a cab to the Temple of Heaven, now a huge park with walkways, pavilions and gardens, as well as the actual temple buildings where Ming and Qing emperors fasted and prayed annually for a bountiful harvest. The temple buildings, though 19th century restorations, are beautiful, but the grounds and gardens are the main attraction. Wandering amongst the blossoming trees and surrounded by families and school children, it was easy to feel as if I were indeed in a blessed place.
Near one of the ornate pavilions (pictured to the left), a group of traditional musicians attracted my attention. I sat and listened to them for a long time. Their music sounded strange to my ears; there seemed to be no rhythm or melody, at least that I could discern. The singing sounded, to me, tuneless and off-key. I found the music strange and absolutely fascinating. I would have liked to have spoken to the musicians, to know more about their music and their instruments. But as it was, I hesitated even to take their pictures for fear of being intrusive or causing offense.
Like the music, I found Beijing itself interesting and enigmatic, a complex puzzle with many surfaces and hidden meanings. The only thing I know for sure is that I must go back, to try to get closer to the heart of a fascinating city.
A containment zone for Americans :
Tianamen Square, genuine Rolex watches, you buy, how much?
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven:
Flames Must be Fully Clothed at All Times:
And if your relics have a persistent problem, we can get them extra strength anti-itching powder:
We Make Our Dumpling By the Book:
At those other tourist sites, you have to put up with a lot of uncivilized sightseeing: