Ancient Chinese city shatters preconceptions
June 17, 2009
As I read through a local magazine I see an advertisement for a trip to Beijing, China. What is my first thought' China is a huge land-mass of a country and visiting there will greatly increase my percentage on the social network application "Countries I Have Visited."
After that thought, random images from the site of the 2008 Olympics and historical locations in the vicinity of Beijing start running through my head. I send a text message to my wife and the planning begins.
As I review the itinerary during the two-hour flight to Beijing my excitement builds. Upon landing, the city catches me completely off guard. My assumptions about Beijing - built from a lifetime of news stories about a city of 17 million people, memories of events in Tianaman Square in 1989 and news reports of traffic control before and during the Olympics - are about to be shattered.
The tour guide greets my group and so begins the adventure into Beijing. As I ride on the tour bus, I gaze at what is, indubitably, one of the cleanest, greenest and best-organized modern cities I have ever seen. Traffic is flowing smoothly, and though there is a slight haze in the air, the sky is blue - not at all what I expected from such a large city.
Among the tree-lined streets and new high-rise buildings are historical and government buildings. And in the midst of all of this are treasures like Tianaman Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven.
Tianaman Square, the site where Chairman Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People's Republic of China, is the world's largest public plaza and can hold up to one million people during special events. Other than size, the most impressive aspect of the square is the number of political and cultural buildings surrounding it - including Chairman Mao's Mausoleum, his final resting place.
The Forbidden City was the symbolic center of the Chinese universe for more than 500 years. It is also large, with 9,999 rooms - it would take hundreds of visits to see them all. After entering the third gate into the city, I realize I've made a good choice by wearing comfortable walking shoes. A good tour guide is required to explain the symbolism, colors and decorations of the buildings. Thanks to my tour guide, I will always be aware I must step over the doorway threshold instead of on it so I can always have good luck.
The highlight of the tour for me was seeing the Great Wall of China. The actual length, with all of its branches, was recently expanded to over 5,500 miles. There are two options for getting to the best views from the Great Wall, climbing the steep side or the "not-so-steep" side. I convinced myself, and my wife, to climb, and I do mean "climb" the steep side. People in incredibly great shape are gasping for air, so I do not feel too bad that I found it to be a "slight" challenge. But the view was spectacular, with the wall running off into the distance on the ridges. It is the site to see in Beijing.
I am amazed by our tour of the Temple of Heaven, a structure made completely of wood with no nails. It has survived earthquakes and is definitely among the most beautiful buildings in Beijing. This is where the emperor would make sacrifices and pray to the gods. One act I find fascinating is a performance by the Chinese who gather in the gardens and dance to ballroom music. This is strange, yet true, and just one more fascinating thing to see in Beijing.
Another location - once exclusive to emperors - to see is the Summer Palace. Overlooking what once was the largest man-made lake, my group walks a corridor along the lake and into the gardens. We enjoy a very relaxing and scenic view.
We stop by the "Bird's Nest," home of the 2008 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, for a daytime viewing. Though it was incredible to be there, I believe the nighttime view is much more worthwhile. The nighttime lighting makes the Bird's Nest and the "Water Cube," home of the swimming events, much more photogenic.
I could discuss shopping in the jade and silk factories, or shopping in the markets - where my haggling skills are tested like never before. However, I want to conclude by talking about the food.
Real Chinese food is not the sweet-and-sour shrimp I order at my favorite Chinese restaurant at home. The food is shared by everyone at the table, so I hope that no one else likes the slightly spicy beef and bamboo shoots. No such luck, because that plate did not make it around the table a second time. Each meal was very good, but I have to admit I found myself at an American hamburger restaurant each night because I was still hungry.
No matter how hungry I might be, there are some traditional Chinese foods on Wangfujing Street that I will not eat. Some of the braver people in my group ate fried scorpions, crickets, starfish, snake and stomach - of what I do not know, but it is still a stomach, so yuck! There are many exotic foods in this market and just watching people eat these snacks was worth the time there.
As I return home, I begin sorting through three gigabytes of photographs and updating a certain social network application. Score! But it is time to travel some more. There are a lot of places I have not been - yet.