Very real. For all the reasons why Shanghai felt easy and comfortable, Beijing did not. And in the last few days talking to expats here in Yunnan (mostly Teach for China fellows) they similarly describe Shanghai as an escape from real China. Back to Beijing. From the traffic to the smog to the small “hutong” side streets teeming with people, Beijing had a bustle that has been lacking in most places we’d come across. I can definitely understand why city people find comfort there.
We packed a lot into our first three days.
Tienanmen Square was pretty wild. It’s the most bland public space we’d seen and it’s just impossible to internalize all the historic events that have passed through that space. I’ve read that there are frequently small protests that tourists – by the thousands – are never even aware of because the police scoop people up so quickly. I was keeping my eye out but didn’t see anything aside from the ordinary masses of Chinese tourists following flag flying guides.
Throughout the Forbidden City we heard about how this that and the other were all built according the Feng Shui. The more I heard, the harder it was to take seriously. The one that really got me thinking was the obsession with bats. Apparently the Mandarin word for bat sounds much like the word for happiness, so bats are built into the images and ornate designs on walls, floors, and even a car logo. It started to sound like a set of superstitions that were granted legitimacy just by having a name. On the other, I was left wondering whether tour guides in DC tell all sorts of stories about the symbols built into our nation’s capital.
The next day we did the Summer Palace. Henry, our fantastic guide, had already introduced the Empress Dowager, Cixi, but it wasn’t until walking through the summer palace that I started to realize just how grand and, for lack of a better word, wasteful, the latter emperors really were. Not that that makes them exception as compared to European kings, or other dynastic families, but the amount of human energy that went into pleasing the royal family seems just silly. That being said, Cixi sounds like a formidable character and someone I’d like to read more about at some point.
We did a day at the Great Wall – one of the sections dubbed the “Wild Wall” for lack of renovations, handrails, and crowds. Absolutely as amazing as it’s ever been described.
We ate dinner at a Uyghur restaurant with Carrie’s friend, Alex. And then washed down great local food with some pretty decent pints from the Great Leap brew-pub. That probably summed up what is pretty neat about Beijing – that those worlds are less than a kilometer apart.
Along the way we made a brief stop at a very neat flea-market (maybe called the Ghost Market?), saw a hutong (traditional urban courtyard house) with and without extra families clogging up the courtyard, and had a couple great duck dinners – Beijing does duck damn well.
We’re currently visiting Mike’s friend who’s a Teach for China fellow in Pingchuan. We sat in on some fifth grade English classes today which were highly entertaining. Tomorrow we’re headed to Kunming and then I head back to Cambridge and Mike will continue on to Nepal.