Saturday, October 22, 2011

Mao’s China No More? Exploring China’s Heart and Soul: Beijing


Destination:  Beijing, China
Number of Days Spent: 6 days
Where we stayed: Two places: Happy Dragon Youth Hostel – Northeast of the Forbidden City, the Happy Dragon was a decent place to stay and not too far from the Metro (Dongsi station). Beijing is flush with hostels located all over the city so I am sure there are better and worse. We also took the trip out to the Wall with them (see next post) which was combined with several other hostels around town. The last three days we spent couch surfing with an American businessman named Russ. He was an energetic and gregarious guy who really went out of his way to show us how expats live it up in Beijing. He worked in the morning, but at night he took us to a great hot pot place, a couple of expat bars, and a nice place for dinner. Thank you again Russ, if you ever read this, for showing us a great time around Beijing! 
Most Amusing:  Didn’t they put a stop to the lack of shirt-wearing along with the no spitting campaign before the Olympics? 
Interesting Eats: Beijing provides ample cuisines to satisfy nearly every palate. While not as popular as perhaps they once were, bugs, scorpions, silkworms, and starfish can all be found in the night market. I really can’t recommend eating any of these critters with the exception of the scorpions. The crunchy texture was a surprising delight. Avoid the silkworms at all cost – perhaps the most disgusting thing I ate in China – stinky tofu withstanding.
Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on Silkworms for sustenance. The world famous Peking Duck can be found in many places all over town. We opted against Dadong (the most famous) for a favorite of many local expats and Chinese locals, Li Qun.  Duck is a little more expensive but oh so worth it!  The bird is tender, juicy, melt in your mouth delicious with amazing pancakes and plum sauce. Seriously one of the best things you will eat in China.  Don’t  miss it!
There was a delicious dumpling place, Xian Lao Man (Dongcheng district, 252 Andingmenwai Dajie), that we loved so much we went back to three times. Sadly, we mistakenly tried the celery dumplings in our final round and they were so bad that it scarred our memories of this place.  There was no English spoken there at all but they did have a rather dusty and worn English menu to share which made ordering an adventure but relatively easy.
Best of:  Forbidden City, loads of culinary delights, delving into modern China.
Ever since the times of the Mongols, Beijing has been an important and strategic city. From Ghenghis Khan all the way to present day, this city has had an oftentimes strong hand in shaping the fate of a nation that now stands poised to become the center of the next great super power in the world. Beneath all this superficial posturing, largely by an increasingly paranoid government, lies a current of culture and tradition that spans generations reaching far beyond any present day political schemes. People, by and large, live their lives day in and day out doing what they have always done - survive. No one person personified this philosophy more than Zhedong Mao, or as the world has come to known him as Chairman Mao.
With the nation still reeling from the after effects of WWII, Mao and the communists seized power and began enacting sweeping changes that led to the removal of all western influences, redistribution of land to farmers and an overall sense of isolation nation from the rest of the world.
Mao had become the face of this new nation and millions of youth followed this captivating leader. In Beijing on Tiananmen Square, they would gather to hear him speak. Energized, these leaders of the Cultural Revolution set out to erase the past. Temples were closed, doctors and teachers were outcast and the nation became a closed minded society...a generation lost its spiritual guidance.
With Mao's death in 1976 however, things on the economic side began to thaw. Trade was reopened and goods began to flow in and out of the nation once again. The politics, however, remained cold as the government and til this day they keep a tight reign on the media and officials. Mao’s influence can still be felt today. "The Great Firewall of China" has entered the lexicon of language and battles with Google over free speech rights continue with the government generally winning.
But with all the government oversight on speech and press, far less attention is given to enterprises and capitalism. The government tends to look the other way when it comes to environmental issues and as a result, China is home to 18 of the worlds top 20 most polluted cities.  Beijing is no longer part of that group thanks to a global microscope known as the Olympics.
Home to the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing cleaned up its act for the world scene. Billions of dollars were spent on beautification projects and it shows. The city shimmers and sparkles. Bathrooms, in a nation known for the worst bathrooms in the world, are remarkably clean. The city also boasts a healthy ex-pat (foreign nationals) scene.
That leaves the question - where does Beijing turn from here? Keep the tight leash on that which is become increasingly harder to control, or embrace commercialism and consumerism and allow the markets to float freely? In recent years, they have leaned towards appeasing the global community as business is booming and turning your back on your biggest clients would not be the wisest move. On the other hand, the government has shown in its battle with censoring Google, that it has no problem telling big business no.
If the citizens of the nation are any indication, it will only be a matter of time when capitalism will take over. In a nation of over 1 billion people, China now boasts the fastest growing middle class. With this increase in buying power the quest for higher end goods is increasing.
So perhaps the battle is not capitalism vs. communism, but rather an increasingly out of touch government vs. the will of its citizens. If China wishes to become the world power it sees itself as, it must take its own people along with it. It has them for now, but for how much longer remains to be seen.

Speaking of consumerism, Beijing provided an opportunity for us to finally do some shopping. After months of worrying about carrying around backpacks and how much they weighed, it was time to let loose and load up on some last minute goods.
The Pearl Market is the place to get knock-off anything. Be sure to bargain hard in here – prices are inflated at the very least 50% and in some cases they settled for around 90% of the original quoted price. If you are looking for ‘quality’ DVDs then head to Sanlitun. Expats live around this area so this is also a good place to find the name brand stores, but the prices are similar, if not a little inflated, than they are in the states. For a little more unique shopping head up to Dongcheng district around the Qianhai Lake. Stamps, Mao propaganda, and other interesting and unique souvenirs scatter this hip area of Beijing that also hosts lots of bars and swanky restaurants.
Right in the center of Beijing sits the ancient heart of China – The Forbidden City. For 500 years this palace was home to emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, their families, concubines, and servants. Uninvited entrance was once punishable by instant death, but today it’s almost a crime not to include a visit to the palace on your trip. Lavish does not begin to describe the extent of how ornate and decorated the temples, halls, buildings and living quarters are. 
Taking up a huge chunk of prime downtown real estate, everywhere you visit in the palace has been well cared for and still retains much of its original design and décor. Many of the halls have been transformed into museums housing various artifacts. One hall has an extensive collection of clocks that were given to the Emperors as gifts by foreign nations. Many halls are filled with various pottery pieces. There is also a jewelry hall filled with precious jewels the emperors had collected over the years.
Dominating the center of the complex is the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Used in coronations, birthdays, and other special occasions, the hall contains a richly decorated Dragon Throne from which the Emperor would also dole out decisions.
In front of the Forbidden City is the equally famous Tiananmen Square. Mao constructed this, the world’s largest public square, to be the antitheses of its neighboring Forbidden City. While the Forbidden City represents opulence, wealth, and in the communist frame of mind – control over the people, Tiananmen square is a vast open space of nothing but paving slabs. The buildings that flank the square were built in the Soviet communistic style – plain, functional, boring. At the southern end of the square lies the Chairman himself. Much like the other ‘great’ communist leaders – Lenin in Russia and Ho Chi Min in Vietnam, Mao’s body lies out for visitors to pay their respects. At the time of our visit, he was on vacation – getting a touch up in Moscow.
The square is perhaps better known for a tragic event that cemented the government’s stance on public speech. In June of 1989, students took to the square in a democratic protest. Tanks and the army rolled in and crushed the protest. While it is disputed whether blood was spilt in the square itself, it became the symbol of tragedy and a setback to any chances of true democracy in China.
The Forbidden Palace was where the Emperors would spend most of their time, but during the summer months the palace suffered from sweltering heat. The Emperors needs a little refuge from the heat so they built the Summer Palace complex north of the city. Lush trees and gardens surround the expanded Kunming Lake. The palace would be the home of the emperors during the summer months. They also would construct several temples and halls where they would conduct business. In one show of unnecessary opulence, a marble boat was commissioned to be built for the lake out of money earmarked for updating the Chinese navy. 
Much like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace is no longer off limits and many tour groups along with Beijing families come here to enjoy the gardens, views, and a little slice of hard to come by fresh air.     
Alongside all of it’s modernization, and withstanding the full force of the cultural revolution, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism still remain the dominant religions of China. Over the years, the teachings have become similar and blended making it difficult to an outsider to distinguish between them aside from the presence of Buddha or a statue of Confucius. All I can say is despite Mao’s best efforts, religion still plays a vital role in the lives of a significant portion of the population.
Beijing has no shortage of temples of worship. The Lama Temple is perhaps the most renowned Tibetan temple outside of Tibet and boasts a huge statue of Buddha that is carved out of a single piece of sandalwood – a world record in fact. Nearby Confucius Temple was once a center of learning and boasts some 190 stone pillars carved with the teachings of Confucius. 
Beijing also has delightful alleyways known as Hutongs. These are the last of Beijing’s great neighborhood areas. Most consist of a single gate which opens into a small courtyard that is ringed by families. Most of the homes are a single story and have been around for hundreds of years. Many of these so called Hutongs are now being demolished and replaced with high rise multi-use buildings. I suspect that in the near future they will be relegated to a small part of town saved by conservation efforts, but until that day comes – hop on a bike or walk up and down the alleys that run east/west and explore the neighborhood. The three person bike, by the way, is not as easy to steer as it may seem!
On the outskirts of town a once industrial part of town is getting a makeover. Replacing the factory, assembly line production that is synonymous with communism is a new area being called simply 798. The entire area is dedicated to highlighting the emerging arts scene in Beijing. While it is largely a work in progress, the area has great potential and it was a refreshing change of pace from all the Mao talk. Even young bride and grooms are getting in on the scene as a good place to take wedding photos.
Beijing has something to offer to just about anyone. From temples of religion to symbols of communism, from the silkworms on a stick to roasted duck and nearly everything in the middle, Beijing is emerging into a world class city along the likes of New York, Paris and London.
With just one more stop left on our trip, our visit to the Beijing area cannot be complete without visiting one of the worlds most impressive and iconic man-made structures - The Great Wall of China!

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