Impressions of Beijing

| June 20, 2009

If you have not been to Beijing in the last ten years, you may not recognize the city. For three full days, my son Matt and I had an English-speaking tour guide, which enabled us to get more than a superficial glance at this fascinating city. Although China is still a tightly run communist country, the leadership since Mao has allowed expanded commercial business over the last ten years and has made great investments in public infrastructure. The airport, which was built for the Beijing Olympics is absolutely enormous. China knows how to do big. As a first impression, the airport is a marvel of model architecture and efficiency that rivals any airport that I have seen. The acres of ceiling seem to float effortlessly above without a straight wall to be seen. The Chinese are into curves, which are expressed in much of their architecture, from the Forbidden City to the airport itself. Processing through customs was easy and the staff at the airport was friendly and courteous. It took about 40 minutes to get to the hotel by taxi for about 81 Yuan ($10) plus a small tip for the driver. All roads leading to the hotel from the airport appeared new and had both Chinese and English posted on them.

We stayed across the street from the Beijing Olympics venue, which itself has caused incredible change across the city. Since the government owns all the land in China, they can take great liberties without due process to get things done. The area occupied by the Olympic venue used to be full of run down villages. The villages were torn down and the residents were relocated into high-rise buildings that were newer and slightly bigger. Our guide said most were happy with the move. The skyline is peppered with high-rise buildings; some were swanky and new, while many were spruced up on the outside for the Olympics but run down on the inside. Many of the apartment buildings are built in modules and stacked one upon another to create dense housing. Buildings in Beijing are not as high as those in Shanghai due to the abundance of land and the fact that the city is close to fault lines that rumble from time to time.

To be honest, I expected to see haze and pollution in Beijing. There was neither. It had rained for a whole day before we arrived and the days were breezy, both of which I credit for the amazingly clean air for a city of 16 million. In addition to moving the residents away from the Olympic venue, some factories were also relocated away from the city, which has helped clear the air as well. Cars don’t speed and there is a law against using your horn, except for emergencies, so travel on Beijing streets seems orderly and quiet compared to New York. Due to the expansion of wealth in China, bicycles have been replaced by cars filled with a swarm of new drivers. You have to be 18 to drive but there is no minimum drinking age. We will have to see if that sticks! All makes of cars can be found on the streets from a $4000 Cherry to a $1.1 million (7,000,000 Yuan) Rolls Royce. China is embracing their newfound commercial freedom and love to show it. Not to say that all enjoy the good life. I have heard there are sharp contrasts between the haves and have not’s. This is an interesting development considering that Mao stressed equality as evidenced by the statues for equality erected during his tenure. My understanding is that Mao put the current leadership in place, which it seems has turned out to be much less conservative than he had hoped.

As for sight seeing, we took it easy the first full day in Beijing just getting oriented and walking the Olympic venue, including Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. The venue is a source of great national pride in China that attracts a high number of Chinese tourists. We paid a reasonable charge to go into the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube and it was fun to be a part of the experience even though it was after the fact. Later, knowing we would get our fill of authentic local Chinese cuisine during the trip, we actually took a cab to a local shopping area and had Domino’s pizza for dinner of all things. We enjoyed people watching and experiencing a bit of local activity during our time in the area.

The next day was our first day of hard-core sight seeing. The guide and car picked us up at 9am sharp and took us to the Temple of Heaven. The temple is one of many historic structures that align on a straight axis in the center of the city.  For us, the Temple of Heaven on one end, Tiananmen Square on the other, with the Bell Tower and The Forbidden City in between. The approach to the Temple of Heaven takes you through a park that is akin to Central Park in New York. You are so immersed in the park that the city disappears and turns to social activities of all kinds from Chinese Chess and group exercises to outdoor ballroom dancing and acrobatics. This was not for show. It was a daily routine of socializing in the park for Chinese locals — a place where people clearly come to let go.  After participating in a few of the games with locals, we entered the Temple area and took in beautiful traditional Chinese architecture. Our guide said that prayers were sent up at the temple to inspire great harvests. The temple actually burned at one time due to lightning but has been restored to its original glory with amazing detail.

From the temple, we hopped back in the car for a short ride to Old Beijing. The area, which is undergoing renovation, is the best depiction of the original villages that were Beijing. To see the area, we hired a bicycle-drawn rickshaw to take through the narrow and construction infested streets. We stopped to visit the home of an artist whose family has lived in the house for 150 years. Our guide translated as we discussed art and living in Beijing. The small single-level house had a small studio where the artist creates his watercolor and traditional Chinese art. I bought a piece directly from him, which I will feature in another blog post. To wrap up Old Beijing, we had lunch in a famous Chinese restaurant there where we enjoyed traditional Chinese food.

After the tour of Old Beijing, we visited the Forbidden City, which is comprised of thousands of rooms. The entrances to the buildings have high thresholds to keep evil spirits out and doors adorned with a matrix of 9 x 9 nails, the highest number. The last emperor, PuYi, actually had the thresholds cut and notched so he could remove them and ride his bicycle on the compound with ease. He made emperor when he was 2 years and 10 months old. Some of the buildings in the Forbidden City are still being restored. There are many rooms for religious, social and official business, including the emperor’s quarters, as well as those for his mother and his concubines. As you work your way to the business side of the Forbidden City, the structures are very nicely restored and beautiful. Symbolism abounds across the compound in character and sculpture that promise long life wealth and peace for those that inhabit The City.

I think I will end this post here and finish up the rest of the trip in a separate post. That post will cover the Great Wall, Ming Tombs and the Summer Palace. Thanks for tolerating the long read!

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Category: Travel

Comments (2)

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  1. Joanna says:

    Hi Lee, it is very impressive experience in Beijing! I am so glad that you enjoyed. Short trip but very productive!! Looking forward to hear the rest of the story! Lovely pictures you took for the scenery, they made me home sick…

  2. Lee says:

    Thanks Joanna. I thought of you when I was there and hoped that you would stop by to see the pictures. We really had a great trip and I really enjoyed experiencing the culture first hand and talking to our guide about China. Take care, /Lee