Beijing, China Wednesday, April 6, 2016
The bottom line, if you don’t want to read further, is that this is just about the biggest place we have ever seen – more people, more land, more buildings, bigger buildings, more of everything than we ever could have imagined. We cannot even begin to explain the history of China or of Beijing, but suffice to say, it’s long and complex (kind of like this post turned out to be).
We departed Beijing last night (Tuesday ), after spending 3 days viewing as many sights as we could. Sunday (the day we landed) started a three-day national holiday, the “Sweeping of the Tombs.” This is a major holiday here where the dead are honored, and many Chinese use this time to take a family holiday, so Beijing was especially crowded as it is a major destination for Chinese visitors as well as foreign visitors.
The port where we docked seems to go on for miles and miles, and it probably does in reality – I have never seen so many container or cranes and other loading equipment – as far as the eye could see, and then some.
The cruise line organized this Beijing trip for 700 of the passengers – a miracle of logistics. We found it funny, but kind of reassuring, that an ambulance actually accompanied the 24 buses that got people around to various sites (not one ambulance per bus, but one ambulance when all of the buses were going together to a site). Apparently someone fell at the Great Wall a couple of years ago and broke a leg, so now the cruise line plans for an ambulance to join the crowd when we are all headed in the same direction. It seemed generally that about half of us visited some sites and half visited others on Sunday, and then we switched on Monday. A lot of folks had been to Beijing before so they didn’t join the organized tour but went out on their own. Very brave when the street signs are not in the Western alphabet and many local folks do not speak English.
On our way Sunday morning from the ship into Beijing (260 kilometers – a 3 hour trip if there is no traffic), we passed a large cemetery where the Sweeping of the Tombs was being celebrated – every tomb was decorated with vibrant flowers, and families were celebrating and setting off fireworks, etc. Very festive and respectful in a culture where ancestors are worshipped.
But the real news on Sunday was that a trip from the port into the city takes 3 hours on a good day – this gave us an inkling of the size of the city and the country, the number of people, and the scope of it all, which is just amazing. Early on during that ride into the city I started taking pictures of the incredible housing projects that I saw – very tall apartment buildings that popped up in clusters of 20 or more. After about 20 minutes I couldn’t take any more pictures – it was overwhelming how many residential units there are, how many roads there are, how much construction you can see as new places go up, how many trees and shrubs are being planted by those roads, and how I had never seen anything on this scale – and this wasn’t even close to the heart of Beijing. I learned later that Beijing actually has 6 ring roads, and I guess when a city is 6500 square miles that is what you need.
Beijing is one of China’s ancient cities, and it started off as a much smaller place, with a large wall around it, a moat, several watchtowers and a bell tower (to let people know when the city gates were about to close), and all those nice old touches.
Beijing is now the national center of politics, economics, education (over 500 universities!), culture, trade and communication. Approximately 20 million people reside in Beijing, and I think at least a few million more came in for the long weekend.
As we went around central Beijing in a tour group arranged by the ship, I saw traffic circles that looked as pretty as Park Avenue NYC looks in the spring (flowers everywhere), but there were 6 lanes of traffic in each direction in the Beijing intersections, and lots of cars, trucks, motorcycles, motor scooters, bicycles and pedestrians in those traffic circles. A bit chaotic but everyone seemed able to negotiate it very well.
You may recall that Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, and built new large stadia and venues for the events. Good thing, since they will also be hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
On Sunday we saw the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square – Joe got some great pix and I tried to get some that show the scale of these places – just enormous. Tiananmen Square is a large plaza where “the people” could assemble when the Emperor wanted to address them. It is just across the street from the Forbidden City, and the Great Hall of the People is on one side of the Square while the Museum is on the other.
The Forbidden City is surrounded by a moat and a wall 10 meters high. Once inside the Forbidden City, we saw many public buildings that were on the outer perimeter, where “the people” could muster. Inside of that were large courtyards and buildings in which the Emperor conducted official business – buildings for visiting dignitaries, buildings for the staff, etc. And then after another large courtyard you get to the buildings for the household goods and the food, and then to the Emperor’s residence, and then to the Empress’s residence, etc. We tried to capture some of this in the pictures, but it is hard to describe the scale of this, and I am not sure the pix will do it justice.
The Forbidden City is where 24 Emperors held their imperial palace, and it covers 180 acres (with over 8700 rooms) – there is a very large park (Imperial Park) at the end of the City, with the traditional water features, stone work, and greenery. In the Forbidden City, the government limits visitors to 80,000 day max – a LOT of people.
Tiananmen Square (109 acres) is the biggest plaza we have seen in a city – and on Sunday it was full of visitors. Quite a different place than the photo that we saw in 1989 with tanks lined up and a lone student in front of them protesting. We saw the kind of scene you’d see at any park on a weekend – lots of families with children, having a great time in the sunshine.
Monday we visited the Hutong – the traditional housing in this area – houses built around a quadrangle for a family (3 generations, usually) to reside. These areas are being demolished over time to make way for more dense housing, but there is some thinking that it’s beneficial to keep these “lane houses” to show how things were in times gone by. We spent some time with one of the house owners to hear the history of the family and to learn how things have changed over time. Given the political changes over the ages in China, suffice to say that it is complicated – if I got it right, the land is now owned by the government but the buildings are privately owned, although the land and buildings were taken from the Emperor and his staff in the People’s Revolution. We’ll have to see if the future holds a place for greater private property rights.
We also visited the Emperor’s Summer Palace – a gorgeous place around a man-made lake of some size. The names of the various rooms in the Summer Palace were wonderful – the Hall of Longevity and Happiness, The Palace of Compassion and Tranquility, etc. We were able to take a little ferry ride around the lake, to observe some of its pavilions, halls, temples, bridges, etc.
I’ll do a separate post on the many ways the Summer Palace reminded me of Spring Lake.
Monday night we were treated to a special performance of traditional Chinese works at the Great Hall of the People, which is adjacent to Tiananmen Square – this is the building where the government officials meet, and where foreign dignitaries are met. It is a building that holds 5000 people in its main chamber, and additional thousands in its adjacent chambers. Can’t say that I have ever seen a hall so large or a stage so high.
At the Great Hall, we enjoyed a delightful performance of Italian opera pieces, acrobatics, children’s song and other traditional dance and song – just incredible. When we left the performance we walked out to Tiananmen Square and the streetlights made a beautiful romantic scene along the wide boulevards (just sorry that I didn’t have a camera because it was a public building with high security). And on a modern note, one guest who left the Great Hall because he wanted to get back to the hotel took an Uber car and was happy to report today that it cost under US $3.
Tuesday was time for the Great Wall – I think Joe’s pix will do all the talking for this, other than to say that the Wall was built to protect China from invaders are Mongolia and other areas, and took 2000 years to build. It’s over 13,000 miles, and much of it is broken up, while some of it has been restored (like the place we saw today). The scale of it is hard to describe – it’s high on the hills (and there are a lot of mountains west of Beijing), and it runs along those mountains with lots of paths down the hills, and lots of towers where those who used to keep watch could use smoke to warn others along the wall of a problem/intrusion/etc.
After the trip to the Great Wall we headed back to the ship (another 3+ hours) and that’s when the weather allowed us to see the smog for which Beijing is known – it was a grey soup that limited vision and made my eyes smart. We were fortunate to have missed it during our days of touring the area.
So this trip to China has been one where we marvel at the creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit of the people, and one where we speculate about the power and strength represented by the structures and buildings Seems like a classic mix of communism (government) and capitalism (economy). It will be interesting to see how the future unfolds for this giant country and its many people.
Pictures will follow from Joe and me.
Wishing you all the best,