Beijing – Even Better Than The Real Thing

Houhai Lake, Beijing

Houhai Lake, Beijing

Beijing
appeared to be a bloated metropolis all gussied up for the August Olympics,
scrubbed clean with colorful potted plants lining the streets, with not a speck
of litter marring the immaculate avenues. Volunteer booths were conspicuous at
subway stops, manned by enthusiastic young people eager to demonstrate their
newly minted English phrases. Police and military stood everywhere, with
security checkpoints at all bus and subway entrances, x-raying all packages and
giving everyone a good once over.

During the two weeks of the Olympics, the government
restricted

Great Wall of China at Samatai

Great Wall of China at Samatai

cars from many of the roads, closed many factories, and seeded the
clouds with chemicals to induce rain and wishfully wash away the expectant hazy
cloud of pollution. Yet, when we were there, the sky could not have been bluer,
the air more fresh. In a dramatic display of double standards, Beijing Olympic official
memorabilia (t-shirts, medals, envelopes, stamps, etc) were only available in
designated stores, yet it continued to turn its back on blatant copyright
infringement, and allowed everyone to flagrantly market knockoffs. Many articles
in the papers trumpeted the enormous pressure to present China in the best light, and proud
banners were displayed everywhere – Olympic fever was boiling over.

Guarding Chairman Mao

Guarding Chairman Mao

We stopped at the China Post office less than a mile from
the Olympic venue to purchase postcard stamps to America. This created a little stir,
because, due to limited supply, the clerks only allow five stamps per customer for
each visit. After thirty minutes, we finally did leave with a stash of ten hard
fought stamps, although even those were difficult to acquire. Not surprisingly,
the clerks kept trying to sell us Olympic envelopes, Olympic medals, and
Olympic mascots from the officially designated item case – just no postcard
stamps.

Colorful Forbidden City

Colorful Forbidden City

Beijing reminded me of Los Angeles, big and
sprawling, with many new districts crowding out the historic sections of the
city. Shiny new skyscrapers, so common throughout China, rise above the ancient
narrow alleyways (hutongs), which form the historic core of this great
metropolis. Transportation is adequate, although certainly not at the same
level as Shanghai or Hong
Kong. Expansion of the subway lines is ongoing, as the suburbs
bleed outwards from the city center. The Metro circumnavigates the core of Beijing, so expect to
pick the closet location on the grid square and walk from there. Fresh and
clean, it certainly has a week’s worth of attractions to satisfy even the most
jaded traveler.

Beer Merchant on the Great Wall

Beer Merchant on the Great Wall

The number one highlight is the Great
Wall of China, built centuries ago to keep the marauding Genghis
Khan and his Mongolian invaders at bay. Rising from the sea, it follows the
natural contours of the hills for another 4200 miles inland, with most of the
sections in expected disarray. The closest section, the restored Badaling, is
the most visited. However, this is ground zero for vendors and their cheap
wares.

We chose instead to hike a five-mile section from
Jinshandling to Samatai, a section light on tourists and mostly vendor free.
Here, the Great Wall exists in its original state, with very little investment
in upgrades. As far as the eye can see, the ancient wall ascends and descends
the hills, and you scramble along the surprisingly wide and well-constructed
walkway as best you can. Passing through thirty-one guard towers, and along
crumbling ancient bricks set in centuries old mortar, I kept reflecting on how
cold and lonely it must have been for the poor guards assigned as sentries. The
engineering and surveying of this wall is amazing. The effort to quarry and
haul rocks up the steep hillsides is Herculean. The combined efforts of
thousands of workers over so many years and the incredible ongoing longevity
will impress anyone so lucky to visit.

Dancing in the Park

Dancing in the Park

Tours leave from the Peking Downtown Backpackers Association
every day at 6:30 AM in a comfortable air-conditioned minibus. It takes three
hours to get there; the hike itself is four-five hours (one-way), with a three-hour
return.

I would not classify is as an easy hike, as you do follow the contour
of the wall up and down over the hills. A few hardcore vendors will surprise
you in the darkened towers, as they push cheap t-shirts, bottles of water, and
in one case, warm beer.

Our group for the day consisted of fifteen people of
all ages and nationalities. Highly recommended, and a good value at $30/person.

Not Sure How You Eat These Starfish

Not Sure How You Eat These Starfish

Many people spend a day or more in the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace), but two or three hours is
plenty. It is the same building over and over, surrounded by concrete
courtyards. The best parts are the tree-laden gardens just before you exit,
which unfortunately, is where most of the tourists clog together. It would be
so much better to collect some of the ancient furniture and artifacts and stock
them in some of these buildings. Now, the interiors are dingy, not well lit,
and poorly furnished. Pressing my face against the dirty window, I thought I
was looking into grandpa’s darkened garage. Why not open these great halls and
create better displays? This could be so much better – it still feels forbidden.
A must see, but prepared to be underwhelmed.

Scraping Gum in Tiananmen Square

Scraping Gum in Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square, the
symbol of freedom for many young Chinese, indeed for the entire globe, is
enormous. Allegedly the largest in the world, it is flanked by oversized
government monuments – The History Museum and Museum of the Revolution, The
Great Hall of the People, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, and the Mausoleum of
Chairman Mao. Teeming with people lost in the utter spaciousness of this
historic plaza, I was amused by the roped off groups of workers who sat on
squatty little stools and scraped gum from the square. Who can ever forget that
stirring scene of the young man standing up to the tank in this celebrated
square?

Bright and Shiny Financial District

Bright and Shiny Financial District

Talk about bloated, why Chairman Mao deserves this humongous
monument is lost on me. From an early age, kids are brainwashed into believing
Mao is the reason for today’s prosperity, which is ludicrous since he killed many
of the intellectuals and capitalists. Nonetheless, it is a must see, as you move
quickly in the line – no cameras, no bags, no hats, move quickly – past his
embalmed corpse, all rosy cheeked and lit from above. Then, to add insult to
his ‘great’ legacy, after viewing the Chairman, you exit to a cheesy souvenir
section, where you have an opportunity to honor his communist memory by
purchasing capitalist trinkets. Regrettably, a must see, but probably not worth
it. Uncle Ho in Hanoi
is better and more inspiring. Later, we will report on how Lenin stacks up in Moscow.

On a 100-degree day, we could not believe our ears as we

Hutongs of Beijing

Hutongs of Beijing

descended
down from delightful Jingshang
Park. Walking downhill,
the refrain became clearer and louder, as we curiously followed the melody to its
source. Winding past temples, well-manicured flower patches, and emerald lawns,
we finally arrived at the scene, where flirtatious groups of people were
joyously practicing their dance steps to the riotous and implausible tune of
‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. This is a common scene in public parks
throughout Asia, where people of all ages meet
and dance to western tunes. Pretty funny.

I thought the narrow alleyways – hutongs – were the best
part of Beijing,
places to get lost as you wandered around, poking your head in interesting shops,
and walking wherever your curiosity takes you. The area around the Drum Tower
and Houhai Lake
felt like the real Beijing,
not the bright shiny urban sprawl it has become.

We shipped another box of souvenirs, sampled Peking duck,
had two-dollar haircuts at the famous Wenfeng salon, shopped for tacky goods,
saw all there was to see, and prepared for the next leg of the journey, the
Trans-Mongolian train across Russia. Beijing
certainly is an excellent city, worthy of three to five days, although it would
rank behind Hong Kong and Shanghai
as destinations. Whereas, we would return to Shanghai
and Hong Kong, we probably would not to Beijing
– once you have seen everything, there is nothing to bring you back.

I hope that when we return, homogenized concrete buildings
and

Steeo Ascent Along The Great Wall

Steep Ascent Along The Great Wall

shiny skyscrapers will not dominate China, and the government will maintain
and encourage the historic and cultural aspects of this wonderful civilization.
Perhaps China
will stop trying to be so much like Westerners and embrace their unique
heritage.

While challenging for the independent traveler, it is
certainly rewarding when you succeed. With the right amount of time and
patience, you will see things you will not see anywhere else in the world – the
snaking Great Wall, the majestic and sacred Yellow
Mountain, the millions of people on
their one-speed bikes, the smoky incense coils in the temples of Hong Kong, and the rice paddies of Yangshuo. Profound,
spiritual, everlasting – China,

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even better than the real thing.

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