Beijing

I was cleaning out my Google Drive and found some notes. How did people file in the Paper Age?

Every year since starting work I have taken time off to visit Southern China to see my family. This year however we first visited Beijing as my traveling companion had never visited Asia before, and since it’s along the way from Toronto to Guangzhou it’s certainly worth a stop.

The first person to test my Mandarin Chinese skills after the 12 hour flight was the Chinese Immigration officer who asked me about my flight number.

I fumbled around for my boarding pass but I couldn’t find it and for the life of me I couldn’t remember. 10 hours on a plane will do that to you. Finally the officer gave me an exasperated look, leaned over her cubicle wall, and asked her colleague what the flight number of the flight arriving from Canada was, and let me through.

In the airport parking lot we noted that Audi had somehow set up a special parking area for Audis, although my friend, who picked us up, had not opted to use it, leaving us to look for the our own Audi in a sea of non-Audis such as BMWs, Porsches, Mercedes Benzes. Clearly the Chinese traveling elite were doing well.

Audis – Courtesy New York Times

Perhaps taking advantage of the black Audi’s reputation in China as a government-mobile, we fought our way through traffic, making liberal use of the hard shoulders and likely arousing the ire of the proletariat. Even on a Sunday evening traffic wasn’t particularly clear.

As we sped through the evening. I tested my Mandarin and asked about the weather and traffic, and the rapidly expanding subway system. On the topic of the subway I was presented with a local joke describing the number of riders on the system. It is admittedly funnier in Chinese but here it is: “If you ride the subway with a bag of flour – you’ll end up with a biscuit. If you ride the subway with biscuits, you’ll end up with a bag of flour.”

The next day we opened the blinds. We did not see any of Beijing’s dust storms. Although there was a definite haze through our visit, looking straight up we saw blue skies, although the view to the horizon was usually obscured.

We had some yogurt and toast and set off for the Forbidden City, again in the faux-government-mobile. In the city there were no hard shoulders to abuse and so we settled into traffic with everyone else. Through the car window I saw elderly folk skating on a patch of pond about a quarter of the size of a basketball court. I asked my friend – a Beijinger – if she’d ever skated before.

“Sure, especially when we were young.”

“What about now?”

“No way, too afraid of falling. Older folk aren’t as resilient these days.”

I regaled her with stories of the world’s largest outdoor skating rink and promised that we could also walk on it in the winter should she come visit, perhaps to see her son.

We met our tour guide, Li, at a side gate of the Forbidden City. He was a fellow about my age who learnt English in university. He broke down the Forbidden City as we walked through it. The buildings themselves had different ranks of importance. The City could be divided generally into the wide open front court spaces, compared to the small, confined, private spaces where all the palace intrigue occurred. Symbolism was packed everywhere – symbolism in the statues, symbolism in the architecture, symbolism in the layout of the site itself.

Many of the buildings are exhibition spaces for palace baubles but much of the good stuff was carted off by foreign armies during the late 1800s, but more significantly by the Chinese Nationalists who now exhibit the baubles in the Palace Museum in Taipei.

Over lunch in the City the guide explained his schedule – 26 day work months, sometimes 16 hours a day. I’m not sure if he was trying to solicit tips but even allowing for a certain amount of embellishment it doesn’t sound like an easy life, though it seemed to be working out well for him. Li further explained that he would eventually like to lead tours of Chinese in Europe, and then to be a teacher, but I secretly wondered if these biographies are semi-truths that they are taught to create in tourist guide school as a conversation topic. I figured we were easy pay for him compared to the groups of 10-20 he would be usually be leading. I asked about the Great Wall trip the next day and I assured him that he would be free to wait while we clambered about.

After a quick tour of the rather weak collection of palace baubles we headed off to Tiananmen Square. Our guide cautioned us to avoid talking about politics. As it happened the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference was in town and most of the Square itself was closed off. Along the streets around the Square police set up checkpoints and randomly searched to their heart’s desire. Access to the Gate of Heavenly Peace was also controlled, although we were not searched as we were accompanied by a tour guide, wandering visitors and non-visitors alike were searched prior to entering.

From the Gate of Heavenly Peace we could stand where Mao stood as he proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic back in 1949, overlooking what is now Tiananmen Square and Changan Avenue. Our guide informed us that Tiananmen Square is third largest square behind Red Square in Moscow and Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang – dubious honours at best, although Wikipedia seems to disagree with him. He also said that Changan Avenue is 100 km long.

I avoided the temptation to snark about how long that would take in a tank.

Afterwards we headed off to the Temple of Heaven, another complex with ranking buildings and symbolically important layout and architecture. The site itself is now mostly a public park and as we walked toward the Hall of Great Harvests we walked by hundreds of senior citizens sitting on wide railings playing cards and smoking. Park admission is not charged to senior citizens so it is a sort of de facto senior’s club.

Seniors playing / observing cards

Next stop we scooted off to a distant part of town where traditional hutongs – narrow streets – and their associated siheyuan – courtyard residences – still existed. The streets themselves are called hutongs and are wide enough for about 1 car. The siheyuan represent a traditional architecture for a residence in Beijing – rooms on four sides enclosing a central common courtyard, essentially building a house around your yard rather than in front of it. We were rickshawed (Not without some initial apprehension) throught the hutongs to visit the siheyuan of a 7th generation resident. Along the way we had another guide who explained the area while following us on her own bicycle. Our siheyuan host had also hosted many visitors during the Olympics. Our host explained the siheyuan design, and also explained the traditional rooms where family members would live. We agreed that it certainly an agreeable dwelling-form.

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