Wednesday, November 21, 2007

China Odyssey, Day 7 - Beijing

Day 7 – Beijing
Wed November 21
A Forced March

After breakfast at the hotel we met with our tour guide, George. George is 32, unmarried and a university graduate. He is the son of a doctor and engineer. Both of his parents were banished to the countryside during the cultural revolution. He is very knowledgeable, personable and a bit more serious than our Shanghai guide Scotty. After an extensive orientation, we were on our way to meet Susan, who will be our guide in Beijing. Susan is soft-spoken and not easily understood.

Tour Guide George

Our modern high-rise hotel in Beijing was embedded in a Hutong district. These traditional residential neighborhoods consist of acres of low, flat roofed buildings crisscrossed by narrow lanes. An inter-generational family of four or more may live in a single room. Cooking is done over a coal fire in an exterior courtyard. There is no indoor plumbing. A community toilet and a public shower serve these needs. Small vendor booths and storefronts line the major alleyways. These are not slums; they are traditional Chinese residential areas. The Hutong residents are respectable, hardworking Chinese people. The Hutongs are gradually being replaced with modern high rise condominiums in the city, and with larger modern houses in the villages.

Beijing Hotel

Beijing Hotel Lobby

Hutong Store Across the Street from the Hotel

Hutong Community Facilities

While we are speaking of Cities and Villages, it is worth noting the Chinese definitions of these terms, which is reflective of the huge Chinese population (over 13 billion people). In China, a city is a political subdivision with more than 500,000 people. The population of the largest Chinese city, Chengdu, is 30 million. A town has between 500,000 and 50,000 people. Any population center with less than 50,000 people is just a village.

Our first destination this morning is Tienanmen Square, which we were told is largest square in the world. This was the site of the infamous student riots in the 1980's. It also holds the preserved body of Mao in a huge mausoleum. The area is heavily patrolled and filled with people. We had a group photo taken there, which we purchased.

Tienanmen Square

Local Color Near Tienanmen Square

We had walked about a mile from the bus to Tienanmen Square, and then had an equally long hike to the Forbidden City, which was our second destination of the day.

The Forbidden City was home to the Chinese Emperors until 1912. It is a very long walk through 4 outer gates until you reach the inner city. We presume this was an intentional defensive measure. There are extensive renovations in progress, which will not be completed until 2020. The massive scale of the Forbidden City, which includes 10 palaces, is very impressive, especially to those on foot.

One of Many Nested Forbidden City Gates

On the roofs of each of the buildings are sculpted animals ranging in number from 1-9. The number of animals denotes the rank of the occupant. Buildings used by less important officials had fewer animal carvings, while the emperor's palace had the maximum of 9, which is considered a good luck number in China.

Roof Decorations Denoted Social Rank of Palace Residents

At certain times during the last 400 years, there have been as many as 5000 concubines in residence at the palace, each provided with their own quarters. All of our viewing was done from the outside of buildings, as tourists are not allowed inside. Many steps are climbed and descended to move from one section of the city to another.

As the Government prepares for the forthcoming 2008 Olympic games, many improvements are being made to the infrastructure, to accommodate the expected influx of foreign tourists. Sanitary facilities are just one of many details included in this upgrade. The Government has rated their public toilets, so the discriminating foreign tourist can select only the best. While the following is a shining example, it is still a Chinese style facility, which can be difficult for the westerner to utilize.

Public Toilet Rating Plaque

The Reality - It’s Clean, it’s Shiny, But It’s Still Chinese

After exiting the City, there was another long walk to our bus, as there is no parking permitted at the entrance to the Forbidden City.

Lunch was very good. They include potatoes in their foods up north, and the food is much spicier.

Back to the hotel, where Kathy napped and Keith took a walking tour of the neighborhood around our hotel. The guide pointed out places where it would be safe for us to purchase food (safe from a gastronomical, not a personal safety point of view). With George's help Keith purchased a calling card that we will use to call home periodically. A few typical street scenes follow.

Uniquely Styled Chinese Telephone Booth

A Loose Translation

Dinner at the hotel was a Beijing delicacy, "Peking Duck". Kathy enjoyed it. Keith does not care for duck.

Chinese Delicacy

No comments: