Thursday, August 6, 2009
July Vacation in Beijing
My family and I arrived on a Saturday evening in late July at Beijing's international airport's beautiful and spacious terminal 3, the new massive glass and steel structure that was opened just prior to last year's Summer Olympics in the city. I did not see it when I visited Beijing back in 2006, and this July visit was my family's first visit to Beijing. All of the airline and ground staff and many of the Asian passengers were wearing masks, an indication of the heightened concern about the spread of swine flu. We had to fill out health declaration forms along with the usual disembarkation cards prior to arrival. In addition to many watchful health workers, we saw infra-red detectors at several points along the way to the exit, in an attempt to identify any passengers with fever or flu-like symptoms. The process of health checks, immigration, baggage claim and customs went quickly and smoothly, and we emerged from the terminal to be greeted by an English-speaking Chinese driver who was holding a placard with my name on it.
Drive from the Airport
We were driven to our hotel room in a black Buick van. The multi-lane highway from the airport to our hotel in the financial district was wide, clean and smooth, with extensive landscaping on both sides. Clearly, Beijing has benefited from its three year intensive preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics that forced a number of significant infrastructure improvements which are taken for granted in the industrialized West. As we entered the city, we saw a dense buildup of modern skyscrapers along the streets. It took us less than 30 minutes to reach the hotel lobby. We had made reservations for a suite to accommodate all four of us via an online travel service. Unfortunately, however, there was some confusion, and we were first shown into a small, single-room suite that was too small for us. The hotel staff immediately realized it, and apologized even before I could protest, and corrected the mistake by moving us into a large two-room suite with club lounge access. The fact that I showed the staff a print-out of the hotel reservation was helpful in making the change.
It was 11 PM by the time we settled in our suite. The club lounge had already closed, and we ordered room service to eat a light meal before going to bed. Since we arrived later than scheduled because of flight delays in Hong Kong, it was almost mid-night when I called the tour operator for the tour we had booked for Sunday. To my surprise, the hotel staff found the contact person at the tour operator and had me talk with her to confirm an 8AM pickup from the hotel lobby the next morning.
We got up early on Sunday morning, showered and changed, and then had a good, healthy, freshly cooked breakfast served in the hotel club lounge. We made it to the lobby at 8AM, and found our tour guide waiting for us there.
The Sunday tour started in the famous and historic Tienanmen Square. Though the city was hot, humid and hazy, but the climate and the environment were still significantly better than what we experienced in Dubai and Karachi. The city streets appeared to be quite clean, landscaped and well managed. Upon arriving at the Tienanmen Square, we were warned by our tour guide that as pedestrians we do not have the right of way on Beijing streets, though we noticed that the drivers appeared to be a bit more courteous than what we observed in Karachi. Our guide pointed to the various important buildings in the famous Square, including the one housing the embalmed remains of Communist leader Mao Zedong on display in a crystal sarcophagus, and the entrance to the Forbidden City with a large portrait of Chairman Mao. There were hordes of aggressive street vendors trying to sell all kinds of souvenirs in the Square, but the one that caught my eye was a Mao watch, a watch with a picture of Mao on the dial, with both hands waving. This watch and the vendors selling them are symbolic of how far China has come from Mao's days of strong denunciation of capitalism.
In recent history, Tienanmen Square was the scene of the Chinese government crackdown by the units of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) against mass students protests in 1989. Since the death of Chairman Mao and passing of the leadership to late Deng Xiaoping in 1980s, the Chinese communist party has pursued liberalizing the nation's economy without political liberalization, in the same way other East Asians did earlier. Such a strategy has allowed them to pursue rapid industrialization with accelerated economic growth over the last two decades, while forcefully controlling the chaos on the streets, to lift a record number people out of poverty. China's large neighbor India has failed to use a period of high economic growth to lift tens of millions of people out of poverty, falling far short of China’s record in protecting its population from the ravages of chronic hunger, United Nations officials said recently. Last year, British Development Minister Alexander contrasted the rapid growth in China with India's economic success - highlighting government figures that showed the number of poor people had dropped in the one-party communist state by 70% since 1990 but had risen in the world's biggest democracy by 5%.
But China still has a lot more to do to catch up with the industrialized West. A visit to a public toilet in the Square by my family was a bit of an unpleasant surprise. While the squat toilets were expected, the lack of toilet paper (or water, as they saw in Pakistan and UAE) and open doors or no doors were something unexpected. However, there were vendors next to the public toilet doing brisk business selling toilet paper to the tourists. As part of pre-Olympic prep, the International Olympic Committee required the construction of hundreds of public toilets in Beijing, but apparently it did not require the availability of toilet paper to go with the new facilities. Beijing launched a three-year campaign -- with a 400-million-yuan (57 million U.S. dollars) investment -- to modernize its public toilets in 2005 as part of its effort to prepare for the 2008 Olympic Games. Now, Beijing has over 5,000 public toilets available within a five-minute walk of any downtown location.
As we entered Forbidden City (Zijin Cheng), it bought back memories of the story and the scenes from Bernardo Bertolucci's movie "The Last Emperor", that was filmed here back in the 1980s. Built from 1406 to 1420, the Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It now houses the Palace Museum. For 500 years, it served as the home of the Emperor and his household, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government.
According to a Wikipedia entry, the Forbidden City has 980 surviving buildings with 8,707 bays of rooms and covers 7.8 million square feet in the heart of the Chinese Capital. The palace complex exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture, and has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
It was fairly long walk in the July heat through the Forbidden City, where we saw many buildings of the imperial palace serving different needs, and heard stories of the various emperors, their queens and concubines, and the eunuchs who served them. What I found missing this time was the Starbucks coffee shop, but I was told by our tour guide that only the sign has been removed in an effort to placate the opponents. As our guide continued with his narration, there was a lot of pomp and ceremony as well as the stories of palace intrigue. Some of these stories about Pu Yi, the last emperor, formed part of the plot and the screenplay of Bernardo Berolucci movie of 1987. During filming of the immense coronation scene in the Forbidden City, Queen Elizabeth II was in Beijing on a state visit. The production was given priority over her by the Chinese authorities and she was therefore unable to visit the Forbidden City. Though Mao's picture adorns the entrance to the Forbidden City, it is believed that Mao Zedong made a pledge to never set foot in it and he kept his pledge.
After lunch, we headed to the Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan) in northwest Beijing. An aggressive vendor outside the Palace persisted in selling me a set of post cards for 10 yuan. I agreed and gave him a 100 yuan bill, and then he gave me the post cards and change in some unknown currency (probably Russian ruble) which I didn't realize until I tried to use it buy a bottle of water and it was refused by the water vendor. So, beware of unscrupulous vendors.
The Summer Palace was really crowded, mostly by the locals and their children out on a Sunday afternoon. It attracts a lot of Beijingers during summer because of its pleasant breeze, relatively lower temperature, and a nice boat ride on the lake that offers relief from the city heat. There were also many paddle boats on the lake rented out by visitors.
The Summer Palace, built in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong, covers an area of 2.9 square kilometers, three quarters of which is water. The central Kunming Lake covering 2.2 square kilometers was entirely man made and the excavated soil was used to build Longevity Hill. In the Summer Palace, one finds a variety of palaces, gardens, and other classical-style architectural structures. In 1888, it was given the current name, Yihe Yuan. It served as a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi, who diverted 30 million taels of silver, said to be originally designated for the Chinese navy (Beiyang Fleet), into the reconstruction and enlargement of the Summer Palace.
We walked through a long corridor enjoying the gentle breeze while our tour guide Frank Zhang entertained us with a narration of the evil Empress Dowager Cixi who imprisoned and killed the pro-industrialization and reform-minded young Guangxu in 1898. About the same time period when Meiji reforms in Japan transformed it from a medieval society to a leading economic and military power in Asia, China's Guangxu's idealistic pro-western movement called for drastic reforms in the governmental, educational, and social systems. With support from foreign powers, the Guangxu Emperor looked to industrialize China, institute capitalism, cut government waste through entitlements and continue to strengthen the military. He looked to create a modern educational system modeled on western school curriculum and transform the government from an absolute monarchy to a western styled constitutional monarchy with democratic institutions.
Temple of Heaven
From the Summer Palace, we went diagonally across town from the north west to the south east of Beijing where the Temple of Heaven is located. Constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Emperor Yongle (1402–1424) of Ming dynasty, it is a complex of Taoist buildings in Beijing's Xuanwu District. The complex was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. It is regarded as a Taoist temple, although Chinese Heaven worship, especially by the reigning monarch of the day, pre-dates Taoism.
It is similar to a central park in major US cities and, in spite of its admission fee, it attracts a many city folks in Beijing. We saw a large number of people of various ages engaged in all kinds of fun activities from playing games to singing and dancing.
Exploring on Our Own
On Monday, we decided to explore the city on our own. Knowing how difficult it is to get around town without knowing the local language, we sought the help of the concierge at our hotel. The concierge gave us a map of the hotel location that said to the taxi driver to bring us back there if we get lost. The concierge also gave us a card with the names a number of popular locations such as the silk market, the pearl market and Tienanmen Square written in both Chinese and English. In addition, we requested the concierge to give us cards with the Chinese names/addresses of Beijing's main Muslim mosque and neighborhood, as well as Wall Mart, Maojiao Hunan restaurant and South Beauty Sichuan restaurant.
I also bought and installed a local China Mobile SIM for my cell phone and saved the phone number of our hotel concierge, which I could potentially use to call for help to give instructions to taxi drivers.
We first ventured out to Niu Jie neighborhood where Beijing's main mosque is located. It is believed that Islam was first introduced in China in 616-18 AD by Waggas (Sad ibn abi Waqqas), Sayid Wahab ibn Abu Kabcha. Sad ibn abi Waqqas was the maternal uncle of Prophet Muhammad. Wahab ibn abu Kabcha (Wahb abi Kabcha) might be a son of al-Harth ibn Abdul Uzza (known as Abu Kabsha). These pioneers were companions of Prophet Muhammad.
As we entered the mosque, we were warmly greeted by a bearded gentleman wearing a white cap who said Assalam-Alaikum. As we walked around, we saw signs in English indicating that the mosque was constructed in 995 by two Arab Muslim Imams who are buried within the mosque compound. Throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing periods (13th-19th C), it underwent several alterations and since 1949 it has been repeatedly restored. Unlike the traditional mosque architecture in Muslim nations, the Niu Jie mosque has a Chinese style roof with no minarets. Its traditional Chinese roof design has animal figures found on the corners of the temple roofs in China.
Most Hui Muslim Chinese are similar in culture to Han Chinese with the exception that they practice Islam, and have some distinctive cultural characteristics as a result. For example, as Muslims, they follow Islamic dietary laws and reject the consumption of pork, the most common meat consumed in Chinese culture, and have also given rise to their variation of Chinese cuisine, Chinese Islamic cuisine. Their mode of dress also differs only in that adult males wear white caps and females wear headscarves or (occasionally) veils, as is the case in most Islamic cultures.
Niu Jie (Ox Street) is a cramped road running north-south in the Muslim Quarter, about a mile directly west of the Temple of Heaven. In addition to the signs in Chinese, you can see signs in Arabic as well. The street is lined with Muslim restaurants, halal meat shops and vendors selling fried dough rings, rice cakes and shaobang (muffins), and you can see men wearing white caps and beards. While I had been warned about beggars in all parts of Beijing, I was saddened to see that this is the only part of town where we encountered the street beggars, mostly children, during our visit to Beijing. Just to put it in perspective, the street begging and the beggars we saw in Beijing pale in comparison to my experience in India and Pakistan. As India struggles to stage Commonwealth Games next year, India's 1200 beggar families in Delhi are learning to ask for charity in multiple languages to appeal to the 100,000 foreign visitors expected to attend the games.
We took a taxi in Niu Jie and went to see the local Wall Mart store. It turned out to be quite different from a typical Wall Mart Store in the US. Most of the floor space was dedicated to food and groceries, with a section for apparel and other items. The prices of the apparel we saw seemed to be a lot lower than the prices of similar apparel in US stores. This persuaded us to do some shopping there. Since there was expectation of rain the next day, I decided to buy a rain jacket for a couple of US dollars.
It was about 1 PM and we were all hungry, and we all love spicy food. The obvious choice for us was a Hunan restaurant Mao Jiao in the financial district. The concierge at our hotel told us that it was established and initially run by Chairman Mao's mother. It features a large, golden bust and pictures of Chairman Mao as part of its decor. Mao was from Hunan province and loved hot, peppery dishes of the Hunan region. Fortunately for us, there was a menu in English and the fact that the staff spoke no English did not prevent us from ordering spicy grilled shrimp piled high with red peppers and hot shredded beef with green peppers. It was really good food, the best Chinese food we have had in a long time. We then walked to our hotel for a brief rest.
In the evening we headed out to the Silk Market (Xiushui), located close to the embassies protected by barbed wires and armed guards. Contrary to our expectation, almost all of the vendors spoke English well enough to engage in serious bargaining. These were some of the most aggressive vendors, mostly girls, I have seen who actively solicit and get customers to buy their "designer" wares, ranging from apparel to jewelry to gifts and souvenirs. Their asking prices are any where from three to six times the final prices at which they are quite willing to sell. You can also find traditional Chinese items made from "authentic" pearls to silk to jade at "low" prices, but it is a "buyers beware" market. We did some shopping here and paid less than a third of asking prices for the items we, bought but I am still convinced we paid more than others who are better hagglers.
After our brief "shopping spree", we decided to go for dinner at South Beauty, a Sichuan restaurant in the financial district. I called our hotel concierge to give directions to the taxi driver who dropped us off right in front of the restaurant within a half hour drive. This restaurant was definitely more upscale than Mao Jiao, and the hostess and waitresses all spoke English. The menu was also presented in English. We ordered the familiar Kung Pao chicken, the spicy stone grilled shrimp, fried beef with a fiery sauce of Sichuan chilies, garlic, cilantro and peanuts on the side, and white rice. The food was excellent, as was the service. The bill, including a generous tip, added up to about $85 for all four of us, quite normal by US standards, but pricey in terms of the Chinese Yuan.
Ming Tombs and Great Wall
Our Tuesday tour started real early, with the tour guide picking us up at 7:30AM in the hotel lobby. The guide then picked up several more people, including a Chinese Canadian couple, a German couple and an Australian from various hotels before heading out about 30 miles north to the Ming Tombs. The site was picked by the third Ming Dynasty emperor Yongle (1402–1424), who moved the capital of China from Nanjing (lit: South Capital) to the present location of Beijing (lit: North Capital). There is a massive statue of Yongle, and various artifacts and a model of the tombs in the structure leading up to the mound under which Yongle was buried.
Our guide explained to us that from the Yongle Emperor onwards, 13 Ming Dynasty Emperors were buried in this area. The tombs of the first two Ming Emperors are located near Nanjing (the capital city during their reigns). Emperor Jingtai was also not buried here, as the Emperor Tianshun had denied Jingtai an imperial burial, but was instead buried west of Beijing. The last Chongzhen Emperor, who hanged himself in April 1644, named Si Ling by the Qing emperor, was the last to be buried here, but on a much smaller scale than his predecessors. During the Ming dynasty the tombs were off limits to commoners, but in 1644 Li Zicheng's army ransacked and set many of the tombs on fire before advancing and capturing Beijing in April of that year.
We then had the customary stop at one of the tourist traps to get us to buy exorbitantly priced jade, pearl or silk items, followed by an unremarkable lunch provided as part of the tour. Then on to the Great Wall.
We arrived at the Badaling section of the Great Wall in the afternoon. One big change I saw since my last visit was the massive "Beijing 2008 One World One Dream" sign that dominates the landscape. I also did not see the Starbucks coffee shop that was so visible before, but it may just be that the Starbucks sign has been removed to fend off protests.
Badaling section of the wall was built on one of the highest peaks of the Jundu Mountain, which belongs to the Yanshan Range. It is the most famous section of the Great Wall close to Beijing. It leads to Beijing to the south, Yanqing country to the north, Xuanhua and Datong to the west.
Long regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world, the Great Wall of China was built from the 5th century BC to the 16th century CE. It stretches for about 5,500 miles of an arc that runs along the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. The average height of the Ming Great Wall is 33 feet and the width is about 15 feet. The historic Wall winding through the hills is fairly steep at certain locations along the mountain sides. It is not merely a wall but instead a complete and rigorous defense project composed of a large number of passes, watchtowers, garrison towns, beacon towers and blockhouses. At its peak during the Ming period, this Wall was guarded by more than a million soldiers to keep out Mongol invaders. It has been estimated that somewhere in the range of 2 to 3 million Chinese died as part of the centuries-long project of building the wall.
The walk on the Wall was an exercise similar to the hike on Mission Peak in Fremont, CA. It was quite demanding and exhilarating at the same time. I spent about two hours on the Wall, then returned to the coffee shop where the rest of the group gathered for the return trip. On our way back, we drove by the Olympic village, the picturesque Bird's Nest stadium and the beautiful aquatic center. The whole area looked quite impressive. The Olympic Village, covering 27.55 hectares with a floor space of more than 500,000 square meters, was home to about 16,000 athletes and officials during the Olympics. The apartments have now been sold to the general public at 31,000 yuan (4,558.8 U.S. dollars) per square meter, averaging about a million US dollars for each unit. By comparison, equivalent units at Karachi's upscale Emaar Crescent project by the sea are selling at $500,000 or less.
We returned to our hotel room on Tuesday evening, had dinner at the club lounge and then packed up to leave the next morning for San Francisco. It was an educational, memorable, emotional and fun-filled vacation for me and the rest of the family. But, after about three weeks in three countries, we were all quite happy to be returning to the comforts of our home in the United States.
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