Published: May 5th 2008May 5th 2008
The Grand Theater
The intrepid bicyclists, almost back to our hotel.
We arrived in Beijing early morning on 30 April, and spent the first day doing the tourist thing in the city. Our local guide was not one of the best we've had, so I'm glad we've had some extra time here. This is a unique city that reflects a long history of change. We saw ultramodern buildings, including those built for the Olympics, small homes that are hundreds of years old, and Mao-era, Soviet-style government buildings. People are friendly but wary of criticism by westerners -- when you see the government-controlled media's coverage of the Olympic torch's travels, you understand why many/most Chinese believe that everyone in the west hates China. We have not been able to talk as much with local people here as we have in the rest of China, maybe since Beijing is like many western cities where people are scrambling to survive and be happy.
The first day, we toured Tiananmen Square, which can hold a million people for official events and which was the site of the student shootings 20 years ago. Everyone, including the Chinese government, still remembers this, so police are always on hand, watching for any sign of a protest. The
The nearly completed site is guarded 24/7.
square also contains Mao's mausoleum, which we didn't visit -- not being big into viewing dead bodies, no mater how well preserved they are. The forbidden city is not as attractive as its counterpart in Hue, Vietnam, where the gardens are intact and the buildings were built at a human scale. The thing that most impresses you is that these huge plazas and buildings were all built for one person and his family. Surrounding all this huge magnificance are the "hutongs", neighborhoods of small, one-story homes built around courtyards. They were originally occupied by the emperor's family and courtiers, and are still occupied by middle-class families, even though some of the neighborhood looks run-down. Parts of the hutongs were demolished during the cultural revolution as being "too old" and too associated with the old order, but many have been preserved and are now being renovated -- along with the rest of the city. The number of people working on construction or renovation is amazing; literally hundreds of thousands. The lanes and alleys of the hutongs are too small to accomodate big machinery, so almost all the work is being done by hand, with wheelbarrows, motorbikes and bicycles hauling construction materials.
China is already holding events at the stadium.
It's pretty amazing to see a 30 foot wood beam that's 8 inches in diameter coming down the street on the back of a motorbike. We had fun at lunch and in the afternoon at the Huiling School, which is an Intrepid-supported charity teaching and caring for disabled (most mentally) adults. They made and served lunch and presented a show with song and dance -- and then one of the trainees taught us calligraphy. We were pretty bad, but he was patient and eventually awarded Tom a red Chinese stamp on his calligraphy, calling it (in English) "beautiful". It was a great experience -- if you're interested in what they're doing, check www.huiling.org.cn.
The second day, we fought our way out of Beijing to the Great Wall. I say "fought", because 1 May is International Labor Day and a Chinese national holiday. EVERYONE was on the road, including many of those black cars, which amazed all of us by driving the wrong way up 2-lane roads and completely jamming up all the traffic. Most of our group took a taxing hike on the wall from Jinshaling to Simatai, a four hour trek that took them up and down the
Land here costs $6000 per square meter -- most residents are middle class Beijingers.
mountains to 30 towers of the wall. Tom told me later that the steepest inclines were about 70 degrees and some of the steps were so high and steep that he had to crawl up them on his hands and knees. Since I'm pretty slow on these high steps, I escorted the two older members of the group (aged 67 and 77) to Simatai, which was the end point for Tom's group. We hiked up the mountain to the wall and climbed only about 3 towers. The wall took 2000 years to build and was designed to protect China from the Mongolians to the north. (See my blog entry on the walk.) On the way back into Beijing, we stopped at the Olympic games site to see the stadium nicknamed the "Bird Nest" and the water cube, where the aquatic events will be held. The buildings are beautiful, but even better was the sight of all the Beijing residents out to look at them. They take great pride in China's accomplishments -- we learned today that the estimated cost to CHina of the games is $30 billion, a huge amount, but less than Iraq is costing the US.
On the last day of our trip, we found our next hotel and went to the weekend antiques/crafts market. Since we've had such great weather recently, we didn't bother to bring our umbrellas and were soaked by a thunderstorm, which did reduce the air pollution here. Until the rain came through, we believed that if they shut off all the traffic and closed all the factories on 1 May, the air MIGHT be clear by the August games. Things are better now, but three days ago, every member of our group had problems with contact lenses, sinuses, throats and lungs. You could not see clearly for more than two blocks, and the air quality made the worst day I've seen in Los Angeles look crystal clear.
Yesterday, Tom and I took a rickshaw tour around the old section of the city, and today (TA-DAH!) we rode bicycles for about 25-30 miles through Beijing traffic out to the Olympic site, back through the old city and the alleyways of the hutongs, around the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square and back to the hotel. You should all be proud of me -- or just be concerned for my mental health. We had no problems, but it was a challenge! Tonight and tomorrow, we'll take it easy, maybe even go to a spa to give Tom his massage fix and rest up for the 30 hour flight home.