Beijing, China to St. Petersburg, Russia. On a train. The 'Tran-Siberian Railway'. 8505 kilometers of views. Five weeks across China and Mongolia and Russia. From Asia to Europe. Now that's quite an adventure. And for us it began June 6 as we flew out of Mumbai, on our way to Beijing.
Us? Us is four teachers from my school, the American School of Bombay. Katie, Lynn, Deb and myself. And we plan to join up with a former teaching peer in Irkutsk in Siberia. Vania. She currently teaches in Moscow.
First, I gave silent thanks as I crossed over that point in Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport where I crossed Indian Immigration, had my passport stamped and was legal to leave. No visa issues! No three and a half week long wait, stuck in India, to get it sorted out - like summer last year was spent! Hallelujah!
Of course there still does need to be some sort of drama to the start of any magnificent undertaking. Ours was supplied first by the sick lady who had just boarded the plane in Mumbai, needing immediate attention before we could take off. Take off delayed enough that we would
inevitably miss our connection to Beijing upon landing in Honk Kong. And the drama was completed by another lady, two rows in front of us, as we landed in Beijing. We all sat silently on the plane as the medical team came on board pointing the futuristic digital infrared thermometers at our foreheads one by one, seat by seat. She had a temperature. They tried again - she still had a temperature. One more time - temperature. Time to call in the big guy. He swaggers down the aisle. Takes her temperature, declares that she has a temperature, then mysteriously finally lets us all off the plane. Was this 'swine flu, welcome to China'? Well, no matter. We're set free! In Beijing!
The first evening, we head out to a nearby park, Jingshan Park. Its a beautiful hill, shaped from the dirt that once filled what is now the moat. The palace atop the hill rests peacefully and safely, protected from evil spirits by its lofty height. And the view over and into the Forbidden City from the top is quiet stupendous! How massive the grounds, the buildings. Jingshan Park also abuts against Beihai Park, the heart of Kublai
Khan's Beijing, back in the 13th century, long before the Forbidden City came into existence.
From the Park we head south, past massive Tienamen Square, to a traditional Chinese Opera performance. The performance is striking. With stupendous costumes, impressive acrobats and traditional music. I stretch my ears and my understanding as the high piercing sounds of the operatic voices weave their magic. It is a sound that I would consider inverted from our Western ear's point of view. Minimal bass and strong, bright highs are treasured in many Eastern cultures. Including back 'home' in India. This tonal concept is in contrast to the solid and foundational bass upon which we gently layer high sounds in most Western music. Its definitely a worthwhile experience, even as my concepts and limits are pushed!
And then things got crazy. We arrived in Beijing Sunday the 7th. Late in the afternoon. And our train adventure was to begin very early Tuesday morning the 9th. That really left us with only one whole day for Beijing! Wow! Two priorities rise to the top - the Great Wall and the Forbidden City!
Monday dawns rainy and gets rainier. We pick up umbrellas on
the street as we puddle jump in search of a taxi to take us the 70 kilometers to Badaling, one of the surviving sections of the great wall closest to Beijing. This section of the wall was built between 1368 and 1644, by the Ming Dynasty. It stretches picturesquely into the distance with impressive dilou (watchtowers) punctuating it. The rainy weather definitely diminishes the views, but the sense of placing your very own feet upon the time worn stones is impressive. And to walk on the undulating surface as the wall snakes up and down over the rocky terrain is indeed a challenge. Steep irregular stairs, and even steeper inclines make it tough going. And this is where the guards, the protectors of the Dynasty would have marched on the Wall! I cannot imagine the challenges faced by any wayward rabble-rousers trying to cross this huge obstacle.
The Wall was first start over 2000 years ago, as the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) first unified many independent kingdoms and connected their separate walls to protect the dynasty from the marauding nomads. They used the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, And while the wall never proved to
be too very successful in doing its job of protecting the successive dynasties, it did serve as a superb highway, transporting people and equipment effectively above the rocky terrain. Today many sections of the Wall have fallen into disrepair, often even having its rocks carried off for local village construction projects. But every here and there a wild section still survives and draws the intrepid traveler. And in many more places a 'restored and sanitized for the tourists' section exists. Like Badaling. Stalls and stands selling every imaginable souvenir line the approach, from parking lot to ticket stand. It sure seems that consumerism and capitalism are healthy as can be here in Communist China!
The rain keeps coming down as we return the 70 kilometers to Beijing and the planned afternoon at the Forbidden City. This impressive complex was 'off limits' to the common person from more than 500 years, thus the name. It was home to both the Ming and Qing Dynasties. We enter at the north, through the Divine Military Genius Gate, close to Jingshan Park from which we had viewed the Forbidden City last evening. We peacefully wind our way through the elaborate yet intimate Imperial
Garden - a labyrinth of rockeries, landscaping, pavilions and walkways. From there we enter the smaller and more intimate buildings of the City, the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Union. These buildings, while not as large as the three great halls we will soon be seeing, were the seat of actual power, the residence of the Qing and Ming emperors and their audience halls. As we continue on, we come to the first of the three great halls, the Hall of Preserving Harmony. This was a banquet hall and has a huge marble carraigeway intricately carved with dragons and clouds. That marble carraigeway had been moved to its current location so many centuries ago on an ice path. Next we pass through the impressive Hall of Middle Harmony as we approach the Hall of Supreme Harmony. It is the most impressive and massive structure in the Forbidden City, serving ceremonial occasions when it could accommodate an audience in excess of 100,000 in it's courtyard. Inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the beautiful Dragon Throne, from which the Emperor ruled and passed his supreme edicts. As we continue south towards our exit at the Gate of Heavenly
Peace, we pass through the Supreme Harmony Gate, across the Golden Stream to the Meridian Gate. And while the rain continues throughout the afternoon, its nothing that an adventuresome spirit and a cheap street umbrella can't protect you from. Especially in the presence of such architecture and such history!
Remember the song Its a Small World After All? I definitely do, having worked at Kings Island amusement Park, in a hot dog stand right beside the Enchanted Voyage with its aforementioned them music. Well it was definitely was running through my mind once again at one point in our brief Beijing stay. That morning, on the Great Wall, I had approached an Indian family that I saw. I mean I live in India, its always fun to make contact with Indians who are out of India, and cannot believe that I actually live in India. Like the Indian man who was making my Subway sandwich in Chicago last December. As I gave instructions on what veggies I wanted on the sandwich, I didn't use our North American word - green peppers. Instead, I used the word commonly used in India, capsicum! His hands came to a quick stop as
his head jerked up to stare at me. 'India talk' he quipped with disbelief. Then we shared our stories, his of his native place back in Gujurat, one state north of my home in Mumbai, Maharastra state. Anyway, back to the Great Wall. As the family and I struck up conversation I was amazed to discover that we actually had met, briefly, in passing, back in Mumbai! Blossom Mendoza is the director of one of Mumbai's most prominent community choirs. While her son plays violin in the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, on the far side of the group, quite distant from my seat in the trombone section! Although I must admit that we do sit on the same stage together! \
You know, when you are traveling in the most populous country in the world you really don't expect to accidentally run into friends from 'back home'. But I guess when 'back home' is the second most populous country in the world, serendipity just might rule every once in a while! More power to it!
And so . . . onward! Out of Beijing. Next stop, Mongolia's gobi desert. But you'll have to wait for the next blog entry!
Give me a week or two . . . . .
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