Tuesday, January 26, 2010

That's a Great Wall!

High on the list of any visitor to Beijing, or even China in general, is the so called Great Wall of China. Being interested in history, architecture and fun things like that, there was no chance that I would miss a trip out to the wall covered hills and ridges north of Beijing. The easiest way to make the trip is to book a tour through your hotel, and don't forget to bargain the price down a bit! After driving all over Beijing to pick up the travelers our first stop was the Ming Tombs a bit north of the city. After the Ming Dynasty moved the capital to Beijing the emperors built large, lavish tombs in an area of excellent feng sui.

The tomb we visited was certainly interesting, but what we all really came for was the wall itself, or at least the portion of it at Badaling. The Badaling section of the Great Wall is one of several that have been restored for tourists, and is the most popular. While popular means crowds, the chill November weather helped the crowd control, and the wall is so large and steep that relatively few people walk much beyond the gondola drop off point.

I prepared for the excursion by reading The Great Wall by John Man. His attempts to trace the wall through both reality and popular imagination were most illuminating. We all know two things about the wall, that it can be seen from space, and that it was built by the first Qin Emperor who united China in 221 BC.

Well you know what they say, everything you know is wrong, and both of those facts are wrong. You can't see the wall from space with the naked eye, and while the Qin empire did build a great wall, they didn't build the massive and imposing edifice that we tourists love to take pictures of. That was built by the Ming dynasty to protect their new capital from Mongolian and Manchu raiders in the late 1400s.

The original Great Wall was built of rammed earth, and little of it has survived the passage of over two millenniums. In fact, there are many different walls built over the years by the various dynasties of China to keep out tribes of nomadic horsemen, the Ming example being only the best preserved and the most recent.

Once I made it to the wall though, any academic discussion was moot. Seeing the sinuous winding of the stone rampart over ridges and hilltops as far as the eye could see was an utterly unique experience. After walking through the Forbidden City, and hiking up and down the steep steps of The Great Wall, I can say with confidence that the Ming emperors thought big, and built big.

I teamed up with two other fellow travelers from my tour and we hiked down to the watchtower you see here. The hike down was rough, but the hike up almost killed me. Despite coming from the high mountains of Colorado, trying to pull myself up the slope from that tower was exhausting. It really made you respect the soldiers who patrolled in the area, and the poor laborers who had to build the wall in the first place. The best part of the day was the end, when myself and my two new traveling companions went out for a lavish late Thanksgiving dinner of Peking Duck that surpassed any expectations I might have had. If any readers find themselves in Beijing desiring some roast duck, I highly recommend the Dadong restaurant, of which there are several around the city.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Walking Beijing

En route to the start point of my guidebook walking tour I noticed that a few stops down the line was the Military Museum. I do enjoy displays of military hardware, so making that my first stop was a natural choice. While the various tanks, jets and missiles were of interest, what was even better was the Party slant to everything.

On the upper floors were displays dedicated to China in the Second World War, as well as the civil war that followed. Going through the WWII displays was fascinating, as mixed in with plenty of real history was plenty of exaggeration and even a few outright falsehoods. Going through the chronology, one would think that Chairman Mao whipped the Imperial Japanese Army all by himself!

After my perusal of the Military Museum, I headed back to the center of town to start the walking tour. Following the directions in the guide book, I walked to the right of the vast Mao portrait on the main entrance to the Forbidden City. Along the side there is another, smaller entrance that leads to the Imperial Ancestral Temple.

This complex, while not as large or epic in scale as the Forbidden City itself, was still quite large in its own right. The layout is very similar, and the vast plazas and gardens were quite empty, as all the tourists and sightseers head straight for the Forbidden City.

While I didn't quite have the whole place to myself, I certainly had far fewer people to contend with when framing my shots, which is certainly a rarity in China. The warmer temperatures and blue sky helped raise my spirits after the chill gray of the previous day.

I find that there is a delightful contrast between Ming Dynasty imperial architecture and the Japanese styles from the same time period. The Edo era Japanese styles you see are almost black and white compared to the brilliant reds, yellows, and greens that cover the historic sights in Beijing.

After exiting from the temple and skirting the side of the Forbidden City and its moat I headed into the twisty neighborhood hutongs that abut the east side of the palace.

These central areas do keep the old courtyard house style of living, but most have been heavily refurbished and are now stylish homes for government bureaucrats. While there are remnants of old Beijing still to be found, they are increasingly more difficult to track down, especially in the wake of redevelopment for the Olympics.

Footsore and tired, I came to the end of the tour, the trendy pedestrian mall of Wangfujing street. My hotel was located quite close to Wangfujing street and its plethora of upscale department stores, book stores, shopping arcades and restaurants. Though footsore and a little chill, bedtime came fairly early. I was eager for the next day to arrive, as I was off to the Great Wall!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Beijing Bound

One of the cheapest and easiest ways to travel between Shanghai and Beijing is by night train. The journey takes around 12 hours, but if all goes well you'll sleep for most of it. There are three fare options, the cheapest being the 'hard seat', which just doesn't sound comfortable at all. In the middle is the 'hard sleeper' bed that we opted for, with the luxurious(and correspondingly expensive) 'soft sleeper' option at the top.

The beds were arranged in bunks of three, and I volunteered for the top bunk. It didn't seem like it from below, but that top bunk was WAY up there. Despite the 'hard sleeper' designation, the beds were fairly comfortable and once the lights went out I had little problem falling asleep. It reminded me a bit of camping, where you wake up often during the night, but fall right back asleep every time.

The contrast between Beijing and Shanghai is huge. Shanghai is like a teenager, doing ten things at once, vibrant and full of life. Beijing is more like an old man, full of history and the satisfaction of a life well lived. The train station in Beijing is surrounded by boring communist apartment blocks, which didn't make for a very welcoming introduction to the city, but once we had showered at the hotel we were ready to see what Beijing had to offer.

Naturally the first sight to see in Beijing is Tian an Men Square and the adjacent Forbidden city. I was shocked at the scale of the Forbidden City. It just keeps going, massive courtyard after massive courtyard. The low, gray light made photography a little difficult, and the chilly late November afternoon didn't encourage lingering out of doors, but the whole experience was still amazing.

The Forbidden City closed at 5:00, so all in all we only had a few hours inside, and could have easily done with more time to explore the more out of the way areas.

The sun was setting fast as we walked out the back entrance. Todd and Bobbi met up with a friend of theirs they were staying with, and I headed back to my hotel room for a brief rest before dinner. Beijing was cold, crowded and full of very unhelpful taxi drivers, but it was still a fascinating place, and I aimed to get as much out of the city as I could!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Shanghai Museum

I'm sure I am not alone in thinking Chinese history to be a bit of a muddle. You often hear references to the various dynasties without dates attached, and it doesn't help the layman that it seems every historical movie set in China uses the Forbidden Palace as a set, no matter when the film takes place.

So I was really looking forward to a trip to the Shanghai Museum, and its vast collection of art and historical objects covering 5,000 years of Chinese history. We started in the statuary section, tracing Buddhist art from its inception through to the mid 1700s or so. It was great to see both how the Chinese styles changed and how those styles influenced Japan.

The coinage area was also quite fascinating, covering the evolution of money throughout Chinese history. I also really enjoyed the exhibit about the Silk Road, and the mixture of cultures and religions that made up the cities and communities lying between Europe and Asia.

Overall I came away from the Shanghai Museum highly impressed. While it lacks the imperialistic breadth of the Louvre or the British Museum it makes up for that by its excellent collections and focus, as well as its strong English Signage. Also, its easy to see much of the museum in one visit, and that certainly can't be said for the Louvre!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Yu Yuan

One of the major sights in Shanghai is the Yu Gardens, a Ming era traditional garden that was originally built in the mid 1500s. The Gardens were damaged in the years of upheaval that began in the 1800s, and were restored by the city in the late 1950s.

Walking around I was struck by the similarities and differences between the Chinese style traditional garden and the Japanese style that I am more familiar with. I was very interested to learn that one thing you don't find much of in a Chinese garden is plants!

Rather, the garden is built with lakes, streams, rockeries, buildings and pavilions with a few trees and plants here and there. The many walls and bridges lead to an almost maze like feeling, with each section of the garden very unique and distinct from the adjacent areas.

Each doorway we passed through brought us into a completely new area ripe for exploration. While our dumpling lunch nearby had been pretty expensive (for China anyway, it was only about 15 dollars a head), the Gardens themselves were well worth the price of admission. By breaking the gardens into such small sections, the whole thing seemed much larger than it was, and was capable of hiding the crowds lending the experience a more personal feel.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Seeing Shanghai

When you travel, or indeed do anything in life, you always have a preconceived notion about where you are going and what you are doing. One of the truly wonderful things about traveling is that often enough these notions are often both confirmed and confounded.

I certainly had some ideas about China, but I have to say that Shanghai was both everything I had expected, and nothing that I had expected. I knew that it would be big, busy, and polluted, but I wasn't expecting the sheer glorious chaos that is Shanghai.

I feel that Shanghai in 2009 is rather like New York in the early 1900s, a city of opportunity that is reinventing itself every few years. The city will be hosting the 2010 World Expo starting this spring, and until this week was home to the world's second tallest building. (Now the Shanghai World Financial Center has been relegated to a more modest 3rd place) The subway system has seen some major additions in the last two years, with even more stations and lines opening before the expo. It is fascinating to see a city that is just so New.

My first full day in China didn't start very easily though. Ken and I woke up to the sound of his phone ringing, as our mutual friend and ex-coworker Todd had arrived in Shanghai from Thailand. He and his wife were here, but puzzled as nobody was answering the doorbell.

Ken doesn't have a doorbell. The taxi driver had dropped them off at the wrong building AND taken a tip, despite the firm no-tipping rule that exists in China (and Japan, for that matter.) Finding them in the massive complex proved to be the work of about 45 minutes and 4 incoming phone calls, not helped by Ken and I's minor hangovers and the fact that his phone couldn't call Todds.

After our belated reunion, Todd's wife Bobbi decided it was nap time, as the flight from Bangkok had left at around 2 AM. The boys were eager to get some sightseeing done, so we walked to the Jade Buddha Temple. Ken and I had actually made the trek over there the day before, in between restaurants, but it closed at 5, and despite our 4:45 arrival time, they wouldn't let us in.

The temple exists to enshrine a pair of Jade Buddhas that were brought to Shanghai from Burma. Sadly, photography of the Buddha statues was prohibited, but believe me that the very large jade statues are well worth seeking out. Though this also introduced us to the sad fact that in China, everybody wants to make a buck (or two or three) from the tourists. As we walked into the temple, a man who seemed to be working there tried to get us to go to a calligraphy shop or something along those lines that was located INSIDE the temple grounds.

Indeed, there were several tacky gift shops and such placed around the temple halls. While there is certainly an overabundance of crass commercialism surround the temple and shrine tourist sites in Japan, the Japanese usually keep them outside the sacred grounds!

Despite all that, we all really enjoyed seeing the Jade Buddha Temple, and Todd was so impressed that he made sure to go back with his wife a few days later. Walking back towards Ken's apartment, we stopped off for a quick snack which was more like a full meal, complete with a few (gloriously cheap) beers each!

As we walked back to the apartment to gather up the ladies for dinner, we stopped at a street side window where Ken got some Shanghai Soup Dumplings. Picture a small, plump shumai, filled with broth and gyoza tasting meat. In other words, an utterly delicious little packet of goodness. Of course, you have to be careful biting into the dumpling, else the broth will go everywhere, as Todd found out to his dismay when he dove into his dumpling with a gusto that he soon regretted.