I will never forget my first day in Beijing. It was in August, 1987, and rather lost and lonely, I was wandering around with my backpack trying to find the train station. Nor will I forget all of the visits I've made there since then. Walking across the frozen lake at the Summer Palace; runs to Beijing to buy cheese and coffee; many three-day stops in the city as a tour director. I have never lived in Beijing, but probably know it better than any city that I have not called home. So it was with a sense of comfort and welcome that I 'rolled back into town' last month, this time escorting a small but very special group of clients on the first stop of a China sojourn.
Like much of China, the pace of change in Beijing is dizzying. Yet she has deep roots, the inertia of hundreds of years of Imperial importance is palpable. Beijing remains a vast, dry, dusty metropolis. Some of the changes are welcome. It is now a fully modern city with a maze of subway lines, western conveniences of every description (I think there is a KFC on nearly every corner), and some very interesting architecture, much of it left over from the Olympics. The old, run-down area around Qianmen has been transformed into a glitzy, open-air shopping and dining district, with historical style architecture holding thoroughly modern shops ("Uniqlo"? What the heck is "Uniqlo"?).
On the unwelcome side, well, we have all heard about the smog. It was actually not too bad, but that was partially by plan. April tends to be rather breezy in north China and all of the smog was blowing towards North Korea. Take that, Comrade Kim! And the traffic! Beijing has not done quite as good a job as Shanghai in upgrading the roads to match the sudden surge in car ownership. Add this to the apparent belief that yielding is a loss of face, and you have some of the worst traffic jams in the world.
But with all of its changes, Beijing remains Beijing. Which is to say one of the world's great cities.
This was a tourist trip and we did all of the tourists things. Tiananmen Square; the largest public square in the world with the masses of domestic tourists in matching hats. Many of them stand in line for hours to see Chairman Mao in his mausoleum. (I have to do this someday, have never taken the time). The Forbidden City, once reserved for the emperor and his closest servants, and now open to -- it seems like -- all 1.3 billion Chinese at the same time. This is the tour director's top stress out day, trying not to lose anyone in the maze of the residential quarters. My remaining impression of the Forbidden City is always it's sheer mass. Versailles could fit in one of the medium size courtyards. When you walked into this place, you KNEW you were in the center of the universe. And the Summer Palace is still just a very cool place. No, the lake was not frozen this time.
And of course the Great Wall. I had not been to Badaling since before the Olympics; the vendor gauntlet is gone! The walk up to the wall is actually relatively quiet and peaceful. I spent this trip sitting in a watchtower watching the crowds. People from every corner of China (I saw a group of women dressed in Naxi traditional outfits) and from every country. Yes, go in April, the weather was crisp, a bit breezy, many of the trees were in bloom, and not too crowded yet. All around a great Great Wall experience.
But the highlight of Beijing may have been the monument we did not get to see. On our last morning in Beijing, we went to Temple of Heaven. And when we got there, there were hundreds of guys in green uniforms setting up crowd control tape. We were told (very politely, I may say) that some VIP was on the way to see the Temple of Heaven and that we would just have to wait. I asked one of the guards and he said "I can't tell you...", we never did find out who had bumped us. But the good news is that the park around the Temple is essentially a huge, open air senior citizen activity center.
Most people in Beijing have no yards. Seniors get into the parks for a very small amount of money. And this park has become the place for retirees to gather to sing, dance, play cards (or chess or mahjong), exercise, socialize, sip tea, air their birds, etc. etc. So we had an hour to mingle. We joined an al fresco Zumba class. Some of us tried the exercise equipment. A few of us chatted with the locals. Enough foreigners go through here that we did not cause too much chaos, and it was a great chance to feel what a bit of the life of the real Beijingers is like. Certainly NOT a waste of half a day. So to that unnamed VIP (the President of Iceland was in town....), thank you!
And then we were on to Xi'an where they chuckle a bit at Beijing. Beijing has 600 years of history, just a child next to Xi'an's 4000 years....
For more on planning travel to China, contact Stan Godwyn.