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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Beijing, day one

Our first full day in Beijing started at Tiananmen Square. We used a travel agency that supplied us with a guide and driver, and they picked us up at the hotel. Cindy, our guide for Beijing, brought us to the square, where we immediately got a taste of what our China visit would be like: the square was filled with people, hoards of people, all Chinese, all wearing matching hats in large tour groups, all lined up to visit Mao's body. Right away we saw how important Mao still is (or ought to be!) and also how many of the tourists we'd see would be Chinese. In fact, the only place we saw some non-Chinese tourists was at the Great Wall, because the section we visited wasn't open to large tours, and the Chinese people tend to travel with large tour groups. 

Big decorations from National Day were still up in the square.
Mao's huge portrait

Right across from Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City: what a treasurer of architecture and opulence! 

Yet so little is clearly set forth in any language. There are no labels, signage, or descriptions. Luckily we had a tour guide, but sometimes her history was hazy if we asked a question off-script. I would have loved better lighting or access to the interiors, but my overall impression was as intended: here was a ruler with wealth, power, and favor of the gods. If you go, I would definitely recommend reading up on the area first: I hadn't, and was relying on years-old memory to understand the palace. 

Following our visit to the Forbidden City, we climbed to the top of Jingxian Park to experience the incredible views of the Forbidden City and Beijing. We were blessed with an unusually clear, smog-free sky and the views were stunning. Beijing is enormous and sprawls miles and miles farther than it ought to; ring road after ring road create six concentric circles. Traffic intensifies within each ring as you near the city's center. 

Our afternoon included a hutong tour and a visit to a local family's home. Our guide made a big deal of this visit: we would see a section of the hutong (the small, winding, residential streets iconic to China) preserved as  it was originally designed: a courtyard with four surrounding buildings. Most, if not all, other such structures have been divided into small rooms that house individuals or families. These rooms have no plumbing or heat, and renters have to use public toilets and showers down the block. A wealthy businessman from Hong Kong bought this particular block several decades ago and his family still lives there. The choice of this tour seemed strange to me, because normally such tours look at how an average family lives. This one, however, was obviously the wealthiest dweller in the entire hutong. But like much of Beijing, his courtyard was filthy, heaped with trash, broken furniture, and refuse. His four little dogs rooted in kitchen garbage and fought over a dead bird. Time and again, we were surprised by the dirty streets, buildings, and homes in Beijing. Touristy shopping areas were kept clean by government workers, but other streets were unbelievably dirty. And I say that coming from New Orleans, which isn't exactly spotless. 

I ran the first, and every, morning in Beijing. I love getting out to see a new city that way: watching the workers heading to their jobs, seeing the compact city garbage trucks picking up trash, glimpsing the (very) occasional local runner out, too. 

Some things about the culture really surprised me. For one thing, although English is a mandatory language in school, very few people in Beijing spoke English. This struck me as odd, because it is such a cosmopolitan city and many street signs are in English. However, while we saw many tourists, most were Chinese nationals. Very few were English-speakers. Perhaps that is why we found few people in Beijing who spoke English. 
I was also struck by the unusual child policy. Of course, China has had a one-child policy for decades. Many economist predicted that the birth rate would be so low that china would have difficulty sustaining its economy and supporting its elders with such a smaller new generation. Sure enough, a few years ago China began allowing a second child. But what I didn't consider is that this will lead to a housing crisis. Much of the housing in Beijing was built recently, and most are one or two bedroom apartments. These apartments are already crowded, because since each household only had one child, that one child must bear the burden of caring for elderly parents. So some household may have both sets of grandparents, my mom and dad, and a child in a very small apartment. Add in a second child, and there are a few apartments large enough to accommodate a family of this size. 

The traffic and smog were every bit as bad as people describe them. Even when we were there on a clear day, my eyes and throat burned. On smoggy days, the sky was a hazy yellow. Traffic is intense and kind of a free for all, and our driver drove just as crazily as everyone else!

We had lunch at a restaurant our guide recommended. She ordered for us, as the menu was in Chinese, and while the food was good, it was far too much! This was a pattern throughout the trip: whenever our guides ordered, we had too much to eat, and ended up skipping dinner.

We wrapped up day one early, which was good since we were still jet-lagged! And the next day was a big day: The Great Wall.


  1. I know very little about China. We didn't learn much about it in school and I did not take it upon myself to learn about their culture on my own. I would struggle with the air pollution over there. We are lucky to have clean air where I live and in most parts of the U.S. I never thought about the housing issues. I do know it has made mating difficult because some families would only keep sons so there are way more men than women in that country. Very sad.

  2. Enjoy your trip! I would definitely try and hunt down an up to date guidebook and some histories. I just read Peter Hessler's Country Driving, and his other writings on China are excellent too.

    For Western visitors, China can definitely be overwhelming and exhausting on all levels, whether you're in a big city (and even 'small' cities are huge by US standards) or in more rural areas. If you visit Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Taiwan, you'll find there's nothing peculiarly East Asian about the culture and habits of mainland China (disregard for others/ public spaces, pushing and shoving, every man for himself). My sense is that these are part of a communist hangover and the growing pains of a country transitioning from a rural, agricultural-based economy to an industrial one, just like 1920s US!

  3. The history is these old, old countries is amazing! I went to Vietnam and Korea last year and it was incredible the history that they had there. So many palaces that are crazy intricate.

    Very interesting about the housing and the housing crunch from the birth laws - especially since they do place emphasis on caring for your elders (unlike we do, which is sad). I agree that it would have been better to see an average family vs a wealthy family to get a better idea of what life is really like there.