Friday, September 02, 2011

Fri, Sept 2nd-- Beijing

Sightseeing -- Lama Temple and New Summer Palace; travel by "soft sleeper" train to Datong.

Nice dinner in the hotel restaurant last night (including our first Peking Duck... well, I guess it should be called Beijing Duck, but since they don't, I won't either). First stop this morning: the Lama Temple. Totally different aesthetic -- Tibetan Buddhism -- buddhas and bodhisattvas everywhere, clouds of incense, and an active community of believers.

Subtle political messages here and there -- chairs from which the two spiritual leaders of Tibetan Buddhism lectured when they were in Peking in the 1950s, on the Panchen's a picture of the then Panchen Lama, on the Dalai's... nothing. More chairs around the Panchen's than the Dalai Lama's. The state is atheist, so perhaps one shouldn't read too much into the fact that the Lama temple is set up as a tourist attraction with tickets, but do they also charge a fee at the Christian cathedral? I suspect not. And I also suspect that the prominently displayed Guinness Book of Records plaque, which attests that the 18 meter high Buddha carved from a single sandalwood tree is the largest in the world, has a second message -- namely that this is a curiosity, not a vital spiritual community that elsewhere does double duty as the keeper of the flame for Tibetan's dreams of independence.

Politics aside, religions are hermetic things, aren't they? Buddha after Buddha... but why? And what are the differences? And which differences matter, which are just superficial choices of the sculptor? Just as with saints in a Catholic Church, if you don't know a great deal, your eyes quickly glaze over. Or you could have a good guide, I guess... and with that, on to the Summer Palace!

Which was... more of the same. As in strikingly similar to almost everything (except the Lama temple) that we had seen. Same architecture, same sculptures, even the same half-dozen types of trees -- although here with a particular emphasis on Junipers, which symbolize long life and which were apparently a fetish of the later Qing dynasty rulers. Once again no access to the interiors, and so only those paintings, pottery, and furniture visible through small windows of darkened rooms. No details! Makes one wonder what is going on, in a couple of ways.

Let's start with the simplest: why all the same? Probably because Chinese Imperial culture was more or less static for a long, long time. Change was bad, generally associated with mega-deaths, stasis was good. Hence the omnipresent emphasis on Peace and Harmony. Ever more rigid ritual, ever more limited artistic palette. And thus, for the tourist, after a while ever more aesthetically boring.

More difficult: why no access to the interiors? Has the ascendancy of the masses been accompanied by a total loss of aesthetic sense and interest in details? Or maybe that's irrelevant and the point is that the masses shouldn't be interested in aesthetic details because that would be elitist? Is the point of being able to physically walk around these places, from the perspective of the Party, simply and wholly to make the political statement that the Empire, and all it held holy, is dead? Or are they just not interested in spending more on the upkeep of these relics beyond the minimum necessary? Intriguing... but for the tourist, frustrating. Bottom line, I wasn't upset to leave Beijing after two and a half days of sightseeing.

We've remarked to one another all along that Beijing has seemed emptier than we would have expected... the traffic is bad, but there aren't many people on the streets or in the stores or visiting the sights (although the last is easier to explain -- it costs money to get in, after all). Well, we thought that we might see more of the fabled masses at the Beijing West train station (one of four around the city), and there were a fair number of people... but less than I saw often at the Gare du Nord in Paris, or even Munich Hauptbahnhof at rush hour. Now, it was 3 in the afternoon, so a bit early for rush hour, but it was Friday, and anyway, there are 20 million inhabitants! Simple truth is probably that there may be 20 million, but there aren't that many who can afford to travel very often via long-distance train. Still don't know where they all are though.

The countryside on the train journey was interesting. At first (after getting out of Greater Beijing) a long section through mountains and along river gorges -- very scenic -- and then out into an area that reminded me of Romania in the first years after the fall of Ceaucescu -- a combination of industrial grime and ugly, apparently impoverished, poorly built and poorly maintained villages and towns. Different was the intensive agriculture -- corn planted into the last corners of small plots, terraced near-vertical hillsides... at times it seemed as if everywhere that could be made flat had been made flat and had something growing on it. The life and energy of Beijing was totally absent. Not a surprise, but striking nevertheless.

And now the sun has fallen and everything outside is black. Perhaps we are in tunnel? Perhaps this part of China is uninhabited? Or perhaps when the sun goes to sleep the Chinese countryside does too... just as it has done for thousands and thousands of years. We'll get to Datong around 9:30PM, where with luck our new guide will meet us at the train. With even more luck they'll be better than our previous one. And tomorrow the Yunyang grottoes with massive buddhas and the Hanging Monastery of Hang Shen (names might be wrong -- I'm relying on memory here)....

Thu,Sept 1st--North of Beijing

Second day of sightseeing... Ming Tombs and Great Wall.

8:30 departure today (yawn... we still aren't over jetlag).  Driving north out of the city I noticed that the southbound lanes of the main highway we were on were almost empty of traffic, with police at each exit blocking entry. They were probably keeping the road free for the official cavalcade with the President of the Philippines who is here on a visit.  I know other countries do similar things... but it seemed as if the Chinese police cleared the road a long time in advance (producing massive traffic jams on the parallel roads).  Not behaviour I've ever appreciated elsewhere... and although we weren't inconvenienced, I didn't appreciate it here either.  Politicians should be discouraged from adopting Imperial habits....

Later a sudden storm of beeping, we swerve to the side, and a sedan with white number plates surges through the traffic.  Military.  Apparently they ignore most traffic regulations and although not outfitted with sirens they behave as if they were.  I commented that it probably wasn't the best way to ensure popular support for the institution.  I think the muffled response was agreement....

North of the Beijing plain mountains rise abruptly, and, since it had rained fiercely in the night, (Lidia says... I was asleep) the sky and air were clear so we could see them well.  Beautiful and very rugged.  First we went to the Ming Sacred Way, the local equivalent of the Egyptian Valley of the Kings, which was peaceful but for me not very interesting -- a dozen or so pairs of life-size statues (four of which were human forms, so maybe I was too quick to draw the parallels with Islam) on either side of the walkway.  

After we went to one of the tombs -- Dingling.  Very interesting!  For one thing, I find it amazing that the tomb had not been robbed in the 400+ years since it was closed.  Of course, Imperial rule was in place for most of that time, but I bet that in Egypt a 30 year break would have resulted in the place being stripped.  Ancestor worship?  Residual respect for the emperor?  Superstitious fear of the dead?  I don't know (and as expected our guide couldn't enlighten me).  But interesting.

Next interesting thing:  large scale (of course) beautiful marble stonework in the underground rooms, but then wooden tombs for the bodies, and wooden boxes for goods and bullion (gold and silver) for use in the afterlife.  All had rotted away by the time they were found.  Did they reckon the dead weren't going to be in the boxes for more than a few days?  Did they want the bodies to rot quickly?  Did they think they wouldn't rot if they were underground?  Don't know, but the contrast between the tomb itself and the inside packaging was intriguing.

By the way, they found all three coffins (of the Emperor and his two wives) in the same room, although by all appearances a separate room had been prepared for each coffin.  Last minute change of plans?  Immediate lack of interest in yesterday's emperor?  Corrupt and lazy underlings?  Would have been nice to have had a truly competent guide.

Lastly, while digging apparently the archaeologists found a tablet giving exact directions to the entrance to the tomb (x meters in, y meters down).  Left for the benefit of future grave-robbers?  Or sublimely confident that there would be none, and instead left in case anyone wanted to add (or subtract?) more coffins or grave goods later?  Again, the contrast to Egypt is stark -- where the Pharaohs went to great lengths to hide the locations of their graves, with false shafts, dummy tombs, and so on.

After a good lunch (we've eaten very well so far) we went to the Great Wall at Badaling.  It will probably come as no surprise to hear that we found it VERY IMPRESSIVE.  The countryside is so rugged, and the wall winds and turns its way along the tops of ridges -- at times taking 1000 meters to go 100 meters as the crow flies.  Beautiful stonework, tall and strong.  Lots of people, mostly Chinese:  apparently Mao was here, and commented after climbing up to a tower along the wall that no man can call himself a hero who has not climbed the Great Wall... so of course all the Chinese want to do what Mao did so they can call themselves heroes.  The other direction along the Wall was deserted.  However, not being immune to challenges ourselves, we did the same, hiking about an hour along the at times very steep top of the Wall, surrounded by Chinese (mostly), of all ages and dress (yes, including high heels on occasion) and degrees of fitness, to the highpoint Mao visited.  A great experience... highly recommended.

And now dinner awaits....

Weds,Aug 31st--Beijing

First day of sightseeing... Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Government Silk Shop, Kungfu show.

Did I mention that Beijing is hot? And humid, which makes hot VERY hot. It was like walking around in a steam bath today. And how about big? Did I say that Beijing is big? Well one reason is because it has really big things in it... such as the first three sights above. Way bigger than it feels like they need to be. I mean, they say that Tiananmen can hold a million people (which feels like an underestimate), and that it was expanded from the old square that "only" held 250,000... but who needs a million people in one place at a time? Especially in China where there is always a concern that the masses might decide that those who speak for the masses should no longer do so?

And that reminds me of something else -- apparently one of the sites that is blocked by China is this blogsite... so a) I can't check these posts after I post them, and b) I don't even know if they are making it to the blog! I might be all alone out here, talking to myself....

Back to Beijing. What else to say about Tiananmen? Squads of young soldiers marching across it to unclear destinations. Young women cadres with megaphones telling people where to line up in order to see Chairman Mao's Mausoleum. X-ray scan of bags when entering. Fairly aggressive hawkers. A fair number of people but far from crowded. With two huge new (80m long) widescreens showing Chinese landscapes. Flanked by the aforementioned Mausoleum, the Hall of the People (parliament where they meet once a year for two weeks, according to our guide about whom more later), and the National Historical Museum, both of the latter executed in fine Soviet Neoclassical style (I didn't look back to Mao to see what his place looked like). In short monumental and monumentally unattractive. If not for the Forbidden City complex on its north side, it would have been on balance disappointing.

But the Forbidden City, now THAT is interesting. Monumental, of course, way too big for a palace (even for the Emperor of China), but aesthetically interesting, and at times even beautiful. Massive courtyard after massive courtyard, massive building after massive building (at least along the main axis), all named some exhortatory variant of Harmony. Interesting that this predisposition to exhortation seems to be a cultural constant -- just as prevalent in the times of the Emperors as it is today.

Interesting also to read forty word English translations of four Chinese characters (suggesting either that character to meaning mapping is much more fluid than word to meaning, or that the translators wanted to make sure that the "right" meaning was understood, or, more likely both).

Interesting also that the signs in English were all marked as sponsored by American Express... highly suggestive that the Chinese government is more than a little ambivalent about one of its greatest pieces of cultural heritage (consider: it is unthinkable that English signs in Mao's Mausoleum would have been allowed to have been sponsored by AMEX!). This conclusion is only confirmed when one wanders off the beaten track of the central axis and finds meter-high weeds growing on roofs and in between paving stones.... Or when one peeks into the largely unlit interiors of the main buildings and sees peeling paint and barren spaces (with only a couple of exceptions)....

Interesting also how the Emperor seems to have been a prisoner of his court and established ritual... along the same lines as the Japanese emperors during the time of the Shogunate (most of the exhortations were addressed to the emperor!).

And I could go on but you get the point: interesting!

Not, however, that we learned much that was interesting from our guide. She is very nice, even charming, helpful, friendly, about 28, studied politics then English... who parroted party talking points as regards the modern Tiananmen buildings, then either didn't know or got wrong various points about imperial times, and had an annoying habit of repeating the things she did know. I don't think it was an act... I think she is fairly typical of modern young Chinese (at least based upon the limited reading I have done): näive and rather uninterested in history. Oh well, at least I'm doing better with her accent than I was on the first day.

Wow, this is getting long. So many impressions from this day and I've got to get some sleep before our Great Wall trip tomorrow. Guess I'll leave the rest until later...

...and it is now later.

The Temple of Heaven was... wait for it... huge. 260+ hectares of grounds, several monumental temple complexes (although of simple plan, so not complex, if you know what I mean). We liked each of the three main ones, and in particular the spectacular Temple of Heaven itself. Once again the inside of the building was poorly lit (and inaccessible -- you could only peek in from the door), but the state of repair seemed better. One interesting point -- the representations of the gods were non-representational tablets with a a few characters upon them. And when I stop to think, there were no human statues anywhere in either the Forbidden City or the Temple of Heaven. That coupled with the emphasis on writing as art makes me wonder how much influence Islam has had on Chinese culture... or vice versa? Certainly the riot of bodies one associates with Indian art has no counterpart in Chinese architecture or art from the Ming and Qing dynasties, which is all we have seen so far.

On to the Government-run silk shop. Lovely stuff but even if you hadn't known it was government-run you would have guessed: massively overstaffed, employees standing or sitting around, sometimes sleeping, when they weren't engaged with a visitor, marble walls and crumbling floors, and big portraits of Jiang Zemin with one foreign potentate after another -- Jiang always in red, the foreigner in blue (I wonder if blue is associated with clowns or barbarians? At any rate Jiang always looks as if he is on the verge of breaking out laughing...). We bought a couple of nice light silk summer coverlets, which we will now proceed to schlepp with us all over China :-).

The Kungfu show was impressive, with some acrobatic and strength moves I had never seen before (such as headsprings -- like handsprings but you do it on your head -- and supporting yourself on a spearpoint set at your navel, or three spearpoints at throat and thighs).

And thus ended the first, very full, day.

Tue, Aug 30th -- Beijing

Arrived around 11AM after an 8 hour overnight flight with Lufthansa from Munich. Business Class, thank goodness, but still tiring because unlike on British Air the seats do not recline fully to horizontal. I'm aware, however, of our good fortune that we weren't in Economy!

Beijing airport is immense... and pretty empty. Still growing into it, I assume. Border control uneventful, customs minimal, and our tour guide met us at the exit. Anna seems to be around 30, pleasant, but a fairly strong Chinese accent, which I was having difficulty with yesterday. Hope only because I was tired. She comes from near Harbin in the north... which apparently now has a population of 16 million! First of many such size-related shocks, I expect.

The drive in was uneventful. A fair amount of traffic on the main arteries, but the rest of the roads seemed surprisingly quiet. Beijing is surrounded by 6 concentric ringroads... number six being outside the airport... an hour's drive from the city center! But with a population of 20 million, I guess this isn't excessive (urk... 20 million!).

First impression of Beijing: very smoggy. Coupled with the tinted windows of our car, I couldn't see that much when driving in. Lots of big buildings, of course, but honestly it felt as if we could have been in the US. Same impression in the hotel (a very nice Crowne Plaza about 1km from Tiananmen).

Lidia and Madi went off to see the Olympic buildings, I went to sleep. In the late afternoon they came back and went to sleep (I read the guidebook), and then in the evening Lidia and I had a very nice Chinese dinner in the hotel restaurant before going for a walk around the neighborhood (Madi continued to sleep). From which you can deduce the relative vitalities of the members of our family!

We are on one of the main shopping thoroughfares of Beijing... western brands and advertizing everywhere. Even the Chinese brands advertize with Western models and text. Perhaps not too surprising given that the West has been focussed on consumer marketing and luxuries for 50 years or more while China has been doing the opposite.

First impressions of the Chinese? Well, from their appearance, if you don't look at their faces you wouldn't know that you weren't in the West. Clothing pretty much identical. But then you look at how they behave and differences start to appear. They are calmer, it seems to me, more easy going about things. Cars intermingle with bikes and pedestrians with little fuss, people drive and ride and walk a little more slowly.

We walked by the cathedral (set back, understated, and overwhelmed by the huge commercial buildings around it), in front of which there was an open area full of people doing a half-speed local equivalent of the macarena... about 500 I'd say. An hour later they were still there. Vacant looks, of all ages... modern Tai-Chi?

We walked by a long open street-food market. Among the more bizarre dishes: dogmeat stew, fried silkworms, snake on a stick, centipedes... they really do seem to eat everything!

Fewer people around than I expected... felt much more empty than the typical big city in Europe. And very few people in the stores. Significant? Don't know yet... I'll watch and think some more before drawing any conclusions about China's consumer economy or lack thereof.

Back to bed now for a couple more hours of sleep... lots of sightseeing on the schedule for tomorrow!