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)....