My final destination in China is Beijing. From there, I will fly home, completing my journey around the world.
I fly from Harbin to Beijing and my airport pick-ups and flight are smooth and painless. The rode to the airport in Harbin leaves me even less impressed with the area, however – miles and miles of hideous apartment buildings on a flat plain. I suppose I will have to come back to see the fabled beauty of Manchuria.
Beijing is a city of 22 million people. Twenty-two million. This is the largest city I have ever seen and I see only a tiny portion of it during my three-day stay. As we drive to my hotel (it takes about an hour) the sheer immensity of some of the skyscrapers is overwhelming. Modern architecture doesn’t generally impress me to the point of awe but I have to say that the buildings in Beijing really push the envelope. There are huge glass and steel structures, interesting shapes, aerial walkways, and looming towers. The people walking by them appear tiny in comparison. Is that the point? We are all just ants in the never-ending drive to build more, build bigger, build, build, build… It is already dark at 5 p.m. but many of the buildings are lit, not only from within but with multi-colored lights outside – on archways, hanging over the roads, and along the walkways.
My hotel is near the Forbidden City, which I have longed to see since I first heard the name as a child. How can one not want to see a forbidden city? I realize that I will see very little given the limited amount of time that I have and one of my must-dos is to go to the Great Wall. If one takes into account my ancient Mongol ancestors, this wall too figures into the family history as the Mongols invaded China in the 13th century.
The next day, I head for the Forbidden City. My first impression of Beijing is that everything is very clean. This area is also right near Tiananmen Square which has become a tourist draw on its own (whether the authorities like that or not). As in Harbin, there are police everywhere. I turn into a side street and am approached by a young man. As in Harbin, I don’t “blend” and am a target for salesmen although this guy tries a more subtle initial approach. He chats me up, says he is an art student who will soon be going to Berkeley, and is selling his work to finance his trip. Would I like to see it? As the gallery where his work is showing is a few steps away, I agree. I know nothing about Chinese art but the painted silk scrolls he shows me really are beautiful. Included in the viewing is a short lecture about Confucius. In fact, I actually think about buying one of the paintings and offer to come back after I have viewed the Forbidden City. The young man morphs into a used car salesman and insists that if I don’t buy now, it will be too late. The gallery is open only until noon, etc., etc., etc. I dislike this approach and leave. (When I walk down this street again later the same day, another young man, using the exact same approach, tries to get me to buy his paintings. Out of curiosity, I accompany him to his gallery, right across the street, where exactly the same paintings hang. I also dislike the blatant “let’s fool the stupid foreigner” approach and again leave without buying anything).
As I finally find what looks like the entrance to the Forbidden City, a woman approaches me and asks if I need a tour guide. She quotes a price which doesn’t seem unreasonable and I agree. Though it later turns out that her job is to bring me to a special shop deep within the Forbidden City where antiques are sold to wealthy foreigners, it turns out to be worth it because she is able to avoid standing in the very long ticket line to get in to the City and guides me around the bag screening line.
The Forbidden City was renovated in time for the Olympics, and, indeed, everything looks pristine. I do learn things that I hadn’t known before from my guide – like the fact that the sculptures of two lions that are placed in front o f buildings are always of one male (symbolizing power) and one female (symbolizing fertility). The male is always on the left, when looking from the south, and the female, on the right, has her paw on a lion cub. The enormous crowds make it difficult to contemplate the history of the place. This is nothing unusual of course. I was highly disappointed when I visited Stonehenge in England – the entire area is roped off and visitors have to circle around it. It is at times like these that I do wish I had been born just a tad earlier – visiting these monuments from the past would have been much more interesting when crowd control and metal detectors were unknown.
Afterwards, I am taken by my guide to see the garden of the “playboy” emperor (one who had numerous concubines apparently). This is a separate fee. As we stroll through the lovely gardens, we chance upon the antique shop and, wonder of wonders, I also have the opportunity to watch the cousin or nephew of the “The Last Emperor” Pu Yi (of Manchukuo) demonstrating calligraphy for an audience. For a mere 1200 yuan, he will paint a character especially for me. Luckily there is a group ahead of me who can’t wait to part with their money so I am able to wiggle out of this with a minimum of hassle though I realize I am a great disappointment to my guide.
My next stop is the Temple of Heaven. Again, how can you not want to see a place with a name like that? Walking in Beijing is easier than Harbin. People actually obey traffic laws. Like Harbin, however, there are construction projects everywhere. it turns out that my map is not to scale, and I start to wonder if I will ever reach the blessed Temple. As I stop on a corner to get my bearings, an elderly fellow driving a bicycle rickshaw sees me and beckons me to get on. There are many of these fellows around and they were parked outside the hotel when I left, clamoring for customers. For a number of reasons, I have no desire to ride around in one of these conveyances but the fellow seems desperate and when I show him where I want to go, he nods vigorously, motioning me to get on. What can I do? As it turns out, I am only a few blocks short of my destination and this is a good thing. I have a couple of heart-stopping moments, as we are weaving in and out of traffic – there are no special bicycle rickshaw lanes. Once we arrive, I give him double what he asked for to make up for all the work and hope he is gone by the time I come out because I have no intention of getting into one of these again.
The Temple of Heaven is located in a beautiful park-like area. According to tourist literature, it is considered the “supreme achievement” of Chinese architecture. For many years, all of these ancient buildings were neglected in China. Now, there is a new effort to honor China’s (pre-Communist) past. Similar to Russia, the younger generation was cut off from the true history of the nation and are now coming to look at the relics of a time with which they have no connection. In Russia, at least, there is now an openness about the pre-Revolutionary period that lets people judge for themselves to a certain extent (mostly due to the Internet). Here, the government still controls everything and the main point seems to be to make money off of everything. They are no doubt sinking a lot of money into these historical sites because it all looks beautiful but the non-stop hawking of souvenirs starts to get to me. Of course, since I am one of the very few non-Chinese people, I get a lot of attention from sales people but this is not the kind of attention I desire.
The Great Wall
The next day, I take a tour of the Great Wall. The first stop is the Ming Tombs. I congratulate myself once more for coming in the fall since in summertime it is probably impossible to see anything. At one point, our bus is stuck in a traffic jam – we don’t move at all for about 20 minutes. There are 13 emperors buried in the Ming Tombs. The entire complex is huge and is situated at the foot of the Jundu Mountains, about 30 miles outside of Beijing. One could spend an entire day here but we have only an hour or two. I don’t understand why we have so little time since the Great Wall (the part that we will visit) is not that far away but I have not taken into account either the tour of the Jade Factory which includes an immense retail store selling every type of jade object imaginable to man, or the stop at a Traditional Chinese Medicine complex where we are invited to have a doctor examine us (in front of the rest of the group), diagnose our problem, and prescribe a cure. I decline the latter but do break down and by two jade bracelets. I have been stalwart up to this point about not buying anything but the beautiful jade does me in.
The drive to the Great Wall is interesting in itself as the topography here is very beautiful. And the Great Wall is, in fact, pretty great. To get to it, one has to ride in an aerial tramway. I notice that the Panda craze, which I vaguely recall when one or another Panda was being born in the zoo in the U.S., has not ended here. Grown women wear Panda hats. These are available for sale here along with any other kitschy item one might desire.
I walk along the wall as far as I can. I find I am always drawn to structures built of stone, especially if they are very old. I like the feel of the stone. Construction on the Great Wall started in the 5th Century BC and, although I am sure this section is much newer, it is still exciting to me that it has been standing here for hundreds and hundreds of years. I try to climb up a section of the wall that stretches up one side of the mountain but I find it so crowded that I get uncomfortable. This section is so steep that it reminds me of nightmares I had as a child in which I would try to climb a steep hill and not be able to keep my footing. I give up about halfway up.
And Back Again
I fly directly to San Francisco and my homecoming is not auspicious. I remember a time when U.S. immigration officers would say things like “welcome home” when they saw that you have been traveling for a while. Not anymore. The immigration official who views my passport is outraged that I am holding a Blackberry and orders me to “put it away” as if he is speaking to a recalcitrant child. I don’t bother trying to explain that I was checking the airporter schedule while standing in line (for quite some time), and was summoned to his desk unexpectedly. It is obvious that he revels in his authority and if he hadn’t spotted the Blackberry, he would have found another way to exhibit his power. He enjoys the incident too much. He then proceeds to ask me a lot of questions about my trip. I find this intrusive and abusive since I don’t know if he is just idly curious or if there is an official reason for any of this. The questions appear irrelevant in terms of security – he asks what I write about and whether I write a blog (he doesn’t use the world “blog” but asks if I write about my experiences online). Since I consider him an officious moron, I don’t particularly want to chat with him but I don’t want to end up on the do-not-fly list either. In view of my lengthy stay in suspect countries, he marks my customs form in red (meaning I will be searched) and hands it to me with an unpleasant leer. He and his colleagues in China have a lot in common.
The fun doesn’t stop there. As I wait to go through customs with a growing crowd of arriving passengers, the customs officer at the exit point has some kind of a nervous breakdown and begins yelling at the confused group to “Back up!” His hysteria is unwarranted since no one is doing anything out of the ordinary – we all just want to get out of there. At the customs checkpoint, an extremely youthful looking officer summons me over in the same tone one would call a not-very-beloved dog (“come here!”). I come to the conclusion that training of customers officers doesn’t include topics like manners and how to properly address people who are 1) paying your salary, and 2) old enough to be your mother. My bags are thoroughly searched and a box of Chinese moon cakes therein inspected with a microscope to make sure that no hazardous materials are included. Another young fellow who is looking at my customs form (in which I declared the moon cakes) says to his colleague, “I’ve seen Russia and China written down before, but not this Ukraine” in a tone that indicates his doubt that it is, in fact, an actual country. Welcome to the United States.