This had to be one of my highlights to see the capital, its beautiful sights, to breathe in the culture and enjoy watching the hustle and bustle of the city. It has always been my dream to come to China and see its centuries-long heritage with my own eyes. My dream came true when, after completing a mammoth and exhausting trek of the Great Wall of China we were given a short but very extensive tour of the city. So equipped with a notepad, my trustworthy Iphone camera and an amazing and knowledgeable Chinese guide Michael, I was ready to face the city in front of me.
The first thing that hits you when you arrive in Beijing is the size of everything around you. Starting from the enormous airport, driving down five-lane carriageways, passing the highrise buildings, trying to manouvre through the mad city traffic or elbowing your way through the crowds in the subway. Beijing itself is the size of Belgium and boasts over 20 million people living in the city and its 16 districts. To add to these vital statistics there are around 6 million cars being used in the capital which contributes extensively to the smog and pollution in the city. An interesting fact is that the government have recently introduced a smog reducing initiative where people can’t drive their car one day a week. Not sure this would work in London!
The People of Beijing
It is hard not to notice that people living in the city just get on with their lives without taking much notice what others think or do. Customer service is nearly non existent and people definitely come across as rude. This stems from years of being ruled by one party who thinks and makes decisions for their people.
It is also interesting to watch how different the old and the new generations are. Most of the older people still dress in a communist like uniform of a buttoned jacket and the colours are predominantly dark. On the other hand the younger generation dress more like their western counterparts. Since the opening of the border in 1980 Chinese people could put their hands on all the western goods they had been deprived of for so long. Therefore, brands and latest commodities dominate their lives. They are also more curious and definitely more welcoming to the western tourists often taking selfies with them.
The best way to immerse yourself in the everyday life is to visit the Temple of Heaven Park early in the morning. This is where the older generation meets together and socialises either by playing Chinese chess, exercising using the well equipped park gym and showing off their fitness prowess or doing dance routines to Chinese pop songs. There are also support groups and even ad hoc calligraphy practice areas. There is definitely plenty going on and what a fantastic way to keep fit, follow your hobby and keep in touch or make new friends.
The Temple of Heaven
This is a must-see sight when in Beijing. The temple dates back to 15th century and it dominates the landscape with its bright colours and freshly-restored golden accents gleaming in the sunshine. This used to be one of the temples used by the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors for their annual prayer for good harvest. An interesting fact about this temple is that it was built from wood without the use of any cement or nails.
The name translates as the “Gate to Heavenly Peace” which reflects its position at the entrance to the Forbidden City. The thing that struck me when I first saw it is how much it resembles any other Russian squares that I have seen in my life. As it turns out the two buildings on opposite side of the square were built by the Russians and represent a typical soulless blocks of concrete. The square is the centre of the political life in Beijing. It has a cenotaph and a landmark flagpole where every day a flag is raised at sunrise and lowered down at sunset and is guarded all day by the guards of honour. It is also the place of a mausoleum for Chairman Mao who was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China and who revolutionised Chinese economy and welfare of the people.
The Forbidden City
There is something magical and secretive about the Forbidden City. After crossing the Tienanmen Gate and going through another rigorous security check, another city opens in front of your eyes. It was an emperor’s palace for many centuries which was inaccessible to any other inhabitants of Beijing. In 1911 the last emperor was expelled and the palace was turned into a national museum. The area of the Forbidden City is enormous. It is a rectangle nearly 1 km long and 750 m wide and surrounded by the moat. There is a number of gates, halls and side buildings and it is claimed that there are 9999 rooms in the entire city. The significance of number 9 is important as it was a number reserved only for the emperor who used it to show their power. The architecture of the buildings here is very intricate and full of symbolism to religion and Chinese culture. Nearly all the roofs are yellow which was the emperor’s colour. The roofs also have statues on them guarding the building below and their number would reflect the importance of the building. The main statue was the dragon, followed by beasts and a phoenix. The guarding lion outside the important buildings was another symbol of power. These were always in pairs: a male with its paw over the globe and a female with her paw over a cub. What is interesting is that the lions are not endemic to China but the symbolism was brought to China with Buddhism.
The tour of the Forbidden City ends with the emperor’s gardens where he used to relax. It is a definitely a tranquil place where the harmony of trees, rocks, water and temples is clearly visible.
There is no denying that Beijing and China completely fulfilled my expectations and my dreams. Its history, culture and religion are fascinating to me and I was privileged to see just a tiny bit of real China with my own eyes. Beijing is definitely on the rise. Modern skyscrapers dot the skyline, Japanese cars seem to dominate the roads, designer shops are growing in numbers and the young generation is plugged to their phones and selfie sticks like any other youngster in the west. As far as the older generation goes old habits die hard. For decades they had to toe the line and could not express their opinions so perhaps there is not much that can change for them. I strongly hope though that their old tradition of socialising in the Temple of Heaven Park does not die down with the introduction of new technology.
So for now… goodbye Beijing… It has been a pleasure. Till next time? [wc_fa icon=”smile-o” margin_left=”” margin_right=””][/wc_fa]