Beijing: A City of Contrasts
Today was a study in contrasts. To list just a few:
- Ancient history at the Forbidden City vs. a visit to the contemporary 2008 Olympic site;
- Massive crowds of people pressing into sites intended for peace and serenity;
- Tasty meals vs. a market featuring scorpions, snakes and worms; and
- Cool blue skies vs. a haze of pollution.
We started it all under the watchful gaze of Chairman Mao at the infamous Tiananmen Square (Tian’an Men). The Square was more modern than I expected and surrounded with large, impressive buildings. Two huge electronic video screens were playing in the middle of the Square, and the guards kept watch over the nation’s flag. No one seems to mind having their picture taken these days, including the military. The crowds were tremendous, apparently due to the fact Mao’s body was on view today. He has not been on display much recently due to some “facility” repairs. That, combined with the nice weather, made for lots of togetherness with what we estimated to be several hundred thousand comrades over the course of the three hours we were in the area.
BTW, the streets are very clean here; there is very little graffiti, no sirens and in spite of the crowds and crazy traffic you do have a sense of order.
From Tiananmen, we walked through the underground tunnel that took us across the street to the Forbidden City, or as it is known here, the Palace Museum. It is impossible to imagine how large it is but when you understand there are almost 10,000 rooms, and during the Ming dynasty 100,000 eunuchs lived here to serve the Emperor’s family and concubines (24 Emperors over the 500 year period). Completed in 1420, the complex is constantly undergoing necessary restoration, and you can see scaffolding and work-in-progress throughout. We traveled through several courtyards, including those that were used for soldiers, to reach the Halls of Middle Harmony and Supreme Harmony; the Palaces of Heavenly Purity and Earthly Tranquility and finally, the Imperial Gardens. We did not see all 9,900+ rooms. We did visit the Palace of Eternal Spring in the Western section, where the imperial concubines lived. The décor here is original, and yet to be restored, but is beautifully elegant. There are so many halls, gates and palaces, it is actually quite confusing. But we got the gist – it’s big, imposing and built to demand reverence.
I wasn’t too concerned about which part I was in, since every part had such beautiful features, such as carvings, trompe-l’oeil paintings, glazed relief art, intricate tiles, dragons, and various roof guardians. It would have been heavenly if I could have banished the throngs and been able to take photos without someone walking in front of the camera every half second. I could spend much more time wandering around just enjoying the wonderful workmanship.
During our time at the Palace, the haze moved in, masking some of the Garden’s color and beauty. Although the Gardens were pretty, they seemed cramped by comparison to the interior and were so crowded it was impossible to experience them as intended.
During lunch the winds kicked up, and our blue sky returned in time for our afternoon visit to the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics. We went inside the iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium and saw the swimming Cube, torch and other facilities used for the games. The expansive plaza outside the stadium was busy with other visitors, families and vendors. It was a lively, festive setting.
Tonight we visited the downtown Wangfujing Night Market, open from 5-9:30 pm daily, with a long block of various food vendors hawking their products. Crowds of locals were partaking. We spent enough time there looking at each booth to effectively minimize any appetite for dinner we might have had. I actually think the smells were really much worse than the sights – I shouldn’t have lingered quite so long or gotten so close taking pictures. In addition to the normal items such as squid, prawns, crab, dumplings of all sorts, fruit, fish, and noodles, there were the less appetizing snakes (skin on or off), worms, various organs, what I think were pigeons, sea serpents, beetles, large or small scorpions, starfish, sea urchins, and baby sharks, and last but not least, the items we couldn’t figure out. I always thought those pictures on the internet were made up or a joke, and when I did hear about this market I thought it might be for tourists, but it’s for real; it was 99% a local crowd and very loud and lively. Add it to your to do list for any first time visit to Beijing.
We ended up leaving the restaurant for which we had a reservation when told it was only a pre-fix tasting menu (with not one appealing item), and instead, enjoyed a light dinner of fried rice with a spicy broth and dumplings in the Wangfujing Dajie area. There are scads of restaurants in the same (6-story) building as the large Apple computer store. Our return to the local Haagen Dazs ended up costing more than our dinner.
Tip for the day: don’t look at raw snakes, worms and scorpions before dinner (maybe not after either).