China Blog III - Beijing

Since I am one of those travellers who are suckers for authenticity, I was glad to get away from Shanghai and its stifling syntheticness. For example: there was a bar in Shanghai which was recreated to be exactly like an open-air bar in New Orleans. My friends could not believe they were in Shanghai, if it were not for the Chinese waiters. Almost all the clients in the bar were expats with 'escorts' in tow (see previous). In search of a fast buck, Shanghai seems to have sold its soul. Despite the pipe dreams which appear in the Indian media, Bombay is still far from becoming a Shanghai, but it does come close in terms of attitude - "knowing how to grab an opportunity". Beijing offered a taste of real China, but at times felt too officious. It is not surprising that the two cities don't get along. I heard stories of politicians and bureaucrats coming down from Beijing and buying out, or making offers that successful businessmen in Shanghai could not refuse. That has not helped relations between the two cities.

You cannot go to India and not see the Taj Mahal and you cannot go to China and not see the Great Wall.
Great Wall is not great anymore in the sense, that a majority of the Great Wall is in ruins. Except for a few restored stretches, the rest of the wall is highly dangerous and you won't be able to go traipsing too far beyond the posted signs. But, the few restored parts of the wall are about 3-6 miles long and are long enough to ensure that before you depart the grandeur of what-the-Wall-might-have-been is well appreciated. Walking on the wall is no walk in the park. The gradient is often quite steep and even a robust guy like me was soon huffing and puffing up the stone steps. The snaking view of Great Wall has a hypnotic quality of which you will never tire. You can stop at any point on the wall and not fail to get a picture-postcard view in some direction.

If the singularity of the Great Wall is hypnotic then the variety of Tiananmen Square is endlessly fascinating. The Square was the reason I came to Beijing. As you stand in the middle of the massive square, in one direction you see the portrait of 'Big Brother' - Chairman Mao on Tiananmen Gate. In the other direction you look over to his tomb where his preserved body is on display to throngs of people who reverently buy flowers to place on his grave. (These flowers are promptly recycled by attendants to be sold to another batch!) The Square offers a spectrum of characters - soldiers who won't even flinch, beggars, trash pickers deeply interested in your empty water bottles, the usual hawkers of Rolex watches and postcards, art students wanting to practise their English and sell you their paintings, kite flyers, policemen who ask people like me not to take pictures of beggars and the riff-raff and more. Mao's tomb is not open all the time and entry is regulated by batches and you cannot linger much to gawk at his body. Quite ironically, the tour ends in a souvenir shop at the back where every effort is made to sell a piece of Chairman Mao. But, Mao is still far from being commodified like a Che poster. Whether he is revered or feared it was hard to tell. Most Chinese, like our driver, are uncomfortable about discussing Mao, his legacy and the legitimacy of his ideas. It is surprising, how even I could feel him in the air, especially around Tiananmen. And he has been dead for decades.

Biking in Beijing
Today, increased affluence among the Chinese has created an increased preference for cars, so Beijing no longer conforms to the image of hundreds of blue-shirted people on bicycles. Still, it is the most biker-friendly city I have seen and every bicycle I saw in China was fitted with a small basket. It is not hard to see why. People commute extensively by bike. I saw people in suits & nice dress-clothes peacefully peddling to work. Ironic as it may sound, there are very few bike rental places.

Acrobats and Dancing in the Streets: After seeing the fantastic Beijing acrobats in Tangqiao district, I knew that every other acrobat show I will ever see was going to be disappointing. This girl is unbelievable, isn't she? After seeing the most incredible acrobatic feats, we stepped outside to hear music in the Tanqiao square where hundreds of people were dancing to music being piped out of speakers. It wasn't a marriage, or some festival, or a religious occasion. I didn't see the most graceful steps, or much sense to the moves, but clearly there was great joy in these people as they danced for dance's sake. Not in my wildest dreams could I imagine seeing such a sight anywhere and I was really moved.

Despite language problems the Chinese are a really friendly and welcoming lot. Parts of the country, like ours, have benefitted from the opening of doors; in other parts there are reports of revolts among farmers and labour unrest. The fanatic pace of progress is coming at a price which future Chinese will have to pay. Thanks to the
Olympics China is cleaning up its Human Rights Record and also the quality of its public toilets. China is the third largest importer of steel, the largest importer of scrap metal and the world's graveyard for obsolete electronic parts at cost of increasing neglect of the environment. According to Jared Diamond, India and China attempting to reach First World standards of living is simply not ecologically sustainable. All the world's resources will not be able to meet the ecological footprints of 2+ billion people living at consumption levels of the West. Hopefully, the East will find better alternatives to the West.

And yes, internet access to sites is limited. It is true that democracy pages don't load on browsers. (See
The Great Firewall of China). While I was in China, I could not log on to my blogger account.

Pictures of Beijing I and II


Javed said...

great stuff which country is next on your list? i'm guessing it's going to be some African nation... ;)

Hirak said...

More news to relate blogging and China.

CAR said...

superb. Sounds fantastic!

Ashutosh said...

Great account! Also saw some great photos on your web page. China continues to amaze and amuse. How can they balance economic freedom with loss of civil liberties in many circumstances? Won't this contradiction make a crack in the foundation someday?

Saket said...

Nice post again. You ought to get into the travel books busines. ;) Great photos as well. Look forward to your next foreign trip. Avoid the bird flu regions though.

Hirak said...

So far China seems to be walking the tightrope w/o falling over. According to me, it's only a matter of time.
Travel books? I wish! The great thing about writing travel books is that you actually get paid to have fun.
Some people seem to have the greatest jobs - movie critic, food critic...

Anonymous said...

Hey Hirak,
This account of your trip was almost a
recap of an episode of GlobeTrekker that I saw on PBS with host Megan McCormick.
Great notes though!!

Hirak said...

I guess I saw Megan on the DVD version called Destination China. I wish I had the time and the budget to travel to the hinterland.

Anonymous said...

So what was this conference about??