Sunday, July 19, 2009

Day One - Mao Now

Day 2 Beijing – Mao Now
We meet for breakfast around 730 in the hotel lobby – food is a mix of continental breakfast and “Muslim” items, including eggs, greasy bacon, some fruit and breads, a few local dishes like fried rice and steamed veg. I try to keep it simple for day one as I'm not sure how my stomach will react the first day after a long plane ride. I'm tired but excited, a little stuffy headed.

We take a short bus ride to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. We pass run down areas near the hotel, with roofs that are practically collapsing after years of neglect. Men are huddled on the sidewalk playing Mahjong and smoking cigarettes. Everything is somewhat dirty, but not gross – it just feels like we have travelled back in time. Arriving at the square, things are much different – modern, clean and bustling. The square itself is huge, stretching on for several city blocks, flanked by parliament and other official buildings.

There is a line at least a block long stretching around Mao's tomb, waiting to go in and pay respects. Simon tells us that the line is short today, and that often time it will stretch around the building several times. Mao is still very well respected, but it has been stated that the Chinese now acknowledge that he did do a few bad things. The saying is Mao did 70% right, 30% wrong.

In the square, we are accosted by vendors hawking fake Rolexes, fans, umbrellas and souvenirs. They will literally block your path and follow you around. Surprisingly few beggars, just hawkers. The group from South Carolina is a very exciting site for the locals – it is rare for African American's to be seen in China and many people ask for photos or stare. They do not seem animus in any way, just curious and excited to tell their friends.

The ladies in the square are all decked out in cute dresses with heels and all have parasols to protect from the sun. I'm struck by how fashion conscious the culture is, especially with the limited funds that many people have in China.

We arrive at the Heavenly Gate – it's huge and looks exactly like the photos but is somehow less impressive. With all the tourists around snapping photos and eating ice cream it just loses that sense of power and control. We cross the moat, which smells like sewage and dead fish, into the Forbidden City. Simon explains some of the symbolism of the decoration and tells us about Feng Shui and Yin / Yang.

Yin and Yang are the heaven and the earth, the even and the odd, the black and the white, the man and the women. The Forbidden City consists of 8700 rooms. If one were to spend 1 night in each room it would take more than 27 years. It was built in the 1200's (?) and housed the Emperor and about 100 of his concubines and children. We are told that #9 is the luckiest number and that multiples of nine are used through the structure, as in 45 buildings or 45 dragons to symbolize importance. The tour ends in a nice quiet garden. I am too thirsty to truly enjoy it, instead opting to sit in the shade.

We take the bus to lunch, and I am unimpressed by the clearly “Americanized” food. Nearly everything in the buffet was fried or sautéed in heavy oil and very little was offered in terms of nourishment. Nearly everyone on the tour heads for the gelato after, probably the most popular item (I skipped).

Next door is the pearl shop. We are greeted by Rainbow, who talks to us about the differences between fresh and salt water pearls. Fresh water oysters yield more pearls, up to 30 each. She tells us that were you to eat the fresh water oyster and have a beer you will “go to the bathroom many, many times.” David also earns the nickname “Fish man” after digging around in the tank to choose our example oyster.

We are shuffled into the gift shop afterwards and encouraged to buy pearls, with a “student discount.” Many of us felt pressured and were frustrated by the forced shopping excursion. We spent well over an hour there, time that could have better been spent. On the way out we are accosted by the “watch guy” as we walk to the summer palace. Beggars on the street collect our water bottles to re-use or sell.

The summer palace is incredible – a large scale reproduction of gardens all over China. The emperor was a traveler and wanted to share the splendors of the country with the city of Beijing so commissioned this park to house all the wonders he had seen. Included are a manmade lake, a Buddhist and Taoist temple, the world's longest covered corridor (800 meters, all hand painted) and a stone boat.

The final building was commissioned by The Dragon Lady, the first Empress, after her husband’s death. There are a phoenix and a dragon at the entrance – the phoenix represents the woman, the dragon the man. It's important to note that the phoenix is closer to the door, elevating the woman’s status – something unheard of before the Dragon Lady’s reign.

We head back to the hotel for a quick shower, then off to dinner. Food still feels Americanized, but is much better than lunch. Everyone is exhausted and it's an early night to bed. First Day impressions – China is clearly not the cold, communist country of yesterday. It is rapidly changing, youthful and energetic, but still developing and still not wealthy. A country divided by the haves and the have-nots leads to conflict.

No comments: