3 January 2008

Beijing: Up & Down

Posted by JonHaley under: Mongolia .

It’s been a while! I just got back from a week and a half in Beijing, so I thought I should break that down for ya. Left on the 20th of December and just got back yesterday; saw some amazing stuff, and definitely gained a lot more insight into the city, the people, and the culture/history. Previously my opinions of China were based on bad Hollywood movies and that one really derogatory Tintin book. Needless to say, I now have a far different view of things! It also has made me a lot more interested in traveling to other areas of this enormous country. Furthermore, it has made Mongolia feel sooo much more like home.

I spent a lot of time documenting this experience with photos and videos; however, as my camera was stolen on the 2nd last day, it was all for naught. The biggest advantage to this is that I’ll need to actually use my memory to remember stuff, which is better in a lot of ways.

Instead of pretending to be some sort of travel writer dude, I’ll just list the good and bad as succinctly as I can. Hopefully, those who have visited the city will be able to relate, those planning to visit will get a wholly inadequate and thoroughly skewed version of things, and those who have no intention of visiting will know what they’re missing.


Thumbs Up – Forbidden City: Go big or go home. Stretches into infinity and covers 4X the area of the Louvre even though only 40% is open to the public. Thousands of clambering tourists, mostly Chinese but some stiff looking Europeans and brash Americans. All brandish massive, oversized cameras in some sort of compensation attempt. They (we) frantically snap pictures of everything and anything without prejudice, spending so much time looking at their camera screens they may as well have saved themselves the expense of coming and watched it on TV. The city itself is epic ornate white stone courtyard, after freshly painted, dazzling gate, after perfectly restored palace, after graceful, polished steps. With so many eye popping hexi-color paintings, detailed wood and stone carvings, and over 1 million historical relics, even the most hardcore fan of this sort of thing would reach saturation point after only a few minutes. Beautiful: yes; ornate: yes; worth seeing: definitely; old, antique or in any way charming: no.

Thumbs Down – Tianamen Square – Kinda disappointing. Supposedly the biggest public square in the world (3X Moscow’s Red Square), the spatial impact was markedly diminished by the huge highways on all sides, grass patches, obelisks, Mao-soleums, lamp posts, tour buses, and thousands of people. Sukhbaatar in UB is better.

Thumbs up: Summer Palace – Another massive complex of immaculately restored buildings, corridors, walkways, temples, etc., etc. on the outskirts of the city. Again not a speck of dust, chip in the paint, or leaf on the ground. Mind-overloading detail and foot-killing size, but a lot more natural and park-like compared to the Forbidden City. Some of the most beautiful buildings and views anywhere in the city and not to be missed.

Thumbs Up: Temple of Heaven – The next biggest “historical” tourist site in the city, even though I’d never heard of it before. An ingeniously designed funnel and trap for dudes with huge cameras, and no long-term memories. Definitely worth checking out for the beautiful all-wood, 6 storey-high temple, and cypress tree forests. Same theme of charm, antiquity, mysticism, and wonder having been painted over, vacuum-packed and other wised sterilized and dumb-down for tourist consumption.

Thumbs Up: Beijing‘s Underground City – A mass of tangled tunnels built at the height of Sino-Soviet tensions and nuclear war threats. Apparently one can walk to all the important areas of the city, or take a 4 day stroll to the nearby city of Tianjin while 6m underground, if so inclined.

Thumbs Down: Beijing Olympics – The Olympic stadiums, are prime examples neo-futuristic architecture gone wrong, but still pretty impressive to see in person. Other than that it was amusing to see “Official Sponsor” beer, candy, ice cream etc. They also had some creepy looking mascot things plastered all around the city. Everyone in Beijing believes, without a shadow of a doubt, that the Olympics will make them rich. Visiting this summer will be like entering a war zone.

Thumbs Up: Great Wall at Mutianyu – A newly restored 3km section of the wall about 2hrs outside of the city. This was far less touristy (but still pretty bad) than the more famous Badaling section. Despite the ripoff tour company, howling wind, and gauntlet of vendors leading up to the entrance, this was by far the highlight of the trip with amazing views and a really authentic feeling of age and history. As an engineering feat, this was more of an exercise in brute force, excessive material use and an endless supply of free labour, than any real finesse or ingenuity. Economically, the capital and fixed costs in Human lives used to construct, maintain and defend this huge structure surely could not be much less than if they just let the Mongols invade uninhibited.


Thumbs Down – Modern Beijing: Vast, broad streets spread out like oceans of concrete. Monolithic slabs of brick and glass house luxury goods, banks, and hotels. Things are immaculately clean, ordered and above all straight and endless. Fresh faced 17 or 18 year soldiers in too big green uniforms stand perfectly still at regular intervals along the street. The definition of a sprawling, generic, anonymous, metropolis.

Thumbs Up – Old Beijing‘s Hutongs: Starkly different from the main streets, buried and tunnelling through old two-storey building. This is where things feel more like the romanticized image of Old China. People are spitting all over the places, tons and vendors, signs, street-food guys cooking stuff up, colorful fruit and lights line the crowded alley-ways.

Thumbs Up – Buddhism: Without a doubt one of the coolest religions for building big-ass temples, making insane artworks, and generally adding a lot more color, beauty, and resplendence to the whole place. Can’t imagine how things would look if those drab Confucian had been running things.

Thumbs Down: Shopping in Beijing – I looked high and low for a battery powered, clothing-pill shaver (my heart only true desire), but the glistening new malls and shopping centers came up short. There weren’t even any dollar stores that I could see. The same 5 stores took up 90% of the space in all the malls we went to: a Nike store, followed by an Adidas store, followed by two starkly empty luxury watch stores, followed lastly by a handbag store and then repeated ad nauseum. Everything was the same overpriced crap you’d find in North America, and it was surprising that the people were still buying it despite living next door to the factories were it was all being made.

Thumbs Down: Canadatown, BeijingSadly it does not exist. Not sure how interesting a place it would be anyways.

Thumbs Down: Beijing’s Public Toilets – “Bard of all evils; Cradle of causeless care.”

Thumbs Up: Beijing Bathhouse – Convinced by my friend, Justin, who has been living in China for a year and a half now, I let go of any inhibitions, or concerns for hygiene, stripped down and got the most heinous scrub down of my life. Despite having no epidermis afterwards, I was definitely cleaner and a lot more informed on how Chinese do things when houses have no central plumbing.

Thumbs Up: Chinese “chinese food” – Lots of great street food all over the place, and tons of selection of dirt cheap restaurants. The best stuff was the Muslim, Western Chinese Mutton kebabs with tons of cumin; the Peking duck was pretty good but pretty over priced; Chinese hot pot (a boiling vat of spicy water sauces, you chuck a bunch of stuff into and play around with for a while using chopsticks); Duck feet with wasabi, not too bad; and lots of weird unidentifiable chicken parts cropping up in the most unexpected places. Did not try the cockroach on a stick, the deep-fried seahorse, the scorpion, or a bunch other weird portentous consumption foods on display.

Anyways that about sums it up for now. In general, I greatly enjoyed my time there, but would have like to travel outside the city in the countryside more, and I’ll definitely be going back if possible.

2 Comments so far...

riv Says:

19 January 2008 at 9:49 am.

my mexico trip was so prosaic good on u my free and fearless son mah

Karen Says:

12 February 2008 at 10:17 pm.

hey Jon..love the pics! trekking around Puerto with your mom was good for the soul. working on my house now. Karen

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