Bustling Beijing

September 16th-19th: During any long trip, it’s inevitable that there will be ugly travel days. We had exactly that as we moved from northeast Australia to Beijing, China Naively, I thought, “Gee, how far apart can Australia and China be??” Well, the answer is “pretty darn far.” When all was said and done, we left our hotel in Cairns at 4:30 a.m., and hit our beds in Beijing a mere 23 hours later! Ugh!!

I came to Beijing with no idea of what to expect. I have never been drawn to this part of the world, but felt it was important for my children to see China, since it will be the most important foreign nation for them in the course of their lifetimes. So we’re spending three weeks in China, and it’s certain to be educational.

Beijing 116 There may be people who instantly fall in love with Beijing, but I wasn’t one of them. Not even close. The morning after we arrived, we awoke to dreary haze/fog and a surreal muted sense of colors (photo is view from our hotel room). While Australia had been so vivid, Beijing was a blur of gray and brown. If you make it to the end of this blog, though, you’ll see my views on Beijing shifted considerably during our stay in this important city.

Beijing 005On Sunday morning, we went to the Temple of Heaven, a massive park in the center of Beijing. We were fascinated! There were groups of people everywhere, doing all sorts of fun things — practicing ballroom dancing, tai chi, kicking feathered objects back and forth, playing chess or card games, you name it. The park was alive with community and energy. We all had a try at ribbon twirling, with varying degrees of un-success. And our lesson with a tai chi master must have left him shaking his head!

Beijing 054 We spent the afternoon visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square was hopping; I’ve never been approached by so many street venders in my life. The Square itself can hold some 1,000,000 people. It goes on and on, but IMHO lacks architectural beauty (kind of like City Hall Plaza in Boston on a much bigger scale — tons of concrete, but not a lot else, other than the big portrait of Chairman Mao). That said, it was fascinating to be in the site of the 1989 student massacre, and reflect on how rapidly China is changing.

Beijing 084We then went to the Forbidden City, winter home of past emperors. The “City” consists of one large walled-in square after another, and seems to stretch for miles. The palace was built in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty. The buildings were spectacular and the occasional views of artifacts quite interesting. We finished the day with a rick shaw trip through a local neighborhood and met with one of Beijing’s top calligraphers, who gave us lessons on that interesting art form. I’m not sure that counts as a penmanship lesson for our kids’ homeschooling program, but it’s a close as they’ll get.

Beijing 134 Our second day was just as foggy/hazy as the first, which seemed to sap energy from everyone. We drove to the Great Wall for the requisite hike. Any given section of the wall is interesting, but it’s really the massive scope of the undertaking that gets your attention. It stretches in total some 4,000 miles. I have to think there must have been a more cost-effective way to keep the Mongolians out! Anyway, we walked about three miles of it, and broke for lunch.

Beijing 186 That afternoon we visited someplace that should have been called The Stinky Walkway of Cement Animals. At one point, Elizabeth and I were both looking at our shoes to see if we had stepped in dog poop. Then, we suspected the stone animals were still biologically active, and that was creating the stench. But the culprit was the public bathroom which, sadly, one Beijing 198 of us had to use. On the way home, we drove by the still-under-construction Olympic site. In a city with generally dreary architecture, the buildings look phenomenal (see lousy rainy-afternoon picture from our van of the Bird’s Nest) and will be done well ahead of schedule.

Well, by now, I was looking for the fast forward button to get out of Beijing! But Day Three was one of the best of our trip, and showed us some of the great aspects of Beijing.

Beijing 202 We started the day with a visit to the Beijing Opera school, and met with many students and teachers, and got a chance to observe several of the classes. I don’t think I’m destined to be a passionate fan of that style of opera (although its influence on Puccini’s Turandot was clear), but it was so interesting to see the intensity of their educational setting. I’ve set up a separate photo album (http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/582390) for all my music-oriented friends to look at — be sure to view the videos!

Beijing 225 We then went to the impressive Emperor’s Summer Palace. The Emperor spent eight months a year here (and the rest at the Forbidden City) and it was easy to see why. The buildings were spectacular, the setting so tranquil and beautiful, and the view from the top of the pagoda just Beijing 260 incredible. This was a real highlight for us, and a great afternoon outing. The view of the Beijing skyline emphasized for us the size of this city. Its population is nearly 14 million, and it’s growing rapidly. There are signs of construction throughout the city and government budget dollars are clearly going into new (not terribly beautiful) buildings (while they are saving on things like garbage collection and good public bathrooms, that’s for sure!).

Beijing 312 We ended our stay in Beijing on a spectacular note. Our Baseball Ambassador’s program had its second great outing. We met and practiced with the team from Beijing’s Fung Tai Experimental School. Then, they were incredibly kind and took the four of us and several students (six boys and four girls, all about the ages of Gibson and Sterling) out for one of the most enjoyable dinners of our Beijing 385 lives.

The Fung Tai team is excellent (second best in China last year) at baseball, and they are incredibly nice kids. Smart, huge smiles, lots of energy, and clear affection for each other. All of the kids seemed to have a great time, despite little shared vocabulary, and it was terrific for us to understand more about life growing up in China.

We learned that these boys and girls, starting at age eight, spend all weeknights at their school in dorm rooms that hold eight students. Because China has very strict policies on the number of children any family can have, only one of the ten children we had dinner had a sibling. So their classmates serve as their surrogate siblings, and the closeness of these children to each other was very apparent. They were just unbelievably kind and interesting. We hope we stay in contact with them, and their hospitality made our stay in Beijing very, very special. (See my blog “Baseball in Beijing” at http://ted.dintersmith.org/2007/09/20/baseball-in-beijing/). And for photos from this great get together, go to http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/582391#imageID=26852440.

To see our photo album of Beijing, go to http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/394279/580781.

Leave a Reply