Monday, March 8, 2010

China Diary Part 1 – The Great Wall & the Forbidden City


As indicated in my last blog post (The Great Total Solar Eclipse of 22Jul09), the primary motivation for my visit to China in the second half of July 2009, was the yearning to see the eclipse from somewhere in eastern China.  For obvious reasons, I made this a part of a larger visit to some tourist attractions in the country – primarily covering Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Anji and Hong Kong.  I had thought of the neighborhood of Shanghai as a possible alternative to Patna almost a year ahead of the event and settled on it about three months in advance.  I had added Beijing to my itinerary only as an afterthought, that too at the prompting of Prof C Seshadri, a very good friend and former colleague of mine who had visited the city and its neighbourhood a number of times before.  It would have been utterly foolish on my part if I hadn’t done this.  Prof Seshadri also introduced me through email to a Chinese friend of his in Beijing, Prof Zhang Tiedao, for possible local help. 
There was considerable anxiety and uncertainty about my China trip because of widespread concern about the Swine Flu which was at its peak about that time.  Once I decided to brave it and start the preparations, things became very easy.  The easiest part of it was booking the Bangalore - Beijing - Shanghai - Hong Kong - Bangalore air journey by the Hong Kong based Dragonair at an unbelievably low cost, considerably cheaper than my recent much shorter Bangalore-Port Blair-Bangalore journey by an India based airliner.  A friend in Delhi helped me secure a tourist Visa to China without much sweat.  I could make advance hotel/hostel bookings at all the places quite easily through the Internet.  Google Earth, Google Maps and a number of tourism related web resources helped me draw up my daily itinerary in such meticulous detail that some of my family members and friends couldn’t even believe it possible.  Being an avid photographer, I decided to take my trusted light-weight Nikon Coolpix 8800 camera and a 7x50 Olympus binoculars.  However, I could not take my Meade telescope because of the logistic problems it would pose.  When I found on my return to India that many of my pictures were not very well focused, I realized that it had developed an intermittent auto focusing problem and wished I had also taken my other trusted Canon D-50 Digital SLR camera or the Nikon Coolpix S10 camera.

Bangalore to Beijing

The long midnight journey from Bangalore to Beijing on July 17, with a three-hour (day time) break at Hong Kong Airport was very comfortable.  Dragonair had remembered my preference for a strictly vegetarian in-flight meal and complied with it meticulously.  This was the case on the rest of the journeys as well.  There was enough time for me to explore the Hong Kong airport in transit and see for myself what a huge and ultra modern facility it was.  I was to see more of it on my return journey.  After the flight to Beijing took off I had the good fortune to see the whole of Hong Kong harbour and its famous skyline from my window side seat.
My flight landed in one of the three gigantic Beijing airport terminals and the passengers were fetched to the exit point in an inter-terminal electric train.  When I came out of the exit after a routinely quick customs and immigration check, I was helped into a waiting bus by a very considerate driver.  I was greeted by a dense shroud of the famous Beijing smog and took my first pictures in appalling visibility.  The bus soon started on its ride to the city less than half full and dropped its passengers near the Beijing Central railway station, a short walking distance from the City Central Youth Hotel where I had made my reservation.  The hotel, located just opposite the railway station, was part of a large shopping complex and I had quite a struggle locating its entry point.  In fact I had to seek help from the receptionist of a large nearby hotel where I had the first of my numerous experiences of Chinese hospitality.  He talked to someone over the phone and relayed precise directions for me to reach the hotel close by.  Once inside the hotel everything was cozy and I never felt that I was part of the surrounding hustle and bustle.  The hotel room was not only first rate, with near five-star comfort, but also cost me only a fraction of the tariff I would have had to pay in any large metropolitan city in India.   I rang back home to announce my arrival, drank a huge tumbler of cold water to quench my thirst and switched on the inviting TV only to find that only one of the many channels available was in English.  Unlike in India, none of the popular international channels was available and the only English channel was obviously state sponsored.   Thereafter, whenever I switched on the TV anywhere in China it was only to gather weather related information, which was indeed my prime need at that time. The hotel provided free access to the Internet through a Wifi hot spot and, thereafter, I had no problem communicating with the outside world and accessing all the common websites though my ultra light Acer Aspire One netbook computer.  This luxury was easily available everywhere during my China trip, including airports and public spots.  I found it rather paradoxical that the Chinese media pretty much shut out the outside world while allowing totally free access (at that time at least) through the Internet.

The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square

Early next morning, after a sumptuous complimentary continental breakfast at the hotel, I began my walk down the sprawling Jianguomen Street (akin to the Rajpath in New Delhi) to two of the most famous tourist attractions of Beijing.   The weather, though very cloudy, was much better than on the previous day.  On my way I accidentally ran into an English speaking Chinese student of traditional classical Chinese art and stuck up a long conversation with him.  He told me, among other things, a great deal about the Chinese art of Calligraphy which he specialized in and offered to show me the nearby studio-cum-exhibition he was associated with.  It was quite fascinating and a totally unexpected experience.  He was very erudite and provided great company.  If he was somewhat disappointed that I did not buy anything on display at the studio he certainly didn’t show it.  He left me at the back of the Forbidden City complex and gave me helpful directions to reach the front end and what I could do thereafter.  This was one of the many valuable and enriching encounters I had with local, enlightened, English speaking people during my China trip.
The Forbidden City, located in the heart of Beijing, is a huge complex of breathtakingly beautiful wooden buildings, most of them built in the early fifteenth century, constituting the Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties in China.  This UNESCO designated world heritage centre is now maintained as a national museum, and along with the Great Wall of China, is the most sought after tourist attraction in the country.  It is an enormously vast place and it took me over four hours to see in just a cursory manner.  The Hall of Supreme Harmony (see photo), its central and biggest building, is surrounded by one of the largest courtyards anywhere in the world.  I had to stand in a long queue for over half an hour just to buy an entrance ticket.  Luckily for me, just in front of me in the queue was an Australian professor of Agricultural Economics who seemed to be as eagerly looking for an English speaking person as I was.  Needless to say, we became instant friends and stayed together as such throughout the visit.  When I mentioned to him the primary purpose of my visit to China, he was quite astonished and said that he knew nothing about a total solar eclipse being visible from China in a few days time.  As we moved around within the Forbidden City, we were both dumb struck by the enormity and the sheer grandeur of what we saw.  He reminded me of Bernardo Bertolucci’s famed Oscar winning movie “The Last Emperor” the first half of which is shot almost entirely inside the Forbidden City by special permission from the Chinese government.  I had seen it when first released in India and wanted to see it once again to compare with my first hand impressions of the place.  One of the first things I did on my return home was to order a DVD version of the movie and see it with rapt attention.  My Australian acquaintance and I both felt that the Forbidden City was too good not to be rated among the Seven Wonders of the World.   As expressed in an earlier blog post, I would readily replace the Coliseum in Rome with this one, even though it was not in the short list of twenty candidate wonders.  Perhaps the people who made up the short list were following a self-imposed exclusion principle by which no country figured in the wonders list more than once!

I had entered the Forbidden City from a side gate and, after the visit, came out of the front entrance through the Gate of Heavenly Peace into the famous Tiananmen Square, considered to be the largest such city square in the world.  The gate is better known for the huge portrait of Chairman Mao adorning its entrance.   As I entered the vast square I was looking for a place to sit and relax after having walked continuously for over six hours till then.  Unfortunately, there were no benches of any kind anywhere in the square and so I just sat on the concrete floor as did a lot of other people.  No benches have been provided in the Tiananmen Square apparently to discourage people from congregating there too long.  The events of 1989, culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre, seem to have left their imprint to this day.  To enter the square from any entry point one has to submit oneself to a security check as stringent as in any airport anywhere in the world.
After relaxing at the Tiananmen Square for some time, reflecting on the experiences of the day, I entered the famous Beijhal Park adjacent to the Gate of Heavenly Peace.  It was a beautiful place with a lake and lots of greenery and I found plenty of places to sit and relax.  Close to the lake I saw a curious warning plaque which I thought deserved to be photographed and publicized. 
After the long day of sightseeing I mustered enough energy to walk back to my hotel, taking a longer and different route, taking in more sights of a very clean city on the way.  One of the interesting things I noticed that day was the availability of very well maintained and free public toilets at just the right places.  How much one misses them back home!  After the exertions of the day I seem to have slept like a log that night.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall of China, built over a period of about two thousand years starting around 220 BC, is easily the longest manmade structure on the planet.  It stretches nearly nine thousand kilometres, mostly along the northern border of present day China, and much of it is well preserved to this day.  The most visited section of the great wall is near Badaling about 80 km towards the north of Beijing.  Contrary to popular belief, it is not visible to the unaided eye even from any earth satellite, let alone from the Moon.  The choice of the Great Wall as one of the seven wonders of the modern world was easy for the voters, as was the Taj Mahal. 
The Badaling section of the great wall is easily reachable by a modern highway or train, yet I had great difficulty doing so.  That morning I had another sumptuous breakfast and took a subway train to a place near the bus station for Badaling and other places.  That was my first experience of the highly modern and efficient subway system in the capital city.  All directions and names are displayed in both Chinese and English and it is generally very easy for any outsider to find his way about despite the complexity of the system.  When I got out and walked up to the bus station, it started raining and I had to open out my umbrella.  The section of the station where the Badaling buses started had no shelter and was as much of a mess as I have experienced back home.  I joined a group of American tourists who were waiting for the right bus.  Although there were quite a number of buses going towards Badaling, a brusque lady supervisor wouldn’t allow us to board any, indicating that we had to wait for a nonstop bus.   We had to wait in the now heavy rain for nearly an hour for such a bus.  However, the waiting was bearable since I had excellent English speaking company, with a great deal to converse about, including some of their recent experiences in Kerala and my own experience of long ago in the USA.   At last we were comfortably seated in the bus and reached Badaling in good time.  It was still raining and our umbrellas had to be unfolded again.  We had hot coffee in a western style restaurant and started walking up the entrance to the great wall.  But first we had to buy entrance tickets for which there was a fairly long queue despite the pouring rain.  I had not realized that one had to cough up an entrance fee just to walk up and down the wall; but then this was no ordinary wall.  As a senior citizen I needed to pay only half the normal fair and this was some incentive indeed!   The American visitors were interested first in exploring the ‘wrong’ side of the long stretch of the wall.  Since I had to conserve my energy to go up the most commonly visited spots on the north side of the wall, I broke off from them and started on my own.  I had to walk along a long stretch of three to four kilometers of the wall, curving up and down as well as sideways, with an overall steep upward slope.  Reaching the most famous landmark on the Badaling section of the wall was quite a challenge, especially in the (now lighter) rain and slippery floor.   I was determined to reach it even as many younger visitors gave up the effort in despair.  I used to recharge myself with frequent rests, and finally made it to the ‘summit’ after a considerable time walking in rather treacherous conditions.  It was very tiresome and exhausting but these feelings were soon wiped out by an overwhelming sense of exhilaration and achievement.   I spent a good bit of time at the top and started on my return journey only after regaining my strength fully.
Before boarding a return bus to Beijing I had one of my very few unsavoury experiences of my China trip.  I entered an excellent looking shop, pulled out a large cone of ice cream from the freezer and asked the shop keeper how much I owed him.  He took out his large calculator and punched in a figure which was so outrageously high, over ten times the marked price, that I put the cone back in the freezer and walked out of the shop even as he was frantically trying to settle for a bargain price.   

Acrobatics Show

After retracing my journey back to the hotel, I lay down for a well deserved rest before contemplating my plans for the rest of the day.    Since It was continuing to drizzle, I gave up any idea of further sightseeing visits in the evening.  Instead, with the assistance of the tourist desk in the hotel, I secured a reservation for an acrobatics show later in the evening at a local theatre.  Beijing has several world famous acrobatics troupes and their shows are among the major attractions of the city.  An agent picked me up at my hotel by car, dropped me at the theatre and promised to drive me back to the hotel after the show.  The theatre was nearly full and the one-hour show was an extraordinary and incredibly thrilling experience.  I had seen performances of this type on video and TV shows but seeing it live in the very cradle of acrobatics was altogether a different experience.  Every item of the troupe drew prolonged applause from a highly appreciative audience.  It was difficult to believe that human physical coordination skills could attain such heights of perfection.  
As promised, the agent picked me up after the show and offered to take me to a well known local restaurant nearby for a ‘Peking duck dinner’ without which it seems no visit to Beijing is considered to be complete!  He just couldn’t understand me when I said that I was a pure vegetarian and therefore had to decline his kind offer.   

An expected visitor

After the end of my visit to Beijing on the following day, I had planned go to Shanghai by an overnight train.  On the assumption that an advance reservation wood be essential, I had written to Prof Zhang Tiedao in Beijing well in advance, requesting him to make the booking for me.  Unfortunately, he got to see my email only the previous day, but the delay apparently did not matter at all.  He rang me up to say that he would be meeting me at my hotel later that night to chat with me and handover the ticket as well.  In India, almost everyone knows how difficult it is to secure railway reservations at short notice.  But, compensating for this difficulty somewhat is the ease with which it is possible to make railway reservations over the Internet and other means.  I had looked for a similar facility in the Chinese railway system, but to my utter surprise, no online booking facility existed.  It is for this reason I had approached Prof Tiedao to help me out.  He did get me the reservation for the next night’s journey (apparently the pressure on the railway system there is much less than in India), chatted with me a long time and narrated his own experiences during his three official visits to India.  He had fond memories of these visits and valued his association with educationists in India, particularly Prof Seshadri.  It was a revelation for me to learn from him that English language is compulsorily taught in all Chinese schools, but most students manage to get through their English examinations without actually learning much, being particularly poor in spoken English.  Perhaps this is akin to the way a third language is taught and learnt in Indian schools, especially in the northern states.
I will reserve the rest of my Beijing experiences and the visit to Shanghai for my next blog post.

1 comment:

Dr. S. V. Narasimhan said...

Respected Sir,

It was indeed a very lively account of your trip to China and a fantastic experience of Total Solar Eclipse at the Jiangnan Tianchi resort. By reading your article, I had a feeling of direct participation in events! It was an armchair travel.

It is amazing how help arrives in the most needy moments. It is nice to read: I still remember the three pretty innocent faces, their eagerness to help me and the simple pleasure they derived from doing so.

Waiting for your next blog.

Thank you very much.