Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sightseeing in Beijing

We've been walking around Beijing the last few days, took a bus ride to the Great Wall, but then came back to the city and continued viewing the sites. There are many major attractions here that are on every tourist's must-see list, and we've barely covered those yet. The Wall, for one, also the Temple of Heaven. Planning to spend half a day at the Forbidden City today, and maybe will make it to the Summer Palace on Friday. Distances are huge, and once you get to a site, it absorbs you in a multitude of pavilions, corridors, landmarks -- and soon enough it's 5 pm, when everything closes down. Sure, we're not very dedicated sightseers, we get out of the hotel very late, by noon at best, and prefer to stay out as long as we can in the evenings -- exploring the neighborhoods, getting lost in the alleys, finally finding our way to the night markets, settling down for dinner, going to shows.

I feel very ambivalent about visiting the must-see sites. I am not huge on taking pictures, and the massive hoards of tourists are frightening. The Great Wall, at least the most popular stretches of it, is a huge tourist trap; the loveliest thing about it is the ability to hike from one mountain crest to the next, and to enjoy the autumn. We don't see much of this kind of fall in San Francisco -- the Wall was covered in soft yellow glow from all the trees around it, dry weightless leaves gathering at the bottoms of each staircase and by the parapets. It really seems that the "Wall" is a misnomer -- it's not much different from the Roman road, a way to connect distant provinces to the empire center. Any army that scaled those mountains can easily take the wall, not that much higher than any wall aristocrats built around their palaces and gardens in Beijing or Shanghai.

Yesterday, Dave and I visited the Palace and the Garden of Prince Gong, similar in its vision to Yu Garden in Shanghai, but also featuring a separate mansion with nine inner courtyards. The Garden of Prince Gong is rumored to have inspired Cao Xuequin's "The Dream of the Red Chamber" (or "The Story of the Stone"), the one classic Chinese novel that I've (partially) read. The garden with its multiple pavilions and several man-made lakes was completely overrun by tour groups, so Dave's and mine vague notion of having a tea and resting a while in one of the pavilions seemed absurd. But we did meander around, climbing the rocky paths on the second and the third level above ground, and this way managed to sneak by a few particularly ugly bottlenecks. This, to me, was the most surprising discovery about these traditional gardens: their three-dimensional architecture. Somehow, from the books, this part never became apparent to me, that the traditional garden is not conceived on a plane, but also in the vertical space. This is also one aspect the smaller-scale gardens like the ones in Portland or Vancouver cannot replicate.

Beijing clearly presents itself as a much older city than Shanghai. Walking down a seemingly random alley, we've come across a sign that marked the existence of this same alley from the 13th century. Also, we've walked into a store with wooden triangle roofs and a series of courtyards, labeled with a plaque: this store was a pharmacy built in 1606 and served the emperor and the court. There were several different shops located on the premises now, but the only one still open (it was after 5 pm) was a state-run shop with traditional souvenirs, tea and candy.

My friend Yvette has been telling me of the ever-present danger in Beijing that the new bout of construction will destroy yet another historical neighborhood; that the traditional compounds will be replaced with ultra-modern office buildings and hotels. She herself has been writing fiction, short stories and novellas, that explore the changing cityscapes and social structures of contemporary Beijing. I am thinking about her stories as I walk around and look at the tremendous construction sites that border every neighborhood, that meet you every time you turn a corner from a well-trodden tourist path. Yvette's project, to reflect and remember, resonates with me: I also keep thinking about the one skyscraper, the infamous Okhta Center or Gasprom tower, that may or may not be built in the next few years downtown St. Petersburg.

Read Dave's blog for a more detailed account of what we've been up to.

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