Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Some more Beijing "must see"s

A couple of days ago, I wrote a longer than originally intended blog entry about Beijing's Forbidden City. This time around, it's my intention to devote the better part of this post to discussing a few other "must see"s that lie within the capital city of the People's Republic of China. However, it would be remiss of me to not also mention a particular famous portal that actually is part of the Forbidden City and, in fact, is the main entrance to it.

Tiananmen (trans. "Gate of Heavenly Peace"), as it is so named, is the traditional front as well as southern most entrance into the Forbidden City. Originally built in 1417, the 34.7 meter high, 62.7 meter long and 27.25 meter wide structure -- which comes complete with such as a rostrum, terracing, a glaze tile-roofed gate tower, five watch towers and five entrances of its own -- is easily recognized these days by way of having a giant portrait of Mao Zedong hanging just above its central door.

Chairman Mao officially announced the founding of the People's Republic of China from atop Tiananmen's rostrum on 1st October, 1949. In 1988, this same rostrum was opened to the public. Consequently, visitors to Beijing are free to scale the 67 steps that lead up there -- or rather, they are able to do so after paying an admission charge that varies by season! -- to take in the panoramic views that await them of both the rest of the Forbidden City to the north, and the now infamous square that shares the gate's name to the south.

Tiananmen Square. There's no denying that the world's largest public square, one that the Frommer's Beijing guide factually describes as "the size of 90 Amerian football fields (40 hectares/99 acres), with 300,000", is inextricably linked in the minds of many people around the world -- myself included -- with the tragic events that took place there and around its vicinity on 4th June, 1989.

And it was with a sense of pilgrimage of sorts that I made my way to that public space in the center of Beijing. At the risk of sounding like I'm making light of things, however, upon stepping onto that site, the fact of the matter is that what you become more immediately aware of are the place's physical attributes rather than historical associations. For Tiananmen Square really is big in a way that you can only truly understand when you go there and see it for yourself.

Moving on and further afield: Another monumental attraction which visitors to Beijing must make room for in their itineraries is the Summer Palace. Or, rather, I should say two monumental attractions -- as there actually are two Summer Palaces to speak of: i.e., the still extant Yihe Yuan (which was first built in 1750, largely destroyed in 1860, then restored on its original foundations in 1886); and the ruined Yuan Ming Yuan (work on which began in 1707 but which was greatly expanded later on, only to be largely destroyed by foreign invaders in 1860 and then had its decimation more or less completed in 1900) .

As can be gathered by its being known in English as the Summer Palace, the Yihe Yuan which is located in what is now a suburb of Beijing was used as a summer residence cum retreat by imperial Chinese rulers. At the same time though, the fact that its Chinese name translates into English as "Garden of Nurtured Harmony" (or, alternatively, "Garden for Maintaining Health and Harmony) should clue people in to the bulk of the Summer Palace's 294 hectares (726.5 acres) being taken up by garden -- or, rather, park -- space rather than actual buildings per se.

And if truth be told, aside from three notable exceptions (i.e., the triple-tiered, stand-alone China Opera Theatre that was a favorite of the Dowager Empress Cixi; the picture-festooned 700 meters (approx. 795 yards) in length covered walkway known as the Long Corridor; and the beautiful 17 Arch Bridge that has 544 stone carved lions along its railings), the structures in the Summer Palace were far less impressive than its lakes -- notably Kunming Lake, on which one can go boating -- and the exquisite garden-within-a-garden that is the Garden of Harmonious Interests.

In view of its original buildings being no more, it's even more so that the Yuan Ming Yuan is to be primarily enjoyed these days as a park rather than anything else. To be sure, the historically minded might wish to think of it -- or, to be more precise -- its destruction as "a vivid symbol of foreign aggression and humiliation". However, a visit to that whose Chinese name translates as the Garden of Perfection and Light will confirm that, these days, many people, including many residents of China itself, treat its confines as a set of scenic outdoor spaces to stroll around and have picnics in.

On a lighter note: Individuals who have viewed Mabel Cheung's The Soong Sisters will find the labyrinthic structure variously known as Wanhua Zhen (trans. "10,000-Flower Maze") or Huanghua Zhen (trans. "Yellow-Flower Maze") that lies within the Yuan Ming Yuan to be a surprisingly familiar sight. ("Surprising" since that particular scene in the movie in which the maze appears was not supposed to have taken place in Beijing!)

Asian film fans also might like to know that the Summer Palace figures in more than one cinematic work directed by the late Li Han Hsiang. Furthermore, they may recognize that the gate which Yu Shu Lien, the character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon played by Michelle Yeoh, passed through into Beijing in that movie is the still-in- existence Qian Men (trans. Front Gate) which is located on the south side of none other than Tiananmen Square... ;)


Willow said...

It's a pity that the pollution in the city inhibits one from appreciating the scope of Tian An Men Square. The hazy, smoggy, suffocating air obscured the structures at the ends of the Square.

While there, all I could think of, besides getting away from the glare from something in the sky (could it be the sun?), was not saying anything inappropriate for fear Red Guards would swoop in and haul me arse away. Groups of them marching every which way all over the Square.

YTSL said...

Hi Willow --

What different experiences of Tiananmen Square we appear to have had!

For one thing, when I visited in September 2004, the air pollution wasn't that bad as to inhibit one from appreciating the Square's massive scope. For another, I didn't see any groups of Red Guards marching all over Tiananmen Square.

Rather, the atmosphere within the Square itself felt more cheerfully holiday-ish than anything. All in all, got the impression there that it was where a lot of out-of-town vacationers had congregated and were contentedly plus casually strolling around.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Ytsl, these entries make me want more!

This is so interesting and the pictures are very nice.

I wouldn't mind seeing Red Guards and willow, thank you for the tip, I'll keep my sun block and wide hat ready to avoid the harsh glares of the sun :) Insaallah we will only have sunny days when I'm there.

But ytsl, many people who visited the square had similar feelings and observations you had.

How about the morning flag ceremony, do you guys think that it's worth waking up early?

Anonymous said...

And just a block to the east is Wangfujing Lu, a convenient shopping street, where I found many CDs to add to my Faye Wong collection.

While in the Tiananmen Square area a visit to the Mao's Mausoleum is an interesting and somewhat surreal experience.

YTSL said...

Hi "eliza bennett" --

I'm glad that you're enjoying my Beijing posts. Wish I could take credit for the photos but I can't... ;S

"How about the morning flag ceremony, do you guys think that it's worth waking up early?"

It depends...including on whether your hotel gives complimentary breakfasts and how good they are! ;D

And sbk --

Yup re Wangfujing Daije being pretty close to Tiananmen Square. But here's a word for warning for those who haven't been to Beijing that Beijing blocks are much longer than ones in many other places.

Also, thanks for making your own recommendations and it'd be nice if others who've been feel able to do the same. :)

Willow said...

I don't think Red Guards are around anymore. ;) There was a lot of uniformed security/police around the Square at the hour I was there. Perhaps it was shift-changing time....

Always travel with sunscreen, hat or umbrella. A particle mask would be wise too. haha. Well, if you have upper-respiratory issues, that's not a bad idea. I believe the summer months are the worst for air pollution.

Around the Square, also noticed lots of local people just milling about. Don't know if they were looking for targets or what. Our tour guides kept reminding us to be on our guard. Robbers and pickpockets like to work in groups, so you travelers beware.

YTSL said...

Hi again Willow --

Reading your latest set of comments, I got to wondering whether a key factor which helped determine our seemingly markedly different experiences of Beijing (or, at least, the locales we both visited) was not so much the place itself but, rather, the fact that you had tour guides who did such as keep "reminding us to be on our guard" while I didn't.

(In fact, I had no professional tour guides with me at all throughout the trip. Instead, the closest to such that I had while there was a friend of mine who these days lives in L.A. but is originally from, and still has family in, Beijing.)

At any rate, I seem to have had a more pleasant experience in Beijing. Or, in any event, have seem to come away with the more positive perspective and memories of the places I visited there!

Anonymous said...

Willow, coming from a country where there are pickpockets and tote jackers I'm used being on guard all the time - but thank you for the reminder (it is easy to be awed and loosen guard at a new place, especially one so grand)

I personally am relieved that we have a tour guide since I wouldn't be able to get the same amount of information by myself and guide is there to answer any questions on the spot. China is huge and impossible to really observe without staying there for some time longer than an annual vacation but with a tour guide you get more than when on your own. Also English guide books about China are notoriously bad.

But it would be wonderful if like YTSL, we have a friend who is a local :) Since I don't we are going to make do with the guide insaallah.

YTSL said...

Hi again "eliza bennet" --

"I personally am relieved that we have a tour guide since I wouldn't be able to get the same amount of information by myself and guide is there to answer any questions on the spot...Also English guide books about China are notoriously bad."

Here are two alternative perspectives on this matter:-

1) I think that the Frommer's Beijing guidebook is very good.

2) More than BTW, here are some comments from that guidebook about guides and guide tours:-

"...due to the distorted nature of the Chinese industry, escorted tours do not usually represent svings, but rather a significant increase in costs over what you can arrange for yourself..."

"Mainland guides rarely know what they are talking about, although they won't miss a beat while answering your questions. What they will have on the tip of their tongue is an impressive array of unveriable statistics, amusing little stories of dubious authenticity, and a detailed knowledge of the official history of a place which may bear only the faintest resemblance to the truth"!

"Guides are short-changed by China's shoddy and politically distorted education system, and also tend to put the potential profit from the relationship first"!!

Willow said...

ytsl and eliza bennet:

We had 2 tour guides throughout the trip. There was the constant guide, who's based in SF and the other based in the particular city. Our Beijing guide was originally from HK. Kelvin was well-educated; think he said he studied law. All our tour guides seemed to be on the up-and-up and quite knowledgeable about their topics.

This one guide in Suzhou seemed more intent in disyplaying his knowledge about phygsionomy (sp). And he liked to talk about everything but the city we were in. :(

BTW, I have great memories from my first trip to China. Filthy facilities notwithstanding. Our guides provided gentle reminders about our security. I think it was my husband who was more concerned and kept telling me to watch out.

Check out my blog for some pics if you haven't already done so.

YTSL said...

Hi Willow --

Glad to learn that you do indeed have great memories from your first trip to China. Re the filthy facilities: The less said about them, the better, I think (though I do feel obliged to add that Malaysia is another country that is notorious for not having the best toilets out there...)! ;(