China Chronicles – Fourth Installment

Day 9: The Great Wall and the Hutongs, Beijing

I left my hostel bright and early and boarded a minibus for the Great Wall of China. Most people think of the Great Wall as a single entity, but there have, in fact, been five major walls all built to defend the Chinese heartland from Mongol and Turkish nomads. It is the Ming Great Wall (built 1368–1640 that tourists visit today. Trying to avoid a plasticized off-the-bus-snap-the-picture-on-the-bus experience I opted for a hike of the more distant portions of the wall. The distance between Jinshanling and Simatai is about 12km and the hike took me over both restored and original sections of the wall. The views were stunning (if a bit hazy) and the sheer length and breath of the wall was breathtaking. But I have to admit that the hike was challenging. In well over 30 degree heat the steep ascents and descents over crumbling sections of the wall were exhausting and many people gave up and paid eager locals for guided shortcuts. I made it only by taking frequent stops in the shade of the watch towers. While resting I drank in the view, the scent of jasmine plants, and a total of two and a half liters of water!

Upon retuning to the city I grabbed some street food and ate near my hostel in the Qianmen hutong district, one of the last vestiges of residential Qing dynasty architecture. Since my arrival in Beijing I had seen the demolition of similar old areas to make room for high rise apartment blocks. It is true that these poorer hutong districts have little in the way of services and almost looked like slums. But, it is hard to know what is worse the soulless apartments that loom above, or the dirty jumble of brown stone alleys lined with garbage below. I believe in vertical cities and I feel that in this era of urbanization we will have to start building up rather than out. But we need to make apartment towers into vertical communities. In Beijing the hutongs have character. Children run and laugh in the dusty streets and neighbors gossip and play mahjong in doorways. Life is played out on the streets and while eating my dinner I watched it. In front of a music store a group of young men tested guitars and drums while older men wandered around with their shirts rolled up to their nipples trying to beat the heat. Mothers, fathers and children played all around me, the kids running around without pants or in crotchless trousers (the preferred method of toilet training in China where disposable diapers are still too expensive for most). Further away two teenage boys flexed their muscles and tried to empress a girl. Still, who am I to judge hutong demolition? After all, when preparing for something as important as the Olympics, many developed nations might also sweep away their poor in order to keep up appearances.
Day 10: The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, Beijing
The next morning I crossed Tiananmen Square again. By day the square seemed harder, greyer and colder (though not physically as it already felt hotter than 30 degrees). Chinese tour groups had gathered in the square and a queue four persons deep was already snaking its way around Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum. For many Chinese, Mao is still a hero despite his deeds and excesses during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Passing under Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) at the north end of the square I joined the queue at the Wumen gate and entered the Forbidden City.
The contemporary Palace Museum and its grounds are known as the Forbidden City because they were off limits to normal Chinese people for 500 years. The city was home to the emperors of two dynasties, the Ming and the Qing and is the largest and best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. But I was initially disappointed upon entering because the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the quintessential icon of the Forbidden City, which I had seen umpteen times in magazines and movies, was entirely covered in bamboo scaffolding. Nothing was visible, although to their credit the Chinese government had thoughtfully painted the silhouette of the structure on the scaffolding for effect. Still, I took a picture for the irony of it all and I pressed on. It started to pour rain and I was lucky enough to have the place almost to myself as I wandered past courtyard after courtyard and through gate after gate, finally internalizing the grandeur of the palace. My favorite area was the Inner Court, where I felt the royals really lived rather than simply governed, and the beautiful Imperial Garden with its 300 year old trees. Still, despite the grandeur I couldn’t help but think that living within these walls might have become confining. My feeling of claustrophobia may have been caused by the crush of tourists that arrived immediately after the rain cleared. I decided it was time to leave and headed north to Jingshan Park where I climbed to the top of the hill in search of a coveted aerial view of the Forbidden City. In the photo I can make just make out the golden pagoda style roofs of the northern palace halls, but the southern gates are lost in a cloud of grey haze. Still the photo is representative. After all, the haze in Beijing is just as much a part of China as is the Forbidden City.
My whirlwind tour of imperial China was not over yet and I headed south, following the ancient procession way of the emperors (now filled with pedestrians, vendors, buses, taxis and bicycles) to the Temple of Heaven. Here the Son of Heaven came on the winter solstice to perform solemn rites for good harvests. The Temple of Heaven has three defining monuments. First (if you enter from the south) is the Round Alter and Heavenly Center Stone. This three tiered marble alter revolves around the imperial number nine with the top tier symbolizing heaven. If you stand on the center stone and say something the sound waves are bounced off the marble and travel straight to heaven. I figure heaven must be a noisy place judging by the parade of people waiting to scream something from that center stone. Next to the north comes Echo Wall which was under scaffolding during my visit. However, the crowning glory of the complex, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, was newly restored and gleaming. This magnificent example of Ming architecture (in truth rebuilt several times since the Ming) is a round hall with a triple-eaved roof covered with blue, yellow and green glazed tiles symbolizing Heaven, Earth and the mortal world. The blue, green and gold detailing of the temple was exquisite and I felt deeply moved. True, the feelings of the earth moving beneath me may have been caused by the physical strain of walking over 20 km in the heat and pollution of Beijing, but I was happy to chalk it up to divine intervention.
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