Friday, April 17, 2009

Mopping up some remaining temples and parks in Beijing. The Temple of Heaven is the most famous temple in the world, says the Chinese guide. If you didn't know that, kindly consider yourself informed now. It's very pretty and harmonious. For the ancient Chinese, the earth is square and heaven is round, so there are many round temples here, with blue glazed tiered roofs, built on white terraces. The emperor held ceremonies here requesting a good harvest, and they sacrificed animals. I stood on the Supreme Ultimate Stone in the middle of it, I suppose all the other stones in the world are either less supreme or less ultimate, or both.

My Tibet expedition is all set. I have my permits and will pick up the train ticket later. Tonight I'll be on my way to Lhasa, riding the train for 48 hours over passes in the Himalayas more than 5000 meters high. Tibet travel is tightly regulated, more so than in recent years: all my stops had to be approved, and I'll have a guide at all times. I'll spend two nights on the train, three nights in Lhasa, and one each in Gyatse, Shigatse, Tigeri, and Zhambir (sp?) on an overland jeep trip to Kathmandu in Nepal. I had to join a tour group, it can't be done any other way. I am the only member of my group. For money they'll sell anything.

Not sure what the Internet situation is in Tibet, I'll try to blog if I can. Otherwise see you all in Kathmandu!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Emperor didn't want to be holed up in his little Fobidden City all the time, so he also had a summer palace north of Beijing on the shore of a fairly big lake that he had dug. The layout and architecture is pretty similar to the Forbidden City, minus the big reception halls, but a lot smaller. On the other hand it's scenically built up Longevity Hill, which they created with the earth excavated to create the lake. No expenses spared. The three-story theater is basically a copy from the Forbidden City.

Much of it was destroyed by the Western allied powers in 1860 and rebuilt for Empress Cixi's birthday parties. Cixi was faced with an unsolvable problem - repelling Western invaders with far superior weaponry - but she had a knack for not solving them in singularly inept ways, like squandering the treasury on her lifestyle. The money for the summer palace was supposed to be used to create a navy; she had a huge ugly marble boat built instead. When she died, she named a hapless three-year old boy, Pu Yi, as her successor, but the game was up three years later and more than two millennia of Chinese emperors came to an end.

The palace is in a quite pleasant park. There are lots of tour groups here, even though it's a Thursday and I am still surfing the edge of the low season. Fortunately tour groups never stray far and clog a few major sights while leaving everything else blissfully empty.

Also went to the old Bell and Drum Towers, the center of Beijing in Mongol times. Lots of old hutongs (narrow lanes) around them. There is lots of repair and construction work done there - it looks as if China had decided that Chinese culture and historic quarters are valuable after after all and worth preserving, not only the buildings but also the style of the neighborhood (Dirk, your cue). Shadows of Pingyao. (But only shadows.) The quarter could do with fewer pizza restaurants though.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

These days, the Forbidden City is forbidden only to smokers. The big sights that everyone knows come first - three huge halls, separated by gates, and the gigantic yards with the elaborate stairs leading up to them. After that it gets down to business; lots of smaller halls, the bigger ones with thrones for the emperor, the smaller ones for princes, concubines, and government functions. They all have flowery names like "pavilion of mental cultivation". The smaller buildings are in the back of the Forbidden City, and look a little like the Pingyao youth hostel, except bigger, more elaborate, and less well maintained. They show huge collections of jade, silver filigree, bronze, gold, precious stones, and ceramics. They also have a pretty bizarre clock collection; one can paint Chinese characters with a brush.

In regular intervals there are loudspeaker announcements in Chinese, introduced by a chime that every time makes me expect something like "flight 444 is now boarding at the Gate of Supreme Harmony".

I spent seven hours in the Forbidden City, it's just endless. The audio guide makes it interesting, it's quite good except when it gets confused and plays the wrong message and I don't know what it's talking about. There are a lot of guards in military uniforms; two of them patrol the outer wall with walkie-talkies set on full volume, noisily squeaking instructions punctuated by short beeps. Sounds like two Apollo capsules slowly orbiting the city. I don't know how they manage to look so prim in these stuffy uniforms, it's another hot and sunny day.

Outside the Forbidden City is a pleasant park, admission charged, with many old trees, ponds, and lots of flowers and blooming trees. Lots of Chinese photographers with gigantic cameras take pictures of tulips.

I had dinner at the Wangfujing snack street. Lots of food stalls there that sell everything on sticks; you point at some and they fry them: chicken, pork, tofu, tentacles, sausages, starfish, seahorses, live scorpions, toads, and thumb-size grubs. I am not kidding. Apart from the tentacles, nobody I saw bought the more exotic options. I loved the sweet ones with what I thought were strawberries, but were some other tangy fruit with large hard seeds.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Chinese Great Wall is not like a road. Roads follow convenient low paths like rivers. The Great Wall, on the other hand, unfailingly picks the most impractical and difficult points of the terrain imaginable - the highest and steepest ridges and peaks no matter how they curve. I wouldn't want to have to carry even one stone up there, but they built 8000 kilometers of it in 1368 to 1567, of which 2000 kilometers remain today.

Most tourists visit the wall at Badaling close to Beijing, but that's a crowded zoo crawling with tourists and souvenir vendors. I joined a group that went to Jinshanling, three hours by bus north of Beijing. We hiked ten kilometers on top of the wall to Simatai. There are very few people here, and the group quickly disperses until I rarely see another visitor. There are at least a few people selling warm water, Coca Cola, and beer (it's a hot sunny day again and the Chinese neglected to properly plan the wall with power outlets).

"Hiking" doesn't properly capture the situation though - since the wall is constantly climbing some hill, so are we. There is never a flat section, always stairs that are often extremely steep and in poor repair. Away from the endpoints, it's sometimes just rubble; even the crenellations are missing in some places. There are guard towers in regular intervals; a few are in ruins. It's quite exhausting but the views are fantastic. How they could ever hope to move an army up there to the right spot to defend the wall, without satellite reconnaissance and back roads, is a mystery to me. The wall was not very effective repelling invaders, but if nothing else it makes a terrific Unesco World Heritage site.

At Simatai we need to cross a river on an Indiana Jones suspension bridge, complete with wooden planks with gaps high above the river. There are no natives shooting arrows at us and hacking away at the cables though. Past the bridge, there is a dammed reservoir fed by the river with mountains on both sides. I could have walked down to a little village where the bus waits, but I hear some people in mid-air over the lake scream and whoop, so I investigate and opt for a cable ride across the lake.

You get a belt harness, basically three loops of rope around your legs and waist, which is hooked into a steel cable that runs across the lake. You sit down on a ledge high up the mountain on one side, looking down the precipice below with cables descending steeply, wondering if this was a good idea after all. Then you kick off and rapidly shoot down the cable across the lake with the mountain panorama all around you. It's totally exhilarating, and over much too quickly!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Embarked on a five-hour odyssey to get my onward travel booked. If all goes well, I'll be on a train to Lhasa on Friday. Tibet requires two special permits, which take five days to process. All aspects of the tour must be submitted and approved by the authorities. I am greatly looking forward to Tibet.

I decide that my first Beijing experience will be authentic Peking Duck. Everybody offers that here but I choose the upscale Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, and order half a duck with all the options. Shortly after a chef rolls up a workbench to my table and deftly carves the duck into bite-size pieces, with the best part of the skin on a separate plate. A waitress demonstrates the proper procedure: take a thin pancake, arrange some duck dipped in a dark mu-shu sauce, vegetables, skin, and roasted garlic on it, and fold it to a small pocket. It's absolutely delicious. The meat is tender, the skin is crisp yet glossy with grease, but it somehow doesn't taste greasy at all. Wonderful. You haven't eaten Peking Duck if you didn't eat it in Beijing. Of course it was fantastically expensive - 15 euro!

Tiananmen square is huge, but not as large and as forbidding as I expected. I guess we all associate tanks with the name, but there is a lot of green, with tourists strolling and taking pictures, and a fat obelisk in the center. It's sunny and quite hot, and a van sells drinks at low supermarket prices, is that supposed to be capitalism? In order to get onto the square, you have to pass a police checkpoint and have your bag inspected. A few soldiers guard the square, but it's all very civilized and friendly.

In the late afternoon a wind comes up, it gets cooler, and the sun disappears into a yellow haze. It's a mild sand storm, very fine sand gets into my eyes and my ice cream. I hear that these sand storms can become quite serious in summer. So I take a tuk-tuk back. I have seen very few cyclists, cars have taken over Beijing. Right of way is determined by mass - bigger is better. Even old ladies at zebra crossings are mercilessly cut off. Like last night, the driver is confused by the hutongs (narrow old lanes) around the hostel; about a third of the old hutongs have escaped modernization and road widening. They are not ancient like in Pingyao, but much nicer to stroll in than the big roads packed with traffic.
Spent the morning and early afternoon walking around Pingyao, since this is probably my last chance to enjoy a beautiful old town in China and its cuisine.

Taiyuan is a few hours north of Pingyao by bus. It's an unremarkable modern town, but much enlivened by plants an little parks. Ailing trees line its main boulevards. I sat in a green square for a few hours waiting for my train, watching children skate.

The high-speed train to Beijing is more functional than elegant, but it's modern, new and spotless, and quiet, like European intercities. It goes 160 km/h most of the time, 200 for some sections, and reached a top speed of 250. I was in Beijing after only three hours, but by then it was way too late to do any sightseeing.