Archive for June, 2008

June 19th 2008
Terracotta Warriors

Posted under China

In Xi’an we have experienced personally the effects of gross overpopulation in China. We came to Xi’an – on the night train from Beijing – to see the famous Terracotta Warriors, proclaimed by some to be the Eighth Wonder of the World. Xi’an is what you might call a budding metropolis – another bastion of consumerism with what appears to the outsider as a healthy middle class. The city is consumed by concrete – impersonal residential towers and enormous commercial buildings. It is not a typical American downtown with rings of suburbs but rather an ever-expanding city almost perpetually cloaked in haze.

Our hostel offered a guided trip to see the Terracotta Warriors but I convinced Aaron that their premium was too high and we should take the city bus instead. A member of the hostel staff told us which buses to take: the 603 to the train station; then switch to the 306. It sounded easy enough. We walked to the bus stop and waited for the 603. We had seen many city buses, in Beijing and Xi’an, pass by with bodies stuffed in like sardines so we should not have been surprised when the double-decker 603 came to a halt at our stop disguised as a sardine tin.

Only three passengers disembarked and, at the same time, three Chinese girls slipped in front of us to the entry door. This is common practice in China. There is no etiquette, no chivalry here. It’s every man for himself. And if you’re standing in a line, a person will cut in front of you while looking you right in the eye. Luckily, we’ve had prior experience with this uncivilized behavior and are unabashed about throwing an elbow or shoulder in front of these devious little cutters. In the case of the three Chinese girls at the bus stop, we let them go for two reasons: 1) from their usurped position directly in front of us, their removal would have required an unusual amount of manhandling, which surely would have caused a scene; and 2) with the size and disorganization of the crowd at the bus stop, we were not 100% certain that we’d arrived before them.

So the three girls climbed onto the packed bus and we followed. Not surprisingly, three more people pushed their way on behind us with one vocal and pushy woman imploring us to push further into the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. To complicate matters, the bus was designed for Chinese people so Aaron was about eight inches too tall; he could not stand straight but had to hunch over in the claustrophobic cabin. Thankfully, after a few stops, he found a reprieve by standing in the stairwell leading to the upper deck. After about thirty long minutes, we finally reached the train station and easily found the 306, which was much more spacious and comfortable, for the remaining hour ride to the Warriors.

Discovered by accident in 1974 by peasants digging a well, the Army of Terracotta Warriors is one of most important discoveries of ancient Chinese history. Commissioned by Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, the army of thousands of life-size soldiers in battle formation stands guard at the emperor’s tomb. Some say Qin Shi Huang feared evil spirits in the afterlife while others believe that he expected his rule to continue after death. Ancient scholars seem to agree that the emperor was paranoid and fanatical, which would explain his obsession with creating a “pretend” army. Whatever the case, the army of soldiers, when viewed in its partially restored state, is undeniably impressive.

The museum is constructed over the three original excavation sites. It is recommended to view the pits in reverse order so we began with Pit 3 – the smallest – and worked our way to Pit 1 – the largest and most impressive. The soldiers were positioned in long corridors divided by walls made of rammed earth and wood beams. The most fascinating aspect of the army was the level of unique detail among the statues. Each soldier had a unique face. Even the tread on the shoes was not uniform. The soldiers’ dress and hairstyles differentiated their rank and all held bronze weapons, though the weapons had been removed.

The excavation sites each showed the broken condition in which the soldiers were discovered. A sign near one of the pits indicated that, to date, not a single statue has been unearthed intact. When we reached Pit 1, where approximately 6,000 soldiers are thought to stand (although only 2,000 have been restored to date), we met with the postcard view of the Terracotta Army. The excavation site was larger than a regulation football field and less than half of the site had been fully excavated; the two-thousand restored warriors, dating back to 210 B.C., stood stoically in battle formation with horses and all. As we stood facing the front line, it was easy to imagine the army in its full grandeur and completion with Emperor Qin Shi Huang pacing back and forth, barking orders at his earthen men.

We completed our visit with a brief stop in the museum of artifacts, which showcased some of the weaponry and tools found near the sites as well as two half-size bronze chariots with drivers, remarkable in their level of detail. As we followed the exit signs to the parking lot, we were steered through a “village” of souvenir stalls. Strangely, the single alley of stalls was surrounded by a, two-storey commercial structure, seemingly intended for tourist amenities, which lay almost completely vacant. Aaron suggested that it might be an initiative of the Chinese government to create construction jobs, even though there is no practical need for the completed projects, though we were never able to confirm it. We rode the 306 bus back to the train station in Xi’an but decided to walk back to the hostel rather than enduring the claustrophobic misery of the 603.

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June 18th 2008
Olympics Venues & Color Commentary from the Potty Police

Posted under China

On our last day in Beijing – we were booked on the night train to Xi’an – the sky was gray and drizzling. We stayed around the hostel until our noon checkout time, then stored our bags in the luggage room and went out for the day. There were several family-owned restaurants in our alley and an older man – probably the grandfather – had sat outside the door of his restaurant yelling “Ni hao!” (hello) at us in a loud, gruff voice everyday as we passed. It had always made us smile and we decided to stop in for an early lunch. No one spoke English, of course – we had forgotten our guide book and couldn’t even figure out how to order a bottle of water – but everyone was friendly and smiling and the whole family came over to help us order. We ended up ordering enough food to feed a family of five, the highlight of which was a foot-high haystack of shoestring potatoes. We left fat and happy.

Contrary to everything we had heard about the Chinese lack of receptiveness to non-Chinese-speakers, after three days in Beijing, we could not help but notice the pre-Olympic excitement in the air and the genuine desire of the locals to make foreigners feel welcome. People stopped us on the streets to offer help; we were beckoned into restaurants and the signage around Beijing had clearly been updated with English titles. This is the first time in twenty years that the Olympic Games have been held in a developing nation and China is determined to show its best face. The entire city is under construction and the ubiquitous presence of the world’s largest military is keeping watch.

We started our day by walking to the newly constructed Grand National Theatre, colloquially referred to as The Egg. Located just west of Tiananmen Square, behind the Great Hall of the People, the theatre is a titanium and glass dome surrounded by a round moat. The reciprocal image of the dome on the lake moat creates the illusion of an egg. The dome entrance is a single walkway which dips under the moat, preserving the continuity of the design above. Intended to rival such signature structures as the Sydney Opera House, Beijing’s Grand National Theatre is an awe-inspiring vision of modern architecture. The cost of the project was 3.2 billion Chinese Yuan Renminbi, or about US$465 million, a figure which implies a goal of dynastic legacy rather than profitability. One cannot deny the symbolic power that this structure exudes or the feelings of inspiration and awe that overwhelm the senses on a stroll around the circumference.

We headed next to the Wangfujing district to spend some time wandering through the shopping mall and restaurant lined streets. The Saturday crowds had descended on Wangfujing and we sat at one of the outdoor soda shops to rest our feet and watch the world go by. Aaron had been talking about seeing two of the other Olympic venues – the Beijing National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center – but two hurdles stood in our way: the venues were too new to be shown on any of our tourist maps so we weren’t sure how far they were; also, we had not yet taken a taxi in China and were intimidated by the language barrier. After a recent experience with a dishonest taxi driver in Hanoi who, after agreeing to charge according to his meter, drove us in circles around town before stopping at our destination, thereby attempting to extort four times the correct fare, we were hesitant to take a taxi to a destination of unknown distance. After much deliberation, we agreed to go for it anyway.

With only a few hours before we needed to depart for the train station, we hurried to the end of Wangfujing where we had seen an abundance of taxis. It took us a while to get one to stop – our foreign faces seemingly a deterrent – and when a driver did finally stop, we soon discovered that Chinese taxi drivers were clueless about the Olympic venues, or at least did not comprehend the English names for them. This is going to be a big problem for the Olympics, I thought to myself. Finally, we found a driver who, after many repeated utterances of the word “Olympics” and grand gestures indicating large buildings, pulled out a handy little book from his glove compartment. It was a government-issued Chinese taxi driver’s guide to the Olympics and contained photos of all of the Olympic venues. Aaron pointed to the correct photos, the driver nodded, and we were off!

The Beijing National Stadium, a.k.a. the Bird’s Nest for its architecture, will be the site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games as well as the main track and field events. The area around the Bird’s Nest was fenced off so we could not get very close to it. We had the driver stop for a few minutes along the side of the road so that we could join the other gawkers. The building was a massive display of modern architecture, in which soaring curvature has replaced the maximum functionality of space as the primary initiative of the endeavor. The gargantuan steel structure invokes shock and awe in the beholder rather than admiration of beauty in the traditional sense. It is inarguably an impressive artistic and architectural feat.

Directly adjacent to the National Stadium was the National Aquatics Center, commonly referred to as the Water Cube, which will host the swimming, diving, and synchronized swimming events. Masterfully designed to resemble the foam created by soap bubbles, the structure is made of steel and Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (EFTE), a kind of plastic that “allows more light and heat penetration than traditional glass, resulting in a 30% decrease in energy costs” ( The EFTE pillows take on a light blue, watery hue, similar to that of the glassy surface of Lake Kunming, and you cannot help envisioning grand swimming pools inside. The Water Cube was also roped off, denying us a closer look, but we will definitely be watching the Olympics this year to get a glimpse inside this and Beijing’s other spectacular venues.

We had our driver deliver us back to Wangfujing for our “last supper” in Beijing at the famous Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. We sat down for what would be our fanciest Chinese dining experience amid a sea of upper-middle class Chinese families. We looked around the dining room as roast ducks were being sliced and diced by hospital mask-clad chefs in tableside presentations. The menu listed every imaginable preparation of duck, with all of the questionable body parts highlighted as delicacies. Our waitress assured us that a half-duck would be sufficient for both of us and we ordered a side dish of mashed potatoes. Naturally, the mashed potatoes arrived long before the duck and, to our surprise and disappointment, they were served chilled. Life is like a box of chocolates…

Our duck arrived after about thirty minutes and the chef began carving it up. Due to my little carcass phobia, I kept my eyes on Aaron and prayed that nothing that arrived at the table would resemble a living animal or its internal organs. We were served a few slivers of flavorful skins first, which we happily doused in plum sauce. Next, the sliced meat was presented in an expertly carved pile. Thankfully, the carcass was then taken away. The waitress demonstrated the traditional assembly for Peking duck by dipping two pieces of meat into the plum sauce and placing them in the center of one of the rice pancakes. She then added a sliver of spring onion and a julienne cucumber and folded the pancake neatly around the filling, using my chopsticks. Dinner was delicious! We finished just in time to race back to the hostel, collect our bags, and head to the train station.

We found Beijing to be a fascinating city, one that has embraced many aspects of modernism while clinging to its colorful culture and traditions. The modern Chinese have completely embraced Western dress; the women adore high heels, Louis Vuitton handbags and trendy, layered hairstyles. The McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants do a thriving business and Chinese children are showing the first signs of childhood obesity. Beijing has all the signs of civilization. The one thing that I (the self-appointed Potty Police) just cannot get over is the abundance of squat toilets. Here we go again. Though I am admittedly impressed by the number of public toilets in Beijing, I am outraged by the fact that they are almost all squat toilets and rarely have toilet paper or soap. If there is paper at all, it is in a single common dispenser outside of the stalls. Even McDonalds has squat toilets! It seemed like such a gross contrast to have magnificent modern buildings and impressive infrastructure everywhere…and then squat toilets.

A young woman whom we had met earlier in our travels had formerly done a work study in China. She told us that, at her office, the squat toilets were all replaced with Western toilets. Subsequently, the Western toilets were all ripped out and the squat toilets replaced because the Chinese were squatting on the toilet seats rather than sitting on them, leaving dirty footprints on the toilet seats. The moral of the story was that the Chinese simply prefer squat toilets to Western toilets! In my opinion, this is the most difficult part of China to digest because the squatters are more prevalent in China than anywhere else that we’ve traveled. The disgusting public smoking, uninhibited spitting (and I mean hocking up big, nasty loogies), pollution, mediocre food quality and rampant overcrowding that results in inhaling more people’s breath (and germs) than ever before…all of these things I can handle with relative understanding. Squat toilets are my nemesis. I find the notion of squatting like a dog to relieve oneself totally uncivilized. While some people may determine restroom visits to be a small part of their day, I believe that when the Western world, accustomed to their clean toilettes with paper and soap, descends upon Beijing for the Olympics, the Chinese squat toilets will be reviled by all.

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June 17th 2008
Summer Palace

Posted under China

After checking off the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall in our first two days in Beijing, we felt sated and slowed our pace. There was still plenty to see in the capital of what is forecasted to be the world’s next great Superpower – a city of sixteen million people, well on its way to becoming a bastion of consumerism; a city that is furiously preparing itself to host the 2008 Olympics in less than two months.

We set off early for the Summer Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which formerly served as a vacation home for Chinese royalty. We rode the metro as far as we could and then caught a city bus the rest of the way. A female American expat scientist that we’d run into on the train offered to show us which bus to take, which was great because we had no idea. We talked a bit on the walk from the train station to bus station. She mentioned that she has worked in Hong Kong and China for the last ten years but the most interesting piece of information that she gave us was regarding the living conditions of some of her Chinese colleagues. She said that the government gives them a residence only three square meters in size. It is so depressing at home that the employees come to work very early in the morning, shower there, and stay late into the night, either working or playing computer games. I would have loved to spend the entire day listening to her talk about her experiences as a female expat in China but she was on her way to work.

The architectural design of the entrance to the Summer Palace was strikingly similar to that of the Forbidden City – a pagoda-like structure ornamented with the same ornate patterns of red, gold, green and blue. Once inside, we wove our way through the throngs of tour groups – each group with its own matching hats – in the courtyard. We emerged at the edge of the sparkling blue Lake Kunming, which occupies three-quarters of the palatial grounds. A bluish-purple haze – likely a combination of clouds and smog – cast a mystical glow across the glassy surface of the lake and obscured the “templescape” on the northern shore. An elaborately decorated ferry cut through the glass as it carried visitors back and forth across the lake while paddleboats and rowboats careened about on the breezeless day.

We made our way toward the north side of the lake where most of the buildings were situated around the gentle slopes of Longevity Hill. The Buddhist temples, halls and corridors were all of intricate, colorful design and bore marvelous names such as the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, Cloud Dispelling Hall, and Temple of the Sea of Wisdom. The focal point of the hill was the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion – a vibrant, cylindrical pagoda overlooking the lake.

As we continued north, we came upon a shaded courtyard where approximately two hundred middle-aged Chinese women were practicing a choreographed dance routine, similar to the Electric Slide, while music blared from a large speaker. We couldn’t decide whether it was some kind of dance aerobics or they were learning the routine for an event related to the Olympics. In any case, they were in the early stages of instruction and were adorably focused on their task. It was quite a spectacle as the women skipped, shimmied and gyrated about the courtyard.

Past the dancers, we came upon my favorite area of the Summer Palace – Suzhou Street. Crossing an arched stone bridge, we caught our first glimpse of the traditional, red-laced shopfronts edging around a narrow canal. Suzhou Street was created as a replica of Jiangsu, a famous Chinese canal town. Its charming shopfronts were fully functional with tea houses, souvenir shops, Chinese calligraphers, painters, and photography studios in which visitors could dress in traditional Chinese silk costumes. A lone flute-seller demonstrated his instrument on the walkway, filling the entire canal town with his eerie, tranquil notes. We took a single leisurely lap around the riverside walkway and were beckoned inside every shop, gallery and tea house that we passed, which detracted only slightly from the charm of the experience.

As we made our way back through the courtyard, we noticed that the dancing women had dispersed and I was sorry that I hadn’t snapped a photo of them earlier. We found our way back to the lake and took the ferry across to the south side, near our exit.

The Summer Palace was symbolic of the grandeur and excesses of the early Chinese rulers. More than simply a vacation home, the palace was a royal playground fit for an emperor who needed a walled-in sanctuary like the Forbidden City to isolate him from his subjects. Seeing the decadence in which the historical rulers lived, we cannot help but wonder about the living conditions of the average citizen at that time. Was the whole of the empire living so large as to justify such palaces? Or were citizens enslaved to toil over palatial labors while they themselves lived in squalor?

China is the world’s longest continuous civilization. As Americans, it is difficult for us to fathom such long cultural history, that which predates Christ. As we visit countries like China and Egypt, we often find ourselves wondering why nations like these that seemed architecturally, artistically, socially and technologically so advanced fell steps behind later emerging nations. The trend seems to support the idea that man’s biggest enemy is always himself. Even a very advanced and economically dominant Superpower can fall victim to its leaders’ greed and proclivity for war. The world balance of power is dynamic…it is ever-changing. While the warring and decadence of old China may have caused the country to fall from grace, today’s China, according to countless analysts, seems to be on its way to the top.

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June 13th 2008
The Great Wall

Posted under China

The Great Wall of China was originally begun during the Qin Dynasty between 221-207 B.C. Though it was never effective in its original purpose – to keep out invaders – it did serve as an excellent transportation system for moving weapons and supplies through the mountains. The wall was fortified again during the Ming Dynasty – a 100 year process that expended colossal man-power and resources. It is near the top of every list of world wonders and is a must-see in China. There are several different sections of the wall that are open to visitors, including sections that have been restored from crumbling ruin to replicate their original appearance. Badaling is a rebuilt section of the wall that is reputedly the most commercialized and crowded but, after battling the crowds in the Forbidden City, we wanted something more personal. Our hostel advertised a small group excursion to a “secret” part of the wall, which involved a three-hour drive, a mountain trek, two hours on the wall itself, and lunch at the end. Most importantly, the promoters promised a less touristy experience.

We departed on a minibus at 7:30am and jerked through Beijing’s morning gridlock for over an hour before reaching a stretch of highway – still congested with commercial vehicles – that wound through the mountains. We passed the spectacle at Badaling and stared at the row of at least one hundred full-size tour buses and rows upon rows of souvenir shops and other services. We all quietly conferred on the undesirability of that scene. At the end of three hours, we arrived on a remote road along the foot of a mountain range. Everyone in the bus needed a restroom visit but there was only the crumbling shell of a small stone building, which appeared to serve no function whatsoever. Our group of ten scattered into the brush for our first bonding experience of the day.

Our Chinese guide was a little old man (perhaps sixty, though it is always hard to tell with Asians because they age so well) who spoke only one word of English: “okay”. We never caught his name; he was introduced simply as “the guide” when we picked him up on the side of the road. From now on, I’ll refer to him as Wang because he needs a name. Wang led our group in slow, measured steps up the mountainside, on a narrow, rocky trail encroached upon by thick brush from both sides. The slow but steady pace of the ascent made the otherwise rigorous terrain quite manageable, even for a little whiner like me who hates steep inclines. Wang clearly felt no sense of urgency and everyone in the group was in fine spirits.

We could see the Great Wall across the mountain tops long before we arrived there. From a distance, it looked smaller than I’d imagined, dwarfed against the enormity of the mountains. We climbed for nearly forty-five minutes, pausing occasionally to rest, until we finally reached the foot of the wall. Up close, it was very tall – about fifteen feet on average – and stretched as far as we could see in both directions, following the curves of the mountain peaks like a white ribbon. A section of the wall that had collapsed into a pile of rubble created a stony entrance and we all clambered up the rubble hill to stand on the wall for the first time. Everyone was in awe of the spectacular view across the soaring, green mountains. We were unable yet to grasp the idea that we were standing on the Great Wall of China.

For the next two hours, we walked on top of the wall, stopping along the way for photos and to take in the views at various angles. The views were always different as the wall, in varying states of deterioration, snaked across the entire mountain range. The wall was surprisingly thick with tightly packed earth sandwiched between two massive stone walls. Even in its state of rapid dilapidation, it felt sturdy beneath our careful steps. The sound of hard-soled hiking boots stomping over stone and rammed earth was like music. The wall was topped with staggered guard towers and we stopped for a long rest at one of the taller towers – a two-storey stone structure with a one-man souvenir and refreshment shop inside. A ladder made of tree branches and wire granted us access to the top of the tower and we sat up there, on top of the Great Wall of China, and seemingly on top of the world. The “secret” wall excursion had delivered on all of its promises. In our two-hour walk on top of the wall, we did not encounter another soul save for the single, non-intrusive refreshment seller in the tower. The experience was moving, contemplative, inspiring…it was epic!

Wang found an inconspicuous path that led us back down the mountain to a small village. While we were all sad to leave the euphoria of standing on the Great Wall behind, we were all looking forward to a hot meal. At the foot of the mountain, Wang managed, using only hand gestures (like pointing to the wall and rubbing his belly) to ask us if we were happy with the experience and to solicit a tip from the group. We were all elated and happily relinquished a generous stack of Yuan, which gave Wang a big smile. We figured that his grandchildren probably want the Nintendo Wii too.

Lunch was delicious – heaping portions of steamy stir-fried dishes, served family-style on a Chinese turn-table. Family style is the best way to eat in China, where (like in most parts of Asia) the concept of Western food service etiquette is completely foreign. When we dine out in Asia, our entrees almost never arrive together. One of us will be nearly finished before the other’s entrée is delivered. Appetizers arrive with entrées. After months in Asia, we have learned to share everything. Halfway through our meal, the hostess (without a word of English) abruptly demanded that we pony up for the Cokes and beer. It is a bizarre culture difference to which we never quite grow accustomed since it conflicts with our own rules of etiquette.

The ride back to Beijing was shorter than the morning ride but, to the weary bodies in the minibus, it felt much longer. The physical and emotional exertion of our epic endeavor had left us in a state of mellow fatigue. Aaron and I made it out for some Peking duck (a must-have in Beijing) but retired early to reflect on the day and let the surrealism of walking on the Great Wall of China fade into awesome reality.


June 12th 2008
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

Posted under China

As our plane descended toward Beijing, the first things we noticed about the city were smog, a wide flat landscape and smog. “According to the World Bank, China has 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, and by some counts Beijing is the world’s most polluted city.” (Lonely Planet China, May 2007)

By the time we made it through Immigration and collected our bags, it was eight p.m. and we were happy to find a sign with our name on it at the airport exit. It is always a little disorienting to enter a city for the first time in the dark. As I stared curiously out the window during the hour-long drive to the hostel, my brain struggled to make sense of the wide, busy highways. It didn’t look like the China I had envisioned. Not until our minibus pulled into a narrow side street alight with red Chinese lanterns and cluttered with bicycles would my brain accept that this was actually Beijing. The hostel exceeded our highest expectations with cozy down comforters, a quaint garden courtyard, and a Western toilet (although it was the kind that you can’t put any paper into, which is still pretty disgusting).

There is so much to see in Beijing and we started early the next morning with a walk to Tiananmen Square – an easy fifteen-minute stroll from our hostel. The streets were wide with generous sidewalks and bike lanes. China’s dense population is evident on any given street – there are people everywhere! Underground pedestrian walkways circumvent the eight-lane street crossings and uniformed crossing guards assist with the narrower street-level crossings. Efficiently moving this many people through the city on a given day seems like a daunting challenge to which the Chinese have responded with excellent public transportation systems. City buses and the metro are clean, cheap, efficient and filled to capacity – standing room only and just barely – with bodies. And still the streets are crowded with auto traffic. Among the crowds in Beijing are noticeably few Anglo faces; even around the most visited sites, the tourists are largely Asian.

At mid-morning, Tiananmen Square was already flocked with tourists, though the sheer size of the world’s largest public square left us plenty of room to wander. The square was conceived to represent the enormity of Communism and encompasses an area equal to about sixty official size soccer fields. Today, the square bustles with tourists and locals alike, pondering the historical significance and enjoying the wide open spaces in the middle of the city. The most famous landmark and the symbolic center of the Chinese universe is an imposing red wall at the northern end of the Square called the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It is marked with a large portrait of ex-Chairman Mao – a former head of state whose failed communist economic experiment, called the Great Leap Forward, resulted is an estimated thirty million Chinese deaths by starvation but who is somehow still revered by the Chinese.

The Forbidden City lies adjacent to Tiananmen Square. We headed toward the entrance, drawn to the colorful rooftop of the hall towering over the Meridian Gate. We rented an audio guide with a built-in GPS system and walked inside. The Imperial Palace, now know as the Forbidden City because it was off-limits for 500 years, was constructed during the Ming dynasty in the 15th century and served as a secluded palace home to two dynasties of Chinese emperors: the Ming and the Qing. The compound was designed such that the emperors rarely had to leave its decadent, insulated confines. With a 2.6 million square foot area of halls, galleries, gardens and courtyards, it is not difficult to imagine living an entire life inside the foreboding city walls. The emperors held court, gave public speeches, received felicitations on special occasions, hosted foreign dignitaries, studied, amassed a great many treasures and lived their daily lives within the city walls. The main areas of the city were its various great halls, built in perfect alignment through the center of the compound. Each hall had a specific function and was richly decorated in blue, green, red and gold. The design of the halls and their opulent adornments were intended to acknowledge the divine right of the emperor to rule the people.

Around the perimeter of the compound were smaller galleries now used as individual museums, housing palace treasures, historical artifacts, royal jewelry and a splendid collection of beautiful antique clocks. The Chinese used sun dials and hour glasses to keep the time before British traders first brought clocks to China through the port at Guangzhou. The Hall of Clocks displayed an impressive collection of British, French, and Dutch clocks gifted to the emperors as well as Chinese clocks later commissioned in the royal workshop. This dimly lit gallery with red walls and illuminated glass display cases was our favorite gallery inside the Forbidden City.

After four hours in the hot summer sun, we had covered a good portion of the enormous compound. The architectural style, beautiful colors and intricate designs of the halls were all striking but it was the expansiveness of the city itself that left us completely awestruck. We had to ask ourselves how a small contingent can get away with living in such rich luxury, built on the blood, sweat and tears of the masses. The idea of divine right is so foreign to our democratic minds. We are reminded how malleable are the minds of the masses, especially in nations where the free flow of information is largely censored at the hand of a small contingent. Without education and freedom of information, the view from inside the box can be painted in thick, rosy gloss. Still, the American government is no poster child of transparency. Governments apparently cannot pursue their “necessary” clandestine operations without their secrets. It is an interesting world that we live in. I cannot help but think that every society will be corrupted by man’s greed for power but that the volatility of disgruntled masses, however oppressed, will eventually shift the weight of power and restore the balance, only to have the cycle begin again.

We had worked up quite an appetite and decided to walk to a narrow side street in the nearby Wangfujing district, nicknamed “Snack Street”. In reality it was more like an alleyway ornamented with a large colorful archway at the entrance. It was lined with food stalls and a few small restaurants. One vendor displayed skewers of scorpions, seahorses, snakes, starfish, and a variety of insects which could be fried upon request. I found it quite disturbing, especially the seahorses, which are so rare and beautiful. We passed on the exotic fare and were instead lured into one of the restaurants where there was no menu whatsoever and no one spoke English. We managed to order some dumplings and noodles (although we actually got noodle soup instead). We have found the food in China to be oily and mediocre so far but, after a long, hot day of walking in the Forbidden City, we were happy just to sit.

We made a few last stops on the way back to our place, including the Beijing 2008 Olympic Flagship Store to stock up on official Olympics gear. The selection of Olympics merchandise was dizzying with everything from pens and stuffed animals to lavish Chinese vases with prices in the thousands of dollars (but priced in Yuan, of course). We scored a few t-shirts, then popped underground to the metro station and found our way back to the hostel with the ease of seasoned travelers. Our first day in Beijing was brilliant. We are fascinated by the Chinese culture and look forward to digging deeper into the psyche of this emerging economic powerhouse.

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