I read somewhere that there’s no point in visiting more than one Chinese big city, because they’re all the same. Fortunately we ignored such advice and went straight from Shanghai to Beijing. Sure, we could have lived without the extra dose of pollution, crowds and mad drivers, but this trip would be utterly incomplete without Beijing’s three landmarks: the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Olympic Village.
We arrived to Beijing during the celebrations of the 70 years of the end of World War II. The whole city was going crazy: crowds everywhere, security checks at each corner, the Tiananmen Square closed for the big military parade (for a country that defines itself as non-expansionist, they sure know how to put on a show, one that we saw played over and over on the subway screens and public TV channels). While for Western countries World War II was mostly about putting a stop to Nazism, for China it represented something much closer to home: the end of the Japanese occupation, an issue that to this day continues to stand in between the relations of both countries. Here’s an example: one of the exhibits we attended was called ‘Anti-Japanese and National Salvation Movement’. In Europe we take for granted something that, judging by the Sino-Japanese example, is difficult to achieve: a fine balance between not forgetting the atrocities that were committed during the war and rebuilding a unified continent. Who in their right mind would hold an ‘Anti-Germany’ exhibit?
A few days after the military parade, we were able to visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden CIty. These two landmarks, facing each other, seem oddly conflicting: Tiananmen Square stands as a hall for the heroes of the revolution that established the People’s Republic of China, while the Forbidden City served as the imperial palace for the Ming and Qing dynasties for over 500 years. The imperial grounds did suffer some damage during the revolution, but further destruction was prevented by Zhou Enlai, the republic’s first Premier. These days, a huge portrait of Mao Zedong stands at the entrance to the Forbidden City, somehow connecting the old imperial palace with Tiananmen Square. Mao Zedong was one of the founding members of the Chinese Communist Party and the leader of the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution movements, during which an estimated 40 to 70 million Chinese died from starvation, forced labour and executions. Much like in other cases, his portrait should be in a museum, not a landmark.
Next came another of Beijing’s musts: the Great Wall. Beijing is actually just one of the many places from where it is possible to visit the 21,196 km wall, the only manmade structure visible from space. The most popular portion of the Wall is Baraling but we went instead to Mutianyu to avoid the crowds. Getting there using public transport requires navigating though multiple scammers that try to get you on the wrong bus or get off at the wrong station, but the savings are well worth it for a couple of stingy backpackers like ourselves. We quickly forgot the whole ordeal once we got there, as the Great Wall is a magnificent thing, even on a rainy day. Together with Katya and Maxim, an awesome Russian couple we met while circumnavigating the scammers, we hiked up and down the Great Wall. If you’re reasonably fit, ditch the cable car and do the whole thing on foot: that way you avoid the crowds and get the wall pretty much for yourself. This is one of the few portions of the Great Wall that has been fully restored. In fact, if you continue walking to the west you’ll get to see the ‘Wild Wall’, an unrestored section. In hindsight it was a pretty dumb idea to venture there on a rainy day: the whole thing is very slippery and riddled with tricky pathways.
The obsession with security that motivated the construction of the Great Wall (which served both to keep the barbarians out and the Chinese in) seems to continue to this day. We were lucky enough to meet an Italian student that was traveling through China to interview people: according to her, many of the Chinese she interviewed were willing to tolerate censorship in exchange for safety and economic growth. The most visible face of censorship is the ‘Great Firewall’ (access to Facebook, Instagram and WordPress – the platform we use to write this blog – is not allowed), but its effects run much deeper: for instance, many Chinese don’t know the story of the man that stood in front of the tanks in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
The last Beijing landmark we visited was the 2008 Olympic Games site, which is a short subway trip away from downtown (Beijing, like Shanghai, has an impeccably organized subway system that goes everywhere in the city). The first thing you’ll notice after getting out of the subway station is the National Stadium, also known as ‘The Bird’s Nest’. The stadium was designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (which also designed the Allianz Arena in Munich), in collaboration with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei (who later regretted helping the Communist Party to stage a successful Olympic Games). Our pictures simply don’t do it justice, google ‘Bird’s Nest at night’ to get the full effect! Next to the stadium stands the National Aquatics Center, or ‘Water Cube’, another iconic building from the 2008 Olympics. The “soap bubbles” structure, made from super-thin ETFE, is as impressive from the inside as it is from the outside. Standing next to the pool where 25 world records were broken was something special. Some believe that this pool is particularly fast because of its increased depth, but the usually high number of fallen world records probably had more to do with the high-tech swimwear debuted that year (and banned in 2010).
That’s it for now, but Jules will quickly follow up with tales from Xi’an, Luoyang and Suzhou, three smaller cities (only in China can you call 1 million+ city “small”).