Monday, 21 February 2011

Beijing, 21-28 December 2010 - Part One - Arrival

The taxi moved unhindered through the suburbs of Beijing with me in the back, half asleep and clueless to where I was in relation to the hostel. One thing I don't like when arriving in a new city is the not knowing where you are or how much a taxi 'should' cost you. I always surrender to the unfortunate fact that you will get ripped off. The taxi took a sharp right turn and I was confronted with my first sight of the walls surrounding the Forbidden City and soon after the taxi turned left and passed by the world's largest public square, namely the infamous Tienanmen Square. Leo Hostel, where we were bound, is in the Qianmen district just South of the square and even though they said it was in a good location, I was pleasantly surprised how good it was. Qianmen literally means Front Gate in Chinese and is in fact just that. The building housing the gate still remains and the gate itself sits directly on the central North-South axis of Beijing. The car passed the right side of Qianmen gate and headed South for a few hundred yards before hooking a right down a small pedestrianised street and pulled up outside the hostel. I woke the night attendant up and wearily registered and paid for a few nights. He showed me up to my room and I finally collapsed into a bed, the likes of which I hadn't seen for a couple of days. Even though I got a lot of sleep of the bus, it wasn't good enough for my body to recover the trauma of the luggage rack and I was constantly being woken up by the lady beside me shouting down her mobile phone which she really didn't need as I'm sure the pandas could have heard her in Chengdu!

After a couple of hours sleep, I woke up had a shower and headed downstairs to explore the hostel. I walked down the steps to find Justine and Eric, whom I had met in Mongolia, enjoying a nice pot of jasmine tea. This wasn't a surprise as we all planned to meet up in the hostel for Christmas celebrations. We were soon joined by June and Karin who were accompanied by Sam, a London girl teaching English in a small village outside of Guangzhou in Southern China near Hong Kong. Although it had only been a day since we last saw each other, it was really nice to see them again and I looked forward to sharing Christmas with them.

Tienanmen Square
I decided that my first day in Beijing should be used to explore the local surroundings and get my first real taste of the city. I walked outside and was initially struck by the pleasant temperature that did not bite the skin so I removed my hat and gloves that had become part of me through Russia and Mongolia. I felt as though I was in paradise and walked with my jacket unzipped towards Tienanmen Square. It should have been a simple walk to the square, but I was confronted with multiple barriers between me and the Square. I descended into the subway which looked as though it would get me across the road and present me into the square. However, I found another barrier with armed guards restricting access to my intended route and forced to divert to another exit which brought me up on another road still the wrong side of the barriers. I pondered for a second and then noticed a pedestrian crossing up ahead where people looked as though they were entering the square. I followed them like a sheep and had to go through a security checkpoint where people were subjected to metal detectors and their bags being scanned before heading freely into the square.

Chinese government are so scared of an uprising that many plain clothed police officers roam the square, listening into people's conversations and remove any liabilities at the first sign of dissent. Everyday at sunrise and sunset there is a flag ceremony where soldiers will come out from within the Forbidden City and raise and lower the flag. These ceremonies obviously attract a large number of tourists into the square and you can see that they don't like large amount of people in one place at one time. As soon as the ceremony finishes and the soldiers have taken the flag away back through the Tienanmen Gate into the Forbidden City, the police urge you out through the nearest exit to disperse the crowd. Historically, Tienanmen Square has been at the very centre of revolutions and protests over the last century. Even though the Chinese government has done a good job at censuring their citizens to The Tienanmen Square Massacre of 1989, no one outside of the country will forget the iconic image of the 'Tank Man' who halted a line of PLA tanks outside of the Forbidden City or the hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed protesters killed ruthlessly by soldiers who open fired against them in a nearby street.

Tank Man
***As I write this blog there are series of protests and uprisings across countries North Africa including Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Libya. I was surprised that the news of these uprisings were shown on the news around China as I thought it may provoke the same thing here. This morning my thoughts became a reality when a number of protests were thwarted around major cities in China. The protests were organised via the internet and called for people to gather in specific locations around China and protest for jobs, housing and fairness, it was called 'The Jasmine Revolution' mirroring the Tunisian protests which overthrew their government under the same name. President Hu Jintao today spoke out against the protests and stated that there needs to be tighter control on the internet “to guide public opinion” and “sole prominent problems which might harm the harmony and stability of the society”. It was reported that people had been arrested before the protests took place and a number of people were forcefully removed with them claiming they have done nothing wrong. China today have implemented their controls on the internet and have blocked searches for the word 'jasmine'. China had previously blocked social websites like Facebook, Twitter and blogging websites like Blogger because the websites had been used to spread revolutionary ideas and organise protests. It is know as 'The Great Firewall of China'. I have spoken with young Chinese people who have told me that they need to be very careful about what they say online because everything is filtered.***

Screens with propoganda and Mao's Mausoleum
Once in the square, I was struck by the enormity of it and the sheer communist feeling of the grandiose buildings flanking the square on either side accentuating the powerful heart of the People's Republic of China. Mao Zedong envisioned the square's full potential and ordered an expansion to create the world's largest public square which is a massive 440,000m2 stretching from Tienanmen Gate (Southern entrance to Forbidden City) to Qianmen (Front Gate). After Chairman Mao's death, the People's Government erected a mausoleum where his body lies in state like Lenin in Moscow. At the same time the square was enlarged to enable 600,000 people to congregate, although I couldn't imagine them being very comfortable with this amount of people now.

For the first time on my trip I have had to be aware of potential scams. It is well known in Beijing that young people, usually 'female artists', roam the square and will start talking with you and then ask whether you would like to go for a drink as they would like to 'practice their English'. They will then take you to a tea shop where you will be presented with a ridiculous bill or you will guilt tricked into paying an obscene amount for a painting as you are told the money goes to poor students to go to England and learn English. During my time in Beijing I had met several people who had fallen for this scam. One French guy got conned by a 'Tibetan Monk' and paid 200RMB (£20) for a cup of tea, a Dutch man got coerced into buying a painting and two German men met a group of 'friendly' Chinese people who took them for a drink and the bill came to a huge amount of money. Luckily I learnt from these peoples mistakes and ignored anyone who approached me which was very hard to do as I usually like to say hello to people. Now I say hello but remain vigilant and trust nobody. If they want you to go for a drink, make sure you choose a place and see the price list before ordering anything or you will get into the same situation. It's unfortunate that these people exist as it tarnishes the reputation of the generally friendly and helpful Chinese population. To a certain extent I can understand why they do it as China is a very competitive nation with so many people and not enough jobs to go around. There are so many people selling the same things on the streets and it's very hard for the average person to go elsewhere to earn a living. The difference between the poor/homeless people in the East is that instead of begging, they will try to sell something whether food, shoe shining service or touristy crap. However annoying their constant badgering is, I can respect their persistence.

The NCPA Building
Having strolled around the square I thought it was time to leave and head further afield so I took the North West exit and headed away from the Square and Forbidden City. It must have only been a few hundred yards away when I was stumbled upon a huge glass dome surrounded by an expanse of water. It looked out of place, as though someone had dropped a gigantic marble from the sky into the centre of Beijing. The magnificent building was in fact the National Centre for Peforming Arts (NCPA), another vision Chairman Mao had in the late 1950's and part of the project to build a series of public buildings to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic. Even though the plans were drawn up in 1958, construction only started in 1998 and was finally completed in 2007 but as they say 'good things come to those that wait'! I visited the building a few days later with a Danish man and was utterly gob smacked by the sheer size of the building inside. The outer shell acts as protection to a Concert Hall, an Opera House, a Theatre, an Experimental Theatre and several museums depicting the history and culture of Chinese art. It's a fantastic place to wander around and managed to walk in on a rehearsal of Marco Polo with the two main leads on the stage being coached by their choreographer. I felt a greater pleasure seeing them rehearse than I may have actually watching the show. We later tried to watch a rehearsal of an orchestra in the Concert Hall but was stopped when the window magically frosted up. The architectural design of this building is absolutely mesmerising, you enter the building by walking through a tunnel with water flowing above which creates awesome shadows on the floor and each level intertwines providing access to each auditorium. I think it's better this building took nearly fifty years to complete as the technological advancements in theatre have grown exponentially in the last century and have provided this building with the highest technology (made in China no doubt) available. I would advise any theatre/music/architecture lover to go there and spend the day exploring the different performance spaces within the dome.

Inside the NCPA

I returned later that evening to Leo Hostel and met Thom and Hannah, a couple from London who were travelling around the world. Together with Sam, they were the first British people I had met since Moscow. We spent the evening sucking down a few bottles of Tsing Tao and watching 'The Last Emperor' which is an insightful account of Emperor Puyi's life who ascended to the throne in 1908 when he was only two years old. The revolution in 1911 and the creation of Sun Yatsen's republican government that overthrew the dynastic rule making Puyi the last emperor of China.

Next Time... The Forbidden City, A Bloody Big Wall, Food Street, Acrobatics and Christmas

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