On the way to our first location today, we learned that Sunday’s overwhelming traffic jams in Beijing are due in big part to Chairman Xi Jinping’s return to the city.
But it seems traffic is a daily part of life in modern Beijjng, a city that used to be called “Bicycle City” back in the late 90s. Back then there were millions fewer people in residence vs. today’s official population of 22 million (unofficially it’s 25 million), many of whom seem to have cars.
At the start of the morning bus ride, Danny, our guide, gave us an introduction to China’s geography and pointed out a venue that highlights China’s 56 diverse ethnic minorities, many of whom used to be featured on the Chinese currency. He also summarized some information about municipalities and their connections to the central Chinese government, in addition to sharing his views about people’s spending habits, the one-child policy, Taiwan and China relations and his ability to act as a “walking map” and guide for all the questions we posed. His humor and patience were much appreciated by our group.
Once we entered the Summer Palace, it was like walking back in time. Much of the history we learned pre-dates America’s birth. We learned about the perseverance of the Chinese through wars and invasions, building and rebuilding, and even the more recent impact the Olympics had on the city of Beijing.
Throughout the Summer Palace grounds we saw symbolic statues and colors providing additional layers of stories and meaning. Longevity was a consistent visual in the form of characters, animals and even Feng shui. Most clear in all the stories was the absolute power with which the former emperors of China ruled their kingdom. The color yellow, for example, was only to be worn or showcased by the Emperor. If others used it, they would be punished. In other extremes, if any new inventions were introduced, such as the gift of electric lamps from some German visitors, these were only allowed to be used by commoners once the Emperor used them, thus granting permission for all. Those who did not wait to partake in these new inventions could be sentenced to death. Pretty harsh.
Our short boat ride across the man-made Kunming Lake offered a brief reprieve from the endless crowds of touring groups, like our own, as well a beautiful view of the surrounding hills and structures: a moment of peace amidst the chaos. The lake, shaped like a bat, is another part of the symbolism so prevalent in China, in this case using the word for bat (bian fu) to emphasize the “fu” sound, which exemplifies the word for luck (good fortune).
Our exit took us onwards to a Chinese restaurant where we tried a variety of dishes in the typical round table, family style set up. Favorites included a spicy chicken or pork dish, orange chicken, eggplant, and pork belly, which were accompanied by rice, a soup, stir fried broccoli, cabbage, and a pot of tofu: deliciousness all around.
A 40-minute bus ride later, upon arriving at the Hong Qiao Tian Huan Market: five floors of fake goods, souvenirs, and jewelry. We walked off our meal. The market provided a great place to practice the art of bargaining. Two hours later we returned to the bus with a few extra bags and headed out for a relaxing foot massage, followed by dinner. We rode home sleepy and satisfied after our twelve-hour day.
Tomorrow, to avoid the weekend masses, our guide suggested a change in our itinerary, so after an unanimous vote, it looks like we will visit the Great Wall on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday. While that will not mean that we can completely avoid the crowds, it will provide a little breathing room when we visit.
And in case you are wondering, yes, it is true that the air quality cannot compare to San Diego, but we’ve all been doing fine. Aside from impacting our view of the city, it has been a non-issue as of now and we won’t be here long enough to need to worry about the effects.
We have enjoyed a long but great day of bonding, exploring and absorbing Beijing’s array of activities and wonders. A nice start to our short week here. Everyone seems to be having a great time getting to know one another and this huge city.
Until tomorrow (or the day after), farewell!
This post is part of a series of guest blogs from Ine Williams, Study Abroad Advisor at the International Student Center and group leader of the spring 2015 HHS 350 course to China.