A quick note: the “bomb shelter” is in fact, not the hottest new Beijing nightclub. In fact, the phrase is far less obtuse and more obvious. It is indeed a bomb shelter. Apparently there are many bomb shelters running under the streets of Beijing; according to my subterranean guide, Paul, they were built by students during the Cultural Revolution, that tumultuous episode in China’s long and highly esteemed history when the schools were closed down and education consisted of manual labor. Though it would be difficult, at least those students had a skill unlike their more western counterparts, academics who just breed more academics. As we wandered these products of students of yore I thought of the view just above our heads: hutongs, traditional Chinese streets that twist and turn, with giant glittering high-rises in the background. The old and the new juxtaposed together, although from what I was told the old is rapidly being abandoned in favor of progress. I can’t help feel slightly guilty at my distress over this adaptation. As a visitor from the US I want to experience Chinese culture, and I want it to be as authentically Chinese as possible. Yet my selfishness is unheeded here, China is on the rise and it will stop for no man. Particularly with the Olympic Games that were here this year.
Arriving in China only a month after the games was essentially arriving on the scene of the largest international party of the year: the decorations are all still up and the party favors still available everywhere. Signs of the revelry are constantly bombarding you, “You missed one heck of a show!”, they scream. Sadly not much can be done about missing this once in a lifetime opportunity, but an adequate replacement can be found in the form of occupying one’s days with travel to all the Chinese cultural institutions, which Beijing has in spades.
The Great Wall of China is as good a place to begin as any. Our visit to the Great Wall began first with a stop at a Jade “Factory,” factory being used in the loosest sense of the word imaginable. What we learned at the jade shop was essentially that jade is very unique and is meant to promote long live and health. Also we learned that in a Chinese Jade Factory EVERYTHING is for sale, the jade, the art, and even the display cabinets could probably be bought without much hassle. Also this was a location in which the art of haggling was required, a skill I never picked up: I’m a straightforward kind of guy, I pay what’s on the price tag and if it’s too much then I don’t buy it. Following the buying blitz we headed to the Great Wall. After the madness of modern China’s newfound Capitalistic tendencies the Great Wall proved to be a crowded but welcome respite from the rampant consumerism. The segment we surmounted was beautiful and open with gorgeous views of the wall snaking along the countryside into the distance with masses thronging on its thoroughfare. Along the way more people tried to shill their goods at us. Here was a location that was built thousands of years ago and millions of people were milling around on it with their Nikon cameras all taking the same photos as were available on postcards. The pleasure of being there was immense, it felt as though you were participating in history and if you just squinted and looked off to the left and ignored the French women right behind you, you could imagine the Chinese sentries walking up and down ensuring the security of the state.
That same day we later attended the Ming tombs, aptly named burial locations for most of the emperors of the Ming dynasty. The walk to the tombs was serene and willow-filled. The tombs themselves were tranquil and Lederhosen-clad German-filled. That evening on our way back to the city we were treated to a delicious Beijing Duck dinner that was far too lavish. As with most of our meals there was more food than a human could healthy consume, even if it was Thanksgiving. For the evening’s entertainment we saw a Kung Fu Show, which was essentially everything we’d been learning about Buddhism, but with Martial Arts! There were all sorts of references that without the welcome tutelage we received would have been completely mysterious and inexplicable. As it turns out Kung Fu originated as a type of Buddhist school that was intent on training the body and the mind. The parallels between our classes and the performance were striking and I was pleased that what I had gleaned was finally being applied.
The Forbidden City was another one of our destinations, although “one” doesn’t do it justice. With all the other places we went I felt as though we had seen a good portion of it or enough to sate me, but not with the Forbidden City. From previous exposure to it I had thought it was large, but possible to see in a day. I was wrong. I am not even sure if two days would suffice to take it all in. What we did experience was pretty impressive, I learned about the life of an Imperial Concubine, no easy picnic, and I saw the locations of note pertaining to the emperor, and a very beautiful rock garden at the very end. It would have been a great place to play hide and go seek as a child. Inside now are shops and some small places selling souvenirs, it is hard to believe that at one point in time the entire property was the living quarters of only a few individuals. Apparently when humans of all nations gain power they like to display it in over-the-top real estate.
Beijing has a skyline decorated with glittering high-rises and a history extending thousands of years into the past. Sometimes these two forces collide and come into conflict. At other times they seem to coexist peacefully indicating China is entering a new era in which the past and present work together harmoniously. Whatever the course of events that history takes, it’s nice to see the remnants of the past still honored in China today.
(Pictures coming soon)
(Article by Jeff S.)