What an unforgettable weekend in Beijing. I was able to shift some classes around, enabling Joann and I to leave Thursday night (17th) and return Monday morning (21st). We rode overnight trains, sleeping on a surprisingly comfy bed and sharing a room with four strangers. It was a 9 ½ hour train ride, which felt short since we slept through nearly all of it.
There is so much to see in Beijing. To ensure we saw all the biggies, we went through a travel agent, one referred to me by one of my students. So we paid a bit more, but also got to see more and enjoyed luxuries such as a private tour guide, a private driver, some high-end meals, a nice hotel with access to good food and drink, and the peace of mind knowing we were taken care of and didn’t have to worry about coordinating it all.
As for pictures, I’ll defer to Joann’s facebook page until I post some: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?page=4&aid=132227&id=755290097. (hopefully the link works). She’s got loads of great shots of our trip to Beijing, plus assorted pics of the Christmas season. So many great scenes, such as…
TIANANMEN SQUARE. It’s huge—the largest city square in the world, in fact. Visually stunning, and made more so by what felt like perfect lighting during our morning visit (the weather was actually clear blue throughout the weekend—just bitterly cold). Great picture of Chairman Mao draped over a wall on one side of the square. I don’t believe America has a figure in its history so venerated today as Mao is in China; none of the Rushmore presidents compare. Spectacular buildings all around the Square built in the classical Chinese style—a style more and more rare in China in light of the country's increasing modernization. And it’s fascinating to consider not only the number of meetings but the attendance at such meetings in this square (been around for nearly 700 years). It’s also a reminder of the we-don’t-talk-about-it-here event of 1989, so famous around the world but so hush-hush among the Chinese.
THE FORBIDDEN CITY. Former palace of the emperor from around 1400 (Ming dynasty) until the early 1900s when China when through a lot of turmoil leading up to the establishment of modern China in 1949. Interestingly, if I understand this correctly, Chairman Mao and others early on in the Cultural Revolution wanted to destroy the palace, I assume as means of distancing themselves from all things ancient and welcoming in a new era. I’m glad they didn’t; the country has preserved the site well. It’s probably the quintessential display of traditional Chinese architecture, and it’s massive—7,800,000 sq ft—with an array of palaces, temples, halls, rooms, gardens, and courtyards with statues.
HUTONG. This was a neighborhood not far from the Forbidden City we observed via a rickshaw ride. It’s a preserved ancient neighborhood, special not because of its grandness but because of its simple, quaint style of small homes and windy alley-like roads. I think its impact was made more potent by seeing it immediately after The Forbidden City.
THE GREAT WALL. Without a doubt the crown jewel of our weekend in Beijing. I hate to dismiss the glory and beauty of the palaces and temples we saw, but the Wall just wins. You’ve likely all seen pictures, so you get the idea—it’s a really big wall. It stretches 5,500 miles along what was once China’s northern border, and was built and rebuilt between the 5th century BC and the 16th century. I walked along the wall (even jogged and ran stairs at one point—I had to) in awe. In awe of the beauty of the surrounding mountains and segments of the wall that could be seen on peaks miles away. In awe of the amount of human effort that went into creating the wall again and again (and the lives lost in process—supposedly there are workers buried in the wall). In awe of the scope of history that is experienced when encountering something so ancient, something that sweeps one back in time far before iPods, TVs, cars, before America was even a dream in any young explorer’s heart, even before God had done the unthinkable and made Himself known in the midst of human history in a way God had done not before and has not done since. It is old. I guess I’m fascinated by old things. As I walked along this massive structure, with its stories of wars and kings and commoners and with all its grandeur and beauty, I hardly said a word. Ask Joann.
SILK AND JADE FACTORIES. A bit anti-climactic for me, but interesting nonetheless. We were guided step-by-step through the process of making silk blankets from cocoon to final product. Interesting, I suppose, considering silk was first developed in China, centuries before even the Great Wall was built. And jade...well…similar thoughts here to my feelings about silk. Jade is a gorgeous stone, and it was neat to observe some very elaborate jade artwork in the stone’s land of origin.
MING TOMBS. Another profound stop on our journey through ancient China. Another palace-like setting with gardens and grand pathways and statues and ancient halls—but for the dead, not the living. On Saturday, when we visited both the Wall and these tombs, we toured with a group—an Irish guy with his Mongolian girlfriend, a South African, and a Chinese guy who grew up in South Africa. They all had a good sense of humor, which made the day even more enjoyable.
KUNG FU SHOW. Joann and I watched a fascinating performance, a blend of theater and martial arts. The plot followed a young boy’s journey of becoming and mastering Kung Fu and finding peace and gaining wisdom, told in dramatic fashion with what were clearly very talented actors. Or, more accurately, kung fu masters. You can’t “act” like you know kung fu and pull of their stunts and level of choreography. They were genuinely gifted individuals who’ve probably been training their whole lives.
TEMPLE OF HEAVEN. The Temple of Heaven is an ancient series of Taoist temples, frequented by past emperors of China. Something about the layout and structures within the temple grounds felt different than that of the Forbidden City, despite looking similar in its “Chinese-ness.” It was constructed to be a holy place, and that’s what it felt like—holy. It was interesting to walk through the surrounding park and watch people engaged in their morning exercises and games and lively conversations, then move to the quiet, open courtyard areas and see the spectacular structures inside designed less to honor the emperor and more to move to prayer.
SUMMER PALACE. I visited so many wonderful places in Beijing that I could have easily gotten used to what I was seeing and grown bored or indifferent. But it didn’t get old. The Summer Palace was yet another fascinating sight, a massive summer retreat center for royalty in ancient times, with far-reaching and beautiful gardens, a lake (frozen, allowing Joann and I to walk around on it), numerous pagodas and corridors and palaces all obviously crafted with a level of artistry and craftsmanship and time and effort not often seen in the modern world. It was essentially our last stop of the weekend, and a fitting finale. I’d love to spend a month there, walking, reflecting, reading, writing…watching. Maybe if I’m king someday I’ll have such a privilege.
We also enjoyed a visit to a large pearl market where we did some buying and bargaining, a drive by the "Bird's Nest" (site of the '08 Olympics), a tea-tasting at a tea shop (liking tea more and more as time goes by), and a new friendship with Lucy, our tour guide for two of the three days. Lucy is our age and gives such tours frequently. The three of us shared some good meals and conversations and laughed a lot together. And we told her (at her request) we’d try to find an American young man for her to marry. She also, upon discovering my degree, asked me a lot about who Jesus was/is, to which I gave my opinion...which is always fun for me (giving my opinion about Jesus’ significance, not giving my opinions in general…well probably both, to be fair…bloggers tend to like to be heard).
An epic weekend, not only a China highlight but a life highlight.