29 June 2010

China: Das Capital

Arriving in Beijing impressed me. The final minutes of the train journey railed past high rise upon high rise, as far as the smog would let me see. A huge train station (the biggest in the world by some measures) received us; it felt like an airport (which I’m not a fan of; I want a train station to feel like a train station, airports are horrible places).

Since the train had got in at 5am, we were already out sightseeing by 7. We walked to Tiananmen Square, were, due to security concerns, you have to go through a number of underpasses and airport style security checks (same on the subway as well). Luckily the queues are not like at airports, but for a public square it is a bit of overkill, even if it does have a bit of a history.

The Chairman Mao-soleum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mausoleum_of_Mao_Zedong) is the main building in the square. It was 7:20, it didn’t open until 8, and the queue was already in its thousands, stretching halfway around the building. Lenin must feel shit, as there wasn’t a queue in sight in Moscow (although Lenin has better opening times, Mao is only 4 days a week for four hours at a time; how’s that for a working week, not exactly the hard work that his commie ideals espoused). We decided against it, and walked on to the Forbidden City, at the other end of the square.

You don’t need me to tell you all about how amazing it is, loads of places on the net can do that much better. From background reading, it seems somewhat lucky that it is still here in its original state. During the Cultural Revolution, the only reason why it was spared wreckage by the Red Guards was that Zhou Enlai (Premier of the PRC) stationed a battalion of the army there. It was huge, and luckily we got there early as it enabled us to get a good walk around without it yet being swarmed.

We were back in Tiananmen Square at 11:30, and the queue had all but dissipated, so in we went. It was very quick, and, like, Lenin, he simply looked quite waxy. Only his head was visible, neck and hands obscured by a cloak. Bit of a let down, Lenin was better, and less tacky (there was a large marble statue of him and a souvenir shop in Mao’s).

All I need to see now is Ho Chi Minh when we get to Vietnam, and I’ll have a hattrick of Communist embalmed leaders (old Joe Stalin used to be on display beside Lenin, by was dropped by Khrushchev during destalinisation). The fourth and final one would be Kim Il-sung’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumsusan_Memorial_Palace), but we’ll not be near North Korea in the foreseeable future.

We got around Beijing over the next few days doing and seeing loads, as well as the obligatory day trip to the Great Wall. The bit we went to was only partially restored, so we got to see how it’s really stood up to the test of time. Not well in a number of places, but considering the time spans involved, it’s still impressive. Unfortunately for us, the hills we completely drowned in a cloud of fog, so we couldn’t see much beyond 10 metres for most of the walk. At the very end, after about 4 hours, it finally cleared up a little, and we could take in the breath-taking scenery that the wall somehow snaked around.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Beijing. Despite all the worries about all the natural historic growth of the city being swept away and replaced by modern high-rises for the Olympics, this doesn’t appear to be true. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe many people were unjustly removed from their property to make way for new structures and many ‘Hutong’ (link) areas were demolished, but do not all societies suffer from this at some point?

In the UK and US, the government taking property for the benefit of the community at large exists (compulsory purchase and imminent domain respectively). London has, in the past, had huge periods of slum clearances to make way for the ‘future’. The Hutong areas that have survived are being modernised to an extent to pull the lives of their residents out of squalor. (Interestingly, most of the properties don’t have toilets or bathroom, so the communities have shared facilities throughout their area.)

The main sticking point with the Chinese way of doing it is that often people are not adequately compensated when it happens. In this respect, this is a society still developing property rights (as well as one that still suppresses human rights to an unacceptable degree).

Early one morning, we visited the Temple of Heaven park (beautiful place, pity about the smog blocking the view of the city as usual). We were astounded by the number of elderly out there doing some sort of exercise, whether it be simply stretching (I saw one old lady who must about been about 75 stretching one leg up against and tree, and it was way above her head), playing badminton, Chinese fan dancing or any number of other things. They are a fit old race (bit like the Germans).

We also headed over to the Olympic site, big disappointment. I guess I generally compare these things to Munich’s Olympiapark, which is a perfect example of how to turn a wasteland into something that the whole city can enjoy. Beijing’s is flat and bedecked in concrete. Munich’s has hills and is covered in greenery. In Beijing, you feel suffocated by security. In Munich, you can wander round without ever seeing anyone official. In Beijing, you feel like you’re being ripped off to view the stadium, while in Munich it costs a third of the price (part of the reason in Beijing is that is basically the only business they’ve got, long-term use of the stadium for other events wasn’t well planned). The architecture in Beijing does look impressive, but I’m not sure how well it’ll age; the roof of the Bird’s Nest already looks filthy. The venues in Munich are approaching 40 years, and still look relevant.

Enough of my germanophilic tendencies, back to Beijing. The food was great, but as ever it did involve numerous leaps of faith involving intestines, kidneys and hearts of all sort of animals. Some prices were scarcely believable. We had a sit-down breakfast one morning for about 70p, and some dinners didn’t run us much beyond the £2.50 mark.

We had only 6 days there, wish we could have spent a bit more time, but there is so much more to do in China, and my visa only allows me a certain amount of time. We moved onto Qingdao, China’s beer town.


pok said...

So on this particular occasion does your citizenship cause more problems than Audrey's?

André said...

Hi from Paula's new next-door neighbour in Kiwiland... Question for your blog map, will Blogabond allow you to differentiate route sectors by transport mode (e.g., train in blue, bus in red), and add a projected route (both for past to compare with reality, and for future so we can see what's coming?) Cheers!

Niall said...

You forgot to mention that Mao tends to hibernate in October, so unfortunately I can't wax lyrical about his head! But I did manage to see good old Ho Chi Minh, not much craic out of him!

Did you the firefly swing over the lake at the end of ur Great Wall trek? Maybe u were in a diff part of the wall to me. Still not as impressive as 'The Wall' in Swatragh!

Sokratees9 said...

My citizenship hasn't been a problem yet.

To Andre, Blogabond ain't that good, unfortunately, what you see is about as much as it can do, as far as I'm aware. I do put the dates into them, but haven't updated it recently, as it's a pain to do from China.

The Wall in Swatragh is definitely better, and it's got a more illustrious history I believe. Was at a different part of the wall, very quiet, almost empty

Unknown said...

They've a different way with those compulsory purchase orders in the Banana Republic of Ireland.

What happens is some councillor or high ranking civil servant goes to a mate of his with a chuck of land. The state simply has to have this piece of land no matter what the cost. He refuses to sell and gets planning permission for 200 appartments in the meantime from another mate in the government planning board, so they inflate the price, and government buy it at an extortionate rate for you and me. A brown envelope may also be passed here and there. Everyone's a winner except the old taxpayer. Still think we mostly get what we deserve down here. I like the Chinese way better. Take the land. It's only a bit of land after all. Give them another bit.
That's what they should do down here.