The JAL 787 from Tokyo to Haneda was half full and we ended up in business class. It was the most fun I had with an electric seat since my father z’l bought home a Buick Riviera in 1980. Eliot was not amused. I think he was unhappy in the realization that the quiet orderliness of Japan was coming to a swift end as we landed in Beijing. In a gesture to hold onto Japan Eliot donned a Japanese face mask along with the JAL crew before deplaning into the cavernous terminal building. We were met by our guide Leo- a late 20 something from Xian province. He was soft spoken but had a sense of humour.
My first impressions on China from the the drive in from the airport were smog, bare trees with nests (not spring yet), heavy traffic, VW’s, Buicks and Chinese built LYD (live your dream) automobiles. As we got closer to town, we passed huge gleaming housing complexes resembling Vegas Casino hotels only bigger. Instead of posters of workers, I saw billboards advertising Rolex watches and Gucci purses. Then we got to Tiananmen square. This was the China I expected, monuments to the revolution, Chairman Mao’s tomb and the Great Hall of the People. Soldiers with Red Stars on their hats marched across the square in formation. I could not help but think of 1998 and the student that confronted the tank. However, the communist part ended soon enough as we crossed the boulevard and entered the gates of the Forbidden City. In the gates and courtyards we got to see a glimpse of dynastic China. In the matter of one hour we went from Gucci to Mao, to Confucius.
Leo told us about the different Dynasties that ruled from Xian and then Beijing. He explained how building were based on principles of feng shui, status and purpose. The forbidden city was the site for the administration and governance of the empire as well as home to the emperor and his entourage of officials, concubines and eunuchs. We were told legends of punishment and reward. For example every year there was a single civil service exam held in which a single candidate would be selected as a mandarin from the multitudes from around China. The emperor himself would preside over the exam.
The buildings were impressive however the interiors of the palace were not preserved. Leo explained that the riches had been long gone before the Chinese revolution. To highlight this we saw a huge bronze urn that was too heavy to carry off. So the gold was mostly scraped off. Leo also told us how the Europeans took many treasures.
We stayed the night in a hotel located in a Hutong (traditional courtyard) that was accessed from an alley off the street. The place was peaceful but claustrophobic. The neighbourhood seemed a bit gritty with people washing in the alley and some beggars. Eliot was not pleased, and I realized that staying in traditional settings is sometimes better in theory than in practice. That evening we went out to see an acrobatic show that included 5 men on motorcycles in a giant steel ball (see video of motorcycles.). Outside the show we saw a glimpse of old china in a row of people getting their hair cut on the street. A couple of chinese men from the country side stood right in front of us and watched us eat snacks as if we were animals in a zoo. Leo explained that they were just being curious. We did notice that people pushed and shoved a lot and everyone seemed to be spitting.
I forgot about the spitting after Leo told us explained that until very recently most people in China were very poor and you had to hustle to get by. Leo told us how villagers from his town would make soup out of grass because there was no food. David Rakoff wrote about how his father would say “we will eat grass soup” as a response to the children outrageous disaster scenarios. Here was someone who actually had to eat grass soup. In that moment I realized how much China had gone through. Despite the modern buildings and fancy cars this society had undergone huge changes and trauma including the Opium wars, Japanese invasion, civil war, and cultural revolution.
It reminded me of the expression my Bubby z’l (grandmother) would use to explain why my Zaidy z’l (grandfather) strived to save money even when he did not have to “once hungry never full”. If Canadians were put in a situation in which we did not have easy access to food and shelter it would not take long for us to start pushing and shoving. That evening we got ripped off by the two young women (see Shanghaied in Beijing & The Flying Fish in Hong Kong, while visiting the night market and commercial centre.
The next day Leo bought us traditional breakfast consisting of steamed dumplings, a red porridge and tofu in what looked like hot and sour soup but was not too hot. He was surprised that travellers like us would fall for the two girls and noted that if we spent 2 hours with them we had to pay something. Fortified with our breakfast, we drove to the Jingshanling section of the Great Wall of China. On the drive in we saw whole new districts being built. Leo explained how entire planned districts were being built for different purposes (university, housing, commerce). It was a sunny beautiful day and the wall was truly awesome. It would extend as far as the eye could see in both directions.
After the wall we said good bye to Leo as he dropped us off at the Beijing train station to catch our sleeper train to Xian. The station was packed and I bought some Cultural Revolution Playing Cards.
As I fell asleep in my bunk I divided what I saw in my first 2 days in China into three themes; New China- tall modern consumerist china with its towers and housing complexes, fancy cars, fancy stores and new infrastructure (highways, subways and tunnels). Communist China- the great hall of the people, the huge square with the goose stepping soldiers, old men on bicycles were green jackets with red insignia, crumbling factories. Third the ancient- the forbidden city and the great wall. These themes would repeat themselves in the coming days.
Traditional courtyard hotel