Beijing, Bundle of Contradictions (multiple visits since 2000)

Beijing, Bundle of Contradictions (multiple visits since 2000)


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The attractive attendant at the travel desk at Jinlung Hotel in Beijing smiles approvingly when you ask to hire a bicycle. After all, she knows it is the best way to get the real flavour of this sprawling city of wide, straight avenues and endless traffic jams.

If you had visited the city a decade ago, you would have spotted an occasional motor car. Today’s Beijing has 1.4 million cars and 60,000 taxis, but the city has also retained its bicycle traffic, the resultant chaos notwithstanding. Your tourist gu ide says there are 10 million bicycles in Beijing now. In fact, many foreign tourists discard the comfort of their airconditioned coaches and English-speaking guides in favour of the humble bicycle which you can hire for 50 yuan a day.

When you’re on a bike you establish instant rapport with fellow Beijingers ferrying everything from fowl and vegetables to household hardware. For them, you’re no longer a tourist ensconced in fancy hotels and herded from one sanitised tourist spot to another in swanky coaches — you are one of them and they smile at you encouragingly. It takes you a while to learn to dodge the vendor carts and jay-walking pedestrians and navigate comfortably beside scores of mini three-wheele rs which double as family carriers.

The less agile need not despair. The underground takes you from anywhere to anywhere for just 3 yuan. If you prefer to travel overground to savour the sights, there are buses and taxis galore and they won’t burn a hole in your pocket either. But be sure to get your hotel staff to write your destinations in Chinese characters. Despite the tall claims of the tourist brochures, the average Beijinger neither speaks nor comprehends a word of English.

The arterial road, on which most of the hotels are situated, stretches like a serpent for 48 km with parallel bicycle lanes running on either side. A few pedal strokes from the hotel and you find yourself in the historic Tiananmen Square. While you recog nise it instantly from the visual imagery beamed across millions of television screens on that fateful day in June 1989, you are unprepared for the sheer size of the square which, it is said, can accommodate 100,000 people at a time. A mammoth photo of M ao Tse Dong overlooking the square is somewhat unnerving. His body is preserved in the adjacent mausoleum. Unfortunately, it is one of those days when his make-up is being refreshed, so you can’t see the man who changed the course of history in this anci ent country.

You walk around the square trying to soak in the sights and sounds. Your unimaginative camera refuses to capture the vista in its entirety. The unsmiling and impassive guards remind you of a grim past although, this day, the square is a picture o f gaiety with young Beijingers flying colourful bird-shaped kites. On one side of the square is the Great Hall of the People in which the National Assembly meets — the venue of several historic meetings and decisions. From here you’re herded from on e museum to another filled with rich and varied Chinese treasures that give you a glimpse of the splendour and opulence of the orient.

What strikes you most about Beijing is the haze in which it is enveloped most of the day. The young trees that line the avenues seem like dwarfs after the stately jamuns and neems that provide a green canopy over our Delhi roads. Pollution from hundreds of vehicles that clog the roads is a price that Beijingers pay for liberalisation of their automobile industry. You spot an occasional Suzuki, the left-hand drive version of our very own Maruti-800, and suddenly you feel at home.

The main roads are impressive for their sheer width — reminiscent of the glorious days of the Ming and Qing dynasties when imperial processions must have walked down the path. But you are told that it was not always the case and that many ancient buildings were razed to the ground during the Cultural Revolution to widen roads for modern-day traffic. Beijing is laid out in symmetric rectangles around the imperial palace which is called the Forbidden City. The layout reminds you of the Agraharams in the temple towns of the south. Tiananmen Square, which in Mandarin means Gate of Heavenly Peace, leads you directly into the Inner City which, in turn, leads you into the Forbidden City. But first, you pass through a serie s of ornate gates guarded by lions, peacocks and, of course, the ubiquitous dragons.

If the Forbidden City evokes images of things mysterious, magnificent and forbidden, you’re not far wrong. This was the palace from which the Ming emperors issued one-way diktats to their subjects some 600 years ago. Don’t be surprised if the ornate door ways and the expansive courtyards give you a sense of deja vu. Of course you’ve seen them before — in Betrolucci’s epic film `The Last Emperor’.

The architecture is aesthetic and restrained and has inspired variations all over South-East Asia — including our own Kerala. The yellow ribs on the sloping roofs look like bamboo poles, but soon you discover they are Ming ceramics that have survived hundreds of years. The wooden poles that support the structures and the overhanging eaves have intricately painted designs in muted colours that soothe the eye.

You enter a series of gates, climb down several steps and cross many courtyards before you access the emperors’ private chambers. The palace is said to have 9,999 rooms and, in ancient China, only the royal family could use the number 9! Your Engli sh guide informs you with a twinkle in his eye that one of the Ming emperors had 72 concubines and therefore was rather busy, which was probably why he was soon overthrown. You take in the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace on the banks of the shimmering Kumming lake with a touch of smugness that comes from having seen grander palaces and equally ancient history back home.

Awe replaces smugness though, as you approach the Great Wall in the picturesque northern part of the city flanked by the Tian Shou mountain range. After all, it is said to be the only man-made object visible from outer space! Stretching over 2,400 km fro m west to east, the Wall was originally built of clay and earth in 3rd century B.C. by the Qing dynasty. It was fortified with masonry a thousand years later by the Ming dynasty. Built to keep away marauding nomads from the northern Steppes, the Wall har dly achieved its objective as tribesmen scaled the 25-ft high fortifications effortlessly.

“Did you know why the soldiers couldn’t keep out the invaders? They were too tired to fight them after climbing the Wall,” gasped a somewhat chubby American tourist after his steep ascent. The Wall gracefully follows the contours of the gentle h ills and you wistfully wonder whether you could reach Urumqui if you kept walking on it. You are told that the wall has disappeared completely in some stretches and, in any case, you’re welcome to try it if you don’t mind spending the next d ecade or so doing just that! Ba Da Ling, where you commence the ascent to the Wall, is a virtual kitschville where exquisite Chinese blue pottery vies for your dollars alongside hideous tourist memorabilia.

Tian Tan, the Temple of Heaven, and the exquisitely beautiful Lama Temple are a must-see. When your eyes smart from too much of Chinese splendour and architecture, head for the hu-tongs, the old part of Beijing which presents a total contrast to the new faceless town with its drab high-rise residential apartments and scores of five-star hotels that dot the main roads. As you approach the narrow streets, you’re greeted by a row of gaily decorated cycle-rickshaws which effortlessly glide through the narro w gullies.

Your friendly rickshawallah takes you to all the interesting places and chatters away merrily in singsong Putonghua (the spoken version of Mandarin) regardless of your inability to comprehend a word. The neighbourhood is not unlike parts of Delhi’s walled city, with its share of noodle shops, Internet parlours etc. You cruise around the Hou Hai lake and stop in front of the mansion in which Sun Yat Sen’s wife lived until her death. The numerous courtyards and gardens a re full of fruit-laden trees — crabapples, peaches, pears and bunches of grapes. Outside, on the streets, idle Beijingers are playing majong in groups. It is quite common to see the old and young practise Tai Chi any time of the day and in public places.

Beijingers seem to eat a lot of pork — there is pig meat in various avatars for breakfast, lunch and dinner garnished with oodles of noodles and boiled eggplant and greens. Your companion’s dream of tasting Peking Duck comes to naught for lack of knowle dge of the local language. Even mimicking the `quack’ didn’t help and one had to settle for pork again. Mercifully, your enthusiasm for using chopsticks severely restricts your intake and you escape indigestion for the duration of your stay. After a coup le of days of this, you head for the nearest McDonald’s for some familiar fare. There is one every 100 yards, at least in the tourist districts. And you can wash down your burgers with Starbucks coffee.

How can you leave Beijing without seeing a Chinese opera? You rush off in a taxi to Li Yuan Theatre which is located inside a hotel. It’s more acrobatics than opera and the audience is entirely tourists. Sub-titles flash on either side of the stage so th at you can make sense of all that swishing and pirouetting. It’s once again about — what else — a monarch facing marauding tribes which he conquers with the help of a knight and assisted by the sage counsel of his beautiful young queen. One last visit to the Friendship Store — a misnomer, for prices here are far from friendly — to buy Cloisonne ware, Chinese vases decorated with copperwire, enamelled and fired. Then you head towards the silk market to pick up some cheap fake silk shirts for gifts ba ck home. Beijing’s peak-hour traffic jam has eased as you head towards the airport to catch the plane to Hong Kong. Mandarin calligraphy beckons you to come again.

(Published in Businessline dated Aug 7, 2000)

(Published in Frontline dated

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