Monday, September 27, 2004

On Sunday we got up early and headed to Tiananmen Square. It was a really hazy morning and the sky was white. Our tour guide, Wally, gave us a little talk on the way to the square. He told us how he had been attending the student protests that led to the events of June 4th, 1989. On the night that the tanks rolled in, Wally stayed home at his wife's request. He also proceeded to tell us that we could ask him anything we wanted about the 1989 massacre, tomorrow, but that we shouldn't ask him about it on the day we were visiting the square. Very odd.

It was far more emotional being at Tiananmen Square than I thought it would be. I remember watching the events of 89 unfold and I know it was probably one of the first major news stories that I remember. Being on the spot where it all happened sent shivers up my spine.

The Square is huge. It was busy when we arrived and it was still not even 9:00 am. In the centre of the square is a huge (36 metres tall)obelisk called Renmin Yinxiong Jinian Bei, or "Monument to the People's Heroes". The monument is dedicated to the people who died trying to secure China's nationhood and has acted as a lightening rod for dissent ever since it was erected in 1949. Most recently it was cordoned off during the Falungong demonstrations.

On one side of the square is a Mausoleum where the embalmed body of Chairman Mao is kept. Those Chinese sure love their Mao. We were told on the way to the square how "powerful" and "smart" Mao was and how all the Chinese "love and honour their dear Chairman." Yah...okay. I'm quite sure that not every Chinese person loves Mao. It is all a little creepy.

On the other side of the square you can see the entrance to the Forbidden city with a picture of, you guessed it...Mao. Above his giant photograph are two slogans:
1. Long live the People's Republic of China
2. Workers of the world unite.

There are a lot of soldiers standing at attention all over the square but it is next to impossible to get a picture of them. It's eerie how good they are at turning away from a camera! We tried staging pictures behind them, snapping digital pictures from 30 feet name it. All I got was the side of a soldiers face.

There is a huge countdown clock set up at one end of the square. On the morning we were there, there were only 1412 days left until the Olympics! Everything in Beijing is geared towards 2008 right now and they are selling Olympic hats and shirts everywhere you look. One of the guys we spoke with told us a funny story. He bought two Olympic hats for 80 yuan (about 12 dollars Canadian) and felt pretty chuffed with himself. Two minutes after he walked away, he heard the guy start yelling "Two for ten! Two for ten!" The poor sap went back and bought two more, just so he could average out at four for 90 yuan. Too funny.

After Tiananmen Square, we headed to the Forbidden City. I don't think I can even describe how amazing it was. That is the one problem I keep running into with this China trip. I can't talk about it, or write about it and do it justice. It's spectacular. The Forbidden City is so huge and so ornately detailed and beautiful that you have to see it to appreciate it. Construction on the city first started in 1406 and it served at the political centre for both the Ming and Quing Dynasties. The city consists of parks, courtyards and over 800 different buildings. Brian and I just kept imagining what it would be like to live there hundreds of years ago. If I had been called before the Emperor and had to report to him while he was sitting on his gold and marble throne in a massive building in a massive courtyard I would have been petrified, or at the very least, extremely humbled.

One thing I have seen here which is very cute are the kaidangku, or "open-crotch pants" that the kids wear. It makes sense to me! Rather than wear diapers the kids run around in these pants and if they have to go to the bathroom the parents lift them up over a toilet or a garbage can. Keep in mind that urinating in the streets is still done here, despite the efforts to crack down on it. Makes more sense than landfills full of old diapers.

For lunch we went for Peking duck. Now, before we go any further, let's get the whole Peking/Beijing thing out of the way. I have to admit that before I came here I thought Peking was the old name for Beijing (sort of like Leningrad/St.Petersburg) but I was wrong. Peking is the Cantonese word and Beijing is the Mandarin word. They are still used interchangeably (our plane tickets had Peking as our destination) but the city is known internationally as Beijing. Glad we got that cleared up! Now back to the was delicious. First we had some appetizers which turned out to be duck intestines, tongues and livers. I didn't know what they were until after I ate them and I have to say that they were pretty good. From vegetarian to tongue-eater in three short months. After that came the main course, a golden roasted duck. My Mom always taught me not to eat the skin on chicken or turkey but I threw caution to the wind! It was excellent.

The restaurants here are huge, incidentally. The last few we have been to have consisted of three or four floors! They have elevators between dining areas and they can sit hundreds and hundreds of people. I guess you need to think big if you live in China.

After lunch we headed to the Summer Palace. The palace is the largest imperial garden in the world and was first built in 1750 as a gift to the Emperor's mother. The Palace covers 290 hectares of park land and lake area. It was one of the most peaceful and beautiful places I have ever been. The lake is covered with huge multi-coloured Chinese boats. The moat around the palace is crossed by several bridges, many of them made of marble. The palace grounds are covered in beautiful trees and thousands of flowers. There is a 700 metre long corridor, aptly named the "long corridor", which runs along the lake and is absolutely stunning in its detailed beauty.

Wally, our tour guide, told us a very interesting story while we were on the bus today. In China, education is available for those living in major cities. But the further away you are from a metropolitan area, the harder it is to go to school. This is true for many reasons, many of which exist all over the world. In rural areas, education is less valued and less needed since it doesn't have any immediate effect on their lives except to take them away from more important work. Also, the government is less able (or willing) to provide materials and teachers to isolated areas. So, many Chinese people will "adopt" a student and donate money to provide for their educations. Wally told us of how he adopted a young girl from Inner Mongolia and how he had recently met her for the first time. She came to Beijing to visit her "foster" family and was overwhelmed by the city. When Wally gave her Coca-Cola for the first time, she told him that she was not sick and couldn't understand why he was trying to give her medicine. Apparently she eventually developed a real taste for the drink during her stay in Beijing though! It was a really neat story and made me feel all gushy...which isn't hard to do.

After the Summer Palace we made our way to the Theatre of Heaven and Earth to watch the Chinese Acrobatics show. The show, called "Reverie", was the most amazing display of human - I don't know what. Human ability? Human bendability? Useless but impressive skills? They had young girls who could bend themselves into pretzels, women who balanced spinning plates on their heads and fingers and parasols on their feet. There were 12 women riding one bike at one point and boys who could flip themselves through hoops that were 15 feet off the ground! The music was great (I bought the CD) and the costumes and set were dazzling. I just sat there in awe for the whole length of the show.

During the intermission, we met a young couple from England. They had arrived the day of the show and had taken a train from St.Petersburg, Russia, to Beijing. It was so weird, because Brian and I had been talking about that exact trip (but in reverse) the same day! We really want to take the train from Beijing through Mongolia and Siberia to Moscow. The couple said it was good but long. Anyway, it was neat. I also went down to use the bathroom at intermission, only to find out that I had to line up at the concession to buy a pack of toilet paper. Peanuts and TP please.


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