Beijing: Brilliant and Beautiful

Rainbow in Beijing

I’ve just returned from a three-week work trip to Mainland China and Taiwan, which involved visits to six cities and twenty-two days of hotel breakfast buffets. (I was rather surprised when I woke up in New Jersey this morning and my only choices were oatmeal with peanut butter or toast with peanut butter—and that I’d have to prepare either one myself.) Since I was in Asia for work, I won’t say much about what I was doing or who I met with (not a secret, but not my stuff to talk about, either); instead, I thought I’d share some pictures and general observations from each place.

I began in Beijing, and made a second stop there a week later after a brief Shanghai interlude that I’ll post about tomorrow. I have been pretty down on Beijing in recent years. The air pollution, the traffic, the out-of-control subway system expansion (and I can’t seem to get anywhere without at least two transfers), the surly taxi drivers, the infuriatingly slow internet … Beijing often brings on feelings of frustration and sensory overload in me. I loved living there in 2005; in the past few years, though, visits to the capital have been endurance tests.

I’m very happy to say that this trip brought back many of my positive feelings about the city. For a start—and this goes a very, very long way—the air quality was good on almost every day I was there. I’m so much happier when it doesn’t hurt to breathe.

Clean air makes Mao smile, too.

The first group I escorted consisted mostly of people who were first-time visitors to China, so in addition to our serious work stuff, I also took them to a few can’t-miss sights. I had been somewhat dreading the Forbidden City, remembering the unrelenting throngs of tourists there on previous visits, but a new-to-me daily limit on the number of tickets sold keeps the crowds to a minimum and makes the palace feel much more manageable.

The Forbidden City: practically empty!
The Forbidden City: practically empty!

We went to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, which feels new to me every time. I had forgotten how green this area is; the wall seems somehow incorporated into the landscape, rather than imposing on it.

I had also forgotten how incredibly steep the wall is! My legs remembered the next day, though.

Mutianyu is an excellent section of the wall to visit because you can travel back down to the visitor’s center via luge. It is more fun than you can imagine, and I almost wanted to go back up to the wall just to luge down again.

I’m sure it’s perfectly safe, Mom.

My friend Jeremiah Jenne guided the group through Yonghegong, or Beijing’s Lama Temple. I was very glad that Jeremiah was available to do the tour, as I knew approximately 10 percent of the information he gave about the temple. I would have been a much less helpful guide if I’d tried to do the tour for the group by myself.

“Look, it’s a … red building.”

At Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Summer Palace, we enjoyed more excellent weather and checked out the remains of European-style buildings looted and destroyed by British and French troops during the Second Opium War, in 1860. I had been to Yuanmingyuan once before, in December; I can now say with authority that May is a far superior time to visit the park.

Incredible blue sky. #nofilter

As the group walked through the Old Summer Palace, I noticed clusters of cartoonish statues placed at intervals along the guide paths. All of the statues depicted people dressed in old-style costumes, and each cluster consisted of four figures: mother, father, son, daughter. A subtle way of encouraging two-child families now that the One-Child Policy has been ended? If so, that’s pretty interesting. I’d be curious to know how long the statues have been in place; the paint on them didn’t look like it had seen much wear from the elements, so they appear to be relatively new.

Yuanmingyuan statues
A suggestion of what Chinese families should look like? (Probably.)

The night before my final departure from Beijing, I went to one place in the city I had never been before, although now I know I’ve passed it many times: Yugong Yishan, a club that on that particular evening was jam-packed with long-haired, black-attired Chinese fans of heavy-metal music. Plus me, and a few other foreigners. We were all there to see the final performance of Spring & Autumn, a heavy-metal band fronted by Beijing legend Kaiser Kuo, who is moving back to the United States after twenty years in China. I will confess that my group left before the crowd-surfing began, but it was still a memorable way to wrap up a very pleasant visit that reignited my appreciation of Beijing.

The acoustic set—more my style than pure heavy metal. Kaiser is on the far right.

Tomorrow: Shanghai

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