Monday, July 03, 2006
Tiananmen square is the largest public square in the world. It's best known in the west for the 1989 incident, but Tiananmen square is actually the symbolic center of China. The big gate with the picture of Mao on it is Tiananmen, or "The gate of heavenly peace."
Tiananmen was alright; it's basically a big square with a bunch of tourists. I didn't get to see the Forbidden City on Saturday because it was closed by the time I got there, so I walked around the neighborhoods around Tiananmen instead.
I was pleasantly surprised to find old-style neigborhoods with smaller, less busy streets and big trees planted along the street. It was really a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of modern Beijing.
If you walk around a little bit in this area, you will inevitably stumble across hutong: traditional alley neighborhoods. When you walk into them, it's like you're travelling back in time. I had great fun wandering around in them; they're like little mazes. There weren't any tourists there, either. Looking at all those old houses, it's hard to forget that people still live there. I've heard that some of the houses are actually very modern and comfortable inside. It's not like the people that live there are backwards; I saw plenty of people using the latest slick cell phones and even an internet cafe.
Afterwards I went to Xidan, a shopping area with tons of people. For some reason, before I came to China, I had the idea that Beijing was this backwards old-fashioned communist city. But it's really a modern metropolis on par with any other big city in the world. All the kids seem to be wearing the latest fashions and everywhere there are huge shopping centers for people to go spend their money. If China is a communist country, I'm certainly not feeling it.
Unfortunately, the Beijing subway was not the grand Moscow-style subway of my imagination.
On Sunday I went to the Forbidden city, taking the subway for the first time.
The subway where I live is actually an aboveground rail line, about 5-10 minutes bus ride away. From there, I paid 5 kuai(65 cents) to ride the line down to Xizhimen, where you transfer to line 2 and then to line 1(you can ride line 2 and line 1 for just 2kuai(25 cents), transferring as many times as you want).
After getting off the subway, I went to Zhongshan park, a pleasant place dedicated to the memory of Sun Yat-Sen, father of the Chinese nation.
The hill back there(Jingshan park) was built from the dirt dug up to make the Forbidden city moat.
From there, I went into the Forbidden City, where the admission fee was a hefty 60 kuai(about 8 dollars). Despite being pretty far north, summers in Beijing are really hot and humid, approaching Bangkok levels. The Forbidden city is a nice place, especially if you're into history. I found it interesting, but after you see the 20th or so ancient temple where such and such emperor performed such and such ceremony, you get a little bored. Exiting the Forbidden city from the North side, I went to Jingshan park, where you can climb up a hill for views onto the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, the topmost pagoda was closed for repairs, but I did manage to take a few pictures from the top. On the other side were a bunch of old people hanging out and listening to live music.
At this point I was really tired, so I took a taxi to Xidan Tushudasha. The taxi driver was a pretty funny guy with a really thick Beijing accent. He didn't remember where Xidan Tushudasha was, but fortunately I had a map with me to show him and he took me straight there. I haven't had any problems with taxi drivers in Beijing driving me around and running up the meter; even though I'm obviously a foreigner, they always go straight to where I need to be and the price is rarely more than $2.
Xidan Tushudasha is a huge six-story bookstore. The entire basement level is filled with English books(by this I mean books you might find in an American Barnes & Noble). It's a pretty crowded place. Unfortunately, all the English books were too expensive(I found a copy of Murakami's Norwegian Wood, which I've been looking for, but it was CNY90 or USD12, really expensive for China) and I can't really read enough Chinese to appreciate the 6 other levels of books. I would like to buy a simpler book in Chinese for me to read, and they had a whole section of Russian books and learning Chinese books that I didn't really look over well, so I'll probably be back.
I love being able to buy tons of stuff for low prices, but all the same, I find myself becoming more frugal than I am in the US. I'll ride the bus and risk getting lost and being late just to save myself from paying 2 bucks for a taxi. I'll pass up stuff that I want just because it is expensive for China prices, even though it's cheap compared to the US. But given my tendency to waste money I suppose it's a good development.
I still have a couple of historic places in Beijing to visit, but really, I don't really enjoy them all that much for some reason. Part of the reason is the hordes of tourists and the summer heat. But a few places I'll probably go see are the Temple of Heaven(that really big pagoda you always see in pictures of Beijing) and the Summer Palace(which is not far from where I live). I'm much more interested in seeing weird or little-visited places, but the guidebook I have now isn't that great about listing those sorts of things. I've heard "The Insider's Guide to Beijing" is good, but haven't been able to find it anywhere.