This was the day to learn more of Beijing, the new and the old. The hotel morning call came promptly at 7, then a nice Asian-oriented breakfast on the 2nd floor of the Rainbow. Customers in the coffee shop included Chinese (perhaps 70% of the total) who were in Beijing on business or here to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year–the Year of the Dragon– and international tourists. Offerings included an abundance of fresh vegetables, variations on the egg, several types of bread including the steam buns that are a feature in most north China breakfasts. My impression was that the vegetarians among our group would find plenty to eat at this breakfast!
By 8:30 AM were aboard Driver Liu’s bus for a 15-minute ride through heavy traffic to the Temple of Heaven–a standard item on the Beijing tourist visit and an increasingly popular site for local Chinese, many of them retired, who came to these spacious grounds to play cards or dominos, to sing–with a new emphasis on 1950s revolutionary songs–do aerobics to rather bouncy music and even some social dancing with limited touching! Despite a very chilly, 15-degree morning, but windless and with brilliant sunshine, we were surprised to see the large of Chinese who came out for these activities.
The Temple of Heaven is a complex of buildings covering some 670 acres–four times the size of the Forbidden City. It was completed in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty. Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties worshiped here twice yearly–on the first day of the first lunar month and the winter solstice. Emperors would express thanks to the god of heaven if there had been good agricultural year, or apologize for offending the heaven god if there had been a crop disaster. The last such visit was in the 1920s. The 12 roof support columns of the main structure, symbolizing the 12 months of the Chinese zodiac, are massive trunks of very large trees from the Qinghai-Tibet plateau–some 3,000 miles away, of what our Guide Bill called the “mu” variety–now extinct. The means by which these very dense tree trunks were transported to Imperial Beijing continue to baffle the experts (possibly slid over snow and ice during the winter months or brought down the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal). Incredibly, the four massive structures in the Temple of Heaven compound were constructed without nails! Today the open areas in the compound were populated by local Chinese playing badminton, and traditional instruments, including the popular two-stringed violin, the “er hu”. Some of our group purchased the feather-plumed ball-like object used in playing “hacky-sack”. Jake commebted that one of his grandsons would be excited to have such an unusal gift. The temple area is also a work place for a large number of vendors hawking their wares to the steady stream of tourist, with a particular focus on the foreigners who might be more intrigued by the offerings. Caveat emptor!
Our next stop was a visit to one of Beijing’s traditional neighborhoods called “hutongs”, a Mongolian word meaning “water well” and now better signifying small alleys that used to characterize much of Beijing. Many of the adjacent areas were taken up with traditional courtyard, or quadrangular, living quarters. A memorable feature of the hutong visit was a rickshaw ride propelled by a muscular youngish Chinese, with two passengers at the rear, huddled under a blanket to thwart the morning chill. The ride took us past one of Beijing’s lake areas where large number of local residents were ice skating or trying their luck at ice fishing. Halfway through the ride we stopped at the resident of a courtyard residence, Madam Feng, who treated us to a wonderflly-tasty, home-cooked meal prepaed on a simple two-burner, propane-fired stove. The meal began with several apptizers–fresh cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers and salted peanuts. Hot tea was a welcome drink on this cool day. Then the entrees began emerging — pork meat balls, white rice, diced chicken, stir-fried, tri-colored peppers, garlic shoots and, the finale–the Chinese favorite–meat or vegetable-filled dumplings known as “jazozi”–the nearest thing that China has to a national dish, with a place in the national food panoply roughly equivalent to hamburgers in the US!
The next stop was Beijing’s Olympic Village featuring the famous Bird’s Nest structure–the site of the wonderfully choreographed opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics–and the “Cube” where American swimmer Michael Phelps did his magic in 2008. The playing field was covered with man-made snow, some of it piled high enought to permit limited sledding. Our visit was short and the admission of RMB 50 (nearly $8) seemed fairly steep for what we saw. My impression was that Beijing’s Olympic Village, while of striking architecture and a source of understandable national pride was, like many Olympic venues world-wide, experiencing difficulties in meeting operating and maintenance expenses in the period after the games ended.
After a nice dinner we moved on to the last event of the day–performances of one of China’s unique art forms, Peking Opera. We were not certain what to expect from this operatic extravaganza, but were told it was something we should experience at least once in a lifetime! The video on the stage screen was helpful in understanding some of the basics of what we were to see. The program of about one hour and fifty minutes consisted of abbreviated sections of four separate operas, selected to give the audience some exposure to the range of activities –song, acrobatics, sword fighting, humor, impersonations, etc.–in this art form. One of the most notable performances was that portraying a drunken concubine! Overall, the costuming was exquisite; the facial makeup incredible; and several of the acrobatic moves–and sword play–seemed very well executed. Appreciation for the extreme vocalizations by the actors may well be an acquired taste– someone suggested that “One performance of Being Opera goes a long way.”
My handout for the day to each trip participant–a daily ritual I tried to carry out early each morning to provide information pertaining to some aspect of China’s culture, people, political or economic systems–was an op-ed piece by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times entitled “Their Moon Shot and Ours”. It pointed out the “…big, multibillion dollar, 25-year horizon, game changing investments in China” of which one was $15 billion in seed money to create a state of the art electric car industry. Friedman suggested this initiative was a great opportunity for US high-tech companies to collaborate with the Chinese in an industry that was likely to become ever more important as world oil prices rise and concern with green house gases grows. In Friedman’s view, failure to capitalize on this opoortunity was that the electric car industry would “..be a moon shot for the Chinese,a hobby for us”, with American importing their cars from China, just we are now importing our oil from Saudi Arabia! (The handout for January 3-4 provided comparisons of key statistics for the US and China–e.g., although the land area of the two countries is roughly similar, population density per unit of land area in China is four times that in the US! Income per capita in the US in 2007 was about 19 times that of China’s, although China’s overall economic growth rate in recent has been nearly five times the US rate!]