Saturday, October 17, 2009

Once forbidden

27 & 28 May 2009 - So these two were days full of ancient & wondrous adventure among the keystones of a culture that has been long growing and evolving. Being in the capital city of one of the most influential empires on Earth has initiated a ridiculous paradigm shift in how I see the world, and the (long-term) significance of political entities that have and continue to shape it. Two of the most defining icons of the Chinese empire, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, were on my plan for the day.

The Forbidden City, or Gugong, is the among the most audacious, ostentatious, lavish, and awe-inspiring places I've ever been. It's like the most expensive mansion-palace-castles I've ever seen; complete with what seems like gold-colored everything. From the roofs, to the passageways, courtyards, gardens, and rooms, every part of the structure of this City within a city is carefully designed and meticulously created - at least certainly during the literal centuries of the emporers & empresses. Today, the structures stand, the gardens remain, but much of the detail and finesse of the place has fallen into a state of half-disrepair. Understandably, given the context of the state of 'modern' Chinese political history, this is less surprising than one woulud otherwise think. But still, being there and looking through the museum-like displays in windows throughout the acres-wide complex gives a glimpse into the splendor available for only the most priveleged (and mainly castrated) of classes. It was a pleasure to stroll through some of the most guarded and exclusive grounds, as an unabashed (and bodily intact) prole.

The spectacular Second Courtyard (foreground) to the Hall of Supreme Harmony (background), the largest of both structures & courtyards in the Forbidden City, reportedly capable of holding 100,000 people.

View of the Forbidden City from a hilltop on the opposite end of the complex from Tienanmen Gate (see 26 May). Seeing the near-perfect symmetry of the whole place along the North-South axis striking after walking through the maze-like interior.

This relatively small structure is 2 stories high, including the brass vent on top. I can appreciate the need for a solid incense burner.

This view looking North (& slightly East) of the Gate of Supreme Harmony is just past Tienanmen Gate. The central door in the gate (see the open side doors?) was reserved ONLY for the emporer/empress.

Closeup view of the (closed) Emporer's door inside the Gate of Supreme Harmony, from the South. The fact that it remains closed is an interesting juxtapose between the Communist Party's class-less rhetoric and Confucian tradition.

Looking South toward the other side of the Emporers door and the Gate of Supreme Harmony, from one of the east side of the lower tier around the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Even the bathroom in the Forbidden City remains a 4 "star-rated" kinda place.

At the Great Wall, Tim & I hoped to camp for the night - and so we did, campfire & all. I took few pictures during the night, so as to avoid a flash exposing our location; to avoid the 50yuan fee to camp (which we ended up paying, soberly, in the morning anyway) we stayed just outside the entrance and campground, sleeping under the stars. The flip side is that our early morning start made for one of the most magnificent views of a man-made structure I've ever seen. With our refreshingly early start, we actually got back to Tims just after noon, with plenty of time to enjoy the rest of the day.

This early-morning shot was made all the more striking because of the cool hues in the light of the pre-dawn.

Another pre-dawn shot looking across the hill crests lined with the Wall.

Other early hikers across the Wall reposing for a minute before the next leg of their journey rises up to greet them. Tim & I aren't far behind in coming up to this point.

One example of the dereliction that typifies many of the more remote sections of the Wall, most of which is only accessible by traveling on foot.

Looking way down into the next valley, we could see the trails used by local farmers to navigate from one section to the next. Given their proclivity toward hawking trinkets, souvenirs, & drinks to hikers, theirs is probably the best way to navigate the Wall with cargo with minimal hassle.

Another, daytime, view across the Great Wall's hillcrests and towers.

Upon our return I once again struck out on my own - after an especially needed nap. And, really I only went to this MASSIVE flea market-looking place to do just a bit of shopping for stuff I could use back home. I mention this place solely because of its enormity; this market was so freaking huge, it took up more several massive city blocks. You could find EVERYTHING there, from food & produce to paint supplies and building materials, clothes and household goods to electronics & toys - a cacophonous melange of sights, sounds, and scents of modern commerce in action. Now, I'm kicking myself for not getting any pictures there.
After I returned to Tim's, we (Tim & I & a few of his friends) went to hotpot. I'm a fan.

29 May 2009 - Another awesome day of solo adventures followed by a sick rendezvous with good people for great food. Now reflecting back on my last days in Beijing, I realize while not particularly adept, my confidence with the little bit of Mandarin (or puhtonghua) I know was sky high.
I followed Tim's directions toward another massive market, an exclusively electronics-related one. Rather than a single market, this was really 4 1-block square buildings, anywhere from 4 to 7 stories full of that now-familiar anarchic marketplace. I've never imagined such a collective of gadgets, media, and electronic... parts. Better yet, I (think I) got some pretty good deals - I only hope that being in the source country the labor force making what I saw & bought was treated equitably. One can dream, can't he?
While I didn't get a good picture of the whole place, I was there just in time to catch an amazing display of modern (Asian) teen culture - a cosplay contest! I had to look the term up: basically it was talent show between costumed role-players of manga & anime characters. Wow.

Dr. Frankenstein (or something) & company looking good and getting cozy for the cams.

Adorable and ready to kick ass. They were about midway on the prude-ish spectrum, but you should've seen some of the others.

In the afternoon, we (Tim, friends, & I) went back to Yiheyuan for a final stroll through that serene park one last time - on this trip. Today I snapped one of my favorite images from the whole trip, a telling snapshot of why China has persisted for long by that name. Maybe you'll get what I mean.

This unusually (for this place) long bridge boasts 17 arches. Count 'em.

One of my most favorite photos to date. The simplicity and ease of their pasttime amidst so much splendor (at the Summer Palace) leaves me with no doubt that having (& learning from) eons of history is wholesome.

30 May 2009 - So today, I grudgingly departed from Tim's place and snapped a few last shots on the way out. At the same time, my resolve to return to the city and Asia in general was solidified. Wo ai Zhongguo.

The long hallway that earlier greeted me now bids me farewell. Now, unlike when I arrived (around midnight) and I was greeted with darkness, the light guides me forward.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

City Center

26 May 2009 - You know those days when you're kind of not doing a whole lot, but still feeling good and contented, and you're hanging with good people? Today was one of those days - while Tim worked in the morning I explored a bit around the neighborhood (aka. seek street food!), and in the afternoon we invaded the dead-center of the city with roommate, Will.

Taking the one of the two underground metro lines - the Loops - we arrived at Qianmen Gate station, across the infamous Square and it's namesake gate, Tienanmen, and the Forbidden City which it has long guarded. In this part of the city, which for centuries was the heart of the Universe for imperial China (and is currently equivalent to the U.S. National Mall district in Washington D.C.), these gates were actually used as such - security gates, control points for flow of people and things into important places. Now they stand as island-relics of a long, pround, and immodest history. And lucky for me, epic landmarks for wary travelers!

Qianmen Gate; through it you see through to Tienanmen Square to the North.

It was here where, among the many nearby, we found an amazing museum about really just Beijing - the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall. I was seriously in my element: running wild through this museumreading & watching exhibits (in English!); recalling snippets from some of my favorite classes, essays, and documentaries; foaming from my brain with ideas & knowledge about sustainable human development, better energy efficiency & production, public works, international municipal cooperation, natural resource conservation, and effective city planning, and equitable social stratification! [OK so I made that last one up, but its supposed to be a 'communist country' (marx & trotsky must've turned in their graves) so a guy can dream, eh?]
Aside from an awesome 3D movie flythrough of the cityscape, the giant the bas-relief map of the entire city (circa 1956) to scale entirely of BRASS, and the exhibits on public transportation and waste/water infrastructure (my current career field!) - aside from all that, AND a scale model of the Forbidden City, this place rocked my reference for cool museum shit with the 1:750 scale model of much of the city layed out in 1m^2 blocks on the floor in a whole wing of this place. I'm talking seriously awesome exhibit, a whole room where anyone looks like Godzilla romping through, and where ceiling blinds opened & closed to mimic day/night cycles, and the city & infrastructure light up to correspond! Cheesy maybe, but fuckin sick.

Lights on, ceiling blinds almost closed, 'sun' setting in background; the tallest building of the Forbidden City (center) is about 10 inches high. Planning Hall

Another exhibit: wastewater treatment! Pretty good job security in a city of 12million...

And like it's sister district the D.C. National Mall, the area around the very center of Beijiing area houses the more visible cogs of the national government (Legislature) and icons of civic significance (museums, monuments). The actual Square, sitting between Qianmen & Tiananmen Gates, is reputdely the largest public square on Earth - and it feels that way when you're in it. In a strange juxtapose of my developing ideology & sheer awe, I almost felt a desire to want to identify with China & its history, if only to be part of something so great, so enormous that one of the oldest and certainly the largest civilization - in short, I experienced a sense of nationalistic pride, for China. Of course, awareness of Chinese (and almost every culture's) brutal imperialistic history seeped back in pretty quick. I now have hope I may actually be breaking through that doctrinaire patriotism we're imbued with in America (it seems to be as strong in China, too...) and moving closer to really embracing a sense of internationalism!

Monument to the People's Hero's, Tienanment Square, Beijing, China.

One of two large statues flanking Mao's Masoleum, in tribute to the Workers. While only rather symbolic today, its working-class focus is a perspective we should take.

You gotta do it - Me, Mao, Tienanmen Gate, Forbidden City - encompass China. (StoCo Surf, represent.)

Finally, after taking pictures with Mao, a transmutation from trio to duo, and perambulating through the hallowed ground of imperial & national China's soul, Tim & I made our way to a nearby example of its emerging soul (one closer to that of the West): the Market, at Wanfujing. A tourist trap any city treasurer & commerce chamber would envy, this single side-street featured a way over-priced but multifarious selection of food, trinkets, & other traveler 'essentials' (items WAY cheaper if not free with good planning & forethought for a trip on a budget). But also wacky, funky things - like grilled scorpions, insects, & shahorses on sticks, local candy & drinks , 'unique' 'antiques', books, & more - all in one alley. Then after exploring a few districts by foot, we finally ambled our way toward the Uni district, home, and a great evening with a few good people, if I recall, at hotpot!

A few stalls in, and Tim can't contain his self.

Wanfujing Market/Street. Probably the highest concentration of Westerners in Beijing here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Yee Haw, Juan! (or, Yi He Yuan, Imperial Summer Palace)

Pagoda roofs, looking South over Kunming Lake on the front of Longevity Hill towards Beijing city center. Note smog obscuring view to less than 2km.

Nepalese-built tower, just one in the massive complex of buildings making a Tibeten-style temple named Four Great Regions behind Longvity Hill.

Another incredible example of imperial Feng Shui design. View from a courtyard en route to the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha, background.

Fully resplendent of classic imperial architecture based on principles of Feng Shui, this courtyard leads to the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha.

Stretching 728m and complete with 14,000 paintings, here is one short section of the Long Corridor, the longest painted gallery in the world.

Wenchang Tower along lake front. One of several monolithic towers just sitting throughout the Palace grounds.

The Great Stage within the Garden of Virtue and Harmony - an opulent venue where Empress Cixi would host performance art shows. Note players in shadows, for scale.

Epic craftsmanship. Solid wood carving of an Immortal, housed in Wenchang Gallery.

Enlarged for detail; close-up of the intricate facade on the building named Realm of Multitudinous Fragrances.

This structure at the apex of Longevity Hill boasts one of the most intricate faces of any building I've ever seen.

Tall bridge over lake. How else do you accommodate the imperial boats?

25 May 2009 - So when you think imperial China, one of places where all that popular imagery comes from can be found at the Imperial Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan) in NW Beijing. This park was once the summer retreat of emperors, empresses, their family, guests and dignitaries . This newly renovated space is a serious massive throwback to the magesty of Chinese dynasties of yore - needless to say, even 100 years ago I would never have made it past the gates.
Of all I saw in Beijing, only the Forbidden City matches the Summer Palace in terms of grandeur (2.9km sq compound) and exclusivity for laypeople. It's location at the foot of the mountains circling the city's north half, complete with 2.2km sq artificial lake, shaded trails, and windy fields, makes it much more comfortable place during Beijings 80-degree+ summer days.

Beijing City Streets

Truck loaded, driver ready, tire missing - working hard in Beijing. I love this City.

Squat toilets - how we done for eons. WAY more comfortable than you'd think, and better for your back. This model includes elevated tank complete with flush cord.

Just across the market was this storefront with all kinds of meat (vegetables in the next window, too). At least one of these meats is sliced pig ears. Yum.

This bustling hutong boasted among least expensive markets I've ever seen - including knock-offs, foods, household goods, trinkets, & all.

Just outside this hutong, as in many, any reUSEables & recylcbles are centrally collected. I can't say it matches SF's rate of 72% trash diversion, but I wish..

Most striking was that construction did not appear abated. I can't imagine what a non-recession period looks like here.

In between eras, the next generation will always make do.

Hutongs in development; from narrow, windy streets to straight open avenues and modern high-rises. Chinese character for 'demolish'.

Hutongs are the old-style neighborhoods or streets in China, most of which are now being demolished & replaced with what you see above.

24 May 2009 - Having lived in NYC, Jersey's 'Shore' (no one who lives there calls it that), and now San Francisco I think I've picked up a good idea of what the prototypical tourist does - and more importantly, doesn't do. One thing they don't usually do is explore the nethers of a city; that is the not so major attractions, historic neighborhoods, or the residential sections. So with guidance from my intrepid host and 2 friends, we ventured through some of the city's streets.

Monday, June 22, 2009


23 May 2009 - Tim works.. but not a whole lot, and seemingly not particularly hard. He makes enough to eat, sleep somewhere nice, and has plenty of time to enjoy not just Beijing, but much of Asia up to now. This day, while he worked (all of like 4-5 hours), I ventured through a rather well-preserved district of dynastic Chinese thought - covering the enlightening Harmony and Peace Palace Lamasery, the age-old Temple of Confucious, and the cultivated Imperial Academy. Needless to say, I felt much endowed with a sense of the scope of history this city has seen. Aside from the darker history inherent to every empire, the degree of craftsmanship in the artwork and architecture of this part the city bespoke of a highly refined culture.

This Buddha statue is 18m (~4 stories) tall, carved from a single trunk of sandalwood.

I can only imagine this is how peaceful the Lamasery looked hundreds of years ago... when the sky in Beijing was clear.

Not a typical Buddha image seen in the West; one of the many esoteric icons.

At the temple/school named for his teachings , a posthumous tribute to who was one of the most influential figured in Chinese civilization. Here, Confucious says: Welcome!

Teachers chairs are usually the most comfortable in the room, but this? Central lecture hall at the Imperial University.

Later that day, we met up again, drank some beers & went to go watch some fights. "Under the Patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates the Art of War Fighting Championship 12,... at the National Olympic Sports Center Auditorium." Shit was so serious, Michael Buffer AND a contingent of the Gracie family showed up. Plus the Tims.

Rolles Gracie!! Of course, he kicked ass in his match.

Ohh yes, we were ready to Ruuuuummmmble.