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August 14, 2012

Machine guns, Mao, and the Great Wall: Three Days in Beijing

When it comes to traveling to North Korea, most, if not all, roads lead to Beijing. The majority of flights to Pyongyang leave out of Beijing, and it is likely that your tour operator will require you to attend an orientation briefing the day prior to departure. Since I had never been to China prior to this trip, I added a few extra days in Beijing to the itinerary and basically had three full days to do some sightseeing. Granted, this was nowhere near enough time to even scratch the surface of Beijing, but it was all I could do with my limited vacation time.

My flight landed a little after 10:30 on a Saturday morning. We arrived at Terminal 3, which was built to handle increased air traffic for the 2008 Olympics. It was a beautiful and impressive terminal, especially compared to the one we had departed from in Newark. Not so impressive, however, was the smog that was so thick it obscured the hangars located just across the tarmac. I remember hearing a lot about the pollution in Beijing during the run up to the 2008 Olympics, but I never imagined it would be this bad.

Passport control was severely understaffed when we arrived; the majority of booths were left empty while long lines formed. A few minutes later, a platoon of immigration officers marched in – literally marched in – and went to their assigned booths. They were all wearing surgical masks – the major health concern at the time was H1N1, and because of this we had to fill out extra paperwork about possible symptoms as well as pass through a thermal body scanner that measured our temperature. The passport and visa check was quick and painless, and I was amused to see that each booth was outfitted with a small box containing four buttons ranging from a sad face to a very happy face. It was a rating device – you were supposed to push the button that best expressed your satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with the service you received from the passport control officer. I was astounded by this. They felt so out of place. Could you imagine the US government installing these at passport control booths in US airports?

After waiting about an hour for my luggage and catching a taxi into the city center, I checked into my hotel and promptly fell asleep (because I can’t sleep on airplanes) even though it was 4pm. I woke up a few hours later in a complete daze, and wandered around the neighborhood. All I really remember was going to a grocery store, buying some pastry and Coke, and then falling back asleep.

I stayed at the Marriott Courtyard in central Beijing, just a 15-20 minute walk to Tienanmen Square. This was a bit unusual for me, as I am used to staying at cheap hotels, but I received an excellent “friends & family” rate from a friend who worked for Marriott, so it was hard to pass up.

The China North International Shooting Range & the Great Wall

I didn’t really do that much planning for my short time in Beijing. I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to see. Obviously, Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City, etc etc. I also wanted to visit the Great Wall, but didn’t really care to see the Ming Tombs or Summer Palace, sights that are typically packaged with a guided tour of the Great Wall. So I opted to do something a bit more unusual – visit a shooting range. So I spent my first morning in Beijing sampling the firearms of the People’s Liberation Army (which I wrote about in detail here) followed by a hike up the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall (detailed here).

Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City
My next day in Beijing was dedicated solely to Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City. In order to enter Tiananmen Square I first had to pass through a security checkpoint where you walk through a metal detector and have your bags x-rayed, in case you happen to be carrying weapons or, more than likely, anti-government signs or materials.

After successfully passing the checkpoint (I had left all my weapons at home, thankfully) I entered the southern end of Tiananmen Square near the Zhengyangmen Gate.

The square itself is massive. Measuring 880m by 500m, it is the third largest square in the world. Moscow’s Red Square, at 330m by 70m, seems tiny by comparison. Tienanmen is also the location of the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (more on that later).

Socialist realism statues in front of the mausoleum

Since Tiananmen Square has been the site of important, and sometimes bloody, demonstrations, the authorities continue to keep a watchful eye on any activities taking place there (exhibit any political activity and you will be quickly whisked away). You can find large lampposts with these cameras all over Tiananmen Square (these particular cameras are situated near the mausoleum) along with numerous uniformed and plainclothes police officers.

Monument to the People’s Heroes erected to honor those who died for the revolutionary cause.

Tiananmen Gate

Chinese flag with honor guard.

Heading to the Forbidden City

View from the Tienanmen Gate

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City served as the home of the Chinese Imperial family from the Ming Dyanasty to the end of the Qing Dyansty (roughly 1420-1912). The place is massive, consisting of 980 buildings (and those are the ones that survived through the destruction that accompanies occupation and revolution).

The dragon turtle sculpture

The thick surrounding walls

After wandering around Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, I headed over to the Wangfujing Snack Street. There is a wide variety of street food for sale here, including scorpions and starfish on a stick.

I am willing to try a lot of different foods when I travel, but poisonous insects on sticks were just a bit too much for me. Instead I opted for a snack of noodles and veggies wrapped in a moo shoo pancake (like a Chinese burrito) and for dessert, green tea ice cream.

Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

At the top of my “to do” list was paying a visit to Mao Zedong’s embalmed corpse. You see, since visiting Lenin in 2002 I have made it my goal to see all of the embalmed communist leaders who are still on display (Lenin, Kim Il-Sung, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh). And yes, I realize that is ridiculously weird. Anyways, this trip to China and North Korea presented me with an opportunity to cross two off of my list (only Ho Chi Minh remains!) so on my last day in Beijing, I was up early and headed straight to the mausoleum. As expected, the line was long, but moved at a good pace. I neglected to bring my passport, however, which was apparently required for entry, and was wearing flip-flops, which was also frowned upon, according to one of the posted signs. When I finally arrived to the security checkpoint, this apparently didn’t matter much, because I played the stupid American tourist and the guards let me through. Most visitors were Chinese citizens; in fact, I seemed to be the only Westerner there. Upon entering the mausoleum I encountered a huge pile of flowers, which was growing substantially. I was one of the few visitors who had failed to purchase flowers to honor the Chairman. We moved on to the actual room that displays Mao’s body, which was draped in a red hammer and sickle flag and enclosed in a glass coffin. You don’t have much time to gawk, as the guards move you along quickly into the next room, which, I kid you not, was lined with souvenir stands selling a variety of Mao memorabilia. It reminded me of Disneyland, when you are forced to exit through the gift shop after finishing a ride. I bought a kitschy ornament with Mao portrait that you are supposed to hang from your rearview mirror, like a Beijing taxi driver.

The Temple of Heaven
My last stop on my sightseeing itinerary was the Temple of Heaven. Built in the early 1400s, Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties came to this Taoist temple to pray for good harvests.

My embarrassing last meal
I am not proud to admit this, but for my last meal in Beijing I had a Marriott Burger delivered via room service. I know, I know, I should have gone out for Peking Duck or hot pot, but after five days of North Korean food, and several days of Chinese food, I was craving American food like crazy. So here it is, my burger and waffle fries, which I devoured quickly and washed down with a Chinese beer:

Goodbye, Beijing!
Overall, I was rather overwhelmed by Beijing. There was so much to see, and too little time to see it. I would love to go back to China someday and explore more of the country.

The rest of the photos are here.

May 30, 2012

POTD: Wangfujing

This is a random shot I took while exploring the Wangfujing area in Beijing. Wangfujing is one of Beijing’s most famous shopping streets, and an interesting mix of both the old and new China, where you will see vendors selling heaping bowls of noodles on one block, and cheerful young employees flipping burgers at the gleaming McDonald’s on the next block. Or, at one market you’ll find everything from herbal remedies to traditional Chinese dress, and at the nearby shopping mall, Prada bags and the latest iPhone 4S deals.

Located in downtown Beijing, Wangfujing has served as an area of commerce since the middle of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Today, the area is home to nearly 300 famous Chinese brands and is a very popular place for both tourists and locals alike. One of the biggest draws is the Wangfujing Snack Street, located in traditional hutongs that are densely packed with restaurants and food stalls that line the streets. The restaurants and food stalls serve some very common dishes, but some offerings seem downright bizarre to a Western tourist; I passed by several stalls offering starfish and scorpions on a stick. While I am open to trying just about everything, I couldn’t imagine gnawing on a scorpion, so opted for a snack of noodles and veggies wrapped in a moo shoo pancake (like a Chinese burrito). I’m pretty sure it tasted a million times better than a scorpion on a stick! If you are ever in Beijing, definitely stop by Wangfujing, especially to visit the Snack Street. Whether or not to actually partake in the “snacks” is entirely your decision, however.

April 22, 2011

POTD: Rainy day in Tiananmen Square

Another photo of Tiananmen Square, located in Beijing, China. The structure adorned with a portrait of Mao Zedong is the Tiananmen gate. Located north of Tiananmen Square, this gate served as the entrance to the Imperial City, within which the Forbidden City was located. The portrait of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, was placed on the gate in 1949. The soldier in the photo was part of the ceremonial guard located near the square’s flagpole. Apparently, the Chinese military puts on very impressive flag raising and lowering ceremonies during the morning and evening, but I missed them. This was unfortunate, as I am a sucker for anything military-related.

In addition to the military guards, there is a heavy police presence in Tiananmen Square for crowd control and monitoring. Since Tiananmen Square has been the site of important political demonstrations, the authorities continue to keep a watchful eye (via officers and a multitude of security cameras) on any activities taking place there. In fact, in order to gain entrance to Tiananmen Square, you are required to pass through a security checkpoint. You must walk through a metal detector and have your belongings scanned via an x-ray machine. It’s a bit like going to the airport, only the Chinese guards are much more pleasant than TSA agents.

March 7, 2011

POTD: Beginning the Great Wall climb

The above photo is of the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall. Located approximately 60 kilometers from Beijing, the Juyong Pass section, which was first built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), played a vital role in the city’s defenses.

If you find yourself in Beijing, then a visit to the Great Wall is a must. I would also recommend wearing comfortable clothing, as the climb can be quite strenuous. (My guide, however, climbed to the top while wearing fashionable sandals – not quite the best shoes for the 1,700 uneven, slippery steps to the top of the mountain, but whatever). If you have a choice between the Badaling and Juyongguan section, you might want to choose the Juyongguan section, as there are typically less tourists there than Badaling.

The Great Wall is far older than the Ming Dynasty, and can trace its origins to 221 BC, during the Qin Dynasty. The Great Wall was originally built out of rammed earth, wood, stone, but upon the ascension of the Ming Dynasty, stronger materials such as brick, tiles, lime, and stone were used when constructing the wall. This particular section, along with Badaling, has been renovated extensively. The majority of the wall is actually in disrepair due to erosion, vandalism, removal of portions of the wall for city/town development, and the use of wall materials for construction.

January 1, 2011

POTD: Dragon turtle in the Forbidden City

chinese dragon turtle

chinese dragon turtle

Happy New Year everyone! The first photo of the day for 2011 is this dragon turtle sculpture from the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. I was’t sure of the significance of this animal, so thankfully Wikipedia was able to shed some light on this sculpture:

A dragon turtle is a legendary Chinese turtle with a dragonlike head. It combines two of the four celestial animals of Chinese mythology. Dragon symbolizes success, courage, determination, and power. Turtle symbolizes longevity and support. The transformation of the turtle to a dragon signifies impending success and good fortune in careers and business endeavors.

December 24, 2010

POTD: Big brother is watching in Beijing

cameras in Tiananmen Square

cameras in Tiananmen Square

You can find large lampposts with these cameras all over Tiananmen Square (these particular cameras are situated near the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall) along with numerous uniformed and plainclothes police officers. Since Tiananmen Square has been the site of important demonstrations, the authorities continue to keep a watchful eye on any activities taking place there (exhibit any political activity and you will be quickly whisked away). Despite the government, China is a fascinating country to visit. Cheap flights to Beijing are often available during the winter and there are plenty of different-priced accommodations to choose from.

November 26, 2010

POTD: The Temple of Heaven

temple of heaven

temple of heaven

Located in Beijing, this is a Taoist temple built from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City. The circular building is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests where the Emperor prayed for good harvests.

The Temple of Heaven was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 and was described as “a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world’s great civilizations…” as the ‘symbolic layout and design of the Temple of Heaven had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries.'”

Decently priced flights to Beijing seem easy enough to come by, lodging is quite inexpensive, and meals are a bargain, so definitely put this city on your list of places to visit!

November 10, 2010

POTD: Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing

I don’t think there is enough money in the world to get me to eat a scorpion. OK, maybe I would do it for $500. Scorpions on a stick were one of the many interesting snacks you could purchase at the Wangfujing Snack Street. I went the safe route and opted for what I call a Chinese burrito: noodles wrapped in a giant moo shu wrapper and then grilled, followed by a dessert of green tea ice cream.

October 7, 2010

POTD: Mao watching over Tiananmen Square

mao portrait Tiananmen Square

mao portrait Tiananmen Square

September 10, 2010

POTD: The Tiananmen (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”) in Beijing

tiananmen gate

tiananmen gate

The Tiananmen gate, located north of Tiananmen Square, served as the entrance to the Imperial City, within which the Forbidden City was located. The portrait of Mao Zedong was placed on the gate in 1949. The left sign reads “Long Live the People’s Republic of China” and the right one reads “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples”. Taken during a September 2009 trip to Beijing.