The Many Faces of Beijing

Beijing – by Irene Butler

Published in Travellady online Magazine


A fascinating medley of ancient sites and cosmopolitan delights flooded our senses in Beijing, China’s capital of nearly 15 million people.

On our first stroll down Wangfujing Dajie, the prestigious pedestrian shopping street, myWangfujing 3 husband Rick and I were hooked. In an explosion of neon and glitz we intermingled with young women in fashionably scant outfits, men in expensive business suits, and well-to-do families toting loads of purchases; yet we knew this to be far removed from typical living standards.

Tantalizing swirls of aroma lassoed us off Wangfujing onto “Snack Street” every time we passed by. We joined like-minded people at kiosks to purchase bowls of tasty noodles ladled from steam-billowing vats and skewers of spicy meat from sizzling grills. Then it was back to browsing through more specialty shops and a favourite six-level bookstore with a bustling cappuccino bar.

HutongsPhysically near, but seemingly a world away from this flamboyant old commercial locale, we roamed the hutongs (literally-‘narrow alleys’, now expanded by foreigners to mean “traditional neighbourhoods”). The alleys lead to courtyards with houses on each of the four sides called siheyuans. Dating back to the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1279-1911), the siheyuans are arranged around the Imperial Palace. The aristocrats once lived nearest the palace grounds to the east and west; the common people, such as merchants, labourers, and artisans to the north and south. They are now filled with ordinary citizens.

The hutongs gave us a glimpse into how life was in China for thousands of years. Vendors sell traditional foods from carts and small stalls. I was drawn like a magnet to the “youzhagao” stand and was soon munching a bag of deep-fried twisted dough sticks. An elderly foot-bound lady stood near us; a testimony to the ancient custom officially banned in 1911. Jovial old men sat around crate tables furiously clacking mah-jong tiles (Chinese chess). Our A Ni hao@ (hello-pronounced nee how) was always met with a smiling response. Some called out, “Meiguo”? (United States). Our six months of Mandarin paid off as we replied, “Jianada” (Canada).

Our next venture took us to Tiananmen, the world’s largest square, originating in the 15th
CIMG0115S century. It was from a rostrum at Tiananmen Gate that Chairman Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949. Gazing at the expansive sweep of concrete, I envisioned Mao’s periodic review of one million soldiers marching past his podium during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1970). Also called to mind was the shocking event of 1989, when army tanks rolled into the square and slaughtered thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators.

On each side of the square lies a national monument. To the north is the Imperial Palace. Off limits to ordinary citizens for over 500 years, it gained the appellation, Forbidden City. First built between 1406 and 1420, its 800 halls and palaces have been reconstructed many times. We were dazzled by the resplendent yellow roof tiles glistening in the sun. The ‘Imperial Way’, a wide path running through the middle of the central palaces, could once only be trod upon by the Emperor himself. Nine dragons sculptured on a 200 ton marble ramp adorn The Hall of Preserved Harmony. Lion sentinels gush water from their mouths when it rains. Massive incense burners once permeated the air with sweet jasmine and pungent sandalwood. We could easily see why the Emperor never left this hedonistic haven of obsequious wives, concubines, eunuch servants and guards (and the Empress, of course) unless absolutely necessary.

Congress meets in the Great Hall of the People west of the square. All 10,000 representatives can be seated in the auditorium simultaneously. A galaxy of lights circles the great red star on the ceiling.

Mao’s Mausoleum is to the south. After an hour of inching along in a three-block-long Mao's Mausoleumqueue, we proceeded past the glass-domed sarcophagus containing the preserved body of this infamous dictator, his head resting on a scarlet cushion. His countrymen revere him as a Great Revolutionary Leader that “made some mistakes”.

As evening approached the airspace above the square became a profusion of dancing kites and bobbing helium balloons. A massive crowd swarmed the designated area for the sunset flag-lowering ceremony, all squeezing in for the best view. Luckily, we were front and centre of the grand display of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) marching at precisely 108 paces per minute – 75 cm per pace. At sunrise a similar flag-raising ceremony takes place.
Fronting the Revolutionary Museum on the east side of the square we stood for awhile watching the giant clock count down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the beginning of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. We saw it as also counting down unprecedented changes.

Olympic clock 2As Beijing clearly exemplifies, China is a country on the rise with a rapidly growing middle class and communism marching hand-in-hand with capitalism. We were compelled to take a good look at the China of today, as the old shopping streets are now competing with new supersized malls. Opening in 2004, Beijing’s Golden Resources gained the status of “largest mall in the world” (only to be eclipsed a few years later by one even larger in South China). The hutongs are steadily being replaced by high-rises. The fascinating historic monuments, such as the Forbidden City, are presently undergoing major renovations. A multitude of Olympic facilities are sprouting up around the city. We are not opposed to progress, but wonder how long before the visages of China today will only be nostalgic reminiscences.

For more information on Beijing:
In 1987- UNESCO listed the The Forbidden City (also called Palace Museum, Imperial Palace) as a World Cultural Heritage Site.
PHOTO CREDIT to: Crystal Chung


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