After our layover of sorts in Nanjing, we headed to the capital city of Beijing. The trip via bullet train was about 4 hours, and we covered ~600 miles in that time. That really got me thinking about how much easier travel was within China than within the US.
We paid something like $50 for our tickets, which we purchased an hour before the train left, and averaged 150mph on our trip. By contrast, a drive from New York City to Washington DC would take about 4 hours, but is only a third of the distance. A flight would typically need to be purchased weeks ahead of time and would easily cost three times the train ticket. It might save you some time, but when you factor in traffic to/from the airport and TSA, who knows…
Moral of the story: We need bullet trains in the US.
Anyways, enough nerding out about infrastructure… Let’s talk about Beijing. It’s the third largest city in the world, but unlike Shanghai it actually felt like it. Looking at the population vs. square mileage of the cities, there’s not as much of a difference as I would have expected based on how crowded it felt while we were there, so maybe my perception was skewed by the fact we were in really touristy areas in Beijing. I had also heard some horror stories about how bad Beijing’s pollution was, but while we were there it wasn’t too bad. I think it was still in the “dangerous” zone according to the health indexes, but it wasn’t too noticeable. Unless you tried to take a picture with a subject that was farther than, say, 50 yards. Then you could really notice the pollution…
I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though. We actually spent most of our first day in the region outside of Beijing. That’s because we were crossing off a major bucket list item: seeing the Great Wall of China!! Woo Hoo! We hired a driver to take us up to the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall because it supposedly was a little less flooded with tourists than some of the closer regions. While the wall certainly wasn’t empty, it wasn’t terribly overcrowded either…and you could always just walk a mile in either direction and get away from the worst of the crowds. Plus this portion of the wall had an alpine slide/scooter/luge thing that you could take down the mountain. I can’t decide if that’s pathetically touristy (I mean, who puts a ridiculous alpine slide next to one of the most incredible engineering feats of human history?!) or cool…but whatever, it was fun.
Visiting the Great Wall was very cool, but it wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring as I was expecting. You know it’s this incredible thing going into the visit, and when you get there it’s really cool, but I think it’s just really hard to appreciate it for what it is when you’re just seeing it up close. When you’re on the wall, you can only see a few miles in each direction due to the haze…and it’s something like 13,200 miles long in total! That’s just under 5 times the distance between Los Angeles and New York City! How can you truly appreciate that when you the portion you see at any one time amounts to nothing more than a rounding error? I think you’d probably have to get a glimpse of it from space after seeing it up close to really appreciate it. Maybe that’ll be my next adventure after this whole Around the World in 80 Months project is over…? Regardless, seeing the wall was still very cool and I’m very glad we made it out there.
After getting back into Beijing, we headed to the Temple of Heaven to do some more sightseeing. The complex was originally used for spiritual ceremonies that allegedly brought good harvests and prosperity, and it holds a place of significance in the histories of the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion as well. Aside from its interesting historical importance, it was very impressive architecturally. I would have loved to photograph a dramatic sunrise or sunset there…
Next on our list was one of Christina’s most important bucket list items: shopping. Beijing is home to some of the most famous “fake markets” in China, and the oppressive heat, sensory overload, and dense population was not going to deter Christina from getting some purses… 🙂 I’m more of an Amazon.com shopper myself, but I had a good time watching the haggling process.
After the shopping excursion, we stopped by a massive co-working building that serves as the home to Andrew Shirman’s Education In Sight and Mantra Eyewear initiatives. Andrew is one of Christina’s friends, and in recent years he’s been working to find ways to enhance the education of students in rural China through the distribution of eyeglasses. It was pretty inspiring to hear his story, and it was also very interesting to hear him talk about working with the government. In the West, we typically think of the Chinese government as oppressive and limiting. While I think those are fair characterizations in many contexts, it was interesting to get a glimpse of the other side of the coin. Andrew mentioned that if your company’s interests align with the government’s interests (e.g., helping support those in need), the government can actually be incredibly helpful.
After chatting with Andrew for a bit, we headed off to have some of the famous Peking Duck at Jingzun. The meal and atmosphere was quite good…looking back I’d probably rank this meal as one of my top three meals of the trip. It was a perfect way to cap off an incredibly packed day…Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, fake markets, inspirational startups, and famous food. That’s a solid day!
There wasn’t a whole lot to see in Tiananmen Square aside from scores of tourists and security cameras, but it was still pretty cool to visit because of its historical significance. There’s a certain weight to that area…
Our last stop in Beijing was across the street from Tiananmen Square at the Palace Museum/Forbidden City. This “city” was effectively the imperial palace for the Chinese dynasties from 1420 to 1912. I don’t have too many regrets from this trip, but not spending more time in the Forbidden City and learning about it is on that list. The city was massive and it seemed like every detail had some kind of cultural, philosophical, spiritual, or political significance. This quote from Wikipedia offers a small sample of this dense symbolism:
Yellow is the color of the Emperor. Thus almost all roofs in the Forbidden City bear yellow glazed tiles. There are only two exceptions. The library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity (文渊阁) had black tiles because black was associated with water, and thus fire-prevention. Similarly, the Crown Prince’s residences have green tiles because green was associated with wood, and thus growth.
This is becoming a ridiculously long post and I’m tired of writing, so I’m going to wrap it up here and finish with some images of the Forbidden City and some street photography from our trip back to the hotel.