Friday, May 25, 2012

Of the food of Beijing;

My main source of food in China was street food. It is delicious, cheap, and, if you can make the right choices, it won't leave you sick after eating. My hostel in Beijing was in the Sanlitun district of the city. The area had some big shopping malls, but best of all there was a street a block from my hostel filled with line of small restaurants. After it gets dark, the small charcoal grills come out and the streets are filled with the smell of all sorts of grilled meats. My favorite spot was where there were two tiny shops with two little tables out front. One shop was a bakery with all sorts of breads filled with peppers and greens. The other shop usually had a big stack of steam trays cooking away. I stopped a number to times to get a snack to eat. For less than a dollar I could get a tray of steamed meat dumplings or a pile of tasty baked goods.

This was my favorite place. You can seen the steam-trays, but the bakery is so small you can't even see it tucked away behind the other businesses.
What I would get from the bakery. The top thing is a packet of braised greens. The bottom one is a bread with hot peppers and seasonings folded into the dough.
From the steam place you could get the humbow or the dumplings filled with the usual unidentifiable ground meat mixture you find all over China. Then you put a scoop of hot chili slurry in your little dish and mix it up with the vinegar so you have a nice spicy mix to dip your steamed goods into.
I also heard that the dried fruits in China are good. They were tasty, but I couldn't figure out what any of them were.
One of the foods Beijing is best known for is its Peking duck. There are restaurants all over the city that sell whole ducks cooked-up with super crispy skin. After watching the sun set from a temple complex with pagodas and pavilions representing the five tastes, two other travelers and I went to find a place to enjoy this Beijing delicacy.

Our server chopping the duck up in front of us.
You put the duck on a small thin pancake, add a few pieces of green onion, and add a sweet sauce before rolling it up and eating it.
We also ordered up some duck liver pate and something called Monkey Head Mushroom Soup. We were all disappointed when we didn't get a big monkey head floating in a bowl. It was just like any other soup.

Of the temples of Beijing;

One of the great things about Beijing is how old the city is. All around the city are palaces, temples, and gardens build by the past dynasties centuries ago.

The White Pagoda of Beihai Park.
The first temples I visited in China were in an area of parks and islands among the lakes running along the northwest side of the Forbidden City. On the peak of the hill on Jade Isle is the White Pagoda. Its bright white tower holds a reliquary of Buddhist scriptures and relics from monks. Jade Isle sits in a small lake surrounded by pagodas and gardens in Beihai Park.

A small stone bridge on Jade Isle in the middle of Beihai Lake.
The eaves of Chinese temples are always interesting.
A small pagoda in Beihai Park.
People would buy these little wooden medallions and write prayers on them before hanging them on the trees in the temple courtyard.
The White Pagoda of Beihai Park in the Beijing sunset.
Directly north of the Forbidden City is a big mound of earth rising from the ground covered with pavilions and pagodas known as Jingshan Park. This 45 meter high mound of dirt, which was built using manual labor and excess dirt of those dredging canals and motes six centuries ago, is now the highest point in the city of Beijing. Obviously not an easy talk to complete without the use of modern earthmovers and machinery. The hill has five peaks each with a structure which used to contain a copper Buddha statue representing each of the five tastes: sour, salty, bitter, acidic, and sweet. It is like a temple to food lovers. I guess I did go out to eat a big meal of Peking crispy duck after visiting the temples so there must be some sort of spiritual tie.
I don't think the No Climbing sign was too far away.
The main Pavilion in Jingshan Parks is on the highest point above the city and can be seen from all around the Forbidden City.
Me and the view from the pavilion looking over the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square far in the distance.
The view towards the drum and bell towers north of Jingshan Park.
Me and the two Dutch travelers I spent the day traveling around Beijing with.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Of the National Museum of China;

One of the larger buildings running along the side of Tiananmen Square is the National Museum of China. It is the most impressive museum I have ever seen. I never considered how nice a museum in a communist nation like China could be. Just the building it's in is incredible. It was built as one of the Ten Great Buildings of Beijing celebrating the first decade of the People's Republic of China. Inside it is filled some of the many treasures from the provinces all around China.

The view from the main entrance hall looking out
The inner-courtyard. It really amazes me how big this place is. There was also some intense security to get in.

The collections cover just about every period of Chinese history. The first room you see is filled with all the communist art. It was probably my favorite because I love nationalistic sculpture. Along the walls of the room are huge paintings depicting the struggles along the path to revolution and epic paintings of Mao's rise to greatness. Other galleries are filled with the most intricately carved natural resources of China. One room was devoted to gigantic carved jade pieces, another was sculptures made of ivory, while other rooms were full of works made of wood and precious stones. Another gallery covered Chinese history from the stone-age societies to the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Nationalistic paintings and statues.
A huge scene carved from many pieces of ivory.
A wooden relief carving.
Statue of Buddha
I'm not really sure what it is, but it is old.
In the 19th century Chinese loved European clocks and watches. This museum and the Forbidden City have collections of some of the most interesting and elegant clocks in China. This one is my favorite.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Of Tiananmen Square;

Directly in the center of Beijing is Tiananmen Square. It is about one third of a mile across and about half a mile long making it the 3rd largest square in the world. The square is filled with thousands of Chinese tourists visiting the nationalist monuments dedicated to Mao and the revolutionary martyrs of China. In the middle of the square hundreds of people line up everyday to view the Chairman Mao Zedong's preserved body in the mausoleum. On the north side of the square is the entrance to the Forbidden City with the huge portrait of Mao hanging above the gate. On either side of the square are the impressive communist era building for the National Museum and the Great Hall of the People which is China's parliament building. Being one of the few non-Chinese people walking through this important Chinese square I got a lot of attention. Sometimes it was people asking to take a photo with me while they practiced their English. Other times it was pretty Chinese girls chatting me up trying to lure me into tourist traps.

The carvings on Monument to the People's Heroes tell the story of the Chinese revolution leading up to the founding of the People's Republic.
The Chinese seal above the  Great Hall of the People. 
The entrance to the Forbidden City

I had heard about the typical Chinese tourist trap before I came to China so I knew what to watch out for. During my day around the square and site-seeing with a Dutch traveler I had met, we had about a half dozen Chinese girls come up to us. They usually start the conversation by asking where you are from and what you are doing in China. Quickly the conversation leads into her asking if you want to go to a bar/tea house/coffee shop that she knows of. Supposedly the way the trap works is that at this tea house (or what ever it ends up being) she suggests you order a specific drink. When you finally get the bill you find out that the drink you had was super expensive and you are stuck with handing over $150 for a crappy drink.

She couldn't speak any English so her boyfriend had to ask me if she could get a photo with me. 
There used to be a big city wall here that was torn down to open up the square. All that is left now is this gate tower and several others around the square.
 Monument to the People's Heroes with Mao's mausoleum behind it. 
Another remnant of Beijing's city walls in the square. This was a defensive archer tower.
One of the craziest things about Tiananmen Square is the security. To enter the square you have to pass through a security station and have your bags x-rayed. Once you are actually in there square you'll have about a dozen cameras watching you from every angle making sure you don't act out. The last thing you would want to do here is where a "Free Tibet" t-shirt. You probably also don't want to mention the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 with the iconic image of the man standing in front of the line of tanks.

Several groups of soldiers march around patrolling the square. They also have plan-clothed soldiers which mix into the crowds to keep an eye on everybody.
This is the crowd lined up to see the body of Mao. You can also see all the light poles with security cameras on them.
Just south of the square is an area that looks like it is China Town of China. The narrow lantern-lined streets are filled with a bunch of little shops and restaurants.
A cool building under renovation.
There are also a number of old European diplomatic offices near the square.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Of the Beijing ancient observatory;

On my walk around Beijing I found the Beijing's observatory from the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was built in 1442 on a raised tower of the city wall. All of the cast bronze celestial instruments sit 50 feet above the city with just the same view of the night sky as there was half a millennium ago (except for the smog and light pollution). Research stopped in 1929, but the observatory has earned a world record for nearly 500 years of continuous use.

Me and the collection of various astronomical instruments. The wall and platform behind me is the ancient observatory.
The observational platform is fulled with a number of instruments built in the 17th century to track the movements of the stars and planets. This is the Ecliptic Armilla: made in 1673 for the purpose of determining ecliptic longitude difference and latitude of celestial bodies.
The collection of instruments in 1925.
A European drawing of the observatory from 1737.

For many years these instruments were the most advanced in the world. Most were designed by a Jesuit Missionary in the 1670s for the emperor of China. Since they were for the emperor a lot of work went into the bronze casts. Many of the instruments have dragons on the bases to show the connection between the emperor and the specialized field of astronomy. In 1900 when the 8 foreign armies invaded Beijing the observatory was looted. All of the ornate bronze instruments were carries off by soldiers. For a year several pieces stayed in front of the French embassy in Beijing while others were carried off to Germany. It wasn't until 1921 that all of the astronomical instruments were returned.

The stolen instruments on display in front of Potsdam Palace in Germany.

One of the carved stones around the instruments.

Of the city walls of Beijing;

I continued my morning jet-lagged walk around Beijing and found a section of the old city walls. China loves big walls. Everyone knows of the Great Wall of China, but there are so many other walls in China. Many old cities of China have segments of the past defensive walls still standing. Beijing's wall system mainly dates to the 1400s, but over the 20th century there were slowly dismantled to make way for railroads and an inner-city freeway. Now, all that remains are a few sections of wall with several gate and watch towers scattered around the city.

This is the Dongbianmen section of the wall I visited. You can see the restored wall section and the watchtower in the background.
A map of Beijing's old defensive wall system with the Dongbianmen wall section I saw marked.
Some areas of the wall have been restored while others are kept in a crumbling state. The section I visited had a large area which had been made safe to walk atop and an old unrestored section that stretched for another mile through the city. Most noticeable is the 30 meter high watchtower which was first built in 1440. It was a large defensive tower built at the Southeast corner of the city walls. In the past it would have been filled with hundreds of archers ready to fire arrows out from its 144 square windows. Today it is a museum about the city walls of China.

China's largest corner tower.
The same watchtower in 1895. What was once a moat along the wall, is now a small park.
A 1900-1930 shot of the tower with a camel train.

A view looking down the unrestored section of the wall.
The backside of the watchtower.
The walls of Beijing kept invaders out of the city for centuries. It wasn't until the 20th century that walls were taken by foreign armies. In response to the anti-European Boxer Rebellion in China, in 1900 an army of eight European and American armies attacked Beijing. The city walls held for two days against the cannons and 20,000 Anglo troops. The troops overran the wall and entered the city where they looted, raped, and killed before capturing the city and forcing China to pay the equivalent to $60 billion in war reparations.

An American painting showing the August 14th, 1900 Allied Relief Expedition assault on the outer walls of Peking.
A Chinese cannon on the restored wall section.
The damaged tower after several days of bombardment.
When the Anglo forces took over this section of the wall they carved their names and dates into the walls bricks. The Chinese call it "criminal evidence left by the Russian and American invaders."
One of the buildings on the wall.
After the Anglo invasion in 1900 arches were cut into the wall to open the city up to the growing rail system.