Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The New China

Street view in Beijing
Beijing street at sunset (May 27, 2016)

When I was a kid, I was in awe of the globetrotting traveling life of my uncle. He spent all his vacations traveling to what for me were the most exotic destinations: India, the Canary Islands, the Galapagos, and of course China. Since these travels happened more than forty years ago, the China he visited was very different from the current one. It was a China of large avenues full of bicycles, and very few cars. It was a China where most people were wearing uniforms, and the cult of Mao was very strong. It was also a China that one could visit only in very controlled settings, with minders following at every single step, and deciding what you were allowed to see, and what not.

Busy street in Beijing (May 27, 2016)
Busy street in Beijing
This is far from the China that I visited in 2016. The new China is a modern country with congested cities, a lot of cars, and a semi-perennial cloud of smog (although, in all fairness, I was very lucky during my trip and I got to see a lot of blue skies). Walking the busy streets of Beijing one has the feeling of being in any contemporary western city. You can still see the remnants of an epoch almost completely gone, like the old traditional neighborhoods that still border the walls of the Forbidden City, but that have been mostly razed and replaced by modern blocks of high rise apartments. The Beijing of 2016 looks very much like a city projected towards the future.  Yet, one may question what this future will be. Talking with the expat community it seems clear that something has changed in recent years. Especially in the humanities, I heard people complaining of new restrictions in their academic activities that didn't exist a short while ago. Even the independent parties whose existence is allowed by the government seem to have a shorter leash than before. The country seem to be firmly on an authoritarian trajectory. (*) How much this will affect the economic boom and the technological and social explosion that China is currently experiencing, it remains to be seen.

(*) As I am revising these notes in December 2022, I can now fully appreciate how my expat sources were right in describing the authoritarian trajectory of the country, with a progressive concentration of power in the hands of a single person, and stronger restriction on the Chinese society that have existed for decades. As I am writing this footnote there are large protests even close to the center of power against the Covid-zero restrictions that the country has implemented in the futile effort to close its border to the virus that escaped from China itself two years before. Will these protests stop, once these restrictions are mitigated, or will the seed of protest expand to reclaim more aspects of the open society that have been lost in recent years?

Old and new in Beijing (May 27, 2016)
Old and New in Beijing (May 27, 2016)

Monday, January 16, 2017

Walking on the Wall

Mutianyau Great Wall, China (May 28, 2016)

The advantage of the Mutianyau section of the Great Wall, with respect to the more popular Badaling, is that Mutianyau is less frequented, and is possible to find views of the Wall unobstructed by crowds.

Walking on the Wall
The restored section of the Mutianyau Wall is 2.5 km long, and includes 23 towers spaced about 100 meters from one of the other. The Wall itself is designed as a raised road, allowing watchmen to easily run from one post to the other in what would otherwise be an impervious mountainous terrain. This allowed to keep under control a vast border with a minimum amount of troops. Some of the watchtowers have a flat top, with a space designed to hold a fire that could be easily lit to alert the main garrison stationed in the valley in case of a mongol incursion. It is said that this fire was made using wolf scats, for their property of producing dark dense smoke easily seen from a large distance. Even as we were visiting, the Wall undergoes continued maintenance. In fact most of the mason work is not original, but reconstructed according to the original design of the wall: only in a few places large panel of glass allowed to see the remnants of the original wall embedded in the modern reconstruction. Towards the end of the restored section of the Wall there is a 200 meters long writing on the mountain: 忠于毛主席, which means "loyalty to Chairman Mao". As I mentioned in a previous post, visiting the Wall is considered a civic duty in China. 

We spent several hours walking on the broad stone roads built on top of the Wall, without covering the whole length of the restored section. The sight of the Wall, and the views of the landscape around it, are very impressive, and certainly justify the visit, even though a different time in the year, maybe in spring or autumn, is advised to avoid the hot sun that relentlessly accompanied our tour.

Mutianyau Great Wall, China (May 28, 2016)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Visiting the Great Wall

Mutianyu Great Wall, China (May 28, 2016)

Flying to China from the US is expensive, especially if one is forced to use american carriers to get travel reimbursement from work. One way to reduce the cost is to relax the constraints on the traveling dates, in order to get the cheapest available flights. It turned out that paying the hotel for one day more after the end of the conference was cheaper than returning the same day. So, I ended up having an extra day to kill in Beijing: perfect occasion to visit a nearby section of the Great Wall.

On the bus to Mutianyau
The Great Wall was built starting from the 7th Century BC, even though little remains of the most ancient parts of its construction. The majority of what survives today is from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The wall was built to control the northern access of China, and to contain the raids from the nomadic hordes living in the northern Mongolia steppes. Overall the actual wall is long more than 6,000 km (almost 4,000 miles), but extends much more if one includes trenches and natural defensive barriers. Most of the Ming Great Wall has now disappeared, a victim of the ravages of time and history. A few sections however have been restored and are now visited by million of tourists every years, many of them Chinese. Visiting the Great Wall is in fact considered a patriotic duty by the Chinese. This may be due to a quote attributed to Chairman Mao: "If you have never been to the Great Wall you are not a real man". Truth is however a little more complicated, as the quote is only the third verse of a poem Mao wrote in 1935 to inspire men and women to complete the Long March:
The heavens are high, the clouds are pale,
We watch as the wild geese disappears southwards,
If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not true men,
We who have marched more than 20,000 li.
The isolated sentence may have lost its original meaning, but is nevertheless very effective to promote Chinese tourism to the wall (street vendors offer you a "certificate" if you walk along the wall), especially the Badaling section, the first to be restored in 1975. That section of the wall is the easiest to reach from Beijing, 80 km north of the city and well served by public transportation. It is also the most crowded, so we decided to visit another section, near the fruit producing area of Mutianyau (about the same distance from Beijing than Badaling, but no easy public transportation). Arranging that is not difficult (plenty of travel agencies with english-speaking personnel), as long as you are careful to avoid the "cheap" trip offered by the hotels, which inevitably end with a long stop at a local mall. After some searching we chose to hire a trip with, offering "Mutianyau no-shopping tours" for $64 each person (we were 10, so we ended up hiring an entire minivan and private tour guide for that price). The bus picked us up at 8AM, right in front of the hotel, for the 1.5 hours ride to reach the wall (if there is not much traffic, which is instead expected in the morning).

Huge apartment blocks
You can see our guide in the small photo above on the left: she was actually living in the area near Mutianyu and had to leave very early in the morning to pick us up at the hotel. The bus ride was comfortable, but we indeed ended up stuck in highway traffic for half an hour or so. The difficult part was to getting out of the city, an endless expanse of high rise apartment blocks, many of them built surrounding what looked like a factory or assembly plant of sort. One can only appreciate the huge size of Beijing by driving through its never-ending outer suburbs. Once we managed to escape the traffic of the city the flow in the highway became easier, and we drove through a pleasant countryside full of orchards (the area North of Beijing is famous for its fruits production). Until we finally reached the mountains. 

Chairlift to the wall
The wall is a big touristic attraction and its access is well organized. The bus left us at the base of the mountains, where we got a chairlift to the wall, a few hundred meters above (some of us elected to walk on a steep path in the forest). The chairlift (small photo on the right) is actually quite nice, and it affords an unobstructed view of the wall which you cannot have from the wall itself (see large photo above). Once on top, you walk. I will write more extensively of the wall hike on a separate post, but for now I would just remark that even this short restored segment of the wall is actually very long, more than enough to satisfy any wall-walk urging I had, especially considering that any step forward must then be retraced back to the chairlift station, to get back to the bus at the end of the day. Notice however that in the photo on the right the chairs coming down were all empty. That is because the fun way to get back to the base is not with the chairlift, but rather with a very long toboggan.You sit on a small wheeled cart, pull up the brakes and slid all the way down as fast as you trust the centrifugal force to keep you within the banked tracks in the curves (or as fast as the person in front of you). It was indeed quite fun.

Beijing highway (May 28, 2016)

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Neighborhood Park

Yuandadu Relics Park, Beijing, China (May 27, 2016)

The last day of the meeting we finished early enough that I had the late afternoon free for a stroll in the Haidian district, where my hotel was located. I decided to go to what looked like a nice neighborhood park, along a canal in-between the 3rd and 4th ring roads.

Prosperous Dadu Sculpture
As many things in China, the park turned out to be huge! With a total length of 9 km, the Yuandadu Relics Park is the largest zonal park in Beijing. In this late Friday afternoon I visited it was very well frequented by the people living in the district. Many families and retirees, walking around or sitting on the benches reading a book or playing an instrument. And a large crowd very committed in watching what looked like some sort of gambling activity based on cards. The canal along which the park is established, as well as the many fountains in the park, were drained for maintenance the day I visited; they must be quite a view when the water is flowing. The park has many fruit trees that were being harvested by the park visitors; something that I am not used to see in the West but makes perfect sense if you think about it (why wasting perfectly good fruit?).

The name of the park derives by it location, on the grounds that were once occupied by the walls of Dadu (also known as Khanbaliq), the ancient capital city of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1378). Many of the ruins are still preserved, and there are several sculpture groups celebrating the past glory of the site.  The main sculpture (small photo above) represent the Yuan emperor Shizu (also known as Kublai Khan) in his howdah. He is surrounded by the the great astronomer Guo Shoujing, the Nepalese architect Araniko and the Italian traveler Marco Polo: who would have thought that I would have found a piece of Italy in the core of Beijing?

Yuandadu Relics Park, Beijing, China (May 27, 2016)