Standing the test of time

MY IRELAND-SIZED sense of distance had got me in trouble-again.

The day before, I had sneaked a look at the map of Beijing and figured I could enjoy a pleasant stroll back to my budget hotel in the Dongcheng district.

But it is never wise to underestimate the vastness of such a city. Spectacular as its halls, temples and audience chambers are, the Forbidden City is — by Chinese standards — a relatively new addition, its basic layout established by Emperor Yong Le in 1406-20, using a million workers.

For five centuries, while the Ming and Quing emperors resided there, the price of unauthorised entry into the Forbidden City was death. These days, it costs 60 RMB (renminbi), about €7, and affords such delights as the Hall of Supreme Harmony and Palace of Heavenly Purity. Then again, if I’d shown disrespect to the spirits of the Sons of Heaven by imagining Beijing as a city of average proportions, I was soon paying for it in terms of exhaustion.

A few days later, en route to the Lama Temple, I made the opposite mistake, passing a relatively nearby turnoff and crossing the Second Ring Road. Ahead of me was a typical thoroughfare of contemporary Beijing, a river of petrol fumes and noise with massive shopping malls and office blocks rising from its banks. An hour was wasted walking up and down its length before I reached the temple.

Luckily though, the Imperial College and Confucius College were but a short walk away. The former was the location of an ancient rite where, each year, the emperor would expound on the Confucian classics to an audience of thousands of kneeling students, professors and court officials. To reach the exalted rank of civil servant, applicants were required to undergo truly unnerving exams. They would be locked into cubicles one by one and a half metres across for three days without a break, many going insane in the process.

I crossed over to the Confucian College. Its outer courtyard had steles engraved with the names of successful applicants. And on to the Lama Temple with its billowing joss sticks and three halls, one of which displays an 18-metre sandalwood Buddha. I noticed something very striking in the gift shop, something that summed up the contradictions of modern China: next to a rotund Buddha statue there was an engraved dish filled with RMB currency, bearing the image of Mao Zedong.

That same face gazes down from the Tiananmen Gate, accompanied by two slogans: ‘Long Live the People’s Republic of China’ and ‘Long Live the Unity of the Peoples of the World’.

To get there, I hailed one of Beijing’s registered taxis, paying the starting fare of 10 RMB for the first three kilometres. This rises by another 2 RMB with each kilometre, but my concept of the capital’s geography was so vague that when the taxi pulled to a stop and I handed over a 100 RMB note to the befuddled driver. That he handed back the exact change indicated that, in one cab at least, there were limits to the get-rich-quick ethos of modern China.

At Tiananmen Square, the youths swarming up the steps of the subway station carried i-Pods, not Mao’s Little Red Book.

The Tiananmen Gate was originally built in the 15th century as a rostrum where the emperor could address his subjects and leads to the Forbidden City if coming from a southern direction.

As evening drew near, Chinese families from all over the country began posing for photographs by the gate. Granite-faced People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops perform a flag-raising ceremony here at sunrise and sunset, marching 108 paces per minute.

Once, it was only the emperor who was allowed to pass under the main arch; that world was swept away a century ago. The eventual heirs of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ prevailed after nearly four decades of civil war and foreign invasion.

On the west side of Tiananmen Square looms the Great Hall of the People, with its 5,000 seat banquet hall and 10,000 seat auditorium, the place where the National People’s Congress sits to ratify legislation. The grip of the Communist Party is uncompromising, as the students who clamoured for democracy within this square discovered with tragic consequences in 1989.

But ‘Maoism’ essentially died with Mao in 1976. Beyond portraits and statues, he seems like an ancient god, but one that still demands deference. That his legacy is an ambivalent one was clear as I passed into the National Museum of China, just across from where his corpse was on display. The four storey museum featured in ceremonies to launch the 2008 Olympic Games and the 2010 Shanghai Expo. And it is spectacular: a 200,000 sq m sprawl of gigantic halls, galleries and audiovisual displays, taking the visitor from the Stone Age to the Space Age.

The Chinese plan to put robots and possibly also men on the moon by 2020; sitting in one display cabinet was a model satellite and a space suit, as worn by Yang Liwei, the first ‘Taikonaut’ launched into space in 2003.

But the road to possible world supremacy (China is expected to be the world’s largest economy by 2020) has been a fraught one. A century ago, when the last emperor Pu Yi conceded power to the Republican movement, the Middle Kingdom was the marginal kingdom, an enclosed, backward society.

The horrors of the Japanese invasion and the civil war were depicted in paintings and wall friezes. But though the subsequent turnaround in Chinese fortunes was astounding, there were gaps in the story. I saw no references to the calamitous ‘Great Leap Forward’, Mao’s attempt to emulate Soviet economic policy in 1958-62. It led to 30m deaths from famine. Nor did the museum dwell on his brutal swan song, known to history as the Cultural Revolution. An attempt to reassert Maoist orthodoxy, it plunged the country into paranoia and fanaticism over the following decade.

China closed in on itself during those years although it might be argued that the vast nation was reverting to type, recreating the isolationism of ancient times, best expressed by the Great Wall.

At Badaling, 70 kilometres northwest of Beijing, the wall rises and falls at an elevation of 1,000m. This is the most easily reached sector of the Wall but also the most touristy. If there is more time available, the Mutiangu Great Wall is 90km north east of the capital and a further 30km in the same direction is the Simatai Wall. The latter section dates from the Ming era and stretches for 19 kilometres. Simatai isn’t for agoraphobics: some steps have a sixty degree incline and no handrails. I decided to err on the side of caution with the Badaling section.

Tour companies will organise one day excursions out of Beijing. These usually operate out of the mid and top range hotels and might tie in the Wall with the Ming Tombs or the Forbidden City. It is possible to get there by bus along the Badaling Expressway or from the Beijing North Railway Station. Drawing out of the suburbs, pass interminable apartment blocks and hulking cranes, I began to wonder if either would have been better options.

While the silent driver kept his eyes on the highway, my female guide rattled off facts about the various achievements and innovations of Chinese civilisation, taking care to slip in how far ahead of the West each of them had been. I was also asked as to whether “everyone in Europe was still in debt”.

But the Wall hardly needed such vaunting. Construction began over 2,000 years ago during the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), and separate walls built by independent kingdoms, linked up to form a single wall. An estimated 180m cubic metres of rammed earth was used to form the original core of the wall. Hundreds of thousands of workers were employed in its construction.

A sharp early spring cleaved across the mountains, whose bareness would later erupt in steamy greenness. This sector was designed to function as both a border and an elevated highway, capable of transporting five men riding abreast. A system of beacon towers used smoke from the burning of wolves’ dung to alert the capital of invasion.

In that respect, spectacular though it looks, the Great Wall was a failure. It did not prevent the ‘barbarians’ from reaching Beijing, even though a programme to rebuild it was enacted under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) during which the original wall was lined with 60 million cubic metres of stone slabs.

I shuffled past people posing here and there. Inevitably perhaps, I saw bits of graffiti in those stones: ‘Jesus Saves’ and ‘I love you’ along with people’s names.

Unlike the great temples and tombs of Egypt or Cambodia, the Wall is no ghostly remnant of a vanished civilisation. There is continuity in China’s landmarks, a linking of past and present. The scale of both should never be underestimated.

Flights

Airlines flying from Dublin to Beijing include Etihad, Emirates, KLM, Air France and Lufthansa. The prices are approximately €700-€900, including taxes.

Visas

These must be applied for in advance. Contact the Embassy of China Visa/Consular section at 118 Merrion Road, Ballsbridge. Email chinamb_ie@mfa.gov.cn and submit a completed application form, one recent photograph, fee and a passport valid for up to six months.

Accommodation

Budget: Many of the hostels and budget hotels are located within the hutongs, the network of brick alleyways that formed the lowest administrative division in pre-communist Beijing. Many of the hutongs are too narrow to negotiate by taxi; a rickshaw may be required to get to the entrance.

In the Dongcheng district, there is the Peking Yard Hostel (No Jia 28 Wagzhima Hutong, Dongsibei); Sunrise Hostel, Tian An Men (2 Ciqiku Hutong, Nanheyan Street); Citycourt Hostel (No 14 Liulisi Xang, Baochao Huting, East Gulou Street); Hutong Inn Beijing (17 Beixiawazi Hutong) and Beijing City Star Hotel (No 216 Dongzhimen Nei Street).

Mid range: Prices range from €70 to around €200 per night. Hotels include the Raffles Beijing, located on the crossroads of Chang An Avenue and the Wangfuing shopping district. The Sofitel Wanda Beijing is on 93 Jianguo Road, Chaoyang district, close to the China World Trade Centre. The Park Plaza Beijing on 97 Jinbao Street Dongcheng is 1.8 kilometres from the Forbidden City. The Capital Hotel is at 3 Qianmen East Street, a 15-minute walk from Tiananmen Square.

Top Range: The most expensive hotels in the capital include The Beijing Marriott (26A Xiao Yun Road, Chaoyang district) and the Park Hyatt Beijing (2 Jianguomenwai Daije).

Eating

There are three types of restaurant available in modern Beijing, from the ‘high class’ expensive variety to the stalls and markets in the hutongs. Close to the Drum Tower, there is a beautiful area called Hou Hai where one can sit outside and eat, albeit at western prices.

Mid-priced restaurants include Tian He Sheng Restaurant in the Chao Yang District in eastern Beijing. The Courtyard Restaurant, 95 Donghuaimen Daije in Ritan Park has wooden ceilings, painted frescoes and flowers. Geography is an important factor in Beijing cuisine.

The city is located in the north fertile plain so there are numerous mian tiao (noodles) jiaozi (dumplings) and red stewed aubergine and tofu dishes.

Getting Around

Registered taxis can be found all over Beijing along with many unregistered ones. Legal fares start at 10 RMB for the first three kilometres. Between 11pm and 5am there is a 20 per cent fee increase. The Beijing subway opened in 1971 and had two lines until 2002, although it has now been expanded to 14 lines. Line 1 and its extension, known as the Batong Line, travels east to west across almost the entirety of urban Beijing.

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