Friday, October 09, 2009

[Travelogue] Whirlwind tour of Beijing

I decided to not do my Tiananmen Square experiment. I did, however, take a ride in a bus on a Chinese highway. So I'm still here, but for a while it was looking dicey.

We're at sea today after a three-day whirlwind tour of Beijing and nearby Tianjin. Along the way we spent a total of a dozen or so hours on Chinese roads and rarely have I felt so lucky to be alive. Chinese drivers are insane! I've driven or ridden on a lot of roads in a lot of places, including a lot of third-world countries and major cities, and never in my life have I seen anything like this. Chaotic driving and a cavalier disregard for the rules of the road (to say nothing of common courtesy) are commonplace in less developed countries. But in most places where that happens, the danger is tempered by poor road conditions and heavy traffic so that it's nearly impossible to go very fast. But China combines third-world driving habits with first-world superhighways, and the result is very, very scary. Our bus weaved a serpentine path between trucks and cars at eighty or ninety miles an hour, often coming within what seemed like inches of a collision. In the city it was much the same. Warning to those not having a death wish: pedestrians do not -- repeat, do NOT -- have the right of way in China. If you step out into traffic, they will mow you down. Oh, and cars don't stop for red lights either. Caveat pedestrior.

Despite the chaos, we only had one close call (our bus very nearly creamed a rickshaw trying to pass on the right as it made a right turn -- the rickshaw drivers are as crazy as everyone else) and only saw one accident, which is amazing considering that driving on the wrong side of the street seemed to be standard practice in some places.

Nonetheless, we lived to tell the tale, and I am happy to be able report that Beijing is quite the amazing place. It is a sprawling feng-shui-approved grid of some of the widest streets I've ever seen (twelve lanes is typical) divvying up a sea of skyscrapers stretching out as far as the eye can see, which actually isn't all that far. Beijing is legendary for its air pollution, and it didn't disappoint. Beijing and its sister city of Tianjin were enveloped in a miasmatic grey haze the entire time we were there. Maximum visibility was only on or two miles, and the air smelled palpably smoky. It was nearly impossible to tell if the sky was overcast or clear.

Still, it could have been worse. It didn't rain and it wasn't hot, and that counts as exceptionally good weather in Beijing.

We saw a lot of stuff, but two of the sights overshadowed everything else, those being of course the Great Wall (which the Chines call the Long Wall) and the Forbidden City. It is nearly impossible to convey the colossal scale of these two places. The Wall, of course, is so big that to see it all would take months if not years. It's not a single structure, but an agglomeration of walls, ruins, trenches, and assorted fortifications in varying states of disrepair that stretch for a total of 5000 miles or so (according to Wikipedia) built over a period of 2000 years. The stretch we went to is probably the most famous. Being just outside Beijing it is the one most tourists go to I suppose. It's in very good shape, having been renovated in the 1990's. It's built on some very steep hillsides, and even from a high vantage point it seems, unsurprisingly, to go on forever, because it pretty much does.

The Forbidden City is technically a castle, complete with walls and a moat, but its scale puts every other castle I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot) to complete and utter shame. The monicker "city" is not inapt. You could walk around inside this labyrinthine complex for weeks without seeing it all. And the architecture is breathtaking. I can't remember being so impressed by a place since I first saw the old city of Jerusalem when I was 12.

I am given to understand by people who have been to Beijing in years past that the pace of change is whiplash-inducing. Even as recently as 10 or so years ago the streets were filled with bicycles. Now the bicycles are vastly outnumbered by the cars. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on your point of view, I suppose, but you can't deny that transforming a city this big that fast is an impressive achievement.

As a western tourist it is easy to lose sight of the fact that China is still a communist country with a totalitarian government. There is no freedom of speech, no free press. (Chinese citizens are allowed to criticize the government, but only on approved topics.) The Internet is censored by the Great Firewall of China. (Compare the results of searching for "Tiananmen Square" on versus some time.) We were unable to tour Tiananmen Square because we were there on the last day of a six-day-long celebration of the 60th anniversary of the communist revolution, complete with tanks, missiles, and battalions of troops parading down the boulevard. We did do a couple of drive-bys, and the square, the largest public square in the world, was packed wall-to-wall with people. Detachments of soldiers with very conspicuous armaments were stationed throughout the city to maintain order.

Nonetheless, I have come away with tremendous respect for the Chinese, and an overall sense of optimism about their future, and hence the world's. China is dealing with some of the most intense challenges, and though there are things I personally think they could be doing better, they could certainly be doing a hell of a lot worse. Just before we left on this trip we invested some money in China, and now I'm glad we did. [Update: I may have to rethink this.] Democracy is a Good Thing, but I subscribe to the theory that prosperity produces democracy and not the other way around. If this theory proves to be true, I think it bodes well for China's future.

Tomorrow we're in Shanghai, which has an interesting history all its own. I'll try to write some of it up before we get there.


Prateek Sharma said...

Wow, fascinating travelogues! Do keep writing if you get the opportunity (internet connection and time).
Speaking of traveling, can you glance over this short essay i wrote regarding travel and give me some feedback?

Ron said...


As for your tourist's guide to france, I don't know enough about the Indian educational system to really make a cogent comment, but you might want to take a look at this:

Prateek Sharma said...

Great link, thanks.
How apt do you think the education-as-travel metaphor is?
I figured you'd be the right person to ask, since you are such a prolific traveler.

Anyway, do enjoy your trip!