Monday, September 22, 2003

Chuseok is the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, which means everyone on the whole peninsula uproots themselves and heads back to their ancestral homes. Needless to say this means paralyzing gridlock on most major roads for the duration of the holidays. The newspapers predicted 10-12 hour commutes from Seoul to Busan (it normally takes about five).

Myself, Amy, Megan and our friends Leigh and Rick seized the opportunity of five days off from work to head to Beijing on a package tour. Since our flight was leaving from Busan (about an hour away from Ulsan), we decided to leave early that morning to try and avoid the anticipated Chuseok crowds.

Just our luck then when there was no traffic and we arrived hours ahead of when we needed to be there. Let’s just say having to kill four hours in Kimhae airport is a challenge to say the least.

Our flight to China was on Air China, which made me more than a little nervous given its recent safety record. Just last year, an Air China Boeing 767 crashed into a mountainside near Busan, killing 122 people on board.

Luckily our flying time to Beijing was only 2 hours and the sooner I could get off that flying rickshaw the better. Our traveling group was about 60 people which made it logistically problematic to move everyone through all the lines, both to clear departure immigration in Korea and arrival customs in China.

That, and having to queue up for a SARS check under the infrared cameras, made for a lot of standing around. Oh well, we were in China, so one might as well enjoy it. At least we weren’t on the flight from Singapore. They were getting everything short of an anal probe before being let into the country.

At the airport we were greeted by our guide Linda and made our way right onto the buses that would be our homes for the next three days. The trip from the airport took about an hour and as we drove in, most of us were absorbed by the vistas of the passing cityscape.

Beijing is a massive city of 13 million people. While it is the cultural and political capital of China, it is actually only the second largest city, with Shanghai eclipsing in population and as the business center of the mainland.

Driving in from the airport, we passed over three ring roads that stretch out from the city in concentric circles. As the city sprawls out in all directions, they’re now even building a fourth ring road that lies 40 km from the downtown core.

I noticed a veritable forest of construction cranes over the skyline as everywhere you looked the old Soviet style apartment blocks were being torn down and replaced with new Vancouver-style condominium towers

Signs that capitalism had arrived in full-force with billboards from large multinational corporations dotting the cityscape and it seemed like we passed the Golden Arches every few hundred meters.

Our first stop was the Temple of Heaven, a magnificent blue-roofed temple that played a central role in Chinese cosmogony and where the Emperor would offer sacrifice to the Heavens. Built in 1420 A.D. during the Ming Dynasty, the Temple’s layout symbolized the relationship between earth and heaven.

Nowadays though it seems the Temple grounds play a central role in Chinese free enterprise, as peddlers hawking everything from kites to cheap wristwatches hounded us as we walked through. The infamous Gulf War II Saddam deck of playing cards seemed to be a popular item as well.

Shooed away by the loitering security guards, the peddlers would return with a vengeance moments later as soon as the guards would turn their backs. This turned out to be the norm for most of the rest of the trip, as our bus would get swarmed at every stop.

By this time we were all starving, so our bus crawled through the city to get to the restaurant where we would feast on Peking Duck. I say crawled because the traffic in Beijing is nothing short of horrendous.

At some point, our tour guide made a note of boasting about how there were now over 2 million private vehicles in Beijing, this I guess testament to China’s great economic progress. Not sure if it’s anything to crow about, as you can barely get from point A to point B anymore.

Our next stop after dinner was to be the Chinese Acrobat show, but due to the traffic conditions (it was also the mid-autumn festival, so traffic was worse than ever), we weren’t going to be able to get there in time. This suited most of us quite well, as we were all looking forward to a shower back at the hotel.

Our second day started bright and early, as we were all quite excited as we were off to the Great Wall of China. But wait, what’s this? A slight diversion on the way out to the Wall and our bus pulled into a Jade factory.

It was a “government run” jade factory and we were treated to a short demonstration on how the jade is carved and how to tell the good quality rock from the bad. Of course, we were all encouraged to purchase our jade here as the quality was “guaranteed”.

Back on the buses then, and off to the Great Wall. We drove quickly out of the city, the traffic being relatively light in comparison to the night before. As the city slipped away behind us, we drove into a more rural, pastoral setting and into steep green valleys. Up ahead in the distance, someone spotted a section of the Wall on the surrounding hill. Excitement grew as we drew closer, and more sections appeared on the ridges of the surrounding mountains.

Though the sections of the Wall date back nearly 2000 years, it was only after the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi unified the country in 214 B.C., that he ordered the construction of the entire Wall. Most of what remains today however dates from the renovations of the Ming Dynasty. During that period, more sophisticated designs and passes were built in the places of strategic importance to protect the kingdom.

The Great Wall runs 6,700 kilometers from east to west across five Chinese provinces. That day we saw only a small section of the wall at Badaling, which is now a major tourist destination due to its proximity to Beijing.

It was a difficult and literally breath-taking experience climbing the Wall. With some sections as steep as 45 degrees, we huffed and puffed our way up to the top beacon tower. But what a view from the top! Stretching out below us, like a dragon snaking along the ridgelines, was the Great Wall of China. It was amazing to stand there and think that a childhood dream had been fulfilled. I think we were all in awe of the place.

From the Wall it was off to lunch. As we pulled into the restaurant, I came to a startling revelation. Lunch was at another “government run” tourist stop with a parking lot full of buses. Hey, weren’t those the same buses that we had just left at the Great Wall?

They were indeed and the restaurant was more shopping mall than eating-place. As we walked through to our table, the building was laid out much like an airport duty-free shop. Cheap knick-knacks here, knock off Adidas there, get your name carved into a stamp here…

So this was what Capitalism in China is all about. Tourists are welcome, with their fat American greenbacks, but the government is determined to make sure they get the lion’s share of the loot.

After a little digging, I discovered that the tour companies all lease their buses from the government and in return they are required to bring all the tourists to the same stops. Not a bad little racket, I guess.

As we all stormed through the shops, I realized that after only a day China had already beaten us - we’d opened Pandora’s box of cheap, novelty souvenirs. Now, it came down to who could purchase the cheesiest trinket. Game on!

After lunch we headed out to the Ming Tombs. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Ming Tombs is actually a general name given to the valley that houses the 13 mausoleums of the Ming Emperors. We were heading to the Dingling tomb, which apart from having a naughty sounding name, is where the last Ming Emperor is buried. Renowned for its underground palace, the Tomb covers some beautifully gardened grounds.

But, to be honest, having lived in Asia for nearly a year now, I was not terribly interested in what was on display. After a while you get a little disenchanted with all the tombs, temples and palaces there are to see. They all start to look the same after a while. Besides, the Royal Tumuli (burial mounds) in Gyeongju were far more impressive in my mind.

Next stop on our marathon tour that day was the Summer Palace, the largest imperial garden in the world, covering an area of 290 hectares; it is an amazing display of classical oriental architecture.

Plundered in 1860 by Anglo-French troops who destroyed most of the buildings, the Palace was renovated in 1888, and it is said funds were embezzled from the Imperial Navy to rebuild it. There is a hint of irony in there somewhere.

Among the highlights for me was the beautiful lake at the center of the garden, and the massive marble boat moored in one of the bays. Who knew you could build a boat out of stone?

We had a relatively peaceful stroll through the rocks, plants, pavilions and ponds, along cobble paths and down exquisitely painted corridors. Of course, once we left the sanctuary of the palace, we were greeted by a crush of peddlers who had to be fought back so we could reach our buses.

That evening we went to see the Chinese Acrobats, who were very, well… acrobatic. Personally, I was more impressed with the Chinese puppetry display. The movements of the puppet creatures were incredibly lifelike.

Friday was another early start. I think we were all beginning to feel a little shell-shocked by this point. Late nights, early mornings and a constant bombardment of culture and history had left us all a bit dazed. Plus, our legs and feet were still groaning from yesterday’s grueling pace.

Our first stop was – yup, you guessed it – another “government run” stop, this time a pearl factory. Totally disinterested in what they had on offer, I spent the time chatting with our tour guide. She mentioned something about a typhoon hitting Korea, which was news to me.

From there it was on to the Forbidden City, another Beijing landmark. Rectangular in shape, it is the world's largest palace complex and covers over 74 hectares.

However, I was more interested in getting to Tiananmen Square than traipsing around all 9,999 rooms (nine being a lucky number in Chinese culture) in the palace. As I said before, once you’ve seen one or two palaces in Asia, you may have well seen them all.

I was gung ho on getting to Mao’s Tomb in time to see him. So I pelted through the Forbidden City, stopping only to take the occasional photo and to marvel at how on earth in the middle of this World Heritage site there could be a Starbucks.

My mad dash was held up only slightly as formidable looking Chinese soldiers blocked everyone’s path. We were delayed for several minutes as the Chancellor of Germany and his delegation passed through on a sightseeing tour.

After the short pause, and after cursing all things German, I passed through the Tiananmen Tower under the immense portrait of Mao Zedong and into Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square is the largest public square in the world. It seemed by this stage, like everything we’d visited in Beijing was the “World’s Largest Something.”

High in the sky above the Square flew the Red Flag of China. Bounded the Great Hall of the People to the west, the China National Museum to the east and Mao’s Mausoleum to the south, at its center is the massive granite Monument to the People's Heroes.

Tiananmen square was bustling with people of all nationalities. Many flew kites and the sky was dotted with distant birdlike shapes. Not surprisingly, there was no reminder or memorial of the 1989 massacre.

Loudspeakers in all corners of the square broadcast warnings in several languages over and over again. It would seem that all the noise is to beat down your defenses and even I began to feel my willpower buckle under the auditory assault. Apparently it’s a very bad idea to spit or rollerblade in Tiananmen Square. I wasn’t willing to put either to a test however.

We lined up with hundreds of others to go inside Mao’s Tomb and it seemed that for many this was a true pilgrimage. We got there just in time, because the Tomb closed at 11am. For what reason I’m not sure, maybe to dust off the corpse or something.

Anyway, it’s all very quiet and reverent as you enter under the cold gazes of the stern looking Chinese soldiers guarding the tomb. Everyone lines up single file as you pass by the great leader. There he lay, under a crimson Communist flag, all lit up like a circus sideshow. It was pretty creepy.

The best part was as you exited you had to pass through row upon row of vendors selling tacky Mao souvenirs. All that rampant capitalism must have the leader of the Communist revolution rolling in his crystal casket.

After Tiananmen Square, we made our way to the Silk Market. Billed as THE place to buy cheap goods in Beijing, it turned out to be little more than a tourist trap full of knockoff North Face jackets, Oakley sunglasses and Louis Vuitton luggage. That being said, we shopped like hungry sharks in an aquarium and stuffed our new Louis Vuitton luggage with knockoff North Face jackets and Oakley sunglasses.

Shopping in the Silk Market is an experience, as bartering is all in the name of the game. They offer you an outrageous price, you half it, they protest, you walk off, they run after you and sell it to you for what you offered. Still, in the end you feel like you got ripped off somehow.

That evening a group of us went to the CCTV (China Central Television) Tower, which at 405 meters, is the tallest structure in Beijing. The viewing platform at the tower is about 385 meters above Beijing and to get there you have to get in this shoebox-sized elevator that whisks you to the top in little over 15 seconds.

The view at nighttime was impressive, with Beijing’s urban sprawl disappearing off past the horizon. We toasted our last night in Beijing with a cold beer from this fantastic perch above the city.

Despite the fact we were leaving the next day at 4am, I really wanted to go back to Tiananmen Square to see it all lit up at night. So we jumped into taxis and raced across the city.

Just outside the Forbidden City’s gates, we jumped onto two rickshaws and let the drivers pedal us around the Square. They chattered away excitedly in Mandarin the entire time, pointing out the sites. We nodded enthusiastically, not understanding a single word said to us.

We returned to our hotel that evening to pack up our accumulated treasures, dreading the fact we had to get up the next morning at 4am.

The return flight was uneventful, and much like on our way over, marked with many hours spent queuing in various lineups.

That is until we were on approach into Kimhae airport in Busan. Typhoon Maemi had come ashore the previous evening and the damage left in her wake was impressive. Rivers were flooded, rice paddies were submerged and buildings were flattened. But then that of course, is another story altogether…

Photos from our Beijing excursions can be found here.

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