Chinese "Chakkar" !
The Chinese New Year was ushered in recently ; with the usual pomp and pagentry, no doubt, in all "chinatowns" scattered across the globe. Having lived in the Far East, I have always loved the spirit of joy and merriment that erupts among the sizeable Chinese communities there. This is the season when the Markets turn red . Red + gold baubles , amazing varieties of the red "Chinese Sweet Box",( a speciality gift for the season ) and the red Hong Bao,( pretty little envelopes used for gifting money to children) . Its the season of firecrackers and dragon dances , Fruit preserves and rice cakes. China was always linked mentally with images of courtly mandarins, gong and drum sounds and celestial dancers in flowing, billowing silk robes.
But in reality, China today is something quite different altogether , as I discovered on a trip, three years ago.
Beijing was a stunner . The modern metropolis that has risen out of , what in early 20th. century was just a cluster of benighted hutongs , is a marvel of urban planing and engineering. The more I saw of it, the more I was filled with envy, frustration and anger - why is even a tenth of such efficient infrastructure not seen in our country ? China has all the shortcomings we do,huge population, illiteracy, poverty everything, yet cities to rival any rich, capitalist state in the developed west have come up there. Yes, I know such magnificence was achieved only by trampling upon Human Rights and Democratic systems. But there is no denying that there was steely Political Will and public co-operation , to achieve ( and maintain) it.
Since our stay in Beijing was only for three days, we had to cram in as much of sightseeing as possible into it. Given that each place of historic importance is so VAST , we almost wore out our legs ambling around at a frenetic pace.
The Great Wall is truly Great ! A view from a vantage point reveals the breath taking visual of the endlessly snaking wall draped over the ridges of the endless mountain ranges ; it is a sight that leaves one slack jawed in wonder at the ambition and industry of those ancient warlords . We approached the Wall at the very touristy Badaling Section. A place packed with suffocatingly dense tourist crowds !
The Forbidden City ( Zijing Chen) does look forbidding ! It is an incredibly huge expanse, now under the management of The Palace Museum. To eyes used to ornate decorations in our Palaces, this nerve centre of the Ming and Qing Dynasties looks rather plain. The emphasis is more on vast open spaces, beautiful gardens and well proportioned wooden halls. The total area is 72 Hectares , containing 980 buildings. It is the largest collection of ancient wooden structures in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We pass through various gates with charming names like Gate of Divine Might, Gate of Supreme Harmony etc, squeeze through crowds to have a peep into Halls named Court of Heavenly Purity , Palace of Earthly Purity, Hall of Mental Cultivation etc. within which are displayed thrones, urns, cushions and other royal paraphernalia . There are some exquisitely carved marble balustrades and relief panels, wonderfully glazed roof tiles, smooth wooden coloumns of respectable size and many locked buildings. And huge crowds everywhere ! A wall called The Nine Dragons Screen and the gilded lions guarding the stairways are much photographed.
The South Gate( The Gate Of Heavenly Peace) opens to the famous or infamous Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world, lined by Mao's Mausoleum, People's Heroes Monument, The Great Hall of The People and The National Museum. All of which looked, to me, very stiff, sterile and purely ceremonial.
The Ming Tombs,( 50kms. out of Beijing) an awesome Royal Necropolis where 13 Ming kings are entombed, is a valley at the foot of the sacred Tianshou Mountain and is supposed to enjoy excellent feng shui attributes. Of the 13 tombs only 3 ( Changling, Dingling and Zhaoling ) are open to public. A seven kilometer Spirits Way ( or Sacred Way) lined with monumental stone sculptures of animals and mandarins leads to the main tombs. There is also a museum exhibiting the exquisite personal effects of those dead Mings. Among them, the Gold filigreed helmets, jewelled crowns and gold embroidered robes are awesome .The sarcophagus of the main tomb lies five stories deep down the earth and the descent by a cold gray stairway seems like a never ending bad dream ! Needless to add, strong legs are a prerequisite for touring the Ming Tombs !
The Lama Temple ( The Yonghe Lamasery) is a living Tibetan Buddhist monastery, one of the largest in the world and dates from the 17th . Century. Surprisingly it survived the Cultural Revolution and was thrown open to tourists in 1981. After passing through beautifully carved gateways and pavilions,the first of which is called The Devaraja Pavilion, we arrive at the Main Hall of Harmony and Peace which houses the three Buddhas of Past, Present and Future. In the second stage is a curious structure called Arhat Hill which has 500 metal figures of Arhats . The last pavilion contains an enormous Maitreya. Shops selling incence and jade amulets line the passageways leading the Pavilions.
The Temple Of Heaven : This is the monument that I liked the most in Beijing . Also of Ming vintage, it is larger in area than the Forbidden City. It is built as the meeting point of Heaven and Earth, represented as circle and square respectively. All structures bear poetic names like Imperial Vault of Heaven, The Vermillion steps, Prayer for Good Harvest etc. The Three Echo Stones are built with acoustic properties to throw the voice to The Vault of Heaven and receive one, two and three echos depending on position . Guides urge people to stand on the center point of the mound ( said to be the point where Heavens meet Earth) and utter a prayer so that it will be transmitted to heaven directly ! We said the Gayathri Mantra.
We had to give up The Summer Palace for lack of time, as we did not want to miss the two famous enjoyments China offers : Cultural Shows and Shopping !
We took a show of Chinese Acrobatics instead of the more famous Beijing Opera, which was priced a tad too high for our wallet. The Acrobatic show was incredible. Unimaginable, how human bodies can be contorted ! The show also included a nymph dance and the popular Bian Lian Dance, where the dancer's mask changes , magically,in the twinkling of the eye, into 8 or 10 different kinds in succession.
Shopping : Say Chinese, and pirated goods spring to mind. In Beijing, I was astonished to see that pirated ware is sold openly, brazenly, in a glitzy 5 storied Mall called Silk Street.There are 1700 retail outlets here, all selling counterfeit ! There's nothing and no Designer Brand you cannot get here ! We saw some Eastern Europeans lugging huge suitcases and clearing off whole shelves of merchandise for marketing back home. The most endearing part of shopping here is the bargaining ritual. Almost all shops are manned by young girls who can manage a bit of accented English. But they put up such theatrics before agreeing to our price, with dialogues like :" Only for you because I like your face", " Don't break my heart, you cannot make it less !" , " I am going to die , you make me broke !" Hilarious ! Silk Street can drive even the most steadfast shopping- hater insanely acquisitive .
Communication at street level is a big problem in China. Except for the Hotel Reception Desk and Tour Agents, no one else seemed to know even a smattering of English. Everytime we stepped out of the Hotel, we took detailed instructions about destination and fares, written down in their script ( thanks to the Front Desk) to show to the taxi drivers for both onward and return journeys. Once , while on the main road, we wanted to stop at a convenience store to buy some snacks but try as we might, with all sorts of gestures , the cabbie failed to understand us and just kept driving on with a bemused look !
Having come to China, how could we forget Pandas ? Visited Beijing Zoo only to see the Pandas. There were five of them . Huge, slothful fellows who hardly stirred from their chosen nooks. They looked larger than I'd imagined and less cute- cuddly. In fact when one of them condescended to turn his head to look at us, his face seemed faintly sinister ! The Zoo, as a whole, was not all that wonderful except for certain landscaped patches.
( All photographs : By Daughter )