Short introduction: – It is hard actually to say what is China. After my latest trip I can try to define it as one specific world, one entirety of old and new. You will understand it, when you pass over hills, walk through hutongs, sit and relax in gardens, pavilions and temples, walk among skyscrapers, visit shopping streets , drink tea and taste food. Every new day there will bring you experiences which will enrich your knowledge and views on this large country, oldest civilization and glorious nation. Read about my observations on my trip in China and hopefully you will get what I mean. This my story shows my returning to Beijing after 12 years. I will talk just about this what I knew before, what I saw, what I heard and what I learnt during walking and looking around, reading guide boards, … Basically my perception on China (changes, various places, life, tradition and people ) will be here. If you read my story maybe you will understand this great country better and learn something new what you cannot find in media often. This story offers you guide to Chinese history, philosophy, food, tea, people and main historical and modern places in Beijing and around with their basic characteristics.
16 June 2013, 2:35am Chinese local time, we landed. Aeroflot airplane Boeing 767 reached Terminal 2 of Beijing airport. Nothing was visible except strong airport lights of terminal building, runway lights and many airplanes around you waiting for first morning flights. We proceeded towards terminal building through air-bridge. At the end of corridor were people- stuff of airport, passengers… Everything was new but at the same time old for me. New because long time I was not there and it was new experience in my recent life and old because once long time ago I already saw all this. Almost 19 years ago I landed by Aeroflot airplane at Beijing airport for the first time.
There were so much details on airport: many people waiting for police control, waiting their luggage, some of them sitting and watching their tablets, notebooks or sitting in Starbucks drinking coffee or in KFC eating hamburgers or drinking cola ,some of them sleeping on chairs without shoes on their legs. I was sitting now and I was able to watch at them all night until morning. It wasn’t possible to be bored there thinking what new will wait me here in next 10 days. It seemed like that I didn’t need anything else at that time except looking around and preparing for leaving airport.
Hours were passing like days, I was expecting that morning impatiently, looking at the exit door through which was visible lighter and lighter sky and coming of dawn. This door seemed to me like door to China, place where my 10 day trip through Beijing and around will start. Well what I said start of some trip??? If I think better it will be big mistake if I say that trip to China starts at door of Terminal 2 of Beijing Capital International Airport, because airport is in China also so when you land with airplane and when you feel Chinese soil for first time maybe than trip starts. But I realized that this day isn’t start of my trip in China it is just returning to trip or continuation of one trip which started on 6th may 1996 when I stepped on Chinese soil as a small child. With that day my journey and 5 years of life in this at that time unknown for me country started. They were full of adventures, nice moments with parents and friends, trips, laughing, tears, crazy things, first childish “love”… I can differ years of my life in China and my returning there. During my life there I was child and my mind wasn’t on that level to be deeper interested in China and to understand it completely. But anyway these 5 years determined my future life highly. These 5 years taught me to treat every ethnicity or race equally and not to judge people on their religion or ethnicity. I lived in diplomatic compound and went to Russian kindergarten and later school where I met so many children from various countries: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, France, Algeria, Sierra Leone… These 5 years made me to become communicative person and person which can easily function in new unknown background. I had some basic background about China, life and habits but it wasn’t deep. Since I left China in 2001 I read Malyavins books and watched many documentaries about China. That’s why I came to refresh memories which are fading and partially unclear like some dream but also to learn new things and to experience and try to understand China as an adult. Because you cannot know anything so good if you don’t experience it by yourself simply if you don’t see it by your eyes. Especially it is like that when it is learning about some country. I came to fulfill empty holes in my knowledge about China. This returning after 12 years is continuation of one road and one story which started in 1996. I will show here that for complete discovering of all China one life isn’t sufficient as it is too big and there is lack of time, simply there will be always temple which gate will be closed once and some hutong streets for which you wont have time to get in and research more. That country has too much surprises and things which you never saw before and simply you will realize that one life isn’t sufficient even if you devote yourself to discovering China very much. I am here to try to understand contrasts between old and new or ancient and modern in this country, country which changes so fast but core stays the same.
At 6am and finally we decided that we should go to search taxi. We got out through that airport door and finally that moment came which I was waiting for few hours. It was visible without street light now as it was already morning. At the moment when I got out of terminal building typical Beijing air hit me through nose. Foggy dawn full of smog was around me. That air of some strange and not very pleasant wet smell was in me again after 12 years. Maybe you will think that I am crazy when I speak about this air but such air is during summers often here and if you like Beijing this air must remind you on that city. Those who know what I am speaking about they will understand what I mean. You don’t have to like it but it is like that , without this air you cannot experience Beijing. Million taxi cars surrounded us and drivers started calling for customers. Everywhere here was heard “Hello”, “Taxi”…
Driving on modern highway which connects airport and city was amazing. Highway wasn’t still full with cars as it was still early dawn and beginning of one story or better said continuing of 1 story which started long time ago in similar way like this day started- from airport to city. Passing through this road, watching trees and later buildings which were on both sides of road it was like something already seen but still that feeling makes you to feel stunned, as it seemed that I am returning to past or living it again. Such feeling I had especially when I recognized tall buildings in distance: famous Kun Lun Hotel and Capital Mansion- tall grey building. They were visible despite of big fog. Through forest of tall buildings and broad streets we reached building where our apartment is. After dealing with owner of apartments Mr. Sun we got out again. It was around 7am now. Street seller of breakfast snacks greeted us in very friendly way, as we were among his first customers that morning. His smile showed happiness and admiration after he heard few Chinese words from us.
After metro ride we arrived at Qianmen Street- famous old but recently modernized street which has many new shops. Street has name according to another name of famous historic gate- Zhengyangmen. Zhengyangmen or Qianmen was one of main gates of historical Beijing area. Beijing was waking up here and great combination of sounds, people and smells was appearing. Sounds of bicycles, cars, rickshaw drivers calling you to offer their service, sellers of plastic bird toys shouting “ukwai, ukwai” were heard. Big crowds of Chinese tourists were around me. Smell of baked buns was felt from street food stands. Clothes and souvenir shops were opening slowly. Wide street was modernized old part. There were newly reconstructed old buildings which are in style from end of XIX or beginning of XX century but with modern brand shops such as Zara, H&M… On the right side, was old part of street with houses with green or grey façade, windows covered with red shade and grey roofs. It was part of Qianmen which I remember. I was there last time in June 2001 during my last days of life in Beijing. In older part of Qianmen from one shop was heard some kind of Buddhist song. Looking of that part of street was identical to its looking in 2001- crowds of people, food sellers and various ancient and also communist souvenirs which were sold there. New reconstruction of wider part of street is interesting and with modern brands makes specific combination but still I preferred old unchanged street parallel to main one. More about Qianmen will be in chapter about Beijing night adventures.
Fast breakfast in McDonalds gave me at least part of energy after 2 nights of no sleeping in airplane. I was ready to head from Qianmen to Tiananmen Square- biggest square in world. This square is symbol of Chinese revolution and symbol of Communism, symbol of new, independent and strong China and its people. Square got name according to Southern gate of Forbidden City. Tiananmen means Gate of Heavenly Peace. This place got biggest importance for Communist China on 1.10.1949- When Peoples Republic of China was founded. Chinese 5 Star Red Flag was raised first time in blue sky over square and Gate on that day. Many military parades in honor of Chinese National Day were held. It is one of most visited places in Beijing. But wait before going to square I needed something-5 star red flag. I found 1 small for 1 yuan in one souvenir shop next to Qianmen Gate. Now I continued towards Tiananmen towards Great Hall of The People and Tiananmen Gate, with my flag in hand.
Square-on all 4 sides seems like that it has no end. Tiananmen is large like many football playgrounds. At southern side of square there is building of simple architecture. It is mausoleum of Mao Zedong who was buried and embalmed after his death in 1976. I continued passing over square and I was watching grey color which was down on ground and also above because of smog sky. Great Hall of people looks so powerful and was proudly standing next to square. On the top of main entrance of this glorious building is national emblem of PRC- red emblem with Tiananmen gate and yellow stars over it. Monument of fallen heroes of Chinese revolution is one pillar decorated with statues of PLA soldiers, heroes which gave their life for fighting for freedom of China and for communism. In front was Tiananmen Gate straight across Changan Avenue. Gate had red wall with portrait of Chairman Mao in the middle and roof of gate had brown color. That gate was entrance to Forbidden City. I was keeping going towards gate among hundreds of people around me.. Most of them were not from Beijing but who knows from which parts of China. But they came here to see Beijing and biggest symbol of modern Chinese statehood. I was passing next to soldiers who were wearing light olive green uniforms and who were on guard. I put on my head a dark green hat with red star in middle which I bought from one of sellers on square. Then I passed next to main flag standing on spear. Flag was guarded by few soldiers. This flag is famous as it is raised by guard soldiers every dawn together with sunrise and is lowered every evening at sunset. This ceremony is followed with Chinese National Anthem- March of Volunteers. On Tiananmen Square I felt so small, not because of its size, size of Great Hall of People or Maos Memorial Hall and its monuments. I felt small because of its importance and significance and because of importance of buildings and monuments there for Chinese history and statehood of communist, new and modern China.
After short break on another side of Tiananmen Gate, we continued through sea of people which were around us, through Forbidden City. We were now in second most famous symbol of Beijing ( most famous and important is Tiananmen Square)- Forbidden City. It is one of world largest imperial palaces and was residence of Chinese emperors from XV century until 1912. Palace was called Forbidden City as no one from ordinary people could access there. Whole complex was protected by tall red walls and large gates which were closed for everyone. Only emperor, his family, his servants and important officials could be there. For 5 centuries life in that complex was mystery for most of the people. No one from outer world of Beijing or China could see anything inside. Most of them never even saw emperor. Nowadays thousands of people daily visit that place of large importance. It is always overcrowded by Chinese tourists and tourists from every part of the world.
It was built to be residence of Chinese emperors when Yongle emperor of Ming dynasty declared Beijing to be new capital after Nanjing. Since that time Ming emperors and all Qing emperors lived there in Beijing. Such palaces were built in previous capitals of China since imperial tradition of China started with appearance of legendary dynasties such as Zhou, Shang and Xia around 5000 years ago. As I knew before from fathers stories ancient Chinese people believed that China is in middle of earth and that’s why they called their country Middle Kingdom or Middle State ( Zhong Guo). Emperor was considered as son of Heaven. It meant that he was considered as someone who should have full power in his hands, and right to have various services. Emperor was right hand of Heaven and its representative on Earth determined to rule by Middle Kingdom.
Imperial Palace is full of various large halls determined for living, spending free time, accepting officials, governing and ceremonies. Each of them had special function. In main largest hall is yellow throne where emperor was making main decisions and accepting visits of high state officials. Important detail in complex are carved stone dragons next to or in middle of stone stairs which are leading to important halls. Dragon in China since ancient times has special importance as it was considered as symbol of power and symbol of emperor. Therefore dragon was considered as main symbol of Empire. In all complex there are many statues of lions made from stone. Most of them are located next to entrances of imperial halls. Lion was also one of symbols of imperial power, governing and dominance in China. There is also hall where emperor could enjoy with many concubines. Thousands of them were on service to emperor.
While I was passing through Forbidden City among white stone lion figures, among many large halls with red walls and brown roofs of halls I was fully impressed and without words. Knowing importance of this place for Chinese history and knowing how many centuries such great halls stayed unchanged, strong and tall made me to be completely stunned. Maybe I don’t have special memories related to this place but it is together with Tiananmen Square most important place in Beijing and China because of its significant place in Chinese glorious and long history and statehood. Once when I will have time I want to devote one all day to Forbidden City. I want to visit its every hall, every garden and every corner of this amazing complex.
Despite many foreign tourists for many Chinese from far provinces where foreigners are rare, foreigner is real attraction. You notice attention of some of them by way how they smile to you. For example 2 girls in shorts and white t-shirts were smiling to me for few minutes but were too shy to ask me to take picture with them. Next what I saw in far in that grey sky was white pagoda hitting the sky with its roof. I knew that this place will be part of my trip too.
After some troubles in searching exchange office and after lunch in Pizza Hut we continued to Sanlitun Bar Street. Evening was coming slowly and lights of bars and discos were already shinning in red, blue, green… This place is full of foreigners- diplomats, businessmen and students same like it was when I walked there last time in 2001. Many foreign embassies are located here. After passing next to various embassies and while walking through Bar Street I realized that something is missing here on the right side at the end of that street. There wasn’t anymore old block of buildings made of brick in 1950s at beginning of communist period. Food and clothes market disappeared. Toys which were sold there which my mum was often buying me also weren’t there. “Where they are?? Where is all that?”, I asked myself. Answer is short -it was replaced by block of completely new steel and glass buildings built before Olympics. On the corner is biggest Adidas store in the world standing instead of block of brick buildings. Famous white sign and letters were standing on black glass windows of building. Behind Adidas store across small square with fountains, LCD screen and a lot of customers dressed in fancy clothes was building with big sign of big white Apple. It is one of biggest Apple stores in Beijing, paradise for fans of modern technology, iphones and tablets. If you are searching something like that Sanlitun is perfect place for you. But still I a bit regretted that this area isn’t same like before what would remind me even more on childhood. If just for 2 minutes at least I could return time and be in tight streets of old alley, to pass next to vegetable and fruit sellers,, to stand in front of old dairy shop and wait mother to finish buying and go with her to choose which new bus or airplane toy she will buy me. But you cannot return time and you cannot live your memories again, you can just refresh them as much as area allows you. China must develop and such areas shouldn’t be here in center.
A bit deeper in block was large Armani store with typical sign. Across long and broad street were few strangely flatly shaped and very modern buildings belonging to Beijing Soho company. After such description you would never imagine that here 12 years ago were old low buildings made of brick, tight streets where you could easily get lost. Only what stayed from old Sanlitun was building of Yeshow market where clothes and toys are still sold. Also KFC was still there together with old supermarket which is still in my memory and memory of my parents when they got lost me for 20min and they were in biggest panic although I didn’t noticed that they weren’t behind me. I was busy with playing with buttons on vacuum cleaner as it was typical for me to touch something what wasn’t supposed to be touched, or to do something what wasn’t supposed to be done, or to eat something what wasn’t supposed to be eaten. For example in front of 1 food shop nearby which doesn’t exist anymore, one old man shared his green ice cream with me while father was buying food ,(he left me in front of shop to prevent me of making mess inside(throwing fruits and peppers on floor). But he didn’t expected to see me eating ice cream with unknown man. Father wanted to kill me when he saw that.
Sanlitun is perfect place to understand how fast China changes, not just in appearance of streets and buildings but also lifestyle. Here you see how old blocks turned into modern buildings and streets but also how way of life changes. Seeing Armani, Apple, Lacoste or Adidas shops, square with LCD screen and fountains, or new fancy clubs and pubs you see that China became modern consumer society. Here are hundreds of Chinese and foreign young people walking in fancy shirts, short miniskirts and high quality shoes, Ray Ban glasses and holding iphones or tablets in their hands… You can see them in pubs drinking coffee, cola, cocktails, beer and so on… Many expensive cars including BMW, Porche and Ferrari you could see nearby. Changes in streets and buildings of that area were followed by different appearance and looking of people who are present there. Fifteen years ago here were mostly present different people than today. Some of them were wearing dark blue, black or white cotton clothes, with traditional buttons. People which used to live there were living from-selling clothes, toys and various food from vegetables and fruits to meat and dairy products. They held so much reserves of cabbage on their balconies determined to be eaten during all winter. It was visible that this people which were present there didn’t had a lot money. Today most of people here are Chinese middle class or upper class and upper or middle class foreigners. Chinese youth today is modern, follows modern trends in clothing, interests, chilling out, travelling… People which previously lived here in return for leaving their homes and shops got money from state and new flats in newly constructed buildings. It is very nice to see how China prospered in last 15 years. Improvement of living conditions thanks to rapid economic growth is visible drastically. Thanks its policies Chinese Communist Party saved around 500 000 000 people from poverty in last 30 years across all country. Poverty reduction is one of main priorities of Chinese authorities and Chinese Communist Party manages it successfully.
Such great change which happened on Sanlitun occurred in many other now modern areas of Beijing. For example in Wudaokou, Zhonguazun, Central Business District (CBD), Dongzhimen, Dongcheng,Wangfujing, Dongdan and etc… As I know you can see prosperity and development in various other cities across whole country such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Chongqing, Qingdao. Such process of fast development are experiencing other less worldly famous cities too- Chengdu, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, Jinan, Shenyang, Harbin, Kunming, Wuhan, Nantong, Nanchang, Dalian, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Changsha, Urumqi…
At Guangming daily- http://en.gmw.cn/2015-03/27/content_19672264.htm here is last story but on right corner you can enter all previous stories and see all collection!!!