BEIJING

A night train delivers me to Beijing from Tai'an. Unfortunately, the arrival time, at 5 AM, is also nightly, but never mind. I am staying 4 days, which is not much for Beijing. I have carefully planned my stay so as to get the most out of it and, at the same time, without exceeding in the number of visits in my agenda.

Marco Polo, who was here more than seven centuries ago, comes to my mind. But wait, has he really been here? Historians are not sure whether he ever came to China, but I would not blame him if he didn't: after all, I wouldn't have come here on foot .

First, considering the ticket problems, I set off to make the ticket for my next destination, Datong. »This is when it gets entertaining. As soon as I go out of the station[1], on my right, there are 2 separated ticket counters with the indication (also in English) : "Departures from Beijing West". I do not remember where my train to Datong is going to start but Datong is West of Beijing so it could well be that it starts from Beijing West. I queue up (yes, let's optimistically call it a queue); when it's my turn, the woman does not even listen to me or look at my piece of paper (which I had prepared on the train, painstakingly writing down the Chinese characters for Datong, as well as the train number): she shows me that the English-speaking ticket counter is inside the train station and goes on with the next customer. Fair enough, I mumble, let's go there. I can't find the English-speaking counter inside, however. Some officers explain to me that the English-speaking ticket counter is closed at this time, but they show me another counter whose attendant should speak English. Ok, I mumble again, at least here I did not waste time in the queue. I find the ticket counter and the attendant does speak English indeed. Unfortunately, though, this seems to be his only plus; other than that, he's exceedingly irritating. As soon as I mention Datong, without even giving me a chance to show my piece of paper with the train number, he says that trains to Datong leave from Beijing West and therefore I have to go to the Beijing West train station to make the ticket. I try to let him know that outside, on the right, there are two ticket counters for trains leaving from Beijing West but by now he is not listening to me, and not even looking at me: while he sorts out his desk he keeps repeating that I have to go to the Beijing West train station, adding pitying gestures for good measure. I raise my voice in an attempt to be listened to, to no avail: he sounds like a broken record while he reiterates the same sentence again and again. Now I am getting really angry. Is it possible that you can't even make a ticket for a train leaving from another train station in the SAME town? Is it possible that, with Olympic Games only few months away, a great and beautiful town like Beijing shows such a depressing aspect by means of those unqualified and lazy employees?
In a while I am back to the separated ticket counters and I queue up at the other window this time. I am visibly irritated but, when my turn comes, the young employee looks at me, asks in good English about my destination and all the other details (hard-sleeper or soft-sleeper, bed position etc.); then she makes me the ticket and says "Be careful: this train, unlike all the others directed to Datong, will leave from this train station. I made you the ticket nonetheless". A qualified and kind person, whom I'd like to thank if I could, did in less than 30 seconds what others were not able to accomplish in a hour. I'd like that she could be rewarded for the way she works, but I really doubt about it: if competence and care were rewarded, there wouldn't be such an abundance of lazy employees.

The first sight that I manage to visit, the afternoon of my arrival, is Tian Tan, sometimes also known as the Temple of Heaven:

As you may have noticed in the picture above, a show is taking place:

The Great Wall of China is probably the most famous among the many remains of China's imperial period. I have luckily chosen a tour which visits it away from the touristic places, in an area around 110 km from Beijing which includes the two segments of Jingshanling and Simatai. I'll have the chance to walk for at least 10 km on the Wall, for one time away from the ubiquitous Chinese tourists.
The text on the Great Wall ticket reminds me that "Jingshanling Great Wall is like a dragon standing on the beautiful golden mountain" , just to let me know that there is the Dragon here: should I fail to see it, it's because I lack imagination.
I walk with 4 other people: a Flemish who is studying Chinese in Shanghai, an English cook, an Australian and a Brazilian journalist - as much a heterogeneous group as human mind may conceive. It's wonderful to spend the time with them, speaking and walking on the Wall. I learn many things from them and this makes me forget about the weariness. You may think that getting up at 6 AM, paying 22 Euros, being lifted by a Chinese driver who drives like a crazy, all this just to see a wall is not a clever thing to do. All true, but not all the walls are alike, and this is probably the most famous in the world.
Since it was built for defensive purposes, the Great Wall follows the highest points and clings to ridges, thus offering superb panoramic views:

For that same reason, though, it is not an easy walk: there are many very steep ascents and descents:

While walking on it, you can't do without thinking about the huge amount of work it took: 7 metres wide, 8 metres high, 5000 km long. And not of much use, because when Gengis Khan and then the Manchu came from the North to invade China, they went through without trouble. It's ironical to think that it is much more useful to China nowadays as a touristic attraction than in the old days as a defensive bastion: sometimes things turn out to be valuable in a completely different way than that for which they were designed.

From the Wall you can also note the big difference between the nature in the North and the nature I have seen so far: maybe it's not dry, but certainly it's not lush either. I can't see the desert which is reportedly progressing towards Beijing as a consequence of the desertification of the North of China, but I guess it's not so far away:

Shortly before the exit at Simatai, there is a pedestrian bridge crossing a river:

Here some reckless fellows cross with a pulley on a wire. The toll to cross the pedestrian bridge is 5 yuan, something which reminds me of the Middle Ages in Europe:

We taste the famous Peking Duck for dinner. This is when I learn to use the chopsticks: if you are as hungry as a hunter and courses are shared[2], you learn quickly .

I had read catastrophic reports on the destruction of the old Beijing by Communists. I am not in a position to assess those statements, I can only say that something (or maybe more than something) survived. The city walls were pulled down in 1956 but some gates are still there:

Also, the walls of the Forbidden City were left intact. Of course, it would be better if they could also save the city walls, but who is without sin among us, let him first cast a stone: what happened to the Milan city walls, which played an important role in the town's history?
And, again talking about Milan, what happened to the "Cerchia dei Navigli" (a loop of canals around the city centre)? Buried without hesitation, probably forever.

The most typical landmark in Beijing are Hutong, a labyrinth of alleys and cottages so peculiar of this town. Their number has greatly reduced, true, but I would disagree with who says that they are quickly disappearing. I lodged in one of them to begin with, and I have seen dozens around the town. They are nice to live in because they are people-oriented: shaded, quiet, with trees and cottages, shops and laboratories, suited for walking and cycling. In the evening you meet the people sitting in the open air, playing cards and drinking tea, relaxing while the time goes by.

The large boulevards, on the contrary, are car-oriented: flanked by tall buildings and skyscrapers, packed with cars, noisy, dangerous for cyclists.

»Speaking about the traffic, I'd like to understand if they have a plan for the future here. In Beijing there are more than 3 million cars, which cause gigantic (yes, think about something very big and that won't probably be enough) traffic jams and slow down the traffic to the point that the average speed of public buses has dropped to less than 10 km/h. In this context is it logical to continue to encourage the private car usage, at the expense of the bicycle? It seems to me that they are not learning from the many mistakes we have made in this area (which are still badly affecting us), it looks like they prefer to follow all our steps, mistakes included.

The fourth day I rent a bicycle to visit the Lama Temple and the Summer Palace. This gives me the chance to experience how beautiful it is to cycle along the wide bike lanes in Beijing. At the same time, though, I also notice that cars and buses are more and more invading this space. I have witnessed manoeuvres which I previously deemed unconceivable by human mind, for instance turning left with the car, on the bike lane in the opposite direction, when the heavy traffic prevents from going to the car lane, and going on until it's possible to jump to the car lane. The most common dangerous manoeuvre, however, is the right turn on red (RTOR). There exists a legal RTOR in other countries, for instance the United States, where it means "At a traffic light showing red, turn right, AFTER A COMPLETE STOP, WHEN THE ROAD IS CLEAR". In China it means "At a traffic light showing red, turn right REGARDLESS THE PRESENCE OF CYCLISTS AND PEDESTRIANS".

More generally, it's my understanding that who owns the biggest vehicle is right (I suspect the power of the horn also plays a role, but I am not sure). Poor cyclists, often carrying a heavy load, - in China the bicycle is very often a means of transport, not a sport - wherever the bicycle lane is missing have to venture on car lanes where large buses ring the horn to them relentlessly, continuing until they have been able to take over. Do they expect that cyclists can disappear just because they ring the horn? They seem to agree on a compromise after all: if cyclists continue (but that takes a fair amount of stamina), the driver won't run them over.

This town really seems to be two-fold: if you drive along a large boulevard you may think to be in a large American town with traffic, skyscrapers, malls, etc. If, on the other hand, you walk along the alleys in a Hutong you may think to be in the countryside. And this illusion goes on until you cross one of those large boulevards, a necessary step before diving into the next Hutong.

It's ironical that the most visited monuments in Beijing are the imperial remains and the Lama Temple (a Buddhist temple complex), in a nutshell all that the Revolution meant to sweep away. Truth to be said, however, things are not as you may read them. The Forbidden City has never been damaged by the Revolution, and a lot of money went into its restoration. The Chinese government has spent a fortune to restore the Lama Temple, where monks live and where I have seen hundreds of Buddhists go and pray, freely.

One thing that greatly let me down in Beijing is Tian An Men square. It's the largest square in the world, Chinese say blatantly; true, but it's a concrete flat space surrounded by busy streets and containing some random buildings:

By this same logic, then, the San Siro Stadium Square in Milan may also concur to the record of the largest square in the world. After all, if I compare it with the Red Square in Moscow, which I consider the most beautiful square I have ever seen, I have to infer that they are not even in the same category. An example should suffice: the Lenin's Mausoleum in the Red Square is a relatively small building, integrating nicely with the rest of the square. The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Tian An Men Square, on the contrary, is a giant building built in propagandistic and pompous architecture in the middle of the square, whose only result is to clutter the view of the whole square. We also experienced this type of architecture in Italy, just think to the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II in Rome, which was nicknamed "the typewriter" (and in other ways) by locals, with their typical irony. The ideologies who brought to these two bad pieces of architecture were on opposite sides, but produced similar results. Thankfully both Rome and Beijing abound with great monuments which more than repay the visitors.

Admission to the Mausoleum is free, something unheard of in China, where the entrance fee is steep for all the cultural, historical and natural attractions. But the sight of the billions of Chinese entering on one side and exiting from the other in a queue several hundreds of meters long, discourages me. I skip the visit and I head off to the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City is a city-within-the-city, cut off from the rest of the town by walls, towers and a moat. It has been off-limits (hence the name) to the people for all the imperial era:

It is completely out of proportion with the other courts that I have seen in Europe. I can't help thinking that, while the kings of the Ming and Ching dinasties lived in this magnificense, the people in China were very poor. In such a context, I can understand the Revolution (that's an oversimplified version of what happened, of course). And I am not sure it's by chance that the other two squandering courts I have visited, the French (think to Versailles) and the Russian (think to Tsarskoe Selo and Peterhof) also ended in a violent way. By contrast the Habsburgs, who kept a relatively low-profile in Austria, were replaced peacefully and many Austrians still regret them.

My Lonely Planet guide warned on the quality (or its lack thereof) of the public toilets in China, but something must have changed recently: in most of the large towns toilets are frequent and free. There are indications up to a 100 metres radius, then find your way by trusting your smell .
The few toilets at acceptable standards, to differentiate from the others, adopted a "ranking" mechanism similar to that of hotels, which I found funny. I can therefore say that I have been in a 4-star toilet in the Forbidden City, as proudly reported on this plate:

»While cycling towards the Lama Temple I run into Beijing's "traffic helpers". At almost every street crossing having a traffic light and a bicycle lane there are four of them, one per corner. They hold a red flag and their goal is to avoid that cyclists and pedestrians go on the street while the traffic light shows red, thus narrowing down the passage for vehicles. I am not sure this job is really useful: it could be avoided with a bit more order in the streets - at those crossings the pace of the passage for cars, bikes and pedestrians is dictated by the traffic lights in any case. But I have learnt by now, thanks to feedbacks I got from Chinese and non-Chinese alike, that the criteria of efficiency and saving of jobs (especially in public services which are funded by taxes) which apply to Europe and possibly elsewhere, do not necessarily apply here in China, where over-population creates other priorities, such as keeping a high employment rate.

Could the dragon be missing in Beijing? Noooooo. Here is just one example:

In short I would say that Beijing is not as a dynamic and fast-growing town as Shanghai, Hong Kong or Shenzhen, but it is rich with culture and history. Whether nowadays Chinese can appreciate them is, unfortunately, another matter: you may see them astride the monuments or standing on basreliefs to be taken pictures.

  1. ^In the train stations in China, upon arrival, you have to go out and here is where your ticket is checked. Then you can enter again, for instance because you need to make a ticket
  2. ^A typical Chinese meal is made of a per-person bowl of rice or noodles, the other courses are shared and everyone draws from them with their chopsticks.