Authenticity in Beijing

We spent last weekend in Beijing. This was 10 months since our first nervous visit last May, which had formed part of our introduction to China before coming to live here. In those early days we waited like frightened rabbits to be collected from the airport, and watched in wonder as our hosts spoke Mandarin and navigated their way around the city. Now we were able to negotiate public transport for ourselves, find our own way about and even speak a little bit of Mandarin.

The same slogans greeted us everywhere – Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness and Virtue. I remember them particularly from a visit to the Olympic Stadium last year. This time I could view them with a little more knowledge and a lot more cynicism. They were probably invented by a scared Communist Party after the 1989 debacle; the government decided that the best way to get the population back on side was to stir up nationalism and increase wealth, and has been mainly successful in this, despite creating huge wealth gaps between the rich and poor.

We pursued the Patriotic agenda ourselves by spending our first afternoon in the National Museum on Tian’an Men Square. The interior must be the biggest in the world, and probably the most empty. The museum is all about shock and awe, rather than bringing the visitor close to a plethora of beautiful objects. This is partly because the Nationalists took most of the good stuff with them to Taiwan in 1947, so there isn’t that much to display. Many labels show that objects were dug up in the 1950s, presumably in an attempt to build up a new and comparable collection. A kind of ‘there’s plenty more where that came from’ attitude.

Like good patriotic tourists, we found an excellent duck restaurant in the evening in an old hutong house. Hutongs are traditional single storey dwellings, built around courtyards and housing several extended families. Most have been destroyed as high rises have been built, some remain, and some have been reconstructed once their tourist potential was realised. The experience included seeing the ducks roasted over open flames in an ancient oven and then the master chef slicing up the meat before it was brought to our table.

Unfortunately, the most inclusive aspect of Beijing is the pollution – you can’t escape it. The view from the aeroplane is misty, while in the city the sun never seems to penetrate the haze. After a few hours walking the streets your hair and skin feel dry and dirty. On Saturday we travelled out to the famous imperial Summer Palace and although we could sense the sun, the grey sky never turned blue. We experienced the scenic spots, in the true Chinese way, gazing at temples and bridges, citing Song Dynasty poetry and even eating lunch in the reconstructed stage set of Suzhou Street. This is an artificial water town built to amuse the Dowager Empress Cixi during her summer sojourns away from the city. Nowadays, ‘real’ water towns often seem equally inauthentic – very confusing to the western tourist.

We showed Virtue in a limited way through some of our choices. These were also linked to our innate desire for authenticity as western tourists. For example, we selected a Chinese hotel located in an old hutong courtyard. Theoretically, this meant we were using less water (Beijing suffers from water shortages) and power. The hotel had a certain charm and was brilliantly located. However, after two nights in the creakiest bed imaginable and showering under a trickle of water we rather regretted our choice. We did mostly stick to using the subway and the airport train; using taxis felt like unneccessarily adding to the pollution caused by too many cars. Already residents can only drive into the city on certain days, in a government attempt to reduce pollution. But the subway is not well adapted to tourists with suitcases. (Apparently it is partly built in tunnels the Communist Party made in the 1950s to give themselves a rapid means of escape in the event of a nuclear attack). There are long walks between lines at interchanges and not many escalators.

Our way of contributing to the exhortation to innovate was simply to be independent tourists. Tourism in China assumes that you travel in a group, and there were many in evidence at the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven complex, usually following a leader with a flag, and wearing identical baseball caps. Travelling on your own can be difficult. There are few helpful signs in English or other pointers, such as suggestions as to which bus will take you to the scenic spot. We managed, partly because of the few words of Mandarin I’ve acquired. In my last private Mandarin lesson, I had learned the words for subway and airport. Nevertheless, my limited grasp of tones let me down and in a restaurant I couldn’t get the waitress to understand my request for green tea.

Yesterday, it was back to the university and a two hour Mandarin class. We are on to the final chapter of our text book and I was delighted to discover this was called ‘We visit the Summer Palace by bicycle’. We hadn’t been quite virtuous, patriotic or innovative enough to use this mode of transport – I imagine you might choke to death from the fumes if you tried it in reality.

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