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Seven days in Beijing

July 11, 2010

I recently returned from a nearly two week trip, my first ever, to East Asia where I visited two ancient Imperial capitals. My first stop was in buzzing Beijing to attend a friend’s wedding where I stayed for a week and managed to get in quite a bit of sightseeing. Beijing is a marvelous city with a glorious past having served as the “Northern Capital” of China for centuries and is currently the seat of power for the ruling Communist Party. A sprawling city of twelve million souls, Beijing was the first large city in China to undergo major economic reforms initiated by the late Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s that ushered in the vibrant market economy to gradually supplant static Chinese socialism, ended decades of Chinese isolation from the world and ushered in an era of profound change. The gargantuan, ultra-modern Beijing Capital International Airport that greets visitors on arrival serves as an appropriate symbol for the lofty ambitions of China’s current rulers to restore their venerable empire to its former glory. In China power is connoted by size. This is evident in the many historical points of interest as well. The enormous Forbidden City lies at the city center and once housed the Emperor and the Imperial clan is overflowing with innumerable temples, chambers and gardens. As you pass through its wide assortment of imposing door frames, your physical insignificance relative to your grand surroundings is emphasized. Across the street from the City’s northern periphery stands a mammoth Buddhist temple in Coal Hill Park perched atop a steep elevation that overlooks the City. The expansive and historically significant Tiananmen Square, adjacent to the southern entrance of the Forbidden City, is the largest city square in the world. Beijing is overflowing with pristine parks, the most noteworthy of which is the lively Beihai Park that embodies the essence of traditional Chinese landscape design with an array of weeping willows, arched bridges, seaside views and a myriad of small shrines interspersed within. I also had a chance to visit the Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing which while more manicured and sanitized in appearance (partly because it had been twice rebuilt after being destroyed by pillaging British and French invading forces in the late 19th century) than the other monuments nevertheless was a massive site full of archetypal Chinese architecture and themes. No trip to China would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall which unquestionably formed the highlight of this visit. My friends and I decided to visit the less touristy part of the Wall at Mutiyan (as opposed to Badaling which is the site visited by foreign dignitaries, including Richard Nixon in 1972, and is today overflowing with crowds). Mutiyan was a two hour bus ride from the city core and its portion of the wall was accessible via a cable car ascent to the top of a densely forested mountain range. The exhilarating feeling of traversing the miles and miles of the Great Wall is almost indescribable because you essentially have it to yourself, as we did, and are thus able to grasp its immensity. To stand atop its numerous watchtowers and contemplate the past as armed soldiers once stood guard over vast expanses of territory is gripping. Or to behold the many small openings engraved into the stone structures where archers once lay to defend their Kingdom during epic battles with invading forces was surreal. Everything about the Wall is majestic and I would recommend that everyone, once in their lifetime, have the opportunity to see for themselves this defining symbol of the Chinese people where it is claimed that nearly one million individuals died in constructing its 8000+ kilometers – a collective feat to confound the imagination. There are upscale parts of Beijing that would rival any glamorous neighborhood of Los Angeles; the thriving Sanlitun district features American-themed shopping centers (including a deluxe Apple store) along with a dense network of flourishing patio bars and restaurants. The newly paved and ever expanding superhighways that ring around the city signify the ravenous Chinese urge for motor vehicle transportation although the driving does leave something to be desired: crossing the streets of Beijing is akin to a game of Frogger, where pedestrians have to cooly navigate their way through an unrelenting onslaught of cars, bicycles and rickshaws. I found the Chinese to be a most hospitable people who delighted in seeing all the foreign visitors to their country, perhaps as further proof of their nation’s ascent in the world. The most vexing problem of Beijing is indubitably the severe environmental pollution. Of the seven days I spent in the city, six included a thick haze that limited visibility and made breathing the outdoor air quite noxious. We were fortunate that heavy rains one afternoon purged the air to reveal a majestic blue sky and beaming sunlight that unmasked the dense horizon of skyscrapers and construction cranes. We were sustained by bottled water as repeated warnings declared the tap water to be not potable. As a fitting end to the trip, I had a chance to attend an MIT Club of Beijing event where visiting MIT Professor of Political Science Edward Steinfeld discussed his new book on why the rise of China does not pose a threat to the West, an issue foremost on the minds of many Americans these days. In my private discussion with Steinfeld after his talk, he revealed to me that the first time he came to China was in the turbulent year of 1989 when many in the country felt a sense of dread of their country’s future prospects (recall the massive Tiananmen Square protests that jolted the world). Steinfeld recalled those grim days where no one could have predicted the unbelievable, two-decades old transformation that China has undergone through the present. He warned me that with China it is quite difficult to predict its future in reference to my skepticism about this massive nation of 1.4 billion people ever progressing far enough to one day truly rival the United States. I hope to be a regular visitor to China in the years old to serve as witness to its mesmerizing metamorphosis to an advanced, industrialized nation with a profound sense of nationhood and regards for its past.

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One Comment
  1. bin permalink

    hey i was just randomly searching on MEEP developer’s background and i found this blog of yours.

    just wanna share a bit of my thoughts here and i am saying this not out of my patriotism or anything. US wont be on top of the world forever, as any of the ever existing world super power. If it is not China that goes so far to be US’s rival, India or brazil or some other countries/regions will. It is just a matter of time.

    for me its quite obvious that when a country is developed based on the current standard, it will be also an obstacle for doing new things. I was in US twice, once in 2007 for 8 months, and this time in MIT for 1 year. The difficulties US gov found itself in can be a long list, lack of investment in bullet train, renewable energy, old infrastructure system that everyone is reluctant to change etc. Still, US is in much better shape than EU in the sense that the immigrants keep this place vibrant, and it is still the place to be for entrepreneurs, technology innovators.

    I do hope the way Americans do things can inspire the developing countries. But like I said, when other super powers emerge, current super power will have to adapt and adjust their positioning.

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