Not Quite a Forbidden City

by Thierry Boucquey, professor of French

Excerpts below are taken primarily from a travel diary kept by Prof. Thierry Boucquey on his journey to examine potential opportunities for Scripps’ Off-Campus Study Program.

Beijing

Just arrived in Beijing after a three-hour flight from Tokyo. First impressions are that it is a rather spacious city with very wide boulevards and without a real “center” but dotted with several high-rise conglomerations. There are many bicycles on the streets but a fair amount of cars, too. The airport is very modern and had an ATM machine I could use. [See “Money Matters” below.]

I’m staying at Bei Wai University Press Center’s “guest house” After I settled into my room, my host showed me around the neighborhood. We’re in the “high tech” area of Beijing, located about 15 km from Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately, it is a misty gray day-no wind whatsoever, but not cold (about 22C or so).

As I walk the street, I am aware I am being stared at a lot (by men and women alike), especially in areas where there are not many foreigners. There are very few foreigners in eastern China, except maybe in the diplomatic areas of Beijing.

Today I rented a taxi-with an English-speaking student guide-all day (for $20!) to see the “must not miss” sights.

Wow! Beijing is fabulous! I visited a fog-shrouded Forbidden City, site of the imperial seat, in the heart of the capital-very impressive, then Tiananmen Square, which was teeming with Chinese tourists on holiday, many of whom were standing in what must have been a two-mile line to get a glimpse of Mao’s embalmed body in the Mausoleum, and the just breathtaking Tiantan Park with its unbelievable echo-wall and circular altar.

Ironically, when you go from Tiananmen Square through the main archway into the Forbidden City, turn to the right and you see a Starbucks right there inside. I was completely floored by that. The Forbidden City is the symbol of old imperial China, and there’s a quintessential American establishment right there. In big letters – “STARBUCKS.” I felt personally like China had sold out to American consumerism.

Today I climbed the mountain to the Great Wall of China and walked around the Wall for a couple of hours in a magnificent natural setting and perfect weather (sunny 75F). One of those places I’ll never forget and under the same category as the Florence Duomo, the Kyoto Kinkakuji, and Paris’ Notre Dame on my list of sublime places. From there to the tomb of the Qing dynasty and finally to the exquisite Imperial Summer Palace-a huge park à la Versailles but larger and with more buildings and water acreage.To top off the day in great style, went to the Peking Opera-magnificent costumes, great music, and very interesting acting. A perfect day.

Shanghai

Today Since the new “Socialism With Chinese Characteristics” era started, Shanghai has become the most progressive city in China, second only to Hong Kong, and it seems poised to become the financial capital of Asia soon. Shanghai, whose name literally means “on the sea,” is located on the East China coast, is China’s largest city (pop. 15 mil.), its largest port, and its largest industrial base.

Since 1998, a vast new area across the Yangtze River called Pudong has been developed as a financial center with a high-tech development park, a base for export processing, and as a free-trade zone. It features a great amount of brand new postmodern skyscrapers (all built in the last three years) housing new business ventures, and looks like a more modern Manhattan, and at night the lights from across the river are spectacular.

Directly across the Yangtze from Pudong is the famous “Bund” avenue with its European architecture. Once the most famous street in Asia (the major firms of the Far East once had their headquarters in the buildings facing the river), the Bund is an outdoor shopping hub and an excellent place to view all walks of Shanghai life.

Shanghai’s central area features the People’s Park and adjacent People’s Square, a place that attracts many tourists and Chinese late into the night, where people of all ages are often dancing classical or modern dances until 10 p.m.-a frequent impromptu event that happens in other Chinese cities as well, with a variety of music. Seeing this phenomenon in neighboring Nanjing, it was the Beatles’ music that played all night long. But in Shanghai, it was a fierce tango competition going on.

Located on the People’s Square is the most wonderful Shanghai Museum, a beautiful structure that houses a collection of over 120,000 cultural relics. Shanghai Museum is especially famous for its collection of bronzes, ceramics, paintings, and calligraphy. The building itself fuses elements of modern technology and Chinese traditional art. Seemingly shaped like a giant bronze urn, it is actually based upon the ancient Chinese concept of the universe-with a round dome (representing sky) and square building (representing earth).

Shopping

You can buy pretty much everything in the street. In general, it is not very different from the U.S.-the same kinds of things are available, we have so many things that are made in China anyway. Everything is generally more inexpensive as well. Most of the stores are little street shops, informal shreds of swap meets in back-alleys hidden from the street, particularly in Beijing and Shanghai. These outdoor markets are quite tourist-safe during the day; however, I did venture off the beaten path one evening and happened on a fellow who turned out to be an artist. We struck up a conversation, and he invited me to take a look at his work in a shop on the second floor of a house-wonderful art that I would never have seen if I hadn’t been somewhat adventurous.

Restaurants

In China, people of all ages often engage in impromptu dancing in the squares. Above, in Shanghai, a fierce tango competition takes place.

I highly recommend trying a tofu restaurant-delicious! But if western fare is your preference, be prepared to pay very high prices. That is, provided you can find restaurants that serve western dishes, or are western-looking. You will definitely find these in Shanghai and Beijing, but in the outlying and smaller cities, it’s unlikely. Interestingly, too, I didn’t see many places advertising international cuisine; mostly Chinese restaurants specialize in Chinese food of the varying regions-southern, western, northern-or more specifically specializing in a particular dish, such as Peking duck. I would advise against eating too many salads, especially if you buy them on the street, because they may not be safe. Your best bet is to stick with cooked vegetables and fruit you can peel. Also, if you haven’t grown up there and your stomach is not adjusted to it, water from the tap may not always be safe to drink. Every hotel room offers bottled water; in most cases the first one or two are free of charge. You can also buy bottled water in the street for a very low price, and you can find it pretty much everywhere.

Language Barrier

Today I had a guide everywhere, hired through the universities I was visiting. It is definitely difficult to get by without knowing Chinese, although the most common second language is definitely English-no French, no Spanish, and no Italian, except maybe among university students.

One interesting adventure: While out walking in Beijing, I had noticed a sign for a barbershop, so after dinner I ventured out to see what time it might be open tomorrow. It was 9:00 p.m. and it was still open (until 11:00!). The two girls working in the shop spoke not one word of English, and I know literally two words of Chinese-how do I tell them I don’t want a “skinhead” look? After five fruitless minutes of non-verbal communication, including gestures, one of the girls grabbed a fellow from the gym next door, who not only spoke English, but German and French as well! [The tale goes on. He was of Vietnamese origin, had lived in Germany, and had an aunt in Los Angeles.] Though initially I was the only customer in the shop, soon there were nine curious Chinese all around me having a conversation through the interpreter. One of them asked me about my profession, and when I told them, they all nearly bowed in unison. I gave the interpreter my card, and it made the rounds till everyone had had their say about it-I didn’t have a clue as to what they were very fervently discussing. When I asked why the barbershop stayed open until 11:00, the answer was “Because we must-it is a big hotel, you see.” “Do any customers ever come after 9 p.m.?” “No, never.” End of discussion. The punchline of the story, though, has got to be the bill I was asked to pay: $1.10! So I tipped the shopkeepers several times the amount of the bill.

Getting Around

Again, I had a guide, which was a definite advantage because I was able to visit many areas of the city that I might otherwise have missed as an on-my-own or group tourist. (If you are worried about finding a reputable guide, contact the city’s university or the American Embassy, and see if one can recommend a person or tour company.) In general, the yuan equivalent of $20 U.S. is an ample amount to offer a guide or taxi.

Money Matters

ATMs are not as abundant or as routinely given maintenance checks in China as in the U.S.-at one point, I had to drive around to quite a few locations to find a machine that not only worked but would recognize and accept my card. With the exception of four-star hotels and fancy restaurants, China is a very cash-oriented society. Travelers’ checks are a hassle. It’s easier to bring cash and exchange it at the airport. The exchange rate is pretty steady: 25 Yuan/RMB = 1 dollar.

For more information, check out the China National Tourist Office, which offers extensive information on travel to both Beijing and Shanghai including hotel and restaurant recommendations, monthly city event calendars, and tips on weather, visas, and required inoculations.