Thursday 1 Jun
A city under construction.
Our first stop in China was Beijing, where we planned to meet up with my folks. Rob and I had a couple of days to explore before they arrived so we went to Tianamen Square and Beihai Park. Tianamen is the world's largest public square. It's really just a concrete slab but it's interesting to watch people flying kites, and observe the hoards of Chinese tourists huddled together for the obligatory photo opportunity in front of Mao's portrait. Beihai Park was a bit of a disappointment. I'm sure it's beautiful but at the moment every monument and Buddhist temple in the park is shrouded in scaffolding.
Beijing is a city under construction and there's an incredible amount of building work going on. On the one hand you get a real sense of excitement in being in a city rapidly changing and at the forefront of China's modernisation. The downside is that many of the tourist attractions are covered in scaffolding!
On the day Mum and Dad arrived we visited The Temple of Heaven, which thankfully had just been finished. The temple was the place where emperors used to go to perform solemn rites, praying for good harvests and the welfare of their people. The temples are all traditional Ming architecture set in a beautiful park. It's a stunning place and as we walked round we could literally smell the fresh paint. The Chinese have a different philosophy towards restoring buildings than we do in the West. They believe a building is still the same building regardless of how many times it's been rebuilt. Beijing is currently knocking down, restoring and giving all its historic attractions a completely new lick of paint. The completed temples and monuments all look wonderful, but they do look new.
The company my Dad work's for has a factory in Beijing so we had the opportunity to have a look round one of the growing number of Chinese engineering companies. We were greeted by 'Kurt,' the factory manager, and 'Tina' (the Chinese often take old fashioned English names), and given a grand tour. The place was incredibly clean and ordered, far more so than the factory back in England. There was an enormous amount of space both on the factory floor and in the offices, and a common room where people could hang out and play table tennis. From what we saw it was a really nice working environment.
You get the impression that China is eager to exploit new opportunities with the West. Kurt, was certainly keen to learn all he could from Dad and kept pressing how the Chinese operation needed Europe's help in order to realise its potential, and find new market opportunities. Business opportunities with the West is also all the Chinese English language TV channel talks about. The government is urging people to seize opportunities to gain knowledge by creating partnerships or finding placements in Western companies. The TV propaganda is very much a call for people to take individual responsibility in China's development for the benefit of the whole nation.
And first impressions are that the Chinese, at least in Beijing, are taking the best of Western culture and making it their own. We could certainly learn some lessons in town planning from them. Whilst they're building at a rate of knots Beijing is still very green, every new road is lined with trees and the city makes great use of open space. You get the impression that everything has been thought of and planned. I've never seen so many parks in a city. I guess the Chinese philosophy of feng shui means that for every new concrete building there has to be a balance, and there are dozens of parks where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
The city is certainly growing and changing. My Mum keeps humming the tune, 'There are 9 million bicycles in Beijing.' There's not so much 9 million bikes anymore as 9 million cars and even more mobile phones. One of the obvious downsides we saw from walking around the city, was that in their effort to modernise, Beijing seems too eager to sweep aside some of the more historic areas of town. Rob and I stayed in a budget hotel in the Hutong district of Beijing. Hutong is Beijing's old quarter, and a maze of narrow alleyways lined with ramshackle buildings. It's full of atmosphere and wonderful food smells. The back streets are packed with people dodging bikes and rickshaws, and full of food stalls selling everything from dumplings to pots filled with Rooster heads and chicken's feet. It's the exactly the image of Beijing you see in films.
Unfortunately, we only had to wander off the main street to find ourselves in the middle of a construction site. Whilst some of the historic homes are protected apparently more than 10,000 homes a year are being demolished in a bid to modernise the area for the 2008 Olympics.
It'll be interesting to see how the rest of China compares to the capital, our stay in Beijing has wet our appetites.