Sunday, August 05, 2007

China: Around old Beijing

I wasn’t that excited today maybe because I was at the Forbidden City just last October. It was also a Sunday, and I was expecting a large crowd and I hate going around heritage sites when they are crowded.

My expectations were not unfounded. There were just too many people and you had to jostle your way to see the different areas of the Forbidden City. Add to the fact that many of the major buildings were undergoing restoration and still covered by scaffolding. I was hoping restoration works on the main palace was finished by now since it was also covered last year. But it was not yet completed. So I just made good use of my time and strolled around the palace complex.

Like yesterday, we had lunch in the bus. They took us to the Yashow Clothing Market in the afternoon but that did not interest me (as a general rule, if it’s something I can buy easily in the Philippines, I won’t buy it). So I asked permission from the organizers to separate from the group. Boris from Serbia joined me to Beihai (North Lake) Park which I had wanted to see during my trip last year. We took a taxi from the market to Beihai which was RMB20 (PHP140). Had I known it was a clothing market, I would have stayed behind at the Forbidden City since many of the historical sites are nearby. Entrance to the park is RMB20.

Beihai Park was part of the imperial gardens. If not for the large weekend crowd, the stroll around would have been very refreshing with its large picturesque lake full of lotus plants in full-bloom and hundreds of trees. As they say, the garden has the dignity of the northern style and the exquisiteness of the southern style. Maybe I could come back on a weekday to absorb the scenery.

In the middle of the lake is Qiong Island linked by two old bridges. The island has a hill with several temples and shrines, and an imposing white Tibetan-style dagoba on top. From the top, you could see the entire Forbidden City and other old structures in the vicinity. Sadly, the weather did not cooperate with us. Since it was foggy, visibility was low.

We walked several hundred meters towards the north gate of the park to get to Sichahai for a rickshaw tour of the hutongs. I was there last year but it was in the evening. So I was not able to appreciate the hutong tour that much. Hutongs are the alleyways which typified old Beijing.

Outside the palace, princes, civil servants, wealthy merchants and other common folk lived in these hutongs. There are just a few of them left as many of them were bulldozed to give way to new developments. But the Beijing government put a stop to the demolition and preserved a large part of the hutongs close to the Forbidden City as a reminder of life before. Sooner or later, cities realize that preserving heritage is vital for their growth and development. And I hope local officials in the Philippines realize it sooner while there is still something left to preserve.

One of the places we visited was the 300-year old Beijing courtyard style home of the Qi family (5 QianGan Hutong), which is one of a few well-preserved private courtyards open to the public (RMB20). One could see the development of the city’s hutongs by visiting these all-gray homes which are still in use. It amazes me how local and foreign tourists visited these alleyways in droves. And residents charge for entrance into their traditional homes. Imagine this happening in old Manila districts such as (Hidalgo Street) Quiapo, San Nicolas and San Miguel.

While in Sichahai, don’t forget to check out Yandai Byway to shop for souvenirs such as Mao memorabilia, silk and traditional clothing, tea (although prices are outrageous), Chinese cultural items, as well as the usual tourist stuff like magnets, key chains, trinkets, etc.

I didn’t buy anything since I wanted to reserve all my shopping towards the end of the seminar. But make sure you bargain hard since they overprice the items beyond comprehension. Don’t think an amount is too low because if you turn away, they might just say yes. I asked the price of a Buddha image and they said RMB260. I didn’t budge. Their asking price went lower but not that much. I said RMB50 and they laughed. When I left, they ran after me and said “Ok, ok, RMB50!” But I said I’m no longer interested and I’ll think about it. Who knows, I could have gone lower.

From Sichahai, we walked towards the Drum and Bell Towers. I had seen these towers last year but in the evening. So I wanted to see them up close while the sun was still out. From there, we walked towards the subway station and took a train back to our hotel in the northeastern area of Beijing, just in time for dinner.

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Finding heritage value
Three years after Unesco's World Heritage Center released a scathing report on the country's poor management of its cultural sites, boom-time China is starting to realize that preserving archaeological finds can be more lucrative than developing shopping malls.


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