Tuesday, March 16

Paula and Steve: We always enjoy our first day in any new city, particularly when it's also our first day in a new country. We generally ask our guide to help us combine the major sights with some time spent simply observing the local culture. For China we know that this will be harder - we have been told by many people who have traveled here that it's simply more difficult to get under the surface and that the guides are generally much more geared toward staying on the standard track. That's why we were pleasantly surprised when Shu changed things around so that we could be at the Temple of Heaven in the morning, when scores of Chinese show up to partake in a variety of outdoor recreational activities. Sounded great to us!

Shu had mentioned ballroom dancing as the main interest of the people who we would see. We had no idea of the wonderful combination of activities that would be here! This was the Tai Chi and Asian love of exercise that we saw in Hanoi, but on a much larger scale. The entire area surrounding the Temple of Heaven was filled with men and women (mostly older) involved in all types of activities, many which we had never seen before.

In addition to standard Tai Chi, we were treated to unusual variations that were just wonderful to watch. First, we saw "Tai Chi Fan" done with red fans that were repeatedly opened and snapped shut, with feet stamped in unison as the fans were closed. "Tai Chi Sword" was being done by people with long swords in each hand, all swung in exaggerated and coordinated movements. "Tai Chi Ball" was fun to watch, performed in pairs and incorporating balls which are caught on paddles and then tossed back. The catch/toss is performed in a single sweeping motion, and some people got very fancy with a variety of behind-the-back, under-the-leg and spinning moves.

But this wasn't nearly the end of the things we would see here. Ballroom dancing is obviously a major interest, and we saw large groups of people, often led by an instructor, performing a variety of dances to music blared from small CD players. There is also a type of line dancing that people do - Shu calls it "senior disco." The people doing the dancing obviously take it very seriously, and it was really fun to watch.

Next we saw several other types of exercise being done by coordinated groups of older men and women. There was one with scarves waved to the beat of music, and another that involved repetitive hitting motions all over ones body. Shu said this was actually a form of "massage." There were groups playing jianzi which involves keeping a small feathered object off the ground by passing it with your foot to other players (we've seen young "hackeysack" players before, but never 60+ men and women playing a game like this!).

In addition to physical exercise, games are also a major draw here. We watched as many small groups of people played cards, usually with crowds gathered around (they even bring the little sponges used to wet fingers, so that the cards are easier to handle). We watched as older ladies sang traditional songs, and soloists performed Chinese opera while accompanied by rwhos (stringed instrument). There was even a large women's drum corp practicing. Poetry was being written in the park by a gentleman holding a very large writing brush. He dipped it in water and wrote the complex Chinese characters right on the sidewalks - it was fascinating. Still other people played "Chinese Chess" (a variety of standard chess) and dominoes.

Shu told us that about 3,000 senior citizens gather in this park every single day (even in the winter) and that they look after each other. When someone misses a day, he is checked up on. We are sure this must be the largest "open air senior center" in the world. What a wonderful model!

As we left the park, we thought we were dreaming when we heard "Jingle Bells" being played on one of the traditional instruments. In fact, Shu told us that many Chinese are intrigued by Christmas and enjoy the music and even decorate with Christmas lights and Santa in December.

Finally, after a long stay watching people in the park, we went inside the wall that houses the Temple of Heaven. This temple was used by the Chinese Imperial Family twice a year for worship during the period of 1420-1911. It's a beautiful structure, and we enjoyed wandering around the grounds and learning about how it was used.

As we left the Temple of Heaven, we had our first conversation with Shu about life here in China. He spoke first of the economic reforms of the 1980's that slowly allowed China to open to the world. This became more pronounced in the 1990's. He told us that although the government still controls the media and doesn't allow some channels like CNN or HBO, they have allowed access to CNN on the internet since 1995. Shu said about 30% of the people in Beijing own personal computers. Satellite dishes, like we have seen in some of the villages in Southeast Asia, are not permitted - fines are assessed to those who try. There are several newspapers in China as well now, although they continue to be published by the government. Foreign newspapers are found only in the hotels. However, Shu believes that the majority of well-educated Chinese have full access and knowledge of world events. Of course, they are not permitted to use this information to challenge the government in any way.

Our next stop was the U.S. Embassy. We had run out of pages in David's and Katie's passports and were relieved to learn that the embassy here could add more while we waited. The security around the embassy was incredible (no pictures allowed here), and this actually turned into a very interesting experience. We could not get the van anywhere close to the U.S. Embassy - everything within a 3-4 block area of the building is entirely shut down. Soldiers with machine guns and bullet-proof vests patrol the streets. As we walked through a carefully placed maze of steel fences, our passports were checked a total of 6 times - five by Chinese soldiers and the sixth time by a U.S. marine who also cross-checked our pictures with our drivers licenses. On one occasion we were asked to remove our glasses so that our faces could be viewed more closely. Wow!

Once we made it inside, we had our necessary pages added within 15 minutes and we were on our way. We were amazed with the number of other American citizens who were at the Citizen's Service Desk doing the exact same thing. The whole process was quick and painless, and it was kind of novel for us to be on U.S. "soil" in the middle of China, even if only for a very short period of time.

Next it was off to the Forbidden City. This is a 250-area that was originally surrounded by a wall that common citizens were not allowed to enter - hence its name. The area inside the wall is composed of a garden, a residential area and government offices for the imperial family and government that were used for over 500 years from 1406-1911. Twenty-four emperors lived in the Forbidden City before China became a republic. The city had 9,990 rooms and we were able to observe the emperors' garden, dressing room, banquet hall and reception buildings as well as the large outdoor squares. The most interesting room was the emperor's bedroom, where he would nightly host one of his 3,000 concubines that lived inside - tough life!

There was a large group of Chinese middle school students visiting at the time and Shu explained to us the importance of education in Chinese society. Students study extremely hard for 12 years in order to prepare for the university entrance exams. Only about 25% of students will have an opportunity to attend the university because there are simply not enough schools of higher education here.


As we left The Forbidden City, we looked back at the Tiananmen Gate to see the large and famous portrait of Mao Zedong, and just across the boulevard we got our first glimpse enormous Tiananmen Square. This is the largest public square in the world and also famous because of the student protests and military force that was used in 1989. The portrait of Mao is where the students constructed their "Goddess of Democracy" statue preceding the violence that happened here. The boulevard that we crossed to enter the square is the place where the famous encounter between the student and the armored tank occurred (standing here today, it actually wasn't too hard to imagine…). The square itself is flanked on three sides by the People's Congress, the National Museum and Chairman Mao's Mausoleum. In the center of the square is a memorial for victims of the civil war called The People's Heros Monument. Shu was reluctant to talk about the events of 1989 while we were in the square but we hope to discuss this with him more tomorrow.

His reluctance was understandable given the presence of soldiers. We have seen more soldiers here than any of the places we have visited so far. They have been in all parts of Beijing and their presence was particularly evident in the Forbbidden City and Tiananmen Square. In these areas we could actually see groups of soldiers training and going through drills. Some the soldiers wore business suits, and Shu explained that these were "plain clothed" soldiers who patrol without the public being aware of their presence. Groups of soldiers marched and practiced their hand-to-hand combat skills right along side Tiananmen Square. This made for a somewhat ominous atmosphere.

We did speak more with Shu about all the changes that have occurred in China during the past 25 years. Shu indicated that the Chinese citizens enjoy greater freedoms than ever before. He remembers the days when people weren't free to select their own professions and had no access to the outside world. Some restrictions have only been recently removed - for example, prior to 1995 the government blocked specific web sites (e.g. CNN, New York Times). However, some still remain, as evidenced by the fact that people are not able to watch CNN or any foreign news stations on television.

Shu spoke about the family planning law, which strictly enforces a 1-baby-per-family regulation. The fines for violating this rule are stiff - Shu estimates that it's $5,000 for a Beijing family. Women who get pregnant and already have a child are expected to get abortions. In Shu's opinion, the government had no choice - this was the only thing that could be done to control China's rapidly growing population.

This evening we attended a marvelous performance of Chinese acrobats. We enjoyed a wide variety of stunts performed by contortionists, tumblers and other performers. Beijing is famous for its acrobats, so this was a real treat.

We had a difficult time today adjusting to the cool weather. By late afternoon, it felt like the temperature was in the high 40's, with a brisk wind. For the first time in a while, we were cold! Coming from the brutal heat and humidity of Cambodia, this has been quite a shock to our systems.

Tomorrow we have a full day planned exploring the Great Wall of China.












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