Beijing – Coal Mountain, Cricket Lu, Hutongs, the Great Wall, Beida & Olympic Park

Group Email update, June 29, 2009:

I am just wrapping up my third full day in Beijing.  So far, the trip has been fantastic.  Here is a run down of what we’ve done so far:

Saturday: I woke up at 2am due to jet lag. Fun.  About 6am, I walked around the hutong neighborhood behind my hotel. It’s a bit of a different world.  Hutongs are very small Chinese courtyard homes housing multiple families. The neighborhoods have very small streets, usually hidden from view by walls. Early in the day, we went to Coal Mountain, the former Imperial Gardens just north of the Forbidden City.  It is the highest point in Beijing, built out of the dirt from the moat around the Forbidden City.  It was very beautiful and used by many Beijing residents for excercise of all kinds.  We then had our morning project meeting (we have them everyday) and did a scavenger hunt of the surrounding neighborhoods (minus the hutongs).  Afterwards, we traveled to the famous antique market and I had a blast as people tried to rip me off (it’s a bartering society).  I actually had fun shopping.  That doesn’t happen very often.  Then we went to the other side of town and had a rickshaw tour of a hutong neighborhood…and let me say it was a totally different world. The tourist area is being restored and many houses are being fixed up by wealthy people or the government.  We stopped at one hutong and got an explanation by a very expressive and entertaining man on cricket fighting in China.  I haven’t laughed that much in a long time.  He was quite the character.  We also learned about crickets bred for singing.  Then we had dinner made by a family of the hutong.

"Cricket Lu" teaching us about fighting crickets & showing off his inclusion in a cricket fighting book.

When we were done, we went back to the hotel and did a walking tour of the hutongs with an American grad student studying here.  The various stages of urban development were excellently (if sometimes by accident) demonstrated. We started our a few blocks from the hotel, going down a typical hutong neighborhood street.  They are wide enough to fit a car and some people.  The streets are teaming with life and the people who live there.  As we continued, we came across the “transition zone” (as I call it) where there is massive construction.  The whole street was torn out about 15 ft. down and we had to walk on boards and rickety bridges to get through this area.  There was no where else to walk.  Some people were less than thrilled with this idea, but I thought it was a fun adventure! The other side of the construction was another hutong neighborhood restored for tourists, but people still live there. Then we hit the big time tourist area that begins just south of Tiananmen Square.  The streets were wide enough for 3-4 cars with lots of shops, neon lights, and ornate facades.  No one obviously lived in this area, even though that is the purpose of the hutong.  Then we hit the grand daddy of tourist hutongs, directly south of Tiananmen.  It was a boulavard size street with high end, 5th Avenueish shops and a very Disneylandish/Epot feel.  I believe it was a mile long?  I just stood there thinking about the “real hutongs” I’d visited that morning and how we reconstruct ourselves and hour history to appeal to the tourism industry.  I’ll try to send pictures at some point if I can.  It was unbelievable. As a historian, it was right up my alley.

A typical Hutong neighborhood, located behind our hotel.
The tourist hutong "neighborhood" just south of Tiananmen Square.

Then we walked around the outside of Tianamen Square, which is beautiful at night.  It is closed at that time, but the streets are teaming with Chinese and international tourists. Afterwards, I ducked into a local hostel with our grad student guide and three others from the group and had some Chinese style beer.  Basically, you get several large bottles of what feels like beer flavored water and share them as you would a pitcher in the U.S.  I went to bed about 12:30am and managed to sleep until 6am. Hooray!

Tiananmen Square at night, when it is closed to the public.

Wow…and that was just the first day…I write a lot…but it’s just been great…

Sunday: We visited an area of the Great Wall of China that was remote enough that we were practically the only people there…plus our individually assigned Mongolian guides…they are farmers who have obtained a license from the government to work in this tourist area (53 families).  To the right, is the UNpreserved wall, and to the right is the preserved section.  I, of course, went along the unpreserved section…and holy crap!  Talk about a challenging hike.  Practically straight up and down jagged bricks and stone with drop offs due to missing parts of the wall, with very steep hills.  We had a blast.  Oh, and the job of the guides?  It was basically to keep us from falling off the wall and then sell us stuff.  Each of us had an individual Mongolian following us all around the wall.  It wasn’t as annoying as it sounds.  They were very helpful, pointing out the better routes, helping you up and down the difficult parts, and they wanted to hold your hand a lot to keep you from falling (very rough terrain).  They didn’t if you told them no, however.  The wall was absolutely breathtaking.  I had a chance to go sit at the base on the Chinese side on my own for a little while.  The whole thing was a great experience.

The Great Wall at Jinshanling

That night I went with my roomate to meet her daughter, who is studying abroad and was on a 3 day stop in Beijing.  She met up with some friends from Beijing and Hong Kong while we were with her.  We rode the city bus and went to eat at a local resturant.  The food was great.  I actually had some duck brain (tastes a lot better than it sounds), inside-out fish, real chrysanthamum tea, and a ton of other geat dishes.  We had fun walking around the city when we were done.

This was a fantastic dinner. And yes, that is a giant lazy-susan on the table. It make passing food rather fun.

Monday: Today we visited Beida, the local name for Beijing University.  Only about .0002% of Chinese college bound students get accepted into Beida.  It is the “ideal college” in China.  We heard about the school, listened to a fascinating lecture by a history professor, ate lunch with students (I ate with a 24-year old PhD student in computer science who is doing gene sequencing), and got a tour of campus.  If you want to talk Chinese politics, let me know.  The lecture was REALLY very interesting from multiple perspectives.  Then we went to Olympic Park where I got to go into both the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest Stadium.  They are both amazing buildings with fantastic archetecture.  There were TONS of people there.  Before writing this email, I’d just gotten out of a Peking Opera performance at my hotel, which is a Chinese Opera Themed hotel.  I see now were Jackie Chan got all his moves!

Inside the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium

Tomorrow we are going to Tiananmen Square.  We’ll see the museum there, the square itself, the Forbidden City (which is across the street), and Mao’s Mossolueum (where Mao is entombed, Lennon style with the crystal coffin).  I’m having a really great time and I’m learning a LOT!  Wednesday we are off to Xi’an, the capital of the first Chinese Dynasty where the Terra Cotta warriors are.  Internet has been interesting.  My hotel doesn’t have wireless, so no iPod Touch (I knew that was a risk, but I’m using it for lots of non-internet things, including translating).  The business center charages by the minute for the computer.  Bah.  We’ll see what Xi’an is like.  Some places I know there won’t be any internet because it is too rural.  But I’ll send notes when I can.

Thanks!  I hope everyone is having a great time and thanks for letting me share my adventure with you.

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