I have had the privilege of spending a total of around three months this year visiting China on different occasions, and in particular staying on the Peking University (Beida) campus. It has been amazing seeing the changing colours of the landscape through the seasons, and early on during my visits I decided to try to take regular photographs from the same spot near the centre of the campus to capture the different colours and senses of living there. I hope that the photographs below capture something of the differences I experienced. I definitely think I need to return in the midst of winter to see it in the snow. My favourite time has to be when Beijing was covered in blossom for an all too short period in early April!
One of the pleasures of Beijing is the opportunity to explore its numerous hutongs – narrow streets surrounded by low rise courtyard buildings, known as siheyuan. As most guidebooks say, many of the hutongs have been destroyed to make way for new high-rise development, but some still retain their traditional character, and others have been redeveloped specifically with the tourist in mind. Traditionally, hutongs were 9 metre wide streets, with some dating from as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1341), and until the middle of the 20th century they provided the basic residential areas of most of Beijing.
Following a day exploring Ditan Park, the Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, we wandered south to have dinner at the Red Capital Club on Dongsi Jiutiao, which had been recommended by friends. Everyone says it is difficult to find, but that was not our experience. Head south from the Zhangzizhonglu subway station and take the first hutong (Dongsi Jiutiao) immediately to the east (left as you head south!). The Red Capital Club is then about 400 metres along on the south side of the road.
Anyway, we arrived too early, and decided simply to wander on to see if there might be anywhere we could sit down for a cold Tsingtao beer. A short distance on, to the north of the road, we came across an amazing find – the Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel at 51 Dongsi Jiutiao (note this is at a different location from the hostel mentioned on their website! Phone: +86 (10) 84021970). Although we only sat in the bar, we looked into the rooms which seemed very clean and well maintained. As well as dorms sleeping 6 people (RMB 90), they also had double rooms at only RMB 300 a night – amazing value for August (although the advertised rate was RMB 498). The bar itself was in the centre of the courtyard, full of comfortable chairs, and served a good range of beverages – the beer was definitely cold and refreshing! Its WiFi service was particularly popular – and people from many different nationalities were logging on to their emails and Internet! All in all, we reckoned that it would be a great place to stay for those on a limited budget.
The Red Capital Club itself was also definitely an ‘interesting’ experience. It is intended to reflect the life of the ruling elite in China in the 1950s. As its website comments, “The immaculately restored compound captures the mood of the 1950s when China was driven by idealism. The lounge cigar divan is like stepping into Mao’s private meeting room. The furnishings were originally used by the central government in the 1950s. Two sofas next to lounge door were actually used by Marshal Lin Biao (Mao’s fated successor who lost out in an attempted coup). A poem of Mao’s adorns one wall and a photograph of Deng taken by his daughter and presented to the club another”. The decor is now a little faded, and the food quite expensive, but it was definitely worth the visit. They even had a bottle of Marsanne from the Caves de Tain in the Rhône Valley – which tasted remarkably good (although that could have been related to the fact that it was the first white wine I had tasted for almost a month!).
When I was in Beijing in the Spring, the city was full of cherry blossom and magnolia flowers. Now in hot, humid August there are not many flowers of any kind out, but the lotuses and water lilies on the lakes in Beihai Park and the Summer Palace add a splash of colour – especially above the weeds and debris in the not all-too-clean water…
For my first couple of days back here in Beijing, I had difficulty connecting to my WordPress account, but have at last found a way to do so, and can catch up on my digital thoughts. The contrasts with my visit in the spring:
- the cacophony of sound from invisible animals/insects in the trees in the evenings – amazing walking around Weiming lake
- it is so much hotter (temperature today around 30 C) and more humid (only currently around 62%; data thanks to Weather Underground)!
- I’ve never seen so many people using umbrellas as parasols to protect themselves from the sun
- almost half the people on the subway/underground/metro seem to be using their mobile ‘phones, albeit often for games (somewhat more than I reckoned in the spring)
- bicycles and motorised tricycles as ever carrying a diversity of goods across the university campus
- very, very few people seem to be wearing watches – how do they tell the time?
- last time I had not noticed all of the trackways for blind people crossing the city, but all too often they are blocked or eroded and I have never seen a blind person using them…
After a hectic week at the excellent Association of Commonwealth Universities’ Executive Heads conference in Hong Kong, where I fear that my views on the future of higher education might have been a little too provocative, we arrived back in Beijing on Saturday. Another glorious day on Sunday tempted us to walk north of the Peking University Campus and explore the vast 350 hectare Yuanmingyuan Park, or Garden of Perfect Splendour. We managed to escape the crowds, and wandered leisurely around the lakes and ruins of what was once one of the most splendid of all Palaces and Gardens – known in its heyday as the “Garden of Gardens” and the “Versailles of the East”. The summer resort of the Emperors, it reflected the sumptuosness of the Qing court in the 18th and 19th centuries, but was looted and burned by a British and French force in 1860 during the Opium Wars. This wanton destruction, albeit in retaliation for the torture and execution of a small group of British and Indian troopers who had been sent to negotiate with the Chinese, is widely criticised as having been barbaric, and an act of vandalism. Victor Hugo thus described it as ‘Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain”. It is now difficult to imagine the scale and beauty of the Palaces and Gardens, but a model gives some indication of their magnificence and extent. Today, in places where their predecessors were never permitted to set foot, thousands of people now share picnics, enjoy the spring blossom, fly kites and just walk amongst the ruins, reflecting on their past glory and on the changing balances of political power throughout history. Having the previous weekend visited the New Summer Palace which was built to replace Yuanmingyuan, our visit to the Old Summer Palace gave rise to many complex reflections.
After the rain on Friday night, the warm sun came out again on Saturday, and we left the PKU campus for a few hours to wander around the monuments and gardens of the Summer Palace. Just a few stops on the subway north-west from Peking University East Gate station, we arrived at Beigongmen, and explored the numerous buildings, winding paths, and museums at Liheuyan. Particularly impressive were the Hall of Dispelling Clouds and the Pagoda of Buddhist Virtue, but the replica shops along Sizhou Street, either side of the canal in the north, were also interesting and surprisingly picturesque. A great deal of restoration work was done in advance of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and the green, gold, blue and red painting on the buildings was resplendent in the sunlight. This contrasts greatly with the much less restored buildings of the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. It made a lovely day out, and a good escape from the tyranny of e-mails!
When I first visited Beijing in January 2004, I remember being amazed by the grandeur and beauty of the Forbidden City, experiencing it on a very cold day with almost no-one there. Returning today, in late March, the queues to enter were long, but the Palace somehow swallowed them all up. It had lost nothing of its impressive beauty and splendour. As well as the sheer scale of the buildings and courtyards, much of its beauty lies in the detail of the paintings and carvings. It is the small hidden courtyards of the north-eastern corner where much of its special enchantment can be found. The Forbidden City is by far and away the most impressive building complex I have ever visited.