Saturday, July 04, 2009

This Pagoda Is 1,500 Years Old

In any other city, Tianning Si would undoubtedly be a top tourist destination. It is beautiful. It is a practicing Buddhist temple. And it is old....Really, really old.

Yet, here in Beijing, we were able to waltz right into the place, without paying so much as a single kuai to gain entry. In fact, our most difficult problem was finding the temple. Sure, we could see it from the distance, standing out above the crumbling hutongs in the surrounding neighborhood. But getting there was an altogether different matter. There were railroad tracks blocking the way. There were local residents who themselves gave us bad directions. Our reward when we finally arrived? Besides a few worshipers, we had Tianning Si all to ourselves.

But let's get back to the heart of the matter...This temple is 1,500 years old!

How about a little perspective here?

Tianning Si was built around 600 A.D. Now, we all know, right away, that this was more than 1,000 years before the founding of the United States. It was also before...

Charlemagne was crowned king of the Holy Roman Empire (800).

William of Normandy conquered England (1066).

Construction began on Leaning Tower of Pisa (1068).

The First Crusade was launched (1095).

Marco Polo visited China (1271).

The dawning of the Renaissance (c. 1325).

The "Black Plague" killed at least 25 million people (1347-1351).

The Incan Empire ruled over Peru (1438).

Columbus discovered the New World (1492).

da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa (c. 1503).

The defeat of the Spanish Armada by England (1588).

The Taj Mahal was completed (1643).

The signing of the Declaration of Independence (1776).

~Desi and Steve

My Old Beijing Map

When we go to markets around town and around the country, I usually need to come up with a strategy for keeping myself busy and engaged for the full duration of our visit. A few months back, this kind of decision making led me to my unanticipated (and ongoing) fascination with walnuts.

This time, as we were wandering through a new (for us) marketplace in southwestern Beijing, it was an old map of the city that caught my eye. This map depicts a Beijing from a long time ago, a relatively small community that existed largely within the then still standing city wall. The characters on the map are not the simplified hanzi that has been used on the Mainland for half a century or so, but rather are written in the traditional style that pre-dates the founding of the People's Republic. These elements suggest that, maybe, just maybe, the map truly is an antique that was printed up many, many decades ago.

As I stood there, transfixed by this seemingly rare find, the owner of the small stall where it was hanging came over.

"Do you want this map?" he asked.

"How much is it?" was my question in reply.

San bai kuai, quickly came his answer.

RMB 300? "There's no way that's happening," I thought, as I started meandering on down the next aisle.

"What's your price?" he shouted out as I kept moving.

Wu shi kuai, I shouted back. This was a quick calculation I did in my head at that very moment. If he is asking for three hundred, which is clearly unreasonable, how low can I go without being unreasonable in the opposite direction? For whatever reason, I deemed fifty RMB to be that cut off point.

The stall owner haggled a bit for a moment or two, and then quickly agreed to my price.

"Dog!" I thought.

Given his rapid agreement, here's what I envision the seller walked around telling his fellow merchants as soon as I had left the scene...

"You're not going to believe this. You know that crinkly old map that I had taped to the front of my display case? Well, this waiguoren came by and actually paid fifty kuai to take it off my hands!"

No matter. In the end, I picked up what I think is truly the real deal, a one-of-a-kind piece that will keep our attention for many years to come. This score alone made it a great day to be out there on the streets of Beijing, even for a guy like me with a limited attention span when it comes to the marketplaces that bring so much sustained enjoyment to Desi, Julie, and Z.


Friday, July 03, 2009

Preparing For National Day On The Fourth Of July

Although there isn't so much as a whisper of Independence Day here on the other side of the world, there is certainly plenty of patriotism in the air. On October 1st of this year, China will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.

Now, speaking for myself, I am not quite sure why sixty is such an important number. But, nevertheless, the preparations for a monumental celebration are in full swing. Witness the mural depicted in the accompanying pictures.

This mural, which (no joke) is several city blocks long, is a string of apparently independently painted pieces. These scenes depict Chinese pride in things like pandas, the 2008 Olympics, imperial history, the Great Wall, space exploration, and the motherland herself.

Enjoy the fireworks, everybody!


What It Takes To Earn A Buck In China

Several months ago, Z and I decided to undertake a little project. We had noticed that several places in our neighborhood collect bottles and take them to bigger recycling centers in Beijing. People collect bottles as a source of income, which you will notice if you are at any major tourist spot in China. Older men and women spend their time rooting through garbage cans and asking tourists for their bottles for this purpose.

So Z and I decided we would collect bottles just from our house, when we remembered to keep them out of the recycling bin, and take them to one of the recycling stations when we had the chance. Well, last week, we finally emptied out the cabinet in my room. We loaded close to a hundred bottles into a big tarp bag, and headed for the nearest bottle exchange business.

On the way down the stairs, we were hypothesizing how much money a bag full of bottles might be worth. We guessed as high as twenty kuai and as low as two kuai. As the lady pulled bottle after bottle out of the bag, and I snapped some pictures (you know we were thinking ahead about this blog!), Z and I kept thinking the total must be at least reaching ten, fifteen kuai by now.

Well, the magic number...six kuai (about a buck). Each small bottle was worth six fen (that is about a penny) and each big one was worth one mao (that is almost two pennies!).

While Z and I definitely can't go on a shopping spree, the greater gain was in the lesson we learned. It isn't easy to make a dollar a day here, but that is maybe what some people are living on.


PS: We have decided to keep up our bottle collection for a few kuai a week!

The Views From 白望山

After an hour-long hike to the top of 白望山, a mountain by our house we have always wanted to summit, the trip paid off! Views from the top reached for miles. For those of you who have been to China, we could see the CCTV tower, the Olympic Green, the Summer Palace, the other CCTV tower, the tallest building in Beijing, the government airport, and much more.

We bought waters and ice creams, and enjoyed the views. We could see my favorite building, the "battery" building, which is the tall building next to the Bird's Nest. Lucky for us, it was one of the clearest days! After thirty minutes of looking out over the spectacular views, we started the trek home...


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Bells But No Whistles

One of the best kept little secrets in Beijing is an obscure tourist spot right on the third ring road. It is a place that I had been curious about all year, since we had passed it so many times without knowing what is inside. Featuring the largest bell in all of China, this truly deserted but remarkably well kept series of buildings, courtyards, and, of course, a temple was a real treat.

I didn't even know that I liked bells. But as I walked among these beauties I was struck (sorry for the pun!) by both their ages and the detail in their designs. While there were many varieties, top billing undoubtedly goes to the Yongle Bell, which was cast in 1403 to 1424 by Emperor Zhudi during the Ming Dynasty. At 67.5 meters in height, 3.3 meters in diameter, and 46, 500 kilograms in weight, the Yongle Bell is truly massive and bends the 200-year old wooden beams from which it hangs. Inscribed on the outside and inside of the bell are over 230,000 Chinese characters, which are almost dizzying to the eyes. It is enclosed within its own beautifully crafted imperial building and worth a peek to the Beijing rare finds aficionado.

Once again, living in Beijing for an entire cycle of seasons has enabled us to delve beneath the surface of the top-tier tourist traps and into the next tier of tourist treasures. Devoid of crowds, but full of history, places like Dazhong Si are just great for a pop-in visit.


Monday, June 29, 2009

Indian Elephants And Jesuit Missionaries

China has five thousand years of history...That we all can agree upon.

But what about the roles, for good or for bad, that foreign influences have played in China's march through the centuries?

As we have moved around the country, much of the emphasis at historical sites has been on the humiliation China suffered at the hands of the British, French, Japanese, and others in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty and the subsequent period of civil war.

While not denying these painful episodes in China's history, it has always struck us that the contributions of foreigners to China's evolution often go under reported, at least in mainstream outlets like textbooks and tour guides. But, then, just when you think such stories are not being told at all, you stumble upon a place like Wuta Si (Five Pagoda Temple).

This Tibetan-style temple, dating to the 1400s, is full of some excellent relief carvings, some of the best (I think) we have seen, certainly in Beijing. Many of these carvings depict elephants and other subjects that serve as vivid reminders that Buddhism itself is an import, courtesy of China's Indian neighbors.

Moving away from the towers, you quickly cannot help but notice that the grounds are covered with dozens of huge stones. Some of these stones, not surprisingly, are steles documenting administrative matters, such as the building of roads and bridges. Others, though, are graced with crosses and writing in, of all languages, Latin. These stones are grave markers of Jesuits who died while doing missionary work in China. No, there are no Jesuits buried on the grounds of this particular Buddhist temple! These tombstones, along with many other relics, have been relocated to what doubles as the home of the Beijing Stone Carving Museum.

And just how are the Jesuits remembered at this particular location? As you can see, lurking below the mainstream resentment of foreign entanglements is the kind of appreciation you can find, if you get lucky or look hard enough...

Tombstones of the Jesuits displayed in this place were originally erected in the graveyard of Zhengfu Temple in Beijing. The society of the Jesus was a sect of the Religious Orders and Congregation of the Catholicism. Visiting China during Ming and Qing dynasty, the Jesuits not only did missionary work, but also brought China the modern scientific knowledge and took the ancient Chinese civilizations and sciences to Europe.