Friday, September 07, 2012

Commerce At A World Heritage Site

One of the truly fun, quirky experiences when visiting tourist sites in China that are located out in the countryside is bumping into money-making schemes that locals pursue inside park boundaries.

Imagine walking onto the grounds at Mt. Vernon and running a gauntlet of free-lance tour guides, carnival-style games, animal rides, and trinket stands, none of which are part of the official operation. Imagine walking through fields of corn, not grown in homage to George Washington, but rather as a means of sustenance and income for people living nearby (inside the grounds, in fact).

The Eastern Qing Tombs may be a World Heritage Site, but they certainly come across as a hodge-podge blend of imperial history and contemporary life as a peasant. I'm still trying to figure out which of these two aspects is more fascinating to my Western eyes...

~Steve

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Cixi's Tomb

Ruling China at the very end of the Qing Dynasty, when decadence and decline were the names of the game, the Emperess Dowager Cixi is an intriguing figure who is easy to ridicule. After all, she built the Marble Boat at a time when the Chinese navy was facing one humiliation after the next.

From the outside, Cixi's tomb fits the narrative of the over-the-top lifestyle of an imperial ruler, with huge courtyards, bridges, and ancillary buildings all designed to add to the majesty of the tomb up ahead.

Inside, however, things are not as impressive. (Cixi's tomb was also blasted open and looted during the warlord period, which is the only reason tourists can go inside today.) In comparison to Qianlong, Cixi's inner tomb is rather pedestrian (albeit way grander than any of us will ever be granted, or want to be granted for that matter). Absent is the majestic Tibetan carving, replaced by simple stones.

The overall feel we took away from the inside was one of how far the dynasty had fallen during the 19th century, in between the times of Qianlong and Cixi. Add to that the desolate, unkempt state of affairs at the Eastern Qing Tombs of today (a World Heritage Site, by the way), and the entire vibe continues to be one of misplaced glory that is well past its prime.

~Steve

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Tomb Of The Emperor Qianlong

One of the main reasons to make the trek all the way out to the Eastern Qing Tombs is to go inside the tomb of the Emperor Qianlong.

Blasted open and looted by a warlord after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the tomb is impressive both inside and out. Outside, the architecture is classic imperial in style, with gates, statues, walkways, and towers. Inside, there are lots of Tibetan-language carvings, which provide a kind of grandeur to the environment. The coffin itself, more than two-hundred years old, seems to be showing its age, and we are not too sure about any steps that are being taken to ensure its preservation for generations to come.

This is a ruler, by the way, who was roughly George Washington's contemporary, so here's a link to our first president's tomb, by way of comparison across cultures and political systems.

~Steve

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Alleyway Dogs In Maquanying Village, Beijing

Today's photo of the day at China Digital Times is one I took this summer...

~Steve

Getting To The Eastern Qing Tombs

Many people who come to Beijing make it out to the Ming tombs, a vast valley that is home to the tombs of the Ming Dynasty emperors. The same cannot be said for the tombs of the Qing Dynasty emperors, even though it was the Qing Dynasty that gave China many of its most impressive landmarks, including the Marble Boat (a bit of a checkered history there) and a pair of enormous carved Buddhas, one located at Yonghegong right in central Beijing (and made out of a single piece of sandalwood!) and one located at the imperial resort in Chengde (even bigger than the one in Yonghegong!).

We can now report on the reason why very few tourists, of Chinese or foreign variety, ever make it out to the eastern Qing tombs, even though they are way more interesting than the Ming tombs. (There is, by the way, a western series of Qing tombs, but that is a story for another day.)

And the reason is...It is hard to get all the way out there! For starters, the tombs are located several hours outside of the city, so you really have to make an all-day commitment.

Beyond that, though, the eastern Qing tombs are not set up for easy access. To wit, here is the path we had to forge...

Take the subway all the way to extreme southeast Beijing (Sihui stop on Line 1).
That's the first forty-five minutes, where you stand and get pre-engaged to all of the masses pushing and pulling against your body.

Find the long-distance bus station. There are tons of long-distance bus stations at the fringes of Beijing, and it seems that they are never easy to find. I guess the folks from the outlying provinces know where they are, so that must be good enough. I mean, we were still in Beijing proper, and the stares were just so striking. ("What are the foreigners doing in here?")

Ride for several hours on a long-distance bus. There is no bus that goes directly to the eastern Qing tombs, so you have to get off at a nearby town.

Get off the bus at the side of the road. Speaking of that "nearby town," the bus stop is really nothing more than a collection of buildings, housing a restaurant and a hotel. By now it was midday, so it was indeed time for lunch, some tasty jia chang cai (home-cooked countryside-style dishes). We were also informed that if we missed the last bus back to Beijing, we could stay overnight. Nice to know about that back-up plan!

Hire a car to take us to the main gate. The swarm of drivers that greeted us as we exited the restaurant were all quoting a price of ten kuai. At such a cheap fare, we knew the place must be within walking distance, but we ponied up anyway. Sure enough, on our way back several hours later, we just walked.

Buy tickets at the main gate and then get into a mini-bus to take us out to where the tombs actually are. That turned out to be miles away. Our mini-bus tour guide used her microphone, even though we were the only ones on the bus. (Did I mention this is a seldom visited tourist site?) Her words of wisdom, delivered in Chinese, were pretty typical, a litany of dates and sizes of building that mattered not much to us. But we appreciated her lively effort, and it is always good to listen to Chinese spoken by different people.

Now, you can bet that we will talk about the details of the Qing tombs themselves in subsequent posts. For now, though, there is one last travel detail that is worth some mention. Reversing our tracks from the tombs themselves, we took a mini-bus back to the main gate (enjoying a nice conversation with our driver and some other passengers along the way). We then walked along the side of the road for a few minutes, turning the heads of many a passing motorcyclist. ("What are the foreigners doing out here?")

Arriving back at the intersection where we had gotten off the long-distance bus that morning, we assumed that we would be able to flag down a bus going back toward Beijing on the opposite side of the road. Now, mind you, there were no signs, no benches, nothing that would speak to a bus stop. It was just our years of collective intuition that told us that if we stood in this rough spot, we would find a way back home.

No sooner had we arrived at the corner when a women standing across the street eyed us and started walking in our direction. "Bingo" I said. "There's the ayi who works for the bus company. I guarantee it." No uniform or any other obvious markers. Just a middle-aged woman (fitting the ayi profile) who was standing in a seemingly innocuous location along a rural corridor.

And, sure enough, coming up next to us, ayi confirmed that we were trying to get back to Beijing and then proceeded to take some money from us to pay for the bus fare. For our part, we didn't hesitate a second to hand over the cash, despite the lack of any visible signs of a bus, a company, or any other trapping of the transportation industry. It was just years of experience that told us we could trust this woman.

Consistent with that trust, it wasn't ten minutes later that a bus (the last bus of the day!) pulled up, and we jumped on, ready for the several-hour ride back to the city...not to mention a nap after a day of navigating the often inscrutable world that is rural, long-distance travel in the Middle Kingdom.

~Steve