Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Beijing - Getting ready for the Olympics

We watched a really interesting program on the Discovery channel two nights ago on how Beijing is getting ready for the Olympic Games. It was fascinating. It interviewed some experts who summarized traditions and symbolism in Chinese architecture, a lot of the things I had read here and there before. They discussed the symbols of the square representing the earth and the circle representing the heaven. You see these symbols in historic buildings such as the Forbidden City and it is interesting to see that the same symbols are used today in the design of the Olympic buildings: the two buildings you now hear about are the Cube and the Bird's Nest (stadium), a square and a circle... Actually, what they did not mention is "why a bird nest?". I suspect it is because bird's nest was actually an imperial delicatessen. Then they talked about the well-known "central axis" going through Beijing from South to North, through each important building from Tian'An Square, the Forbidden City to the Drum and Bell Towers etc. and now at its extreme North through the Olympic area, with the Cube at its left and the Bird's Nest at its right. They also talked about the "power of empty space" and the emotions such spaces create in people. Humm, this is what I was trying to convey when I was describing the Forbidden City courtyards in a previous posting. This is the feeling of the Forbidden City: the emotion doesn't come so much from the size of its buildings (not exceptionally tall or large) but from the huge empty spaces.
Well, another part of Beijing we really liked and which was presented in the program are the old private courtyard houses in the district of Hutong. Sadly, a lot of them are currently being destroyed as the city and its highways are expanding, and because Chinese people don't seem to value that much their architectural heritage, to our constant surprise. Interesting to know what governs the architecture of these courtyards: four buildings around the courtyard, the North building, the most important one, for the parents; the sons in the East buildings (for better sun) and the daughters in the West buildings. A similar preference for the East buildings is seen in gardens I visited in Suzhou and in the Forbidden City itself. Interesting...
Then we move from the subject of architecture to the huge challenge of the Beijing Olympic Games: will Beijing deal with its huge pollution problem in a manner acceptable to the Olympic committee? An extensive subject. Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world (actually China has 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world!). It is so polluted that people notice when the sky is blue: these are called "blue sky days". And Beijing is desperately trying to solve the problem. We learned that they are moving a whole steel plant, employing 85,000 people, away from its current location, 16 miles from the city. They are policing the car exhaust fumes. They have a fascinating piece of equipment which measures exhaust fumes and automatically takes a photo of license plates, to fine car owners who don't respect the norms (you know, the same kind of equipment we have in the US for speeding!). You have to know that Beijing has already 3 million cars increasing by 1,000 every day.
And Beijing is doing a lot of other things to prepare for the Games: educating people on politeness and etiquette, such as not spitting in public places; building a brand new subway line to ensure athletes and tourists don't get stuck in major traffic jams; teaching English to taxi drivers and everyone interested to learn; renovating its historic sites; practising for the opening and closing ceremony and of course training its athletes to "be the best".
Oh, by the way... have you seen the 5 little mascots Beijing Olympics has? Do you know that their 5 names together mean "Beijing welcomes you!" in mandarin...
Well, Beijing is getting ready to welcome 2.5 million visitors for the 2008 Olympics! Reserve your hotel now if you intend to go! I hear a lot of them are already sold out. Or you may want to have an exotic experience in one of these Hutong private courtyards...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Emperor’s daughter residence

A hidden treasure in Beijing! The former residence of princess Hejing, the third daughter of a Qing Emperor. A place you won’t find in the guide books! Oh well, let me rephrase that: a place you won’t find in the main pages on Beijing but somewhere in the list of hotels of some guide books. Our own adventure all started because of two small lines in our DK tourist book on China. The Hejing Fu Binguan hotel was listed there. “A courtyard hotel, the result of extensive and meticulous renovations, with intricate carvings, luxurious suites and traditional trappings that reflect the house’s Imperial pedigree” the guide said. Sounds great, right? Now, I had to go. You know me, anything that says “history” and I am “in” for the adventure. We had already stayed in a royal palace in Paro, Bhutan, so I was fascinated by the perspective of an imperial room in Beijing. Further internet search confirmed that the place was going to be exceptional. The Frommer’s guide was discussing the fascinating story of the place. It had been the home of the third daughter of Qianlong’s emperor (another guide says Yongzheng emperor, but in any case they are both from the 18th century). It had exquisite stone statues of camels, lions and mythical beasts, ornate wooden carvings… and well-sprung mattresses! These were “some of Beijing’s most spectacular courtyard buildings” and they had been spared during the Cultural Revolution because the Chinese “CIA” (Central Records and Investigation Committee) had their offices there at the time. Quite a story indeed. This was definitely going to be an adventure. And it was! When we got there, we drove by the ornate buildings to a modern, square and plain 4-storey building in the back, where the reception was. To our surprise, our room was on the 4th floor of that building. It had unattractive black leather seats, one of these really hard beds, typical of pure Chinese hotels (far from the promised well-sprung mattresses!) and very strange pillow cases. They were filled with round little grains, nothing really soft and comfy there! (The next day during our visit at the silk factory, our guide proudly explained that everything coming from the silkworm is used, even the dry silkworm pooh which is used as pillow stuffing. Ah, that’s what it was. I am so glad to know that I probably slept on dry silkworm pooh!) We were definitely in the most Chinese hotel we ever stayed at. No other westerner there. Nothing familiar on the breakfast menu, not even coffee… No English spoken. However, you can visit the courtyards even if you are not a hotel guest. There are accessible by anyone coming from the street. And they are amazing. It is almost like a miniature Forbidden City, with a series of courtyards, stone statues like we have not seen anywhere else and delicate paintings on the roof lines. Sadly they seem all abandoned, but it is definitely worth the visit and the little detour when you are near Tian’an Men Square.
Hejing Fu Binguan Hotel, Beijing
7, Zhangzizhong Road, Dongcheng District

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is indeed a remarkable place to see. And it is definitely at its best now, with all its recently renovated golden and red painted buildings, and its contrasting white stones, in preparation for the crowd of visitors during the 2008 Olympic Games.
For us, while we spent 3 days touring Beijing, it was definitely the highlight of the trip. I would recommend however to go to the Coal Hill before visiting the Forbidden City. The Coal Hill is located just north of the Forbidden City and gives you a great perspective of the size and the organization of the city. It is actually interesting to know the reason why the hill even exists: in the Feng Shui tradition, a home needs water in front of it, and a mountain behind it - for good luck. The location did not allow it, so man labor was used to achieve Feng Shui perfection and a mountain and a river were created. The Golden Water River can be seen in the first courtyard.
There is indeed a lot to understand about the design of the Forbidden City: the Outer Court (for visitors) and the Inner Court (private quarters of the imperial court); in the Outer Court, and just in the center of the city - the Hall of Supreme Harmony used by emperors for special occasions (the city walls were actually destroyed and then rebuilt later so that the Hall would be right in the middle); in the Inner Court, the Western and the Eastern palaces and the palaces of the emperor ( Palace of Heavenly Purity) and of the empress (Palace of the Earthly Tranquility) with the Hall of the union between the two, for them to meet; the repetition of the number 9 for luck, in all architectural details, in the number of brass studs on doors (81), the number of rooms in the city (9,999), etc…
The Forbidden City is indeed impressive. It is actually the world's largest palace complex. Everything is impressive about it: the sheer size of its successive empty courtyards and buildings, the large steps with stone balusters and carved stone bas-reliefs. And there is such a mystery associated with the place, as you walk through it, thinking that such a huge place was kept close to the world for centuries, hidden behind these thick walls and these huge heavy doors.
It is fascinating to imagine an emperor with 3000-4000 concubines and a similar number of eunuchs, living in such a space; fascinating to imagine the English ambassadors discovering its grandiose structures, as the heavy doors opened in front of them, and as they walk through the main courtyard, discovering these majestic stairs leading to the emperor, a little more at each step they took; fascinating to see the room where the emperor was receiving his guests, where the emperor signed his orders, where the empress Ci Xi was supposedly imitating the emperor’s signature to sign some orders for him, to see the silk screen between which she was hiding and giving her orders indirectly.
Definitely the most fascinating to me, as I mentioned in a previous blog, was to see all the places where empress Ci Xi had governed, just as they are described in the recent book Empress Orchid, I read a few months ago. So, my humble advice: read Empress Orchid (see my book list for details) before coming to Beijing, come in the spring before the crowds of the Olympic Games (it is going to be simply insane then!), visit the Coal Hill first, and enjoy this very unique place.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Aromatic hotsprings

On this Sunday afternoon, I had almost finished writing my next posting on the Forbidden City, when we left with our Taiwanese partner to the Riyuegu Hotsprings. Well, guess what... It was such a unique experience that you will have to wait a few more days to read about the Forbidden City. The hotsprings are not quite as sophisticated as the website would lead you to believe (nope, I did not see the rose petals shown on the photo) but it is indeed something you probably never experienced! Imagine 60 little swimming pools surrounded by bamboo trees and palm trees. Imagine all these swimming pools made of large stones and filled with water from the natural hot springs, all at different temperatures, from warm to unbearably hot! Imagine people going from one swimming pool to the next and experiencing each one. But the best part of it is that each pool has a special scent, from rosemary and lemongrass, to several kinds of tea, lemon, curry, milk, and yes, beer, red wine and rice wine or coffee! And they have those wonderful names: lemon burst, coffee pot. "Would you join me in the coffee pot?" Funny, no? And I am convinced that in your life, you have ever taken a hot bath with a few glasses of red wine mixed into it... Personally, I can add the following to my list of exotic things I have done in Asia: "I relaxed in a sake-scented jacuzzi!". Pretty crazy... Then, after walking around and experiencing the therapeutic benefits of these aromatic pools, we finished our visit by laying down on a nicely warm granite slate, with a little bamboo box pillow, and relaxed there for a while... We could have had a massage there, or a pedicure (and even, yes, have our eardrums clean... not a Chinese thing I would ever want to do but Chinese people seem to like to have strangers do this for them, as I saw it before at my hairdresser). The funny thing is that our host felt deeply asleep for about one hour, so guess what, we had no other choice than just lay there and enjoy the moment. A nice way to spend Sunday afternoon, and may be a new idea of something to do for some of my friends expats in Xiamen... I am not sure it is an attraction which many Westerners here know about...

Monday, January 14, 2008

The greatest places on earth!

There are books listing the 1000 places to see before you die. And this Christmas, I received a calendar on this theme. So, I started thinking about the places I have seen which I found remarkable. Not easy to select. There are the somewhat obvious ones, and then there are the ones which seduced me even though they were very simple and pretty unknown... A few of these places are in Asia, so I decided to share them with you. So here they are. For me, the top 2 have to be the Taksang Monastery in Bhutan, an unbelievable place right in the middle of a 1000-meter cliff and the Angel's falls in Venezuela. The two places are hard to reach. I am sure it makes them so much more desirable and charming. You reach the Taksang Monastery after a good 3-hour hike and the Angel's falls are in the middle of the Amazon, at the end of a 6-hour ride in a pirogue, which starts at 4:00AM in total darkness. It is a beautiful high and thin waterfall which you look up to see, as high as your eyes can take you. Then I have fond memories of so many other nice places: the Forbidden City in Beijing; walking along the Seine in beautiful Paris; downtown Stockholm with its reflections on the water; hiking in the Swiss Alps; skiing on a sunny day in Lake Louise, Alberta; listening to Carmen opera at the opera house in Vienna; walking the streets of Quebec city in December at night, with its snow banks and its Christmas lights; watching the tide go down on the beautiful pink granite of the small Brittany island of Brehat; taking an helicopter ride above the cliffs of Kauai, Hawai; and staying in the smallest and cutest harbour in the world, on the English Channel island of Sark. So many very fond memories. I could also add the Palace of Versailles and the castle of Chenonceaux, the magnificent abbey at Mont Saint-Michel, the ocean view from the American cemetery at Omaha beach in Normandy, the Bayeux museum with its georgeous medieval Bayeux tapestry - actually an embroidery of 230 feet/ 70 meters of length, little fishing ports along the coast of Brittany or Normandy, like the one of Honfleur, all of these in France; the interior courtyards in the ruins of Pompei, Italy; a concert of classical music in the impressive cathedral of Montreal, Quebec; a night in the London theater district; Langkawi island, Malaysia, with its rock islands raising from the ocean and its old malay houses; the city of Marrakech, Morocco with his fortified walls, his suuqs, mosque and busy square. And much more. Forty years of memories! So, what is the best place on earth for you?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Polluted China

I have been living in China for 4 months and have wanted to write such a post for at least 3. And the recent discussions in Bali and particularly the reaction to the Canadian position, which is simply that “it wants all countries to be part of an agreement, including developing countries such as China and India”, have made it impossible for me to delay writing about it any longer. China has a HUGE pollution problem and anyone who believes that the world can be effective in dealing with global warming without including China in the treaty doesn’t understand the reality of the problem China currently has… and it is going to get worse before it gets better, because China also has the huge challenge of maintaining its economic growth to “feed its people”. The good thing is that it is starting to be discussed in great articles such as this 2006 article of the New York Times (the best I found on the subject). But let’s forget the stats for a minute, and just share a few very personal notes. The photo above is the view from our apartment in Xiamen, a 3-million habitant city on the coast of China, across from Taiwan. In the middle of the day. And not on the worst day we had there. On the worst day, the photo would have looked like a white-grey piece of paper, with nothing on it. And trust me, this was not fog!
This second photo is the way it looked on good days in September. We live there with the air conditioning on and the windows closed even when the temperature is perfect outside (25ºC) because the air smells bad. And it is likely not the worst city in China. A Time Magazine article was mentioning that: “The World Bank calls China home to 16 of the 20 most polluted cities on earth”. In a Wall Street article on “expat” living around the world, journalists from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong were all stating that a negative aspect of living in those cities was “pollution”. You may have heard that Beijing is getting ready for the Olympic Games and plans to shut down factories around the city and limit car traffic for a couple of weeks before the Games to improve air quality during the Games, but you may not have heard that already now when an important dignitary visits Beijing, factories are closed and car traffic is limited. Beijing needs to hide the reality of its situation to the world.
When flying from Shanghai to Beijing recently, we also had a chance to see a little bit the magnitude of the problem: for the whole duration of the 2 ½ hours flight, the only thing we could see below us was smog...
The problem is so critical that it is now felt outside China: Hong-Kong, Korea, Japan and even the US, where it has been said that “as much as 25% of the air pollution in Los Angeles comes from China; at certain sites in California, as much as 40% of the air pollution comes from Asia.” (Los Angeles Times). I will let you read the revealing article from the New York Times, but will simply extract 2 quotes from it: “The increase in global-warming gases from China's coal use will probably exceed that for all industrialized countries combined over the next 25 years, surpassing by five times the reduction in such emissions that the Kyoto Protocol seeks.” and “Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.” … PS: Let’s not forget that China’s pollution is the developed countries’ responsibility too, as we all benefit from China’s low-cost exports to such a large extend… Food for thought… I would love to know what you think! Send me a comment.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Fascinating silk factory

Suzhou is the capital of silk in China, located one and an half hour from Shanghai. There, I visited the renowned Humble Administrator's Garden (from the 16th century) and the very nice water village of Zhouzhuang (the Venice of the East) but even more interesting, a silk factory. Fascinating. I learned a lot there from the legends of silk, to its history and finally its production. There is an actual production line where you can see how they sort out the single silkworm cocoons and the double cocoons – the latter ones cannot be used for silk thread and are used for stuffing silk quilts, because the threads from the 2 silkworms inside are intertwined; how they steam the cocoons to soften their sticky gum; how they extract the silk strands from the cocoons (simply by brushing the cocoon with a little wooden broom); how they unwind the cocoons and gather several strands together to have a strong enough thread for weaving. You can also see a weaving loom in action, the production of the silk stuffing and of course numerous silk products. In conclusion, a great visit! In Beijing, I also had the opportunity to visit a silk factory, which had gorgeous copies of emperors’ silk robes, but unfortunately doesn’t have a production line. So, if you are in Shanghai, take the time to drive to Suzhou, I think it is worth it! Probably as interesting as the factory visit, is the history of silk and the legends associated to it. There seems to be several stories on the origin of this exceptional Chinese discovery. According to Confucius, the Chinese princess Xi Ling was the first to reel a cocoon of silk, after dropping it in her cup of tea. Another legend (told by our guide in Beijing) is that the princess thought it was a fruit, but was disappointed it was so hard and tried to soften it by boiling it in water. Both stories definitely have their charm, and of course both talk to the true process of steaming the cocoon to extract its strand.
Silk is indeed quite a discovery (dating 2640 B.C.) which remained China’s secret for as long as 3000 years! The Romans even brought back silk products from Asia, but did not know anything about their making. Finally after 3000 years, silkworm eggs were smuggled by refugees to Korea and Japan and the silk industry started developing there. Another story claims that a Chinese princess who married the Prince of Khotan secretly brought silkworms with her as a gift for her husband. Then the western world learned about its secret by two monks who hid silkworms in bamboo sticks. And it all starts with a special little worm eating mulberry leaves!