If you have been keeping up with this blog, you’ll know that I have spent most of my time in China while in Shanghai. Last weekend, I took a two hour plane ride north to the capital of the country, Beijing. I knew very little about Beijing before traveling there. I knew that it hosted the 2008 Olympics, it had the Great Wall and Forbidden City — That’s about it.
What I didn’t know was how different Shanghai is from Beijing. While Shanghai points forward and looks to the future with it’s towering skyscrapers and bustling industry, Beijing points to the past and lives in a rich history.
The streets are wider in Beijing and largely in square formations, like the Forbidden City once was. In certain districts of Beijing, there are also smaller streets and housing formations called Hutongs. Most of the Huntongs in the area of the hotel I stayed at were 300-400 years old.
There isn’t much of that in Shanghai. But the history comes at a price. The subway in Beijing seems dated compared to Shanghai. It’s narrower and more spread out. Transferring from one train to another might take up to 15 or 20 minutes to even get to, not to mention wait for. The city also seems more polluted, dirty and the vendors are harder sellers. I’ve seen more violence fighting for a subway in Beijing in three days than I have in three weeks in Shanghai.
But all these are minor complaints in a city filled with history. From the Hutongs to Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City: Beijing has integrated modern technology with its rich past. Each part remembers a different time in China’s history. Tiananmen marks the rise of the Communist party. The Forbidden City marks the dominance of the emperor. The Hutongs mark the submission of the rest of the country.
It’s a cliche thing to say, but everybody needs to see the Great Wall before they die. I was fortunate to climb it, and it is unlike anything I have experienced. Before the skyscrapers, before the Olympic stadiums, before the congested traffic, the Great Wall was the first marker of man’s conquering of the Earth. It stretches for as far as the human eye can see over mountainous terrain that must have been hard for any army to pass even without the wall. Although it’s been repaired numerous times since it’s heyday, the wall remains in great condition nevertheless. It’s hard to put into words and it’s even harder to imagine the blood and sweat that went into making it.
Finally, Peking Duck has been my favorite meal since being in China. We went to a restaurant that has been in operation since 1864. It’s weird to think that it got started during America’s Civil War. If you get the works, they give the table food from just about every part of the duck: skin from the feet, chopped duck heart (delicious), skin, fat, you name it. Even watching the chef slice and dice the meat was impressive. Thick slabs of duck make for the perfect wraps. The meal was capped off my a soup made from the bones of the very duck we were eating.
After the three days, I was happy to return to Shanghai. Something seems more homely about it. The air seems a little easier to breath and the streets a little easier to walk on. Perhaps it’s just me wanting to grab onto something familiar, but it was good to be back in the modern metropolis of Shanghai instead of the aging landmarks of Beijing.