I've been on holiday in China for several weeks. It's been a wonderful trip, but I've felt a bit bereft at my inability to blog as I travelled. Wifi in China is scarce and unpredictable, any Google-based services are unavailable, and blogger is non-existent. So my China posts will be half notes made as I've gone along and half reflections now I'm almost home.
Beijing is vast. As we flew into Beijing from Manila it spread itself beneath us – concentrations of high-rise buildings, clusters of houses, parks, canals. The new world. The capital city of possibly the most influential country in the world. It’s more than thirty years since I first visited China. Then, the people were almost uniformly dressed in what we called ‘Mao suits’ – baggy pants and military style jackets in shades of washed-out indigo and grey. Reform was beginning, and in Beijing a few people wore western-style clothes, but they were rare; remarkable. The broad streets of Beijing were filled with bicycles. Privately-owned cars didn’t seem to exist. Now, the unimaginably broad streets are filled with impeccably maintained cars – with thousands of new cars joining the torrent every year.
All of Beijing is vast. Our tour has, predictably, given us a glimpse of the magnificence of Beijing’s ancient past. The Forbidden City, with its immense courtyards and nine hundred and ninety-nine rooms is a harbinger of the later grand scale of Beijing.
Its palaces and halls have been reshaped and repaired over centuries, but its spaces, now filled with hundreds of thousands of local and international tourists, still evoke the grandeur and hierarchical nature of past dynasties.
On a bright sunny day with rare pollution-free skies we, along with hundreds of local and international tourists, climbed a very small part of the Great Wall, some parts of which were built between 220–206 BC by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang to repel invaders from the north. Much to my astonishment, I managed the climb to the highest turret in the photo below - no mean feat when the steps are high and irregular!
The Wall spreads across China for (arguably) five thousand kilometres. It’s one of the many reminders that China has been able to marshal huge numbers of its people and their work for centuries.
Much of modern Beijing is built on a similar grand scale. Tiananmen Square covers hectares. It takes forever to cover the distance across the Square to reach the iconic depiction of Chairman Mao above the 'Gate of Heavenly Peace' that's the entrance to the Forbidden City.
The queue of people waiting to visit Mao’s mausoleum stretched for at least three hundred metres. The Square was filled with tourists. There were guides giving commentaries in many different languages and tourists from many nations. But the large majority of the tourists were local Chinese, clearly interested to experience something of the grandeur of both China’s past and its present.
As we drove through Beijing to our well-known tourist destinations, frequently stuck in Beijing’s now notorious traffic, we glimpsed the grandeur of its modern buildings. Again, the scale is vast, and many of the designs innovative – to better and worse effect.
In a few years the population of Beijing will overtake that of the whole of Australia. The populations of the cities of Shanghai and Chungqing already surpass the population of Australia. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale of China’s past and present.