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Drumming, Ringing, and Chinese Catholics

Matteo Ricci, in the front courtyard

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Today, I went to go visit the Nantang Cathedral (technically that’s redundant, as “tang” is the word for “cathedral”, but eh). It was originally founded by (interestingly, not “saint”) Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit and one of the first missionaries allowed outside Macau. The “South Cathedral” is the oldest church in Beijing, originally built in 1605. However a series of earthquakes and the Boxer Rebellion destroyed several earlier versions of the church. So, the foundation is really all that’s left of the original church. The Mass was well-attended, but there were some oddities. There was a team of people (as in about half a dozen) with CCTV video cameras wandering around the church throughout the whole Mass, and they appeared to be trying to film everyone in the building. It was quite odd, as it there didn’t appear to be any important church officials (archbishops, cardinals, etc.) present, and the cameramen went to great lengths to film people in the pews (that is, until they suddenly left). Then there was the little kid who, in between running around the back of the church, ran up to his brother (sitting next to me) and started yelling at him that they had to leave (or they’d die) because he’d seen some PSB (Public Security Bureau) goon out back. The whole thing was weird. It’s worth noting that Nantang is one of the state-sanctioned churches. I actually discovered that the bishop who oversees it is one of the few approved by both the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (i.e. the government) and the Vatican.

After that rather odd encounter with Chinese spirituality, I went to Houhai to visit the Bell and Drum Towers. These are actually two separate towers which were used during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties to sound the time. The Bell Tower houses a huge bell (about 40 feet top to bottom), which goes by the title “King of Bells.” The Drum Tower houses a hall filled with large drums (approximately 10 feet in diameter). Every hour, a team of drummers comes out to play the drums. I’ve included two clips of the performance below. Because the towers are fairly tall, you can also get a nice view of the surrounding area. The towers are actually built on a straight line with the center of the Forbidden City. The weather was a bit overcast, but I could still sort of make out the tops of some of the Forbidden City’s buildings. There were also several hutongs at the base of the towers, so you could also get an aerial view of some of those.

Policing and the Night Life

A police officer's uniform (1960's-1970's)

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Yesterday, I took a tour of the Beijing Police Museum, which recounts the history of Beijing’s Municipal Police Department (which operates under the eerily-named Public Security Bureau). Entering the museum was an interesting experience. As a student, I got in free (even using my UNC credentials). In the course of explaining my student ID to the front guard, I discovered that he was a fan of UNC’s basketball team. So, we got along quite swimmingly.

The museum was pretty interesting. It was small compared to some of Beijing’s other museums, but considering it focused exclusively on the Beijing Police Department, it was fairly comprehensive. The first floor contained a broad history of the department: its establishment in the late Qing; its different forms under imperial, Nationalist, and Communist rule (including its total destruction during the Cultural Revolution); and its more recent history through the 2008 Olympics. Some of the more interesting exhibits focused on the Communists’ efforts to root out remaining Nationalist elements in the capital after 1949. Apparently, they were still capturing Nationalist spies and radio sets well into the 1950’s. It’s been a fairly popular technique for the police to require “confessions” out of dissidents shortly before they’re executed. So, they had several of these confessions from prominent Nationalist rabble-rousers on display. Some of them were quite lengthy, running for two or three pages. The history of the department during the Cultural Revolution was also interesting. Several thousand of the department’s officers and commanders ended up getting purged in the course of the Revolution (with about 100 or so being executed), effectively eliminating the police force as a functioning entity.

The second floor covered some of the more ancient history of Chinese law enforcement. However, they also displayed some modern tools and methods. There were several different exhibits on various (grisly) crimes committed in Beijing in the last twenty years or so. The exhibits mainly covered murders and kidnappings, but there was a drug case thrown in too. They had the criminals’ weapons, bags, drugs, etc. all on display, along with pictures of the victorious team of detectives who brought the criminal to justice. Apparently, the Chinese can be quite nasty to each other. There was also a display on the Chinese prison system, which emphasized the Communists’ departure from simple imprisonment (used during the imperial era) in favor of “re-education through labor.” The Communists have something of a unique approach to criminal justice. In addition to the whole labor re-education thing, I’ve also read accounts where, upon release, the ex-con gets the bill for the cost of his imprisonment. Maybe California should consider something similar.

The third floor covered traffic enforcement and fire-fighting (which also falls under the responsibilities of the police department). There was also a memorial to Beijing’s officers killed in the line of duty. Judging from the plagues on some of the displays, it appears as if officers killed in the line of duty are designated as “martyrs.” I don’t know if that’s something just lost in translation, but it’s interesting to think about. If you hold up the state as the end all and the be all (as communism does), then logically it makes sense to christen those killed in its defense as martyrs.

That night, I took a tour of Tiananmen Square and the Bird’s Nest. It was a little foggy (or smoggy), but the lights were still pretty impressive. The pictures are included above.


Of Lamas and Birds

Lama Temple's Front Courtyard

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On Sunday, I went to go visit Yonghegong (or the Lama Temple). It is an active Buddhist temple (of the Tibetan variety), so mixed in with all the tourists was a fairly sizable group of people praying at and in each of the “shrines”, which made for an interesting experience. I felt a little awkward running around taking pictures while they were all burning their incense, but there were a bunch of other dopey foreigners there doing the same thing. So, I didn’t feel too guilty. The temple itself was quite impressive. There were several small buildings within the compound that contained little shrines, with statues and altars and whatnot set up. There were also a couple larger buildings that housed enormous statues. The largest statue was about 3 stories tall. I don’t really know enough about Buddhism to be able to say what the significance of all the different statues is, but it was fairly impressive none the less. There were also a couple small exhibit halls, which contained all kinds of miniature Buddhas and sutras, etc.

I had some time to kill after visiting the Lama Temple, so I next went up to the Olympic Park to visit the Bird’s Nest stadium. It’s a very large stadium (currently seating about 80,000  or so). There’s no cost to wander around the outside of it, but I figured it would be more fun to wander around inside. So, I bought a (fairly expensive) ticket and wandered around the inside of the stadium for a bit. You can go just about anywhere within the stadium. They’ll even let you ride a Segway around outside of the main field for the right price. However, the views from the 5th and 6th levels were quite impressive (especially since the weather was cooperating). You can get a nice view of the city from some of the look-out points they’ve made available. They also have an exhibit on the 5th floor that displays some of the instruments and whatnot they used during the opening and closing ceremonies (which I have actually yet to see- though I understand they were quite impressive). And of course, they have the torch. One advantage of the rather steep admission cost was a significant lack of other people in the stadium, so you could get up nice and close with the exhibits (which I did). I didn’t make into the Water Cube (though I did see it). There’s also supposed to be some sort of Olympic Forest that supposed to be pretty interesting. But I was feeling pretty wiped out at that point, so I may return later if I have some free time.

A Tale of Two Mountains

This is at the bottom of the first mountain

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To get to and from Anyang we used China’s famed train system. Going into Anyang, we took one of the T-class trains, which is a sort of mid-level, moderately fast train. It took about 5.5 hours and cost something in the neighborhood of $10 to ride. Apparently, when they sell tickets for the train, they sell tickets for individual seats as well as tickets for the empty space in the middle aisle. So, what you end up with is a very packed train car, with all of the seats filled and lots of people crammed (usually standing) into the aisle. There was even one guy sleeping underneath my seat. Aside from the discomfort that results from being crammed into a train car like a bunch of sardines, this makes it very difficult to navigate the car. So, every time the food cart goes down the train or someone needs to use the bathroom, there’s a rather frequent, uncomfortable shifting that takes place. It was probably as close to hell as I’ve ever been, and I could probably die happy if I never have to do that again. Though, from what I understand, during the Chinese New Year, when all of the urban workers return to their home villages, the T-trains are twice as packed (there’s actually a fairly decent movie-with English subtitles- about this, Last Train Home). I think I’d rather die.

However, the living hell that was our train ride down was partially offset by our accommodations for the weekend at the Anyang Hotel. It has a four-star rating, but that’s relative to the other hotels in the area. It was still quite nice, though. On the level of a nice Holiday Inn or Best Western (though with considerably more marble).

Our first day started rather early, 6:30am, but this was necessary as our drive out to the Peach Blossom Gorge (in Taihang Canyon) was about 2-3 hours outside of Anyang proper. The first half or so of the pictures posted above are from this gorge. The description of the gorge is relevant here:

Peach Blossom Gorge is very easy to hike. Actually, it can barely be called hiking, and is more like walking around a beautiful garden along a paved road.

While the area was quite pretty, the hike was a little more involved than we were led to believe. We actually ended up hiking up part of a mountain, along a rather adventurous trail. While fairly tiring, it was quite enjoyable. About halfway up, there were a couple of people selling cucumbers, which apparently you eat whole. I kind of felt like a rabbit, munching on my cucumber, but it was quite tasty.

At the end of our first hike, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. It was a typical communal-style Chinese meal, but one of the dishes was carp. I’m not entirely sure how they cooked it, but the fish was left whole and intact when it was placed on our table. The fact that it was right in front of me didn’t really help either, as I couldn’t really bring myself to eat it with it sitting there smiling at me.

After lunch, we hiked up Wang Xiangyan Mountain, the “difficult” hike. This hike was quite arduous, as it involved walking up the side of a very tall mountain. There were a few flat spots, but the trail was very vertical. At one point (there’s a picture above), we had to climb up this tall, green tower with a winding staircase in order to continue up the mountain. However, at the top, the views were quite nice. It was a little cloudy, which was a little unfortunate, but it was otherwise quite nice. There was even a little shrine at the top, which a couple of monks kept trying to persuade us to enter (with an accompanying donation of course).

Once we hiked down, we were pretty much done for the day, being too tired to do much of anything else. In the interest of keeping this post of reasonable length, I’ll post the photos and whatnot of our second day in another post.


Journey to the Summer Palace

One of the Ferry Boats

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On Friday, I took a brief-ish tour of the Summer Palace. I’ve uploaded the pictures above. The Summer Palace served as a kind of royal retreat for the emperor, when he wanted to flee Beijing’s summer heat. It consists of a man-made lake surrounded by a series of trails and walkways with a building complex on the north side of the lake. The Summer Palace had a massive renovation at the very end of the Qing Dynasty (1890’s), when the empress dowager Cixi, diverted funds from the navy to build up and expand the building complex. It was quite pretty, and the weather was also very cooperative.

Some of the pictures are kind of neat, too. In a few of them, you can actually see the reflection of the clouds on the surface of the lake. We only had about 2 1/2 hours to tour the area, as the ferry that brought us in was a little slow-going. So, I didn’t get to everything. But it was quite nice.

Singing in the Rain


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Yesterday it rained… a lot. I’m not sure if this is typical or not, but it was fairly impressive nonetheless. Throughout the city, there are several underground pedestrian walkways, which allow you to walk under an intersection rather than through it (which considering the state of traffic in Beijing, it’s definitely a good idea). Apparently several of them don’t have drains. So, when it rains, they fill up with water. I actually saw one that was filled with about 6 or 7 feet worth of water (and completely impassable as a result). The wonderful people of the Beijing Municipal Government did manage to have the whole thing completely drained (and cleaned) by this afternoon, though. I’m not exactly sure how they did it, but I’m definitely giving them a star in that column. Of course, the whole thing could have been resolved had someone had the presence of mind to put drains in the thing. I guess they’re able to make it work. I’ve posted a few pictures of the view outside my room as the storm started to roll in (at about 4pm).

Last night, I also realized that I had forgotten to bring an umbrella with me. The magnitude of this error was compounded by the fact that when dinner rolled around, I had no food and no umbrella. I got to be quite wet. Apparently, it’s not so easy to buy an umbrella here either, as the department store I went to didn’t have any that weren’t flamboyantly pink and less than $30. It was quite disappointing. I did manage to console myself somewhat by buying a 2L of Coke, but I was still very wet.