Beijing, China - 1998
Whether mist or pollution, the Summer Palace still looks like a brush painting.
Yin and Yang.
You hear a lot about this concept.
The Chinese historically believe in this dualistic philosophy; where yin represents the passive feminine aspect, and yang represents the active masculine aspect.
Creation consists of opposites. Heaven and Earth, Male and Female, Water and Land, Good and Bad.
One cannot exist without the other. And you cannot reject one, without rejecting the other.
These concepts came to life for me in Beijing.
In Beijing, coal is the primary fuel. Burning coal results in some serious haze problems. The air is dirty, smells bad, and visibility is terrible. It was the first thing Paisan and I noticed, when we arrived in the city. In fact, when I had some free time, the haze was so bad that I considered staying in the hotel.
I realized, though, that the haze wasn't going to go away, and I could not run from it. I wouldn't say I embraced the pollution, but I accepted it as a travel companion in the city.
As a result, to my surprise, I was rewarded with the vision of Beijing as a mist-shrouded city of legend, emerging like a weathered brush painting. Long after the smell has vanished from my memory, these pictures will speak of the mysteries of yin and yang.
Qu Hong at the Summer Palace
Soon after I entered the Summer Palace, Qu Hong approached me and offered her guiding services. Saying 'yes' was one of the best decisions I've made in a long time.
I don't know if she is amazing, or if all Chinese guides are this good, but Qu had everything I look for in a guide. Her English was excellent, her knowledge of the Summer Palace was thorough, and her personality and manner were friendly, while professional.
On top of that, her understanding of Chinese culture, both old and new, made me feel like I stumbled onto a gold mine.
We talked about Chinese poetry, movies, legends, history, and famous sights. She left me with a small stack of references, written in English and Chinese, so that I can pursue many of the leads she gave me.
Like a good teacher (and god knows how rare those are), she left me wanting to know more.
That, in itself, is a gift I always appreciate.
On top of all that, she spoke freely about the perceptions Westerners have of China and the Chinese. We also discussed, at length, the changes that have occurred in Beijing over the past 5 years. By the end of the tour, I had stopped thinking of her as a guide, or even as a Chinese.
She had simply become a person who was sharing with me something she loved. And clearly, she loves China.
What more can you ask from a guide?
If I could wish one thing for anyone who travels (including myself), it would be that the traveler always gets to see a city/country/place with someone who loves it.
Massive Doors at The Forbidden City
Of Beijing itself, if I had to describe it in only three words, they would be:
The Peasant Metropolis.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines peasants as :
A member of the class constituted by small farmers and tenants, sharecroppers, and laborers on the land where they form the main labor force in agriculture.
That describes 90% of the people that you see on the streets of Beijing.
The people of Beijing strike you as solid, sturdy, practical, and earthy. Their faces are ruddy in appearance, and everything about them speaks of the land; the colors they wear, the way they walk, even their natural smiles.
Yes, they smiled. Ignore what you may have heard about the Chinese being cold; smiles flowed freely here.
It's the most unpretentious capital I have ever visited, and I admire that fact.
Like the ancient Beijing neighborhoods, known as Hutongs, the capital has a feeling of the solid, plain values of the past.
Even in the Forbidden City, one feels strength, a kind of 'rootedness' that isn't felt in the palaces of Japan or Thailand.
This probably won't last long, and I'm not sure it should. The citizens of Beijing would, I'm sure, love to embrace the fads and fashions of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and further reaches.
We can't expect them not to.
I just hope they retain some portion of that pleasant peasant aura.
-More about Beijing and Qu Hong, in "No Context, No Truth".