Showing posts with label beijing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label beijing. Show all posts

October 17, 2011

Forbidden City

After arriving in Beijing one of the first places I went was the fabled Forbidden City, former home of the manliest Chinese natives. One million workers were needed to construct the walled city, and nowadays almost ten million people visit it annually. I visited on a chilly February afternoon, when the air was crisp and the crowds were sparse. The grandeur and magnificence of the architecture is best enjoyed from atop a hill in Jingshan Park,  located directly behind the moated complex.

Unlike the Great Wall or the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City never managed to take my breath away. After serving as the Chinese imperial palace for 500 years it has now been reconstructed to perfection. Not a hint of character or charm remains in the sprawling compound, which in the past could only be entered or exited with the consent of the emperor. Each room once had a colourful history of its own, but even with a fresh coat of bright red paint they now looked lifeless and dull. I traipsed through several dozen of the Forbidden City's nearly one thousand buildings, turning back when it became repetitive.


"The more things are forbidden, the more popular they become." ~ Mark Twain 

June 16, 2011

Founding of a Republic

On October 1st, 1949, the People's Republic of China was founded. Fast forward sixty years from the days of Mao to now and a lot has changed. China is or is on its way to becoming the statistical leader in almost every measureable quality, positive or negative. A single party governs a population that has more than doubled to 1.4 billion people under its rule. There are 171 cities that have populations over one million. Now the world's second largest economy, China's growth rates have averaged around 10% every year for two decades. The confidence and pride of the Communist government in its abilities and accomplishments was on display during the spectacular parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the birth of a nation.

One Friday in September, everyone was ordered to vacate from Beijing's central business district after lunchtime. A security clampdown was in place for the practice run of the parade. Roads were cleared of any bystanders or unofficial vehicles. Armoured personnel vehicles patrolled the streets and well armed troops kept watch at each intersection. I had a train to catch that night, so I had to go to Beijing Railway Station eight hours in advance. It was jam packed by the time I arrived, with the overflow having set up camp in the square in front. The square provided a perfect vantage point to see the trial run of the parade.

My invitation to see the actual parade was lost in the mail, so I was lucky to catch a dress rehearsal. A stream of 100,000 marching youth, 60 colourful floats, and tonnes of heavy weaponry completed the circuit. For the high security spectacle, many precautionary measures had been taken. Businesses and tourists sites in the general vicinity of Tiananmen Square were closed. Residents were warned not to peek out of their windows or go out onto their balconies. Commercial flights were delayed temporarily. Most importantly, knives were taken off store shelves and kites and birds were removed from the air. Without a ticket to the invite-only extravaganza, I watched the parade at home on October 1st, 2009.


"I have witnessed the tremendous energy of the masses. On this foundation it is possible to accomplish any task whatsoever." — Mao Zedong

May 02, 2011

Chinese New Year

For many families, sons and daughters are scattered throughout China, each chasing their dreams of a better life. The Lunar New Year is one of the few times a year the whole family has the chance to gather together. For the most important holiday of the year, workers are usually granted around ten days off from the daily grind. Hundreds of millions journey across the land to reunite with their loved ones, making it the largest annual mass migration in human history.

I had arrived in the People's Republic in the middle of the Chinese New Year festivities of 2009. It was only fitting that two years later my parents would visit me during this time of joyous celebration. We went to several temple fairs around Beijing. Most of the temple fairs take place in parks and not temples. In Ditan Park there were performances of traditional folk dances and stalls selling snacks and tacky items. The crowds were thick. There was even a marriage market, where parents could post ads proclaiming how wonderful their children were for potential suitors and browse through the current offerings.

Another good temple fair was held at Grand View Garden, which is a replica of the imperial garden Daguanyuan. Originally created as the set for the TV series "A Dream of Red Mansions", it was later converted into a permanent tourist attraction at the behest of the local government. As many scenic spots in China have been reconstructed from the ground up in the past twenty years, this fact did not lessen the beauty of the magnificent gardens. The lake in the middle was frozen solid, with cherry blossoms blooming on its fringes.

The walking street of Qianmen near Tiananmen Square had been decorated from one end to another with red lanterns. The fireworks exploded in the air all around us as we strolled along the street, dropping in for dinner at Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. The original outlet of this Beijing instituition opened its doors to the public in 1864, becoming the first to offer Peking Duck to the non-imperial masses. Chairman Mao declared the restaurant was so good that it must remain open for all eternity. Pele, Yasser Arafat, and Fidel Castro are among the other international celebrities who have since visited the grandiosely decorated establishment.


Each age has deemed the new born year,
The fittest time for festal cheer.
- Sir Walter Scott -

April 25, 2011

Fire In The Sky

The Chinese New Year is celebrated with full fervour by young and old alike. Their favourite pastime during lunar new year is launching rockets into the sky. Everyone can participate - whether it is on the streets, within the courtyard of apartment complexes, or on the rooftops of multi-billion dollar buildings that have recently finished construction. As soon as it gets dark, pyrotechnics shoot out from every nook and cranny. Beijing feels like a war zone, as explosions reverberate throughout the night sky. To usher in the Year of the Rabbit, I stepped outside from my apartment in Jin Gang Guoji to watch the fireworks and was thoroughly entertained.

April 12, 2011

Beijing's Best View

Beijing is a massive city. The scale of the metropolis can be experienced on the ground while stuck in traffic for miles on end or underneath via its lengthy subway system, but it is best appreciated from above. Both the Atmosphere bar in China World Trade Center and China Bar in Yintai Center provide solid rooftop views of the downtown core. Excluding mirrors and other reflective surfaces, Beijing's best view can be found in the west side of the city.

For a more detailed perspective of the urban sprawl, a journey up to the top of the CCTV Tower is needed on a blue sky day. Springing up beside the cherry blossoms in nearby Yuyuantan Park, the CCTV Tower rises to a height of 405 meters. Visitors can get a panoramic view of the city from its observation deck. Informative plaques provide hints to what famous sites are located in which direction.

CCTV is China's national broadcaster. Every Chinese New Year it hosts a ludicrously popular variety show that is watched by hundreds of millions of viewers. The whole family traditionally watches the show together. Singing, dancing, and stand up comedy performances usher in the new lunar year. The observatory has an exhibit on this annual gala, chronicling its progression through the years.


"A well-ordered life is like climbing a tower; the view halfway up is better than the view from the base, and it steadily becomes finer as the horizon expands." - William Lyon Phelps

March 29, 2011

The World's Largest Shopping Mall

For much of my youth, the world's largest shopping center was West Edmonton Mall in Canada. At this juncture in history, China is so superlative that it can only outdo itself though. I visited what was once the world's largest shopping mall in Beijing. It has since conceded first place to the deserted South China Mall in Dongguan in 2005. Beijing's Golden Resources Shopping Mall held the title for approximately a year, as it opened in 2004.

With narrow corridors and over a thousand stores packed into it, the Great Mall of China does not have any cavernous spaces to invoke a feeling of awe at its size. The design is quite mundane. Six million square feet of gross leasable area are spread across several city blocks. Sky walks over the streets connect the different sections to keep the mall connected as technically one building.


"We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls." - Bill Bryson

March 22, 2011

Songzhuang Artists Village

As the less glamourous counterpart to Beijing's 798 Art District, the artsy community of Songzhuang has a more intimate feel. The laid back artists work where they live, readily inviting in curious guests to peruse their works. Situated within the eastern suburb of Tongzhou, Songzhuang Artists Village is Beijing's largest such creative community. Around 2000 artists practice their craft here. An annual festival brings in the crowds from the city, but we were among a handful of visitors on the day of our visit.

The people here also have an affinity for pets, with many cats and dogs lazing about. One puppy became excited upon seeing us. It lay on its back and nonchalantly peed on one of my fellow travelers. The rest of the people, locals and visitors alike, chuckled with delight. A group of friends and I were then led from one floor to the next of an apartment building, each door opening to reveal an artist within. It turned out that the lady who gave the tour was both the landlord and the marketing department for her talented tenants.

Some artists worked in larger warehouse type workshops, their messy beds and small kitchens visible in the small rooms attached to the sides of their studio. One was painting and noticed us peeking through his ground floor window. He immediately invited us in. Another studio had a collection of portraits of a handsome young man baring an uncanny resemblance with myself, right down to the sexy beard and trendsetting dress sense. It was a work of art.


“There is one thing one has to have: either a soul that is cheerful by nature, or a soul made cheerful by work, love, art, and knowledge.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

March 13, 2011

Journey to the Eastern Tombs

A group of friends and friends of friends assembled at the Sihui subway station in Beijing on a Sunday morning. They were eager to begin an arduous journey to the Eastern Qing Tombs. The final resting place of members of China's last imperial dynasty was located near the town of Zunhua. The bus heading there was supposed to leave from a depot across the street from the Sihui station. As is often the case in fast growing China, the bus station was now the former site of the bus station, as heavy construction work was already underway on something new. We walked in the eastern direction until stumbling upon a station which had a bus leaving for Zunhua from it. Our fellow passengers were auditioning for the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra, regaling us with sounds of singing, eating, burping, loud speaking and nail cutting throughout our bus ride.

We were dropped off at a fork in the road, the bus continuing towards Zunhua while we rented a van that took us to the tombs. Spread apart over several kilometers, vehicular transport from one tomb to another proved handy. The van had one less seat than the number of passengers, so the men alternated sitting on the floor. At one point, the driver found some cardboard boxes on the street, flattened them, and provided that as a cleaner option to sit on rather than directly on the floor.

The sky was blue and the sacred burial grounds were devoid of tourists, making it a perfect day to explore the tombs of emperors, empresses, princesses, and concubines of times past. As we walked along the main courtyard leading to the entrance, a sudden gust of wind churned the dust on the grounds into a miniature hurricane that whirled past us. "That's actually Bruce Lee!" punned one of my fellow travelers.

Xiaoling, the tomb of the first emperor of the Zing dynasty, and Dingdongling, the tomb of notiorous empress dowager Cixi, were the most fascinating complexes. The exteriors were much more colourful and ornate than the interiors of the tombs. A diorama explained how an adult Cixi had drunk breast milk from her attendants to maintain her youthful skin complexion. The coffins could be reached by climbing the stairs to the main entrance of a tomb, and then descending down a pathway until we were underground. One particularly productive emperor had 35 hut style tombs belonging to his concubines adorning the grounds around his magnificent resting place.


“Our deeds still travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are.”
- George Eliot -

November 27, 2010


I stretched my arms and breathed a sigh of relief, having just launched the biggest project of the year at work. I shut down my computer, switched off the lights, and locked the doors. I was about to embark on my grand voyage through China the very next day. Several meters away from my office stands the recently opened World Trade Center Phase 3 tower. I walked into the gleaming new lobby. Eighty floors later I was in the highest bar in Beijing. The aptly named Atmosphere provides a panoramic view of the city, from the modern skyscrapers of downtown to the sprawling structures of an imperial capital.

I was meeting up with my friends in Beijing, some of whom would have left the country by the time I returned from my trip. Coincidentally, we bumped into the CEO of my company and several other higher ups. An office ARNABabe who was at my table spotted them. The two groups awkwardly combined, as I introduced my colleagues to my friends - my onetime Irish roommate, a scintillating Malaysian diplomat, a Nokia employee, a couple of ABC's (American Born Chinese), and a tousle haired iPhone application developer. After having a few drinks and reminiscing about our past escapades, we parted ways.


“Don't be dismayed at goodbyes, a farewell is necessary before you can meet again and meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends.” ~ Richard Bach

November 15, 2010

Let The Bullets Fly

The shells ricocheted off the walls as the loud rat tat tat of heavy gun fire resonated all around me. I took my position, gripping the trigger of the sniper rifle firmly in my hand. I looked carefully through the scope, one eye closed, fingers steady, before squeezing down on the trigger. The bullet left the barrel at blazing speed. As it was my first time using a gun, the force of the kickback caught me by surprise. I paused to adjust my grip before emptying the remainder of my cartridge.

I put my glasses on to see if I had hit my target. I was at the China North International Shooting Range. The attendant beside me started giggling. The black and white rings on my target paper remained unscathed. I had completely missed. Usually these sheets of paper are given to participants as souvenirs, but mine was reused since it looked brand new. With steely resolve in my veins and eyeglasses back on my face, I switched to an AK-47 assault rifle and a Beretta handgun. I rarely missed the mark in the remaining sessions of target practice.

Half an hour before, I had been taken to an exhibition room displaying the various forms of pistols, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, grenades, rocket launchers, and flamethrowers I could try out at the shooting range. After selecting my arsenal, I had gotten into the back of a military vehicle that took me to the actual outdoor firing range. Located near Beijing on land formerly used for army barracks, the ballistic bullet park provides a controlled environment to try out the deadly devices. Starting from 10 RMB per bullet, prices rise steeply as the weapon of choice becomes exceedingly ridiculous. For instance, the child beside me in the shooting gallery was using a mortar to pound large holes into a mound of earth a hundred meters ahead of him.


"If you make a gun, you are either going to sell it or you are going to use it. And if you're going to sell it, someone else is going to use it." ~ Arthur Boyd

November 06, 2010

My Name is Arnab

When an exiled hero returned home after many years having vanquished a demon king, his countrymen laid out rows and rows of lighted lamps ("deepavali") to welcome him back. Nowadays Deepavali, or Diwali in condensed form, marks the triumph of good over evil. Observed by many people in different parts of the world, the festival of light has transcended religious and national boundaries. Every year the Indian Embassy in China hosts a cultural event to celebrate Diwali.

This was my second Diwali in Beijing. I had met my good friend Swathish during the previous year's jamboree, so we commemorated our one year anniversary in style. After a brief speech by the Indian ambassador which I missed, Indian and Chinese performers sang and danced to both traditional and modern tunes. This was followed by a fireworks extravaganza and then dinner, which was the primary motivation for attendance for a large segment of the audience. Accompanied by an ARNABombshell and several other ARNABuddies, Swathish and I retraced our steps from the previous year. We concluded the evening with a nightcap at a lake side bar cosily located within nearby Ritan Park, the beats of Bollywood music still resonating in the background.

As I was leaving the embassy premises, I heard someone calling my name. "Arnab! Arnab! Arnab!". I saw an Indian lady I did not recognize rush towards me. I was unperturbed. A man of my immense dignity is accustomed to receiving outpourings of affection from random females. "Arnab! Arnab!". The woman continued past me to a child who had wandered on to the street. Now I was intrigued. She picked up the infant and let out a sigh of relief. "Arnaaaab". I was no longer the only Arnab in town! I looked at her and said "My name is Arnab". She gave me a look of disdain before walking back into the embassy with her son in tow.


"Happy Diwali!"

November 01, 2010

The Garden of Ten Thousand Beasts

Not to be confused with the Beijing Subway, the Beijing Zoo is one of the city's more affordable attractions. An imperial manor in the Ming Dynasty, a small menagerie was first established in the park in 1906. Now the 219 hectares of gardens and ponds has the largest collections of animals of any zoo in China. After purchasing my tickets, I followed the crowds to the wildly popular giant panda pavilion. Groups of pandas jostled in the artificial playground that had been created for them, while others enthusiastically chewed strips of bamboo.

The cafeteria doubled as the rhinoceros viewing area, so customers could eat lunch and watch the giant creatures laze about simultaneously. The tiger collection was another highlight my visit. One Chinese man repeatedly popped up behind me every time I saw one of the magnificent creatures. "Tiger!"he would shriek into my ear. I said "Yes, tiger." the first time, politely nodded the next few times, and then ignored him for the remaining few episodes.

Meanwhile, a small Chinese child saw a dark and hairy beast roaming freely outside of the enclosures. The toddler shrieked and clung tightly to his mother's left leg, one tiny finger pointing at me fearfully. I gave a friendly scowl and continued onwards to see a bear being enticed by a local to eat yogurt from his cup.


“Zoo: An excellent place to study the habits of human beings.” ~ Evan Esar

October 28, 2010

Beijing Auto Show 2010

The largest auto show in the world takes place in the far reaches of Beijing, about 2 hours away from the city center. Nevertheless, throngs of spectators still flocked to see the attractive models on display at the Beijing International Automotive Exhibition. After they were done, they turned their attentions towards the cars. Having a vehicle is a status symbol in China, although with 4.5 million cars in Beijing alone, it is not a particularly exclusive one.

I walked around for a couple of hours, paying particular attention to the concept cars and those being unveiled to the public for the first time. The numbers were staggering - 800,000 visitors, 1000 vehicles, and 100 international debuts. Not only were all the foreign brands out in full force, but dozens of Chinese manufacturers were also present. The local automakers are yet to make an impact on the global automotive scene, but they still dominate the low budget segment of the Chinese market.

I was ushered into BMW's VIP suite after I explained to the beautiful hostess who I was. A stone faced guard moved aside on her signal and I strode up the stairs. Several exclusive models were on display. I smiled at them before continuing on to the dining area. I sipped a coffee, watching the crowds milling about below. I then enjoyed a sumptuous lunch along with other members of the glitterati who had been granted entrance to the VIP area. After the meal, I rejoined the masses to hurriedly visit the booths of the remaining vendors. It was the last day of the motor show and the workers started to drive the cars out of the exhibition hall well before closing time.


"A car for every purse and purpose." ~ Alfred P. Sloan

October 25, 2010


Amidst the modernity of a fast developing nation, it is always possible to find fascinating traces of the past. 100 kilometers from Beijing lie a series of ancient caves carved out of the cliff side at Guyaju. The original inhabitants of the largest cliff dwellings discovered in China lived here over a thousand years ago. Not much is known about the cave dwellers, with both their origins and disappearance from the region still a mystery. Archaeologists have made guesses on which cave was a temple, which belonged to the village chieftain, which was a stable for horses, and which was a storeroom based on clues such as size, location, and shape of the specific cave.

Although the rock is soft, life was hard for the residents of Guyaju. Not only the walls of their homes, but their tables, beds, and tools were all made of stone. Carefully climbing the steps etched into the cliff, I examined a small sample of the over 120 caves in the complex. From atop I could see the odd modern day reconstruction of a town from the American West down below. This development, ostensibly to allow wealthy Chinese to have vacation homes where they could imagine they are living in 19th century America, is called Jackson Hole.


"Here we stand in the middle of this new world with our primitive brain, attuned to the simple cave life, with terrific forces at our disposal, which we are clever enough to release, but whose consequences we cannot comprehend." ~ Albert Szent-Gyorgyi 

July 14, 2010


Barbie celebrated her 50th anniversary in style in 2009. More than just a doll, Barbie is a brand that has evolved with the times. The bikini wearing bimbo has had many careers, ranging from flight attendant to surgeon. The leggy blonde with the perfect figure is popular across the planet. Her dull boyfriend Ken is not.

Although Barbie was only introduced to the People's Republic ten years ago and I only arrived last year, China has embraced both pop culture icons wholeheartedly. The fashionable figurine staged an exhibition in the World Art Musuem near the China Millenium Monument to commerate five decades of existence. Scores of kids and adults alike came to marvel at the thousands of variations of the plastic girl on display. I, of course, was one of them.


“To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still.”

~ William Shaksepeare

May 10, 2010

Sporting Beijing

Beijing has established itself as a major sporting city after hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics. It is an important strategic stop in the circuits of the world's premier professional sporting organizations as they seek to enhance their popularity in the largely untapped Chinese market. I went to a variety of tournaments and exhibitions in the calendar year, witnessing:

  • Michael Schumacher edge out Jenson Button and David Coulthard in the Race of Champions which pits racers from different motoring backgrounds against each other in the Bird's Nest;
  • Lazio beat fan favourites Inter Milan in the Italian Super Cup final in the same cavernous venue;
  • Novak Dokovic, Andy Roddick, and Svetlana Kuznetsova smash forehands in the National Tennis Center in the frequently rain delayed finals of the China Open;
  • West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspurs, and Hull City of the English Premier League battle the local Beijing Gouan team for the right to hoist the Barclays Asia Trophy at Workers Stadium

"I always turn to the sports section first.  The sports page records people's accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man's failures." ~ Earl Warren

April 14, 2010

Military Museum

"I am arrived. Waiting you the gate." read the text message from an ex-colleague of mine. I hurried towards the entrance of the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution after exiting its namesake subway station on Line 1 of the Beijing underground. She had already picked up a pair of tickets, so we walked into the main hall filled with rockets, guns, swords, Chinese drivers, and other weapons of death and destruction.

To the left and right of the Hall of Weapons were two hangars. One side featured aircraft, both Chinese and foreign. The other side showcased tanks, armored personnel carriers, and anti-aircraft weaponry. A large statue of Mao was in the lobby. Adjacent wings had exhibits on the Agrarian Revolutionary War, the War to Resist Japanese Aggression, the War for the Liberation of China, and the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea. A couple of hours were needed to browse the large collection of military memorabilia in its entirety.


“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”
~ Sun Tzu ~

April 08, 2010

Peking Opera

For several hundred years, the opera has captivated audiences in Beijing. A friend of mine was performing in one staged by an amateur troupe in the student area of Wudaokou. All the performers work or study during the week, but find time each weekend to practice one of the city's oldest art forms. When she invited me to attend I readily accepted. It was my first opera of any kind so I did not know what to expect.

Front row seats were reserved for me. I was commended for staying awake for the duration of the four hour extravaganza that featured singing, dancing, extensive makeup, and elaborate costumes. My friend's mother was also in attendance, along with many senior citizens. After the performance was over I delighted the performers by taking photos with them. The mother commented that I only posed for pictures with pretty young girls. The daughter gave me a frown.


"I don't mind what language an opera is sung in so long as it is a language I don't understand." ~ Edward Appleton