Thursday, November 17, 2011

Beijing Day 1: From The Great Wall to Tsinghua University

Blog Entry #46: Beijing Day 1: From The Great Wall to Tsinghua University

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Interior Hong Kong International Airport
Hong Kong International Airport
After our day in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, Pat and I were very much looking forward to three days in Beijing, our first time in the heartland of China.  Following a fruitless wild goose chase to buy our Japan Rail Pass in Hong Kong (Japan mandates that they be bought outside of Japan before one arrives), we gathered with our group of 22 shipmates at mid-day and headed for the Hong Kong airport.

Hong Kong Harbor with the city of Shenzhen, China in distance
Much like its sparkling skyline, it is hard to capture the size and scale of the Hong Kong airport: Wow!  And flying out of Hong Kong during the day was especially interesting as it allows one to see the geography of islands, water, bridges, and peninsulas that comprise this fascinating spot rich with history.  It was impressive from the air to see just how close Shenzhen is to Hong Kong, separated only by a small range of hills. 
Our flight plan from Hong Kong to Beijing
Unfortunately clouds soon moved in and obscured the rest of our flight over China, though this gave me time to write down my thoughts on the previous day in Shenzhen (see previous blog entry). 

We arrived in Beijing at night to cool, autumn weather.  Pat and I had been particularly looking forward to this trip as we were being hosted by Tsinghua University, one of China’s most renowned universities, and we looked forward to our time on campus and the people we would meet.

With Liu Fuchen at Tsinghua University, Beijing
We were met at the airport by Liu Fuchan, Program Manager for the Center for Overseas Academic and Cultural Exchanges at Tsinghua University (, a lovely, quiet man who would prove to be a wonderful host over the next three days.  Unfortunately a scheduling snafu prevented us from staying on campus as we had expected, so we instead lodged at hotel nearby.  This itself proved to be an interesting experience, as they clearly had had very little experience with hosting international delegations, which made breakfast (lots of tofu but no coffee) and basic communication very interesting!

The Great Wall at JuYong Pass
Our Beijing experience started off with a bang the following day as we traversed Beijing, heading north, to the JuYong Pass section of the Great Wall.  Only about 30 km north of Beijing, the mountains suddenly strike up, and there it is: The Great Wall of China!

At the base of the Great Wall!
The Great Wall when it was completed ran over 8850 km across the northern section of China, though much of it today has disappeared or has fallen apart.  Work on the wall, which runs from the border with North Korea in the east to the far western province of Xinjiang, began during the Qin dynasty, 221-207 BCE, and continued for many centuries afterward.  The JuYong section has been extensively restored, and it certainly has the iconic “Great Wall” feel that one expects from photographs.

Looking down from the summit tower of the Great Wall at JuYong Pass
Dan with friend at the top
Marketing Mao on the Great Wall
Like much of our dash through China, we had only about an hour to actually experience the wall, so after taking some photos with Pat lower down, I dashed to the highest tower on the east side to take in the views.  I met some delightful Chinese people at the top who wanted to have their photo taken with a westerner – me – so I finally got to be the object of photographic interest!
Dan at the top of the Great Wall

Crowds on the Great Wall
I thought I had budgeted my time well, but by the time I headed back down, the lower sections of the wall were completely full of people – nearly all Chinese with the occasional westerner – and the going was slow.  Fortunately I was not the only member of our group thus entrapped, and though arriving 10 minutes late, we were soon on our way back to Beijing.

Detail on Temple at the Summer Palace
Crowds at the East Gate of the Summer Palace
Our next destination was the Summer Palace – Yihe Yuan, literally “Gardens of Nurtured Harmony” – on the NW side of Beijing.  Dating at least to the 12th century, the Summer Palace is built around the shores of Kunming Lake and on Longevity Hill, and served as summer quarters for many of the imperial dynasties that ruled China.

Gate at the Summer Palace
Posing at the Summer Palace
Today the Summer Palace serves as an extensive grounds of gardens and water that breaks up Beijing’s unending urban development – a true oasis of greenery and bright red buildings in an otherwise rather gray, monotonous urban scene. 

Buddhist Temple of Fragrance on Longevity Hill
We entered through the East Gate, which brought us to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity.  The names of the many pavilions and temples reflect the influence of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism with their emphases on harmony with the natural world and within the human community, and are delightful in English translation: the “Temple of the Sea of Wisdom,” the “Hall of Natural Affinity Between Water and Wood,” the “Tower of Fine Sunset,” the “Garden of Virtuous Harmony,” the “Hall of Dispelling Clouds,” and the “Hall of Creating the Atmosphere of Benevolence.”
The Long Corridor

Painting of scene on the Long Corridor
The Long Corridor separates Longevity Hill from Kunming Lake and has a stunning array of over 14,000 paintings with scenes of nature and court life.  Topping Longevity Hill is the beautiful “Tower of Buddhist Fragrance,” first built in 1750, but later destroyed by fire from Anglo-French troops, and rebuilt in 1891.  

Lilies on Kunming Lake
Nearby is the “Temple of the Sea of Wisdom and Multi-Fragrance Boundary,” and along the lake is the fascinating Marble Boat.  The whole setting is illustrates beautifully the interweaving of traditional Chinese architecture and landscaping.  (It was a challenge to absorb all the history recorded here – so we bought the book with lots of photos!).
Marble Boat on Kunming Lake

The afternoon brought our first of many wonderful meals at Tsinghua University, and a chance to see some of its beautiful campus.  First founded in 1911 (we arrived in the midst of centennial celebrations), Tsinghua is known as the “Harvard” of China, and is usually ranked 1st or 2nd in terms of academic reputation in China.  Its motto is Self-Discipline and Social Commitment, and it describes itself as “being dedicated to academic excellence, the well-being of Chinese society and to global development.”  Among its well-known alumni is the current President of China and head of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Jintao.
The main Quadrangle at Tsinghua University, Beijing
Tsinghua University also has a stunningly beautiful campus, built on the former site of Qing Dynasty royal gardens – in fact, Forbes named Tsinghua one of the most beautiful university campuses in the world, and the only one in Asia to make the list.
Our Tai Chi Instructor
Doing Tai Chi at Tsinghua University
Following lunch, we had our first appointment at Tsinghua: a tai chi class!  We thought we were showing up for a lecture; instead we found ourselves in a large room with mirrors along one side.  Our professor walked us patiently through several steps and explained the meaning of each move.  It was fascinating and fun – though I confess I had the same response to tai chi as I often do to yoga: I wish I had started when I was much younger and my body much more responsive!
Emily with Pat & Dan at dinner at Tsinghua University, Beijing
Pat with Ying Chong at Tsinghua University
We then met up with a delightful group of students who were our hosts for a tour of the campus and dinner.  Pat and I joined a small group with Ying Chong and Emily, both first year students from provinces far from Beijing.  They explained to us the rigorous process of examinations to apply for acceptance into Tsinghua, and how they are adapting to life in Beijing and being at the university.  They study an average of 8-10 hours a day – which brought looks of incredulity to their American student counterparts!  They took us to a faculty lounge canteen where we were again wined and dined with a fabulous several course Chinese dinner.  A rich ending to a wonderful first day in Beijing.
Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace, Beijing

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